Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The 2017 Bob Bennett Tennessee Yoyo Tour

In baseball, they have Fantasy Camp, where fans can spend time on the field (and off, I assume) with their heroes of the sport…all for a fee, of course.  It makes a thoughtful gift for the guy who spouts statistics and rosters and opinions on strategy long after it’s clear he’s not headed for a career in the majors or even the minors, though he’s always up for a local pickup game if he’s not too tired after work. Sometimes all it takes to fend off a looming midlife crisis is a satisfying seventh-inning stretch with your new pals in the dugout.

The music business doesn’t really have an equivalent to Fantasy Camp, as far as I know, though I’ve often thought it would be a great way to supplement the incomes of established artists competing with this week’s YouTube sensation, or further exploit an established entertainment brand like the Grand Ole Opry (are you listening, Pete Fisher?).  But I feel like I came pretty close to the experience recently.

When I found out that Bob Bennett, a notable figure in contemporary Christian music (dubbed a “CCM legend” by some) and a musical hero of mine, was coming to Nashville for a rare visit from his home state of California, I approached him with the idea of sticking around a couple of extra days and allowing me to add a date or two to his performing schedule.  I offered to cover a modest minimum and provide travel and lodging.  I didn’t expect to make money off the deal; the prospect of spending quality (and quantity) time with Bob, whose work I had admired for decades, would be worth the cost (and considering I’d taken a hard look at participating in a trip to the U.K. he will be leading later in the year, opting for this instead was actually a money-saving decision). Whether due to a cosmic confluence of purpose, divine intervention, or simply a lapse of judgment on his part, he decided to take a step of faith and agree to the plan.

After formulating, considering, pursuing and eliminating options, in cooperation with several others, especially college buddy Norris in Tullahoma and with Bob himself, we settled on a plan to include a trip to Tullahoma on Saturday for an intimate “house concert” kind of gathering, a Sunday morning worship service with Calvary Chapel Nashville, pastored by a friend of Bob’s, and another trip southward to play a specially-scheduled early dinner show at Puckett’s restaurant in Chattanooga on Sunday evening.  A map would reveal that the routing was not exactly ideal; kind of a yoyo pattern, actually (maybe we could have added Atlanta to Monday as a logical next step if Bob hadn’t already bought his plane ticket home for that day).  But the distances were manageable, the roads were good, and traffic was not a headache, so it was OK.
Our adventure began when I picked Bob up at the Franklin home of Paul Aldrich, who had hosted the concert with Bruce Carroll and ScottWesley Brown the night before. 

Instead of forcing Bob to endure the miles crammed into my economically-conscious Pontiac Vibe, I had rented a car for the weekend. The Nissan Altima was nice, but if I had this part to over again, I would have upsized even more than that. There’s really no such thing as too much space when you’re traveling long distances with other people. I didn’t mind and he didn’t complain, though, and we made it there and back without vehicular incident. It did come with a USB port so he could recharge his phone and play DJ to share some favorite songs and to help navigate (so not only did the Lord have his eyes on us, so did Big Brother).
Bob recoils in amazement as the vendor
spins a fascinating story behind the guitar he built,
as Norris and daughter Mackenzie look on.
We headed for our destination of Tullahoma, about an hour and a half to the southeast. I wanted to include a visit to the Celtic Cup, a terrific coffeehouse owned by Chris and Denise Smith. I started playing the occasional gig there shortly after they opened, most years including a special holiday show with friends Chris dubbed the “Mark Kelly Hall Christmas Ensemble.” I just hope that name didn’t keep anyone away due to the notion we might be wearing matching sweaters (not a chance). There was a Scottish festival going on, so the place was packed. We met up with Norris and Robert, who were (also in the spirit of musical fantasy camp) playing promoters and hosts. 

After some quality time at the Cup, at Norris’ daughter’s suggestion we grabbed a bite at Taco Bell, where Bob shared that he had eaten at the very first Taco Bell in California. Then we moved on to the venue, First Christian Church, where Bob did an intimate set for a small but attentive group of fans new and old. 

Photo by Mackenzie Carden
After the concert, we somehow we ended up at another Mexican place. This may have been a little like taking a Chinese visitor to the Golden Dynasty Buffet, but the food was great (and plentiful) so no complaints were heard above the sighs of satisfaction from everyone in the group. Then it was back to Nashville.

The next day, I met up with Bob at the building where Calvary Chapel Nashville meets. Bob had played for the worship service that morning. We hit the interstate for Chattanooga to play the second gig I had arranged. Puckett’s Chattanooga is the furthest extension of the group of restaurants that began in Leiper’s Fork then expanded to Franklin, Nashville, Columbia and Murfreesboro. The usual music schedule there is 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, which would not have worked for Bob’s crowd (or mine).  But since the restaurant is located right next to the Tennessee Aquarium, the dinner hour is reliably busy, so I had persuaded them to let me do an early show as I had in the past a couple of times. The booker told me they are trying to keep a local emphasis regarding the music, as opposed to touring artists, so he would be only be open to having Bob if someone like, say, myself, would play as well. No arm-twisting was needed there! So I had managed to insert myself into the show with a totally legitimate justification. Beautiful. 

To increase the local connection even further, and enhance the quality of the show as well, I also had recruited Tim Starnes to play. He is without a doubt one of the best, if not THE best, sidemen in town. I’m not fond of the terms “sideman” or “utility player” anyway, given the talent it requires, and in his case they seem especially inadequate. He just gets it. 

On the way in, I pointed out the baseball stadium where the Lookouts play and how close it was to the venue, in it might “inspire” any particular song choices for Bob; he got a laugh out of that. We found a parking spot on the street right next to the restaurant; as a Southern Baptist, this is close enough to a miracle for me.

As we moved our stuff in and began to set up, Tim arrived and did the same. I was so gratified to see Bob and Tim getting on like a house on fire, chatting on stage as I ran around greeting a few expected guests. I was glad my parents’ friends Charles and Sue had talked my dad into coming (though I assume it didn’t take much convincing). With the people who were there to see me or Bob or Tim or any combination of the three of us, we had a good mix of intentional audience members and those who were about to be (I trust) pleasantly surprised. 

The audience was responsive and attentive, though there was a fairly constant sound of light chatter for us to sing over. Sometimes this can really throw off your game on stage, especially for the story songs or those songs with lyrics that dig deep (“don’t you people know you should be hanging on my every word?!!”). I didn’t find it too distracting, though, and I didn’t get the impression Bob did, either. 

I had mentioned to him that, since he had likely become accustomed to the laser focus and presumably sympathetic mindset of a church audience, this gig might be an adjustment for him (kind of a “duh” moment on my part). He reminded me that he was very familiar with this kind of setting, even though it had been awhile since it had been the norm for him. I think all Christian performers should try to keep a hand in singing for the audience that is casually interested at best from time to time. It can be tough on the ego; but a bit of mild humiliation can be good for the soul, and reminds a performer how important it is to “earn the right to be heard” (to quote Bill Black of Smoky Mtn. Resort Ministries). I’ve seen one or two CCM folks fail to make a connection with a general audience. One artist who has no problem with that is Ashley Cleveland; she is as unpretentious and vulnerable as they come, and brings everyone along no matter what she’s singing or saying. That, and undeniable talent and skill, seem to be the key to giving any artistic presentation universal appeal.

Needless to say, Bob displayed enough musical and lyrical skill to earn respect, and was sensitive but bold with the songs he chose and how he introduced them, so there’s no question as to why he continues to sustain the admiration of old fans like me and gain new ones as well. I was happy he did “The Kings of Summer Street,” one of my favorite songs about boyhood, co-written with Don Henry, who also wrote the achingly beautiful country hit “Where’ve You Been?” He did a fantastic medley that I believe I’ve seen him do before; “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith, leading into one of his own songs, “Defiant Lamb.” 

I had a blast singing along on “Angels Around Your Bed” (move over, David Wilcox!) and of course, “A Song About Baseball.” I shared with the crowd (and got a little verklempt doing it) that I remembered singing along with Bob’s songs while I washed the family dishes, and this was MUCH better. And he joked that after the show he’d be going to my home to wash my dishes…full circle. 

My voice was not nearly at 100%, given that I’d been hit with allergies and cough, etc., the week before and were still a factor. I was barking like a seal to the point where the circus seemed like a viable career option. But I did make it through without that dreaded jarring interruption of lyrics with a cough. And Bob and Tim joined in wherever possible. Gave Bob a laugh with my “Sugar, Sugar”/“Yummy, Yummy”/“Mony, Mony” medley. And we really got into “Best of My Love” by Eagles (no “the”). I like doing that one ever since I figured out a comfortable strumming pattern and how to get around doing the high notes.

Dana Harding and Bob Bennett.
A coupla shady characters.
We did a little over an hour and a half and naturally, I could have gone longer; I think we all could have. Sometimes “always leave ‘em wanting more” applies to the players as well as the audience. After the show, we (mainly Bob) said our hellos and thank yous (all sincere) and then we gathered with a few of our folks to enjoy a great meal (“hey, Bob, how’s your steak?”) before hitting the highway back to Nashville. On the one hand, Bob is just like any other guy, traveling, contacting family, reading texts, rejoicing over the birth of his new grandchild, working his phone (and getting frustrated with a persistent plug problem). But it was still funny to hear him say even little things like “thanks so much” in that voice that has become so familiar over the years via his recordings and concerts, and realize, hey, that guy’s right here, talking to me!

Of all the great things about the Puckett’s show in particular and the weekend overall, I think my favorite was just seeing Bob clearly enjoying himself. You never want to be responsible for making someone miserable in public (as I did to my mom once at a cancer walk, through no fault of mine, really; she realized after she started playing that she couldn’t hear her keyboard in the monitors and was very flustered, so no one got to hear just how good she was). That much less someone you a) don’t know very well, really and b) hold in very high regard personally, professionally and artistically. On that point, other than a minor bump or missed turn along the way, I think the whole weekend was a success; he said himself he was going home happy. 

Getting the chance to present Bob’s talent to people was a pleasure. Getting to perform with him on stage was, I have to say, a dream come true. And, despite the fact that I have almost no pictures or video to prove it happened (Do you? Send them!), I promise it was no fantasy.