When I left for Nashville, Tenn., to make a record in October 2015, it didn’t occur to me that it could be seen as the musical equivalent of Royals Alumni Fantasy Camp.
That’s the weeklong camp where guys with shelved or unattainable dreams fork over $4,000 to hobnob with ex-big-leaguers, play games on a pristine spring-training field and wear personalized Royals uniforms.
I’m guessing more than a few of those Royals Fantasy Campers briefly pictured themselves as professional ballplayers that week.
But heading to Music City USA wasn’t about pretending to make a record. At 67, I was still serious about fulfilling a dream I chose not to pursue years ago. I was going to record a genuine album.
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I planned to record 10 of my own songs. I’d saved $3,000 by performing and hired a professional studio and musicians to help me.
It was about making up for lost time and chasing a dream.
One of the songs, “That Train Don’t Stop Here Any More” (English teachers, please forgive the crude “don’t”) quietly told the story. When I wrote “Train went by, I wasn’t on it, there you were wavin’ goodbye,” I wasn’t referring to being abandoned by a lover. It was the music career I’d forsaken long ago.
One of the musicians who helped me record was actually in the band I’d left in the early 1970s. He’d gone on to a successful professional career, and there I was metaphorically standing on the platform, watching lights fade into the distance.
“Wonder what I missed by closing that door … now it’s nothing but a metaphor,” is how the song summarized it.
But I’d had a good life, become a husband, father and journalist, and hadn’t died prematurely of substance abuse in an anonymous hotel room. But for that void created by missed opportunity, I had few regrets.
So there was purpose to my trip to Nashville, a well-aged substance that mere fantasy couldn’t satisfy.
I drove the Subaru on back roads, past little towns with quirky names like Licking (Missouri) and through Missouri’s hills and majestic Mark Twain National Forest. Interstates were for truckers with freight to deliver to time; I was the savoring kind who thrived on being behind the wheel, stopping where and when I wanted and using a disheveled paper roadmap rather than some GPS gizmo.
I only made it to Sedalia before I had to park and walk around the old business district, take pictures of the art deco movie theater — I believe folks there might still call it a thee-ater — and of a very vocal cat who cried at the front door of an artist’s gallery/loft I figured was its home.
There was one town farther down the road — I forget the name — that sported all the necessities of small-town life: a convenience store/truck stop, a softball field and post office, an American Legion Hall, a marginally upscale restaurant called The Catfish Place (only open on Fridays and Saturdays), the Patriot Inn, a good-sized bar that proudly serves “ice cold Budweiser” beers and a flea market-antiques mall a few doors down (the Rusty Star) that had my name written all over it, albeit in tiny print.
I stopped when something caught my eye — doesn’t everything — but I had a studio reserved in Nashville, so I was largely a motoring man.
In Music City, I found the home of Phil Harris, the engineer who produced my record (“Burro of the Bronx). He was kind enough to furnish a bedroom that saved me hundreds of dollars.
In the studio, musicians Jon Estes, Jon Radford and Josh Dubin came up with polished, creative parts that sounded as if they’d been rehearsed for days, not picked up after one run-through. Hearing the songs through studio headphones gave me a jolt that transported me to my days in bands four decades earlier. I’d forgotten how it felt to be locked in and synced with other musicians
The 2 1/2 days we spent recording were just a preface to everything that took place later. There were overdubs Estes recorded over the next eight months, vocal harmonies I taped in Kansas City and arrangements made to print and package the CDs, and to sell and stream them online.
There was personal meaning in “Burro of the Bronx,” and an artist friend captured it with a sketch of me seated on a burro, playing guitar in front of Yankee Stadium, a favorite childhood destination.
By the time the CD was released, a year had passed since Nashville. I’d invested enough time, effort and money that I wanted people to listen and hopefully like it.
I wanted to hear “Burro” on the radio.
I craved a hit record, even though antiquities like that hardly exist in our time of digital streaming and downloading. Things I grew up with musically — AM radio, Top 40 countdowns, the British Invasion and Beatlesque pop stardom — were yellowed memories, not reality.
Knowing that didn’t keep me from mailing “Burro of the Bronx” to 65 radio stations. That meant more work and more money. I’ve gotten some airplay here and there, nothing to write home about, but airplay nonetheless.
There were unexplainable quirks — having one song chosen for a Spotify playlist put together by NBC Sports, then having the same song chosen for daily rotation on an internet station that played “Trop Rock,” a genre owing its existence to Jimmy Buffett.
I didn’t know such a thing even existed, but if you play my record, I’m aboard. Just pour me a margarita, wax that surfboard and let’s play some volleyball on the sand.
The journey I undertook to Pop Stardom Fantasy Camp is not quite over. I’m still playing, still writing songs and still sending out CDs to stations in faraway places like Nevada City, Calif., and Moab, Utah. If I work enough performing, I may earn enough for a follow-up CD.
I’m convinced I’m not really a Royals Fantasy Camper, but more of a free agent trying to grab a roster spot in independent ball. It’s the lowest rung of professional baseball, but it’s a rung that keeps the dream alive.