Hi, I’m Kristen Ford, a queer musician who just moved to Nashville! I grew up near Northampton, MA, one of the gayest and most liberal places on earth. As an adult I have lived in Chicago, Boston, and for the past two years out of a Ford Econoline named Lady Van. After two years on the road, my girlfriend and I decided to settle down in Nashville because this city feels like the ultimate challenge as a musician, as well as a great home base from which to tour. Here are a few of my adventures as I try to make sense of the gay scene, music business and Tennessee gaydar.
We begin in East Nashville at Mad Donna’s.The night before my friend from Austin, TX was in town for a Lyft conference (big ups to Lyft, queer friendly!) so we hit the honky tonks on Broadway pretty hard, finally left for home to hydrate. The musicians were very male dominated on Broadway, and my gaydar struggles- shirt tucked in and boots, he works out… could be gay, but here he is probably just a cowboy.
Never fear- we went off the East Side where I played a show with some killer local musicians and allies Tony Memmel and Mary Jennings. My buddy Marcus and some of our friends packed it like our own gay bar, and I dig the atmosphere of Madonna’s- ahem, Mad Donna’s, a cozy loft with great sound and cheap cocktails.
It was an early show, so afterwards we went to the Lipstick Lounge. It’s sparkly and wonderful. A bad ass woman Ashley McBride was rocking onstage- she taught me “Holler and Swaller!” an important skill for any bar performer to know. I met legendary sound engineer Cathy Mac, she has been tweaking knobs for years, there and at 3rd and Lindsley.
My roommate Trish Noe has been a great ally- she plays drums and has been promoting events around Nashville for a few years. When we’re not jammin’ in our basement, she hips me to such artists as Jessie Lafser. Jessie is a 10-year Nashvillian, she wears her hat and boots non-ironically and writes authentic Americana songs, honest and unflinchingly queer. Open-hearted stage presence and steady vocal delivery bound together with killer acoustic guitar chops. She doesn’t seem to be worried about the boys club or the Bible belt, she’s out and proud and making great music. Her band was owning it at the 5 Spot- a go to on Monday’s for a soul dance party. Jesse’s residency is another sign of her prowess; not one night could contain her, she needs four. I asked her advice about how to break into the competitive Nashville scene. “Just be undeniable. Focus on the writing desk. Love your craft. Make something so great it’s undeniable and the success will come.”
Later that week we were invited to a house show at Mercy House South- a recording studio and performance space. It was an all genders, sexualities, races and even dogs allowed event. Important to note that some of the best things happening in Nashville might not be in bars or conventional spaces, but in your own neighborhood.
Next up was Lightning 100’s Writers Night open mic at Jed’s Sports Bar and Grill. Wow this town is crazy. The sign up was to begin at 8pm, at 7:30 a line forms all the way across the room just to get on the list. Pity if you weren’t early. 40 of us clamber for our spot, then get onstage and perform one song for each other and the DJ (this night it was Lani Ford- who is a sweetheart) may consider your music for airplay. There were definitely some ‘family’ at this event, although I would not call Jed’s a gay bar by any standards. On our way out my buddy Geoffrey and I popped into The Springwater. Man, I have seen a dive bar or two but this venue was out of control. Ceiling tiles rotting away and cigarettes made their own stage smoke machines. It seems like the kind of place you can go and be whoever you want to be, which I respect. “Wanna see the food menu?” Geoffrey asked as he pointed to the Funyuns equipped vending machine. At least there is room for humor here!
Speaking of radio sponsored events, I love ALT 98.3. They sponsored a free show at The Basement East with an “Industry Happy Hour” sponsored by BMI. Free show and an open bar? Nashville is the best. Johnny P from Chicago was fantastic and full of soul and energy. Then local rockers MoDoc were jangly fun. However, not one lady on stage, which is all too often the case.
Great touring acts are always coming to town. We went to see Canadian alt-folk royalty Basia Bulat (an ally if not family) at The Hi-Watt. She kills it on guitar, rhodes, and even autoharp, with a wispy and beautiful voice. Props for her chatting up all her fans after the show.
Another great night of music was had at The Bluebird Cafe, a must-do for Nashville songwriters and newbies. You have to get there midday on Monday to wait in line for open mic. If there isn’t room on the list, try again.
After enough rejections you are guaranteed a slot. Perform well at open mic and you’ll get an early slot in the round, perform well for that and you might get your own late night slot. It’s an awful lot of hoops to jump through to perform across from the California Pizza Kitchen in a strip mall, but this is Nashville, all bets are off. Plus, it’s an incredible vibe inside, pure listening room with most late-night shows selling out. Erin Mckeown managed to headline even though she had never been before. She has been kicking ass for years, sharing the stage with everyone from Conan O’Brien to Dave Matthews to Ani Difranco. Her sold-out set was intimate. She conducted the audience into harmony parts and folded us into the magic of her songs. I also love seeing a tattooed lesbian come into Nashville, perform for unsuspecting tourists and knock their socks off. Like Jesse Lafser would say – be undeniable.
So as I ride the wave of gentrification into East Nashville, flex my songwriting muscles around heavyweights and search for gays among all these boots and plaid, I’m just happy to be here. I can rock out in my basement, or if I’m tired of that, go to The Basement, or closer to home Basement East, or I can just ask my neighbor “Puddin” what kind of music he thinks I should be making.
You can find Kristen Ford performing nationwide, and bumming around Nashville. Find a show near you or check out her music online at www.kristenfordmusic.com.