Wander down Nashville’s Broadway early any evening, and you’ll hear strains of country music coming out of almost every door. Guitars are being tuned, microphones being checked, band members are chatting as the instruments get pulled out and plugged in.
In groups of twos and threes, tourists wander down the sidewalk, listening, stopping to hear the strains of music start to build. The bars and restaurants are interrupted by record stores and gift shops where you can find a cowboy boot-shaped vase, an Elvis Beanie Baby or a Johnny Cash onesie. There’s enough country music memorabilia to satisfy the most hard-core fan.
Stop by Boot Country, and buy one pair of cowboy boots and get two more for free. Get your picture taken with the large guitar mounted on the sidewalk that reads “Honky-Tonk Heroes” and sports pictures of country music legends from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Wander by the windows of Hatch Show Print where old letterpress-printed posters plaster the walls. You know the kind, the ones that look the way country music concert posters ought to look. They still print those here.
The bar stools and tables fill up as the music begins for real. Most of the musicians who inhabit the neon-lit venues in this haven of honky-tonks are not household names. These aren’t the Merle Haggards and Tim McGraws of the music world. Neither are they the Reba McEntires or the Taylor Swifts. They’re often working two or three jobs in addition to these gigs.
But if they’re playing here on Broadway, they’ve got their foot in the door of Music City. And that’s why these Clemson alumni come to Nashville.
Making a living
Many nights, you can find Michael Hughes ’96 on one of these stages. He plays a mean keyboard and a masterful guitar. In fact, he’s played 50 concerts this past summer plus a USO tour with former American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler, with whom he’s traveled for the last five years.
He’s been in the music business 20 years now, but he got his first job playing the piano from a friend who lived down the hall in Johnstone his freshman year. With a mother as a Clemson nursing professor, Hughes didn’t just go to Clemson; he grew up here. And even though he was a psychology major, it was an organic chemistry professor whose offhand comment had a great impact on him.
“Karl Dieter casually mentioned after class one day that the secret to life was answering these three questions: What do you love doing? What are you good at? What do you have to do to make the answers to No. 1 and No. 2 your career? I never forgot that, and it kept me going through many frustrations and setbacks,” says Hughes.
He’s had his share of frustrations and setbacks. He came to Nashville after college, stayed for six months then went back to Clemson where, as he says, he “learned what I needed to know.” After nine years in Nashville, he can say he’s making his living in the music business.
Not to say that’s a simple task. “I think most musicians today that do music full-time wear a number of different hats in order to make a living,” he says, “and I’m no different.” He reels off the list of his various “hats”: singer/songwriter/touring and session musician/studio owner, producer and engineer.
If you’re a fan of “The Voice,” you’ve probably heard the title track from his January 2011 release, “Start Again,” which has been featured in 12 episodes. You may have caught him on “American Idol,” the “Tonight Show,” the CMA Awards, “Ellen,” “Good Morning America” or the “Today Show.”
He hasn’t forgotten those lessons from Karl Dieter. He loves music, and he’s good at it. And he’s done what it takes to make that his career.
On the road again
There are more Clemson alumni in Nashville trying to get their foot in the door of the music business than you might expect. They all have the drive and determination to follow their dreams. And a willingness to work — long and hard.
For Lee Brice, the years of hard work are beginning to pay off. A four-time Academy of Country Music nominee, he has had a highly successful album, a single (“A Woman Like You”) that reached No. 1 in April 2012, and a top-5 single (“Hard to Love”) that was officially certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for digital sales of over 500,000 downloads. The New York Times has described him as “melodically eloquent.”
He’ll assure you, however, that success didn’t come easy. Brice was studying engineering and playing football at Clemson (long snapper) until an injury ended his football career. Recuperation provided time to think and reevaluate; Brice decided it was music, not engineering, that drove him. He remembered that music industry veteran Doug Johnson had promised to help him if he came to Nashville. That summer of 2001, he packed up his bags and his music. Johnson came through on his offer.
“I was able to learn a lot from him,” says Brice, “and over the next couple of years, write a bunch of songs and get started, and eventually get into Curb Records with him.” Brice’s songwriting and performances started to gain traction. He went on tour with Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson and Luke Bryan.“It’s been a long road,” he says. “I’ve written a thousand songs, I’ve been on the road for seven years, and we’ve put out four or five singles. It feels like all the work is paying off.”
Brice says that a lot of songs have come out of his Clemson experience, including “Orange Empire,” written last fall for the football team. As a student, one of his favorite things to do was to go up on top of the dam with his guitar and write songs.
“Those days at Clemson were the best of my life,” he says, “and it’s a big part of who I am. It’s played a part in a lot of songs I’ve written.” Including, he says, “the girl I dated for four years from Anderson while I was there. ‘More than Memory’ came out of that, and Garth Brooks recorded that song.”
Brice’s album, “Hard to Love,” seems to signal a different look. Gone is the trademark backward baseball cap and several days’ growth, replaced with a flat cap and a neatly trimmed beard.
“I was just trying for a little different look for that one specific album,” he says. “The realm of music ranged from country to everything else.” However, Brice says, “Every night on the stage, I still put on my ball cap.”
In November, Brice returned to Clemson and played a concert at Littlejohn Coliseum. Still sporting his backward ball cap.
Workin’ hard for the money
In a building that looks like a castle with a history that includes Al Capone sits Clemson alumnus Rich Ramsey ’03. Leaning back in his chair next to a control panel with more than six feet of sliders and knobs and switches, he reflects that he feels really fortunate to have landed the position as manager of this studio three years ago. There are more than 1,000 recording studios in Nashville; this one has been around for more than 30 years and has played host to a long list of legendary musicians.
At Clemson, Ramsey switched out of engineering into secondary education and math. But music had always been an outlet. He had grown up taking piano, playing at church. At Clemson, he led music for Campus Crusade and sang with Tigeroar.
Tigeroar gave him a taste of production, since the group recorded an album each year. Ramsey purchased his own Pro Tools rig and began recording some of his own music.
And then he graduated and went to work as a high school math teacher for two years. “Teaching math wasn’t the worst job I ever had,” he says with a grin, “but it wasn’t very musical.”
It was a life lesson he learned from education professor Bob Horton that gave Ramsey the courage to see if he could make it in the music business.
“It was very evident he loved what he did, and that’s why he was there and why he put himself into it,” says Ramsey. “That has definitely translated into here, because I love what I do, and it just makes all the difference in the world.”
Ramsey picked up and moved to Nashville. He went back to school at Belmont University to get the technical knowledge he needed, then interned at another studio while he was working part time for a recording equipment rental company and for Staples. Plus, he put in 15 to 20 hours a week working for an independent engineer and kept his foot in the door at Castle, volunteering to help out when he could.“You have to keep your foot in every door you can,” he says. That philosophy played out when the studio manager and two assistant house engineers left in the span of a year. Ramsey was at the right place at the right time. “That’s how it works in this city,” he says.
“Hopefully some day, I’ll be able to just produce and engineer albums,” he says. For now, he appreciates the steady salary and the chance for the engineering to be a part of his job.
Ramsey gets back to Clemson on occasion; one trip was for a Tigeroar concert where he was introduced to Dewey Boyd, a student in mechanical engineering who also had a passion for music. Boyd’s girlfriend (now wife) was music director of TakeNote, Clemson’s female a cappella group that was performing as well.
“He told me what it was like working for free, working two jobs,” says Boyd. “I thought, ‘I will never do that.’ And here I am.”
You can find Boyd in a bungalow in between a chiropractor and a palm reader. The house looks fairly typical from the outside; once you enter you realize that the space has been re-engineered to function as a studio. Insulated double doors, sound baffles hanging from the ceiling. One room set up with a drum set; another with a variety of keyboards. A control room dominated by a computer.
At Clemson, Boyd says he “dabbled in recording music, running live sound and writing music.” He took recording classes with Professor Bruce Whisler, and toyed with changing from his mechanical engineering major. He even did his departmental honors thesis on analog to digital signal converters used for recording music.But it took a year of graduate school in mechanical engineering for Boyd to realize that he didn’t love it enough. “It wasn’t just that it was hard,” he says. “It was too hard to do without loving it.”
Not that he chose an easier path. Over the last three years, he has pieced together part-time jobs, interning and volunteering to soak up as much as his mind could hold. “Working for free,” he says, “I learned what I needed to know.”
Boyd says he’s still “working to scrape together enough income from it to say that I do this ‘for a living.’ I love what I do.”
If it makes you happy
The Grand Ole Opry. It’s been called “the show that made country music famous.” And it’s one of Nashville’s top tourist attractions. Tours cycle through the different parts of the facility about every 15 minutes, with everyone wanting a picture taken on stage in front of the iconic neon sign or standing on the circle of wood that was taken from the Opry’s longtime home and embedded into the stage here.
But the Grand Ole Opry is not just the three-times a week “Grand Ole Opry” show. The venue hosts concerts and award shows, corporate events, general sessions, dinners, meetings and more. And the person making sure those events come off right is Lauren Simpson ’08, events manager.“Anything you can think of to do,” she says, “we figure out a way to make it happen.”
She may be young to hold this position, but she has a lot of experience under her belt. Four years of that experience was at Clemson, working with Tiger Paw Productions and Littlejohn Coliseum. Before she graduated, the speech and communication major had worked in every department in Littlejohn, and also interned with Radio City Music Hall and MTV.
“The way that it [Tiger Paw Productions] is structured — to have students in management roles working with other students — was really the best opportunity I could have been given. I tell people I’ve been working at a venue since I was 18,” she says. “Most internships don’t give you that much hands-on stuff.”
Nashville may be the home of country music, but it’s a city that has turned country music into a tourist industry bringing millions of people every year. Like the Grand Ole Opry, some of those tourist attractions are natural outgrowths; others are a bit more on the periphery of the music business.
About 20 minutes south of Nashville, you’ll find a successful vineyard owned by Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn. Running the commercial side of the business is Clemson alum Christel Foley ’95, who began working there six months before it opened.
“I was brought in to get everything organized and ready for us to become the premier vineyard and winery in the Southeast,” she says. “I handle all of the marketing and public relations, daily retail operations and procedures for the winery, direct the sales and management team and pretty much anything else that comes up.” She has approximately 40 employees who report to her, including the general manager, controller, wine club manager and tasting room manager. And on any given Saturday, more than 2,000 locals and tourists will be there, picnics and blankets in hand, to enjoy the free wine tasting and the music, usually a local jazz trio.
Foley majored in parks, recreation and tourism management, which she says provided a good foundation for the two industries in which she has worked: sports marketing and the wine business.
As a Clemson student, Foley waitressed at Charlie T’s, a local hangout across from the baseball field. One night, she waited on a group of men who turned out to be professional baseball scouts, two from the Minnesota Twins, one from the Atlanta Braves.
“I struck up a conversation with them,” she says, “and they said, ‘You need to work for a sports team; they need people like you with a lot of enthusiasm.’” That stuck in her mind; her first job out of college was with the Charleston Stingrays (minor league hockey). She went from there to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Tennessee Titans and back to hockey with the Nashville Predators.
Two young children made her reassess all the nights and evenings of sports marketing. The contacts she had in Nashville led her to Kix Brooks and his fledgling vineyard. The wine business, she says, has many similarities to sports marketing. “I’m selling a product here that’s similar to selling a ticket. I have a celebrity — like having players. The difference here is that there’s no winning and losing; it’s all winning,” she says. “And no lockouts. Everybody goes away happy.”
Foley may be more on the edge of the music business than some of the other alumni in town, but she shares a drive and determination and ability to see the possibilities. When asked what about a Clemson experience makes alumni successful in Nashville, she responds, “a great education that doesn’t limit your ideas of what opportunities are out there.”
No business like show business
Teaching management may seem even further away from the music business, but not when it’s at Belmont University, named by Time and Rolling Stone magazines as having one of the best music business programs in the country.
And in the hallway of the building where she teaches, Beth Woodard ’87 shows off the display of gold and platinum records. Belmont grads have been a part of each of those records, whether writing, performing or producing.
Teaching music business students adds a different dimension to the classroom, says Woodard, who has been at Belmont since 1999. “My music business students are very creative. They see things through different lenses.”Woodard, a management major at Clemson, might not have even finished her undergraduate degree if it hadn’t been for Professor Mike McDonald. His teaching, she says, both gave her a thirst for knowledge and restored her confidence in herself. “It was because of him that I stayed in school and I finished my degree,” she says.
And when she finished that degree, she never imagined she would end up back on a college campus, encouraging aspiring musicians and patterning her teaching style, in many ways, after McDonald.
Tigers raised in the Southland
Aspiring musicians keep coming to Nashville, its siren song pulling those who dream of connecting with sold-out audiences and producing gold records. Musicians like Doug McCormick ’04, whose voice belies his age. You’d swear you were listening to a seasoned singer when you hear the strains of “Tiger Raised in the Southland.”
In his Tiger Paw cap, he revs up the crowd at the Esso Club on one of his returns to town. Clemson University, he says, “is more than a football game. It’s a way of life. It’s who I am.”
He’s beginning to make himself known in Nashville and the Southeast, sharing the stage with artists like Luke Bryan, Rhett Akins and Corey Smith. And his success has inspired Cody Webb ’11, who spent weekends during his time at Clemson listening to McCormick play at TDs. Like others, Webb has taken memories of college and turned them into music. “Turning Four Years into Five” was his first single. He took advantage of Kickstarter, a popular online funding platform for creative projects, to underwrite the production costs of his first album, “Thing to Prove,” in 2011.
Like other Clemson alumni in the music business in Nashville, Webb has discovered that it takes a lot of grit and determination and hard work. Not that his quick smile and the self-deprecating, likable personality don’t help. But he’s taken the fan base he developed in Clemson and broadened that by playing 150 shows last year around the Southeast. And it’s beginning to pay off; he has a contract with Monument Entertainment to produce his next album.
Roots & Dreams
There are more Clemson alumni in Nashville than these. More who are following their dreams, wedging their foot in the door. Some have always known they wanted to be in the music business; others have ended up there almost serendipitously.
What they all seem to have in common is a willingness to work long and hard, and a desire to follow their dreams and do what they love.
And they haven’t left their Clemson roots behind.