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Another Nashville Evening: Folded Lawn Chairs and Number One Songs

The “in the round” show is a staple of Nashville entertainment. Sometimes called a guitar pull, and often performed in a row rather than in the round, it features artists known mostly to music business insiders and folks who actually read the liner notes - members of the city’s robust community of professional songwriters.

Mary and I love them. But truth be told, we don’t always know the songs, which tend to skew mainstream country. We recognize the names – Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, etc. But we aren't always singing along like the rest of the crowd.

Still, you hear some good stories. You hear a little music biz color. You are occasionally reminded that Nashville songwriters don't only write country songs. And you enjoy a few “only in Nashville” moments that stop you in your tracks.

We were gathered outdoors with some friends for a “Radnor in the Round” benefit, raising money for the Friends of Radnor Lake, supporting a park a few miles from our house that is our favorite place to walk. A few songs into the show, Mike Reid was introduced as the next artist, and my friend Dave leaned over to tell me something.

“He used to be a professional football player,” he said, nodding at the grey-haired gentleman settling his tall frame in behind the keyboard.

"I usually save this for last, but I don't know how much time the weather is going to give us," he said.

I should mention that the Sunday afternoon show was delayed by an ominous "lightning in the area" warning that would eventually cut things short.

"Also," Reid said, as he began to tickle out a melody I recognized instantly, "I'm sorry if this makes everyone sad."

Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the best songs I know, a sad-as-they-come realization of unrequited love. Who knew that it was co-written - along with Allen Shamblin - by a former all-pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals? I sure didn’t.

You can't make your heart feel something it won't Here in the dark, in these final hours I will lay down my heart and I'll feel the power But you won't, no you won't 'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don't

Nobody sings it like Bonnie, of course. And it seems like just yesterday we were listening to her at the Ryman Auditorium. But it’s another thing to hear it from the writer, and to imagine him going to work like Nashville songwriters do – meeting in small rooms for midday sessions at publishing houses on Music Row, then going home at the end of the day for dinner with the wife and maybe a little television - and writing something like that.

Although it was a relaxed evening with a few hundred people spread out on the grass in folding lawn chairs around coolers and picnic platters, the lightning warning added some tension. Event organizer Will Robinson, himself an accomplished songwriter, warned us of the danger, and urged everyone to wait in their cars. Some did, but most stood around and waited until we got the "clear-for-now" from park rangers on hand.

Then it was a who’s who of Music Row vets – Reid, Phil Vasser, Cory Batten, Kent Blazy, Rivers Rutherford, Dennis Matkosky, and Lilly Winwood. If that last name looks familiar, it should. Her father, former Traffic frontman and solo success Steve Winwood, lived in Nashville for years and is a longtime Radnor supporter. His daughter joked about her status as a “nepo baby,” but impressed our group of friends with a strong voice and a solid song.

Other artists came up, sometimes in pairs, and offered one song each and the story behind it. But the nearby lightning would not give up, and what was supposed to be the finale was moved up in the set list.

Ketch Secor, founder of Old Crow Medicine Show and a Nashville resident, walked on stage with his young son to lead the crowd in “Wagon Wheel,” among the latest in a long line of sing-along country classics. Secor, who was prominently featured in Ken Burns' Country Music documentary, lives in the rarified air of songwriters who share a writing credit with Bob Dylan. The chorus of "Wagon Wheel" shows up in a demo tape laid down by Dylan in 1973. Secor found it and finished the verses 25 years later. Darius Rucker had a hit with it in 2013.

After “Wagon Wheel,” as safety officers stayed glued to the weather apps on their phones, watching the storm as it approached and waiting to signal everyone to wrap it up, a few more artists hustled up to offer songs. There was time for another “only in Nashville” moment.

Dennis Matkosky told the story of the song he wrote after watching a news report about a serial killer. He played it for friends and colleagues, who offered mixed reviews that all ended with some form of suggestion that he seek psychological help.

Somehow a demo wound up on a movie set, where the director loved the vibe and asked the music producer, the legendary Phil Ramone, to polish it up and maybe tweak the lyrics to fit the film.

Imagine that creative meeting.

"We love the song, baby. But we need to fix the words. Instead of a crazed serial killer, let's say we make it about a smokin'-hot woman steelworker from Pittsburgh who dreams of being a classical ballet dancer but instead moonlights as a stripper whose signature move is sitting in a chair getting drenched by water than jumping up and dancing like a, well, you know what I mean."

Chris Farley's truncated "Tommy Boy" version may be how younger folks know "Maniac." But Matkosky's song - performer Michael Sambella worked to change the lyrics for the film, earning a co-writing credit - sold more than 20 million copies on the soundtrack of the 1983 movie "Flashdance."

Just a brief pause here for a pop culture hat tip to a movie that ushered in not one but two 80s social trends - women's leg warmers and the wet T-shirt contest. When we heard it Sunday, though, the water was merely threatening.

“Y’all need to help me out with this one,” Matkosky told us, after taking his place at the keyboard. “I may have an aneurism trying to sing it.”

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