I drove 900 miles to Nashville last weekend, not to try my luck on Music Row, but to attend Killer Nashville, a mystery conference sponsored by the national organizations and local chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and conference founder Clay Stafford’s American Blackguard Film and Television. I’m a singer/songwriter myself and a fan of the best of country music. So I’d always wanted to visit Nashville. But I wasn’t sure I’d find time to see the city and hear some of its world-class musicians do their thing. What actually happened was beyond my wildest dreams and a surprise to everyone involved.
I did my homework on the Internet well in advance. Among the artists scheduled to appear live (mentioning only those whose music I know well) were Lari White, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show. The venues included the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluebird Café, where Sunday night is Writers Night. As I drove 900 miles singing along to my country tapes dating back to 1988, when a Kathy Mattea song “converted” me to this sometimes undervalued music, I wondered if I should have brought my guitar and re-memorized at least one of my own songs, which I haven’t sung in ages. (Music’s on the back burner while I ride the tiger of my mystery career.)
I was assigned to panels (on social commentary in mysteries and building buzz) on the Friday and the Sunday. The awards dinner was on Saturday night, the same night the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. I was torn between showing up for the dinner, not only because I’d been nominated for a Silver Falchion award (as I expected, the beloved veteran author Chester Campbell won it, to everyone’s delight), but also to feel as connected as possible with my fellow attendees and make the most of Killer Nashville. I was willing to settle for Ricky Skaggs on Friday night, but I thought it would be more fun if I had a buddy to go with me. I asked at least half a dozen people. Those coming from a distance had local friends or were traveling with family and had other commitments. And the Nashville author I asked admitted she can’t stand country. So I bought myself a ticket and went by myself. First delightful surprise: by the time I got to the box office to pick up my ticket, Vince Gill had joined the roster. So I got to hear a superstar with the voice of an angel without having to miss the awards dinner.
The dinner was at a local steakhouse. When I arrived, the tables at which I spotted friends were all full. So I took a risk and sat with strangers, and am I glad I did. The lineup included a shrink (me), a horse veterinarian (Linda Black, who won the Claymore Dagger for her unpublished manuscript later in the evening, front center), a lawyer (Linda’s husband Joe), a filmmaker (Phillip Lacy, who works with Clay Stafford, left), a poet (Stephen Wherley, back center), and a Special Agent of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (Dan Royse, who spoke at the conference, right). What a fantastic group of people! By the time dessert came, we were all in love with each other.
And then came the awards: the Magnolia to Beth Terrell, who had talked me into coming to Nashville, the Silver Falchion to Chester, and the Claymore Dagger to Linda. Since it was Nashville, nobody thought it was peculiar when I whooped and hollered for them. Then came the presentation to the Guest of Honor, J.A. Jance. I thought nothing could be cooler than Linda’s dagger, until I saw the gorgeous black acoustic guitar with silver inscription. J.A. Jance was surprised and delighted, especially since she’s famous for singing during her presentations. She doesn’t play guitar (though she’s friends with folk music legend Janis Ian and said she’d ask her for lessons). So instead, author and performer Stacy Allen played the guitar and sang a beautiful Nancy Griffiths song.
I was green with envy. I had to get my hands on that guitar! I’m unlikely to reach guest of honor status as a mystery writer in this life. So I sidled up to Clay Stafford and whispered, “Can I sing a paranormal murder ballad?” To my great pleasure, he said yes, and so did J.A. Jance. So I got to sing “Long Black Veil,” one of the greatest wailers ever. It was written in 1959, and everybody has sung it, including Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chieftains. I think the fact that I sing surprised all the mystery folks, and the big surprise for me was that I hit the high notes without effort—probably thanks to those 900 miles singing along in the car.
So what next? I’m all signed up for the author talent show at Bouchercon. I can hardly wait!