Normally I try to give this blog a scholarly tone, but today I get personal.
For the past two months and change, there’s been a countdown pad hanging over the doorway of the living room in the apartment that my lovely wife and I share in Steinway, N.Y. It originally said “66,” and a couple of weeks ago it dropped into single digits. Yesterday it hit zero.
Twenty-four hours ago to the minute as I write this, I walked into the Baldwin Family Room at the East Hampton Library, through an assembled audience of between 30 and 40 people and onto the stage to begin Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook. It was not only the first performance of a new show that I’ll be doing around the New York area for the next several years, but also my first-ever appearance as Tennessee Walt, my first-ever appearance as a country singer.
It went well, with no more mistakes than might reasonably have been expected, and the audience seemed to have a good time. I was happy about both, but the occasion meant much more to me than that.
Being onstage is nothing new to me. I’ve been singing with the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island since 1976, which is roughly the same time I started working as a standup comedian. I’ve played lead roles in comedies, dramas, musicals and comic operas, including a number of plays and musicals that I’ve written myself, and I’ve served as M.C. for a number of charity revues and benefits. If I was ever subject to stage fright or opening-night jitters, I grew out of them decades ago.
In the weeks, days and then hours before yesterday’s show, I watched myself to see whether they might be back again on this occasion. After all, this was a different kind of gig for me: Even when I did standup, it was with a partner (hello, Jim Rayfield, wherever you are!), and in the plays I’ve done I’ve had the honor and also the crutch of working alongside some of the most talented actors, singers and dancers in the world, none the less so for not being as famous as some of them deserve to be. I’ve also had the benefit of great conductors, orchestra musicians and pianists whenever I’ve opened my lips to sing.
There was nobody else onstage this time, though, and I was my own pianist. For a space of perhaps 100 minutes, I was completely on my own. If ever those shakes and jitters were going to resurface, this would be the time.
Instead, though, as I sat backstage for the last hour before I went on, writing a couple of letters to friends and family members (hello, Paul V. Patanella and Gail Zona, wherever you are!), I found myself almost eerily calm. I had no idea how many people would be out there to see the show, and I had no past experience to guide me as to what to expect. But I was looking forward to it. Really looking forward to it.
As I sat down at the piano and lifted my hands to strike the first chord of the opening number—the Fred Rose/Edward G. Nelson classic “Setting the Woods on Fire,” immortalized by Hank Williams in 1952—I realized what was keeping me so confident.
It was as simple as this: “Setting the Woods on Fire” is a terrific song, and after it I was going to be singing “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” For the next hour and a half, I was going to be singing songs by the likes of Junior Brown, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, as well as songs originally performed by Red Foley, Loretta Lynn, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells and more. These are some of the world’s greatest songs, and I knew the audience was there because they realized how great they were. What could go wrong?
Something like 10 years ago now, my lovely wife (hello, Sara Holliday, in the next room!) and I found ourselves obliged to put together a 90-minute revue of Irving Berlin songs on barely 12 hours’ notice, filling in for a lecturer who had been hospitalized the day before his lecture was to take place (hello, Michael Lasser, wherever you are!). The trouble was, between us we’d never performed more than two or three Berlin songs. We scrambled to the Colony music store on Broadway, now sadly departed, bought a four-volume collection of Berlin songs, and hustled to the venue to leaf through them for ideas.
It wasn’t a promising start for a show, but it came together extremely well. The audience that had come to hear Mr. Lasser heard us instead and left happy, and after the show a woman came up to us and said that we’d done a great job with her father’s songs. It was a day that I’ll remember forever.
What made it work was not that Sara and I were the best singers in the world (though she’s no slouch) or that we’d worked really hard on it (though we had). What made it work was that Irving Berlin’s songs are so good that, as soon as you decide that your program is going to be made up of Berlin songs, you’re 90% of the way to a hit. You don’t have to sell Berlin’s songs, you just need to get out of the way and let him sell them.
The premise of Tennessee Walt’s The Other Great American Songbook is that the songs of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Loretta Lynn are every bit as central to America’s musical heritage, every bit as brilliant. as the songs written by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter or, yes, Irving Berlin. I believe in that premise as much as I believe in anything, and that yesterday’s show went as well as it did is less a tribute to my singing and my piano-playing, which had their share of glitches, than to the material I’m performing.
I’ll be doing this show again on Wednesday at Don’t Tell Mama in New York, and here and there on Long Island for months to come (see here for details). I’ll have the honor to be singing Hank Williams, the Carter Family and Kris Kristofferson, and doing everything I can to get out of the way and let them do the selling.
What’s there to worry about?