Voices in Music City

          Growing up in Nashville, surrounded by singers and failed singers and want-to-be singers and young singers and old singers and great singers and mediocre singers all created in me a love of music. As I got older I began to notice not only the voices around me but also the people they belonged to. A few of these people struck me as interesting, either because they were inspiring or slightly depressing. All of them struck me because of their voice.
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          She is a skeleton with thin skin stretched over her high cheek bones. Her face struggles to stay youthful, holding on to a dream. Hay-colored hair floats like feathers about her face; feathers that hold no weight. The voice making its way out of her thin, pale lips is well used. It is husky and scratchy, shaking when it attempts to get louder. It took on the soft southern slant long ago and slips in the “ain’t”s and “ya’ll”s with ease. A softer, struggling Lee Ann Womack sang “I hope you dance” standing in front of all the students on the big test day. It brought tears with its well-used strain. It is used to hitting the notes of popular songs with its country twang. It had been through a lot; tryouts, bars, practicing. It still always dreams of being a country music star. Now it has to find pleasure in teaching high school English through a small microphone, struggling to be heard over immature teenagers.

          What was once a huge afro of black, tiny curls is now a weaker imitation of the past. Rocking out in the sixties on the Smothers Brothers in a polka dotted bow tie that matched his hat but not his overlarge purple sweater. Grey seeps slowly from his roots and slithers in slivers of silver. Circle-rim glasses always seem to be missing a shade of purple or rose-tint. When he speaks his voices wavers; it is a scratchy record nearing the end.  It is a wet whisper that is strong in intellect but weak in volume. It says a riddle every year at the talent show, it whips through the words somehow still able to give speeches but no longer sing. The audience holds their breath for fear that the voice might suddenly just go out. A star no longer, it shares its stories and experiences in lecture halls and classrooms. The University welcomes its words, hoping to pop out little musician masters under its guidance. 

          Stylish even with the years creeping up; shoulder-length hair, boots, flowing clothes. Her hair is big, her make-up thick, her clothing young; she is perpetually a singer in her twenties no matter what her age. When we got T-shirts she cut her collar, transferring her coolness on to it by making a chic V-neck. A deep raspy voice, full like Bonnie Raitt and full of the blues. It lives a singer’s life, on tours, in front of thousands. Loud and angry, strong and full of life. It has the emotion of a strong woman. Claiming all attention when it enters the room, it is robust in personality and used to getting attention. It doesn’t perform in front of thousands any more, maybe a few hundreds at most. Three other women join it as they tour locally with loud brazen voices of country and blues and rock. It is a favorite on an occasional Sunday morning; church members sway to its bluesy rendition of hymns. A performer even when it doesn’t know the words. No one can tell when there are mistakes; they are too blown away by the voice itself. Flowing up to the rafters, over pews, into hearts. The little quiet church brought to life, to sway.

          He will always look like a shaggy-haired little boy. Reddish hair, strait, and hanging down in his eyes, slightly unkempt. A smile as big as a child on Christmas, always. He had moved to become a star; to share his voice with others and earn a living by it. Now, he is a carpenter by trade. They took his saw away at the airport. It used to sing like a Siren’s call accompany his twang. His voice is soft, comforting; a friend’s voice. It is loving and gentle. It loves to sing and the joy shines through when it plays along with the gently strummed guitar. It is beautiful to watch it perform; so at ease with what it is doing. You can imagine it sitting at home practicing for fun, for joy. A failed music star that shares now for a more appreciative audience.

          A tiny red-haired girl. She can’t be much older than eight. She is the daughter to a musician. My family sees her father on TV sometimes, yelling for everyone to come run and see him perform. He encourages his children to share their musical skills. So she stands, nervous in front of the crowd. A polite smile playing on her tight lips. And she starts to sing and it’s beautiful. It’s Ingrid Michelson in child form. She still smiles self-consciously but the voice is confident. It is strong, clear, bright. A child’s voice that has the energy and strength of youth. There is little the voice cannot do; soaring up to high notes, hitting notes with perfect tone. This voice doesn’t care what happens, it can go on to be famous, or become consoling voice for patients, or make big speeches in front of crowds, or be used only for pleasure by the singer. The world is full of possibilities.


          He teaches us bells and piano and children and adults. He teaches music. Somehow he gets a group of poor musicians to play together, to play music. Our choir of ten sounds as big as fifty with him in front waving his arms around. He is large. Looking up at him as a small child he was massive, a whale of a man. His voice matches his size; massive and deep. It fills a room with its broad force. His piano accompanies, jazzing up the ends of hymns with little flourishes. Happy Birthday never sounded as musical as under his hands. They are remnants of his piano man days, able to pull the melody from any song and bang it out on the keys. His voice is now the voice of the congregation, whenever he is gone there is a silence even with everyone singing.

          Every other person wears a cowboy hat and boots. Many may be locals, but some may be tourists thinking they fit in. There is a song being sung, a popular one. One heard often blaring from car radios in the five o’clock rush. The voice up on the faux-stage is pretending to be famous, using the over played words to funnel popularity. Heard from the crowded streets it becomes more distorted. It is now isolated from the background music and bass; off key and by itself the voice struggles. It sings loudly, hoping that the drinking patrons cannot tell the difference. And it is thinking is accurate. The voice calls forth the slurred words from the customers. Together they sing, not for quality but for pleasure. It is loud and boisterous and noise: The sound of the bars of Nashville.

- Genevieve Knab