Brown’s, blues color this performer’s Nashville story

Friday, July 20, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 29

Miranda Louise Bodine, known professionally as Miranda Louise, is a busy blues singer on the weekend and a server of cheeseburgers to the rich, famous and otherwise during the week at Brown’s Diner.

-- Submitted Photograph By Devi Sanford

The Olympics-dreaming Madison Square Garden figure skater whose voice highlighted legendary music halls throughout Manhattan is about half-way through her 11-5 shift as a waitress at Brown’s Diner. And she’s got the blues.

No, Miranda Louise isn’t unhappy. She’s delighted to be here, waitressing for 26 years now in the iconic restaurant perhaps best known for cheeseburgers washed down by beer.

“Need anything? Another beer?” she asks a fellow sitting alone in a booth along the wall. He smiles and declines, indicating it’s time to pay up and leave this landmark where neon beer signs decorate the dining room walls and a “Bonanza” rerun – looks like Ben’s pissed off at Hoss – plays on pre-def TV.

“I like being a waitress,” says Miranda, who by day makes customers and colleagues smile and by night, or at least on weekends, lives her double life as a blues singer.

When she finishes serving the everyman throng and the rich and famous customers – from athletes to governors to Rolling Stones to country music stars – she goes home to her small White Bluff “farm” and works on her itinerary, checks out where she’s gigging next in a blues-belting career born in Manhattan, but nurtured in teamings with Southern rock ‘n’ roll giants and blues legends.

“Brown’s is great,” Miranda chirps. “This is home to me. Not everybody has a boss that’s going to tell you ‘I love you’ in the most Christian way.”

She uses two slightly different names depending on her endeavors.

From listening to her conversations with diner customers, “Miranda” is the name of the woman in the flowered dress who serves up cheeseburgers and the like. “Miranda Louise” takes over when she delights from center stage, mostly in smaller crossroads taverns but on big stages, too.

“That’s my professional name. That’s what everybody knows me as” when performing or recording.

The 61-year-old music veteran even has a last name trailing the “Miranda Louise” show biz moniker.

“Nobody would know me by Bodine. Miranda Louise Bodine,’’ she adds, finally relenting to gentle urging for that legal name.

“But I’m just Miranda Louise,” she says, with affable emphasis.

Actually, she’s proud of her last name and of her marriage to Guy Bodine. “I’m married to the greatest guy in the world. I have a stepdaughter and two grandchildren, a boy and a girl.

“I’ve been married to him 6½ years. I’ve known him since I was a teenager,” she says of her beloved, a retired former chef and food-industry employee.

She’s plenty happy when talking about Guy, who is home tending to the half-acre “farm” filled with seven gardens, a greenhouse and a rehearsal hall.

“We grow pretty much everything we eat,” she explains, noting she also enjoys farming’s year-round routine.

But remember, she’s a blues singer. A charter member of the Music City Blues Society – she sang during the 2015 memorial service for our mutual friend, Nashville’s Queen of the Blues, Marion James – she has had some of the hard road and heartache that she can draw from when coaxing out her gritty vocals.

“I was married before, when I was 32. I was married about 10 years. … It was a terrible, terrible marriage … But it started out fine.”

There’s no bitterness in her voice when she offers up details that led to that marital failure. Stuff happens. It was just one more bump in the uneven road she’s traveled since she was a child in the Big Apple.

“I’ve been singing professionally since I was 5,” she recalls. “I was on stage regularly. Off-Broadway. In musicals. My mother was something of a stage mother.”

Her mom also was a chorus girl and an acrobat, and “being a court stenographer was her straight job.’’

As far as her own Off-Broadway successes: “When you are really good, they put you in seasonal shows, specials. They say ‘you’ll be the little kid.’ It’s nothing, really. I just did what my mother said.”

She admits few warm and fuzzy memories of her mom. “I do love my father, though,” she adds, in the present tense, though both of her parents are dead.

“Dad was a jazz and blues critic in New York, in Harlem. His straight job was as a certified licensed underwriter.”

She’s sort of following in the family footsteps. When you are in show business, even on the fringes, as her parents were, you often need to supplement that income.

“You do a straight job, the most normal thing in the world. Like me being a waitress at Brown’s Diner for the last 26 years.”

For a moment, she further retreats into her upbringing.

“In New York City, I went to the United Nations International School through high school. Then I took some English and history courses at NYU. And I was a figure skater. Like most teenagers, I got into many things, but in my skating I took my Olympic (qualifying) tests. Well, just some of them.

“I think my father thought it was keeping me off the streets. I skated two times a week, mostly at Madison Square Garden. And some at Rockefeller Center.

“I did that probably until I was 14, 15. That’s when I started singing in three choirs at once. Academic choirs, classical choirs, young people. The choirs were for people who wanted to learn.

“But with three choirs, practice was every day. So, it was a choice between skating and music.”

Not a difficult decision. “A skater don’t make any money,” she says, adding: “Here I am making money every week singing, nobody would pay to see me skate.”

Her singing wages, of course, are just a part of the income. The rest comes from waitressing, especially to people who love her, restaurant devotees.

“A Brownie,” she says, is the title bequeathed the latter. Some of them followed her when she left the long-extinct Stage Deli (not far away on 21st Avenue) to go to work for Jim Love and his wife Sandy at Brown’s.

“He’s great. Sandy is a Sunday School teacher.’’

And then there is the clientele.

“Brown’s is filled with creative people. Everyone from the vice president to The Rolling Stones have been in here.”

Because she doesn’t want folks to come here and bother them in their cheeseburger and Bud recess from fame, she refuses to list other celeb regulars, but adds, “we don’t allow people to gurm them.”

“Gurm,” in case you aren’t cool (I’m seldom, though I knew this) is a Nashville-born term that as a noun is an overzealous fan who will not allow stars to eat, shop or walk down the street without being hounded for an autograph or, in this unfortunate age, a selfie. It’s also a verb, as in “gurming.”

For example, if I was to walk into Brown’s and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Ron Wood and Charlie Watts were sipping Buds and enjoying cheeseburgers, it would be tough for me to avoid being a gurming gurm. But I’d behave. House rules.

I am far from a Brownie, just a rare visitor, but I will admit to sharing the bar with Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys not long before he died in 2014. I introduced myself, and we spoke easily. If he regarded me as a gurm, he didn’t show it. He just enjoyed talking about the band for whom he was a sidekick for decades. I know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I liked it, as the song goes.

“Most of the mayors and governors have come here,” Miranda Louise says. “Most of the people that are on the country charts and their bands and their management and all that.”

And they relish the gurm-free atmosphere. “A lot of them like to show up in their sweats or something. This is just a tucked away little gem.

“Plus, it’s kind of a ‘heady’ place, too. There’s five universities on our block.

“We have Vandy grads on our payroll,” she points out. There’s also a pretty good contingent of young people who come here for pleasure or when they should be in psych class or bio lab.

“We get their parents, their professors, accountants, CPAs. We’re their hang,” says the woman whose only sign of celebrity here is a photograph hanging beside those of other notables – she’s about a foot from Johnny Cash – on the wall of the narrow bar room.

“These little gems are disappearing quickly,” she says of Brown’s. “They are turning the whole world into a supermarket or a bank or a drugstore. Maybe a bank inside a supermarket. The soul is leaving.

“Come support it while you can, so you can tell your grandchildren what it’s like to be in a place that’s been open before there were cars, where people used to tie their horses up outside, the very first Budweiser client in the state.

“Isn’t it almost like living history when you walk into this place?”

The docent of this living history display, of course, has that alter-ego, an engaging performer who has regular gigs in roadhouses and at festivals, like Linden’s Music on Main festival July 28, when the Miranda Louise Band will be out in full force.

That band includes Paul Warren (guitar), Abe White (bass), Michael Whitaker (keyboard) and Time Jumper/Vince Gill sideman Billy Thomas filling in for regular drummer Jack Bruno. Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder are just a few legends various band members have accompanied.

Miranda Louise, a prolific songwriter, points out she took second place in a Billboard songwriting competition. “Second place, it’s the story of my life. All I got was a piece of paper award and first place got $10,000 and studio time.”

She’s had seven top 20s, two of which went into the top 10 on the relatively obscure Beach Music charts. “That’s dance blues,” she explains. She’s also been hailed as Nashville Female Blues Vocalist of the Year and appeared in a couple of films. “I am the church lady that sings” in the recent “Soldier’s Joy.”

How many waitresses can include skating at Madison Square Garden, working for Al Jolson Jr. and singing the blues in Paris among their accomplishments.

-- Submitted

But Brown’s owns a major hunk of her heart. “There’s a human element here. It’s more like a social club than a bar or a restaurant.”

Of the folks who followed her from the Stage Deli: “I know them really well. I go to their kids’ weddings. I am having conversations with kids who I used to have their parents sitting on my hip….

“I don’t want to work someplace where I have to work on a computer or punch a time card. I want to work in a non-corporate situation where I’ll not be taken advantage of…. We (she and her colleagues) don’t want to wear a suit. We want to just sweat it out and make an honest day’s pay.”

Another reason for her love of Brown’s and its owner is that she’s allowed to take off every Thursday, Friday and Saturday so she can perform, the love which brought her to Nashville in the first place.

After she left Manhattan – “I didn’t want to live in New York anymore” – she attended a boarding school “on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border.” After graduation, she sang with two bands full-time. She also was hired to sing demos, and when her boss moved the operation to Nashville, she followed.

“Al Jolson Jr. gave me a job as an in-house demo singer. I think that was an OK job for a 23-year-old girl.”

As a stage performer, her bluesy style attracted ardent admirers in the black community, she says proudly. “I wasn’t getting anywhere with the white community…. So, I became an opening act with a lot of elderly, black blues stars. That’s how I definitely got to see the South.”

Her list of headliners – “you can’t name them all” – included A.C. Reed, acclaimed Chicago-based saxophonist and singer, a blues star who has played with the likes of Clapton and The Stones.

“I’m on his records and he’s on mine,” she says, adding that one of the recordings, Reed’s “I’m in the Wrong Business” was a hit.

“I remember A.C. Reed saying ‘you drinks what I drinks. … I drinks Scotch and milk,” and she did. Scotch became her nemesis, but she defeated it long ago. “January 29, it’ll be 32 years I’ve been sober.”

Miranda Louise also “saw the chitlin circuit,” the clubs, mostly in the South, that were showcases for black artists like Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner and Nashville’s own stars like Earl Gaines and Frank Howard & The Commanders.

“I caught the last bit of it, I sure did. Places with sawdust on the floor and lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. I played places like that. I’ve also played velvet-curtain halls.

“Lionel Hampton gave me three weeks in Paris at his club. And I used to be in the great Southern rock band Grinderswitch.”

Warren Haynes, guitar player for the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, had her in three of his side-project bands. She worked with him for a decade and still regards him as a friend. “We worked everywhere around the Tennessee area, Nashville and Memphis and stuff like that. We had plenty of work.

“Warren’s a really good musician and I think that was a terrific place to cut my teeth. I feel like working with him makes me a good singer. He’s a good singer himself.”

But it’s not who she’s played with. It’s what she plays.

“I sing traditional blues, Chicago blues, St. Louis blues, New Orleans blues, Delta blues. None of it is this new-fangled stuff that, granted, might be pretty music, but it’s not blues.

“Blues is like an understatement. The philosophy of less is more. It’s not which guy can play how many notes on a guitar or harmonica. It’s very uncluttered….

“I tend to play a whole series of places out in the country. I live in White Bluff. I don’t have to travel to Nashville for gigs. Nashville drives me nuts with the traffic and the crime,” she says. Course, Brown’s is at Blair and 21st in the heart of Music City, but she tries to stay far removed at nightclubbing time.

“There’s tons of little towns around (where she lives). Linden, Lobelville, Centerville, Nunnelly. I play at Soulshine Pizza in Franklin every six or seven weeks…. I’ve developed this series of rooms I’m in rotation in.”

The key to Miranda Louise is home, whether at Brown’s Diner with unnamed Predators and hillbilly cats or in White Bluff, with her husband, their gardens and Chloe, 13, the Manx cat, and Hoover Valentine, 5, a dachshund-beagle mix.

“I love to come home. I don’t stay in hotels or all of that. I love home. We’ve lived in White Bluff for 20 years.”

Miranda Louise knows she’ll not get rich either as a performing artist or at her day job. But that’s OK.

“Working at Brown’s gives me a lot of dignity. It means I don’t have to take creepy gigs. Otherwise I’d have to be singing ‘60s pop music on a cruise ship. That would be horrific.”

Another group of customers grabs a booth and she flits away to greet them.

“Hi, everybody. How you doing? I’m Miranda….” she begins her smile-flashing greeting.

All three order cheeseburgers, fries and sweet tea with lemon.