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VOL. 37 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 3, 2013

A country legend and few loose screws

Opry star’s son, oddball entourage shoot for radio magic with hardware hoedown

By Tim Ghianni

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FRANKLIN – “I’m an intellectual,” says legendary songwriter John D. Loudermilk, apologizing without reason for his classical guitar playing. “I changed my strings last night and trimmed my fingernails the night before.”

The 90 or so people in Handy Hardware laugh, some dropping their free popcorn, as the soft-spoken wordsmith demonstrates that, with short fingernails, new strings and all, he knows how to coax much more than a few chords from the catgut on his wide-necked guitar.

“I consider John D. a gift from God,” says the George Hamilton IV, seated to the famed songwriter’s left on this small stage not too far from the cans of house paint in the hardware store near the heart of Franklin. In addition to being a heavenly gift, Loudermilk also is one of the best friends of the Opry star who leads the field in the race to be country music’s truest gentleman.

The two men have been waging the country music wars, virtually side-by-side, for more than 55 years. George IV’s first record “A Rose & A Baby Ruth” was a million-selling hit in 1957. It also was Loudermilk’s first song to make it to the top of the charts and the first of several of his songs – think “Abilene” and “Break My Mind” and “Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston,” for example – recorded by Hamilton.

Hamilton is relaxed in his down-home element, surrounded by fans and musicians in this Franklin hardware store, even though it’s thousands of air miles from the turf where he remains one of the genre’s biggest stars.

The heralded International Ambassador of Country Music is, in fact, less than 24 hours from jetting across the Atlantic to England, where he will tour, in man-with-guitar, troubadour fashion, in theaters across the United Kingdom.

Just a couple of old friends

For this day, though, country’s benevolent international king, is just miles from his home, sitting in a hardware store, singing songs and strumming while preaching the wonders of the words and works of John D. Loudermilk.

For his part, Loudermilk fiddles with catgut and nods not really sheepishly while Hamilton heaps on the praise.

George Hamilton V

-- Charlie Kaser

As the singer’s endorsement begins to fade to black, Loudermilk tosses out an anecdote about his song, “Blue Train,” all the while gently strumming. Without a break, Hamilton IV finishes the story by singing “Blue light flashin’ down the railroad track, blue smoke boilin’ from the old smoke stack…”

They may have done this before….

Just a couple of old friends swapping stories and songs on a Saturday midday … surrounded by a fistful of musicians, a massive African-American cowboy wielding a “Clap” sign, a large man in a Hawaiian shirt who calls himself “The Man of Constant Leisure” and a crowd of people in metal folding chairs jammed into the aisles and gaps of the hardware store near downtown Franklin.

Alternative cowboys and Gee

George Hamilton V – called “Gee” by his friends, “The Fifth” by his internationally loved father and “Chip” by Loudermilk – shrugs about the high-spirited shenanigans on the stage at the rear of Handy Hardware.

“This is a very primitive show, as you may have imagined,” says the younger Hamilton, who serves as emcee, chief guitar picker and first-call harmonist on this Internet radio program that also shows up in clips on YouTube.

“We probably do appear to be a little bit alternative: A black guy with a cowboy hat, the Hawaiian-Punch-looking guy and this hippie guy with the cowboy hat. It’s kind of like Romper Room,” he says as he ambles across the stage, strumming chords.

The guy in the floral shirt is David Spaulding Jr. (“Sometimes he’s just David Spaulding, sometimes he’s ‘Junior,’ like Hank,” says The Fifth.)

The African-American co-host is William Covington, a hard-knocks country music scholar and huge fan of George IV.

This trio of clearly alternative cowboys works together to fill the spaces between artists as well as play affable hosts to those who come in off the street, lured by the brightly chalked blackboard signs on the exterior walls and by the 1967 Cadillac limousine parked by the front door, in the spot nearest Columbia Avenue.

“We sort of become Goober and Barney and Andy or something like that,” says The Fifth, explaining the drawling molasses-meets-cornbread flavor of the humor that elicits moans, laughs or a combination of both --from those jamming the hardware store on this typical, every-other-Saturday occurrence.

‘Thrilled to life’

Join the fun

“Viva! NashVegas Radio Show” takes place from 11 a.m.- 1 p.m. – often running longer because of the live and lively nature of the music and musicians – every other Saturday inside the Handy Hardware building, 731 Columbia Avenue in Franklin.

Get there early if you want to assure yourself a spot in one of the folding chairs. Cold soft drinks and free popcorn are is readily available during the show.

Upcoming shows:

May 4 – Featuring Ron & Me’schell Rigsby: Husband & wife bluegrass picking, grinning and singing sensations.

May 18 – Featuring Stella Parton and guitarist Mike Loudermilk

June 1 – Featuring Peter Cooper, Davis Raines and author Frye Gaillard.

To Tune In:

Video Clips on YouTube.

Live Streaming “every other Saturday”: ustream.tv, TheBackStageBiz.com

Information, T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, etc.: www.VivaNashVegas.com and www.VivaNashVegas.net

It’s a sort of “Prairie Home Companion” meets “Hee Haw” as the men and their guests swap licks and tales as if they were at some sort of moonshine-friendly guitar pull, somehow diligently paying attention to the crowd while at the same time presenting a “we’re in our living room with no one watching” variety show.

Loudermilk, who thinks of the younger Hamilton as “family,” since the two patriarchs have done so many things together in their careers, has done the show two times and he chirps enthusiastically about the experience.

“It was kind of a ‘come over and look at it’ deal,” says Loudermilk, of the motivation for showing up at Handy Hardware. “I was thrilled to death when I got there. Well, actually I was thrilled to life because I had no idea that Chip, what I call George V, coming up in the music business, would have such an untarnished and unglamorized view of music reality.”

The rich rawness of the program is its charm, according to Loudermilk. “It is just like the ‘Lake Wobegon Show’ (‘A Prairie Home Companion’) when it started.

“It’s hard to catch raw, real folk before it becomes commercialized and goes to the makeup department. And this hasn’t gotten there yet,” Loudermilk says.

The Handy Hardware crowd shows its approval during the ‘Viva! Nashvegas Radio Show,’ broadcast live from the Franklin venue every other Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

-- Charlie Kaser

That is a great thing and he hopes the makeup department never finds Handy Hardware. “It’s like early-morning radio” of more than a generation ago, he adds.

Where’s it headed?

And after a year of Saturdays – or a year of every-other-Saturdays – of such raw, pure fun, the younger Hamilton with the higher number still isn’t quite sure what he’s got, how he’s supposed to act or what kind of future will spring from this building where every 14th day country musicians, Hankish disciples and/or the longhairs of the more-rootsy “Americana” sound take the very short step from aisles filled with nuts, bolts, 10W40 and wire-cutters to clamber onto the stage.

“By the nature of it being what it is, the sky could be the limit, because nothing is expected,” says The Fifth. Already, he is exceeding those expectations.

But he’s still not sure what he’s got here and what is its destiny.

What he knows is that with the help of his two larger-than-most-life, on-stage compadres, he’s happily hosting the “Viva! NashVegas Radio Show” from 11 a.m. until at least 1 p.m. – “we’re not very tight,” he admits – every other Saturday inside the building at 731 Columbia Avenue.

The Fifth adds that if there ever is a syndication deal for this show, he’ll have to learn to follow the clock and meet deadlines in order to provide spaces for commercials and such and have a definite ending point. While the participants in this show surely are not the type to “rage on,” they certainly do play on until it’s time to fold up the chairs and beyond.

The store plays its part

There is a fourth host of this show. You see, in addition to the Three Stooges-meet-Andy, Barney and Goober playmates who “run” the acoustic anomaly, the old-time hardware store itself is good-natured host.

Handy Hardware not only contains red paint, ratchets and rat traps, it also is a key component in flavoring this “you ain’t seen nothing yet” flourishing dream.

“I oversee the store,” says Handy manager Andy Willoughby, explaining his participation in the show.

David and William

-- Charlie Kaser

“I make sure everything runs right, everybody’s happy and if somebody needs water or a cold drink, get it for him.

“And we have free popcorn, too. I just make sure everything runs smooth.”

Basically he’s the guy who runs the family-business-posing-as-concert venue. No, the acoustics don’t rival the Ryman, for example, or even the nearby Franklin Theatre.

Ernest Tubb never walked the floors of Handy Hardware, unless he was looking for roofing nails or a Phillips-head.

The musical mystique and future legend of the store is just now being hatched among the increasing number of music fans who make this a part of their Saturday rituals, at least every-other-week.

And the surroundings flavor the proceedings as they travel, via the Internet radio and YouTube highlights, to the rest of the world… or the simply curious.

“I’ve been to every one and I think it’s great,” says Willoughby. “And I think it’s really helped sales, we can tell by the percentage of increased sales. And we weren’t open on Saturdays before.”

The mini-Opry … kind of

On this particular gray Saturday, all 70 folding chairs are filled and at least 20 more people have secured standing room among the pots, pans and paint cans of the old-fashioned hardware store a couple walkable blocks from the “Main Street” tourist Mecca.

“When the weather’s nice, we have more people in the audience,” says George V, adding that in addition to setting up the stage and getting the show “tuned up” enough to live up to its lazy-day in Music City appeal, he and the cast as well as the store employees set up the folding chairs.

It’s sort of a mini-Opry but without the polish, the structure and the millions of dollars worth of auditorium, stage lights, dressing rooms and myth.

In addition to being in charge of organizing the entertainment and emceeing each week’s show, Hamilton V also is the bandleader of The Think Globally Act Hillbilly Orchestra, The Heavenly Choir and The Viva! NashVegas Radio Show Players (basically the same people serve in the three outfits).

According to the “bios” provided by Hamilton V, the cast includes: Spaulding and Covington (who share the so-called “hospitality desk” from which they wave signs, encourage the audience and toss wisecracks); singer-songwriter Michael Kelsh; “Chanteuse & Hillbilly Society Child” Carol Ann Turney; “Mr. Dobro” Al Goll; classically trained British pianist Barbara A. Stone, David “The Magic Man” Scott, bassist/guitarist/vocalist Tom Comet, vocalist and washboard guru Amy Comet, and “Red-Headed Heartthrob” and modern-day folk and blues singer Babe Curry.

The technical crew includes camera operators Lillian Hamilton (wife of the band-leader) and their son, George Hamilton VI. The sound man, who goes by the name “Kai,” also serves the show as “vocal stylist,” according to Hamilton V.

Ditch the donkey?

Early in the show, Hamilton directs his attention to Spaulding and sings “He is the Man of Constant Leisure,” in pitchy-perfect and nasally recreation of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s version of the classic folk song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” made popular by George Clooney and the silly Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-style hillbilly road film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“Man of Constant Leisure” T-shirts share rack and shelf space with other shirts and posters, evidence of the fact this show is staged in large part to support The Fifth’s “real business” of selling hand-inked letterpress posters and other trademarked Viva! NashVegas paraphernalia.

The younger Hamilton jokes that he has had trouble getting one of his posters – “Think Globally, Act Hillbilly” – distributed in Williamson County, because of the donkey that decorates it. “I was asked, can’t you put an elephant or something like that on there instead of a donkey?” Sometimes party loyalty here in the GOP-fortress south of Nashville apparently trumps humor, or, in other words: What does an elephant have to do with hillbillies? Not much unless the circus is in town.

In its year of existence in the hardware store, the Internet radio show (accompanied by selected snippets that are aired on YouTube) has sold plenty of Hamilton’s merchandise.

“It will further popularize bumper stickers and T-shirts,” he says, of his plans for the near future. “The idea being that if you give people free music and free popcorn, maybe they’ll stick around long enough to buy some posters and T-shirts and records, if I had a record for sale.”

Country generations

Guest artists as varied as Jeannie C. Riley, Barry and Holly Tashian, Sylvia Hutton, Wendy Newcomer, Box Tops guitarist Gary Talley, Lynn Anderson, George IV and others are welcome to sell their discs, though. The Fifth is hoping soon to sell vinyl provided by Lawrence Record Shop on Nashville’s Lower Broad, which is the primary location for Viva! NashVegas merchandise in Music City. “It’s our Viva! NashVegas World Headquarters,” he says.

While it serves to sell his trademark shirts and posters, the show also fulfills The Fifth’s long-time urge to do a show that pulls together the generations of country music, especially showcasing the old-timers while they’re still with us. For example, on this day, he’s sharing the stage with his own father while genial songsmith John D. Loudermilk is accompanied by his own son, guitar wizard Mike Loudermilk, who his dad calls the best guitar player he’s ever seen. And he’s seen plenty and studied with some of them, including his late pal Chet Atkins, whose own playing “was divinely inspired,” says John D. Loudermilk.

The fact he’s able to showcase great veterans – like John D. Loudermilk and his own father George IV – is a big part of the pleasure “Chip” Hamilton reaps from his own show.

“Man wouldn’t it have been great to have Jack Greene on this show?” The Fifth asks, remembering the Opry star who was long-removed from radio stardom when he died in March. Hamilton V wishes the golden-throated singer could have been on his show, captured for the ages on the Internet.

But there are many others still out there, ready to share their gifts in an era in which they are all but forgot, except – in some cases, at least – as novelty acts. Hamilton’s wish list includes Little Jimmy Dickens and Stonewall Jackson. And one of his biggest dreams is to have legendary word man and nice guy Tom T. Hall sing about little baby ducks, old pickup trucks and such on this stage.

The Fifth’s formula

The Fifth’s basic format going forward is to cross-pollinate, by bringing, for example, the John Conlees and Jeannie Seelys of the world together with those they have influenced.

“I want to squeeze some molecules or atoms and see what explodes,” Hamilton V says when asked the formula for success.

But beneath the unconventional answers, image and location, there is a real desire to bring important artists and songwriters to the audience – many of whom squeeze into the same spots every Saturday – and to the Internet fans.

Hamilton says he had the idea since 2004 when he and his wife and George VI moved back from three years in Paris, France, where his regular gig was at Billy Bob’s, a Western Saloon at Disney Village. He spent his free time performing across the continent.

“I’ve been haunted by this whole thing and trying to make this whole thing come together,” says The Fifth.

“My dream is to bring happiness to the world.”

And what dream is complete without the help of a good hardware store? Even dreamers need duct tape.

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