(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There is a great song
that’s been rattling around Texas and Nashville for years now. (Well, hell, there are actually a lot of such songs, but this
is the story of one of them.)
“El Cerrito Place” started life with its songwriter, Keith
Gattis, a young Texan from Georgetown and then Austin, who moved to Nashville in the 1990s and signed with RCA Records.
RCA released his self-titled album in 1996. Reviewers compared him to a young George
Jones. His second album in 2005 for the Texas-based Smith Music Group, Big City Blues, drew considerable favorable
attention, but no one in Nashville — or Texas for that matter — knew just what to do with Gattis. It was an old story:
too good for Austin, too uncommercial for Nashville.
Gattis put it on Big City Blues with a delicate piano and
Hammond B3 organ accompaniment. At almost six minutes (5:58) long, it was and remains a deeply personal song of an individual’s
Charlie Robison, a Houston native who was raised in
Bandera, Texas, actually recorded “El Cerrito Place” before
Gattis did. His version has a classic Central Texas vocal and warm production with that unmistakable Dixie
Chicks aura and background vocal sound, produced by Lloyd Maines. Of course, Maines is the father of Chicks lead singer
Natalie Maines, and Robison was then married to Chick Emily Erwin. Robison again makes it a song of deep personal angst.
put it on his 2004 Dualtone album Good Times at 5:41, again with piano and B3 and issued it as a single as well. It
had no success. Radio wasn’t ready for a long song that some DJs called “navel-gazing.”
Charlie had been on Sony’s
Lucky Dog imprint label along with such “hip” acts as Jack Ingram, BR5-49,
Deryl Dodd and the Derailers.
It was a doomed record label. Charlie did another album for Sony’s Columbia Records before leaving for the indie Dualtone
Now Chesney comes with a recording of “El Cerrito Place” at 5:51, again with piano and B3, on his new album
Welcome to the Fishbowl. Where Robison spread a more laid-back Central Texas ranch vibe on this quintessentially Southern
California song, Chesney’s is a busier Nashville production.
His choice of a songwriter’s favorite on his new album
— on the heels of his selection of another such composition, “You
and Tequila,” written by singer-songwriters Matraca Berg and Deana
Carter — signaled that he’s increasingly to be taken seriously as a songwriter’s friend. Not just the Music Row songwriting
factory songwriters, I mean.
“You and Tequila” added another whole dimension to Chesney’s body of work and elevated
his status as song stylist. Grace Potter was his singing
partner from the rock world, who added the spark to Chesney’s recording of “You and Tequila” and made it one of the best performances
in recent memory. As if to underscore that point, Chesney takes the unusual step of including on Welcome to the Fishbowl
a live performance of “Tequila” that he and Potter recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Now, Potter is back and admirably fills
out Kenny’s rendition of “El Cerrito Place” as this song continues on its journey.
Interestingly, just as Robison covered
two Gattis songs on an album (“Cerrito” and “Big City Blues”), so does Chesney record two Gattis compositions here: “Cerrito”
and “I’m a Small Town.” “Cerrito” has also been recently and admirably re-recorded by another East Tennessean, Chelle
Rose, whose five-minute-plus stark acoustic demo turns the song into a gothic tale.
Gattis himself is a classic
example of the singer-songwriter whom the Nashville music establishment just doesn’t know quite how to handle. When he came
to Nashville in the mid 1990s, he knocked around and spent a lot of time hanging with another Nashville expatriate, Dwight
Yoakam, and frequently worked on the road as Yoakam’s lead guitarist.
a video for “Cerrito,” which he himself brought up to CMT. I thought then — and still think — it’s one of the most powerful
music videos ever made. Totally captivating, like a mesmerizing film noir. Ordinarily, I do not want to watch a music video
for the first time with the subject of the video watching it with me. It felt completely comfortable on this occasion. My
praise was genuine. CMT played that video. A lot. And deservedly so.
But both young Texans Gattis and Robison sort
of struck out in Nashville. There was just no room at the time for songs written straight from the heart. As Willie
Nelson once sang about his own failed fortunes in Nashville, “Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
same thing happened to the young Texan Buddy Holly when he tried to blast out of West Texas and came to Nashville and kind
of fizzled out before figuring out who he was. Decca Records in Nashville didn’t understand him. Once he left town and started
making records that sounded the way he felt musically, he became an international star and a rock ‘n’ roll icon.
course, that doesn’t happen every day, but there have been worthy Texans by legions that Nashville has chewed up and spit
out. Not maliciously or out of spite. They simply didn’t fit the system. What they had in most cases was, as both Strother
Martin and Paul Newman said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, a “failure to communicate.”
Willie had to flee Nashville
and head back to Texas to find fulfillment and stardom when he pursued the music he truly loved and felt.
is a native Tennessean, and he got thoroughly beaten down when he first came to Nashville to make it.
Had it not been
for a rock ‘n’ roll record label head who believed in him, Chesney might today well be a farmer back in his native East Tennessee.
But Phil Walden, who launched the Allman Brothers and many other
great artists on his Capricorn Records label, saw Chesney and liked what he saw and heard, and he believed in him. He signed
him to Capricorn’s fledgling Nashville country label. Chesney recorded one Capricorn album, In My Wildest Dreams in
1994. When Capricorn’s country division (and Chesney’s album) failed to catch on, Walden shut the label down and moved back
He still believed in Chesney, though, and shopped him to every Nashville record label. And back then, there
were still a lot of them. None wanted Chesney.
Walden kept trying, though, and finally persuaded Joe Galante of RCA
and BNA Records to take a chance on Kenny. Many years later, that gamble paid off, handsomely.
“El Cerrito Place” is
the glue that connects Gattis, Robison and Chesney and Nashville and Texas and Southern California. It’s one song that in
its different iterations links past and present. It truly shows the power of a single song. Reading the lyrics, it does not
seem especially captivating. Although the introduction of El Cerrito Place as a real place does serve to give the song added
meaning. Obviously, the actual El Cerrito Place, in the Hollywood Hills, remains seared in Gattis’ memory:
them pretty people up on El Cerrito Place
They all got somethin’ in their pockets, all got somethin’ on their face
roll down to La Brea where it meets the boulevard
Singin’ hallelujah while they dance over the stars
They all think
they’re goin’ far
Just listen to it sung. Listen to any of the four versions I have mentioned. It will hypnotize
you. A song without a singer just lies there on the page. And a singer without a song is just an idiot. But put the two together
and you sometimes get magic.