A Couple of Country-Western Acts from a Nashville UU Church
By Bella English
World home page
|It's Saturday night at the Honky Tonk Hardware in Nashville, Tennessee.
Merchandise tables have been cleared away and rows of vinyl chairs set
up on the scuffed linoleum floor. Thirty-five, maybe 40, folks have assembled,
surrounded by wall displays of mouse traps, snow shovels, mops and brooms,
utility knives, drop cloths, light bulbs, dust pans, and hammers to hear
some country music. Two guys--one bald and wearing a dress, the other shorter
and clad in overalls--have taken the floor. "Hey, y'all!" they sing in a
rollicking opening number.
Everyone laughs, for "Y'all" is the name of the bluegrass group that consists of Jay Byrd (the guy in the dress) and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer (the guy in the hogwashers). Their hour-long variety show, which they dream of taking to tv some day, includes some clever puppet theater, some old-fashioned storytelling, and some fine country music. The children in the front row giggle at the puppets and clap in time to the music. Also in the audience sit their UU parents, and other fans from the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, including the minister, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn. They've come out to support fellow parishioners Byrd and Cheslik-DeMeyer, who are trying to break into Nashville's big-time country-western scene. Barry and Holly Tashian, longtime UUs who are veteran country singers, clap and laugh along with the crowd.
Wait a minute. UU fans and performers of country-western music, with its lyrics rife with sinnin' and repentin'? Heaven and hell? Good-hearted women standin' by their good-timin' men? Or my personal favorite: "Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed (this women's lib stuff has gone to your head)." Yep, C&W can be pretty sexist.
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost rear their heads right often in country music, too. Who can forget "Drop Kick Me, Jesus, through the Goalposts of Life?" and "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" Satan gets his share of play, too. How in tarnation do the Tashians and Y'all reconcile country music with their liberal UU values? To ask the question is to ask the four musicians to tell their life stories.
It seems only fitting that the UU church in Music City, USA, which is what Nashville calls itself, should have some country singers as members. But the two groups--the Tashians and Y'all--came to the music, the church, and the town by different routes. Barry Tashian was a rock-and-roll fanatic whose band, Barry and the Remains, opened for the Beatles during the English rock band's last US tour in 1966. Thirty years later, his book Ticket to Ride offered a diary of the tour, capturing much of the hysteria surrounding the Fab Four.
Tashian, who came from a musical family in Westport, Connecticut, started his first rock band in 1957, as a seventh grader. When he arrived at Boston University, he and three friends formed the Remains, cutting their first album three months later for Columbia. In 1965 and 1966, they were hugely popular with the New England college set, recording the hits "Why Do I Cry" and "Diddy Wah Diddy." Dropping out of school, they moved to New York and played on the Ed Sullivan Show and Hullabaloo.
Then came the Beatles tour. At age 21, Tashian, with his group, opened the tour to a sold-out crowd of 50,000 in New York's Shea Stadium. This was just after John Lennon's controversial remarks about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus (a line that might have come from a UU debate). For the next 18 days, the Remains would travel in a limo and hang with the Beatles, who were continually mobbed by screaming teenage girls.
But at tour's end, says Tashian, "it seemed that the Beatles were bigger than ever, and we were just the Remains." In the weeks following, the Remains disbanded, and Tashian went to California in search of a new sound. There he started playing country music and rhythm-and-blues, recording with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
In 1972, Tashian was back home in Westport, walking on the beach, when he ran into Holly Kimball, whom he'd known in high school. Married a short time later, they formed their own country band based in southern California. (Holly's mother, Jeanne, was a singer, music teacher, and the choir leader at the First UU Church of Westport. Today, at 85, she still sings in the choir and gives music lessons.)
In 1982, Holly and Barry sold their house in California and moved to Nashville to further their country singing career. "We knew no one in Nashville," recalls Holly, now 54. "We had two little kids." So they called the UU church and asked for the name of a bed and breakfast in town. "The woman who answered the phone said, ‘You can stay right here with me,'" recalls Holly. The next day, they attended church with their host, who announced that the couple was looking for a place to live. A congregant had a house for rent. As Holly puts it: "We moved in, and we never left." When the house came on the market a few years later, the Tashians bought it.
They also found a home in the UU church, three doors down from their house. Holly's UU roots go deep: her parents met at Star Island, New Hampshire, at a UU youth retreat when they were 17. She was brought up a UU, and she brought Barry, a self-described "good, God-fearing Congregationalist," along. Why, besides love, did he switch? "I just never thought our minister was a very nice person," says Barry. "He scared me." Of his adopted religion, he jokes: "I thought it was pretty cool, drinking sherry and praising the Lord."
Though initially attracted to the UU church by the fellowship he found there, Barry Tashian has spent the last decade thinking more about God. "I've sought a more personal God," he says, "ranging from the white-bearded man on a cloud to The Mystery itself." He says he meditates twice daily and "tries to help somebody every day, to be something other than self-centered, which I've been all my life."
After their boys came along, the Tashian family would take retreats to UU conference centers at Star Island and The Mountain in Highlands, North Carolina. When the kids were young, Holly was the director of religious education at the Nashville church. Nowadays, she leads a feng shui class there, on how to create harmony in a house or office. Growing up, Holly says, she did not believe in God. Today, she believes in a higher power, and she says she is grateful to have "a liberal outlet like the UU church in the South."
Still, like many good Unitarian Universalists, she has an argument with the church. As someone with an affinity for certain New Age practices, she says, "I think the UU church is a bit shallow in its approach to understanding the unexplainable. I think the scientific model of the world is very limiting. I feel there's a lot more going on in the world, and I think we restrict ourselves by putting things through a scientific or intellectual filter." She quickly adds: "I love the church. I mean, I'm a UU. In another church, I never could even make a statement like that. I really appreciate the freedom of belief we UUs have. Still, I just love that feeling of being intuitive about life." For her, God is a paradox--"so much bigger," she says, "than you can conceive and so much smaller than you can imagine. It's everywhere and nowhere. It's unexplainable."
The Tashians, who write and sing their own music, often play at UU coffeehouses, retreats, or conferences. They will play at this year's General Assembly in Nashville in June, as will Y'all [see How to Have a C&W GA]. Their first big break in country circles came one night when Barry was playing with a band in a California bar and restaurant. Emmylou Harris came in to get a chicken-fried steak and lured Barry away to play and sing with her. He stayed with her until the early 1990s, when her band broke up. Then he teamed up with Holly, who plays the violin as well as guitar.
Making the leap from rock and roll to country-western, he says, was not as hard as you'd think. "I've always loved country music," he says. "I didn't realize at first that early rock-and-roll really was country-western. Jerry Lee Lewis was singing Hank Williams." Nashville, then, was a logical next stop. "It's a great place; it's very hip these days," says Holly. "For people who love music, it's a wonderful community," adds her husband. "There is so much talent here."
The Tashians, who call their brand of music "acoustic country," host a large party every Christmas where folks bring their instruments. "Songwriters," says Barry, "are some of the craziest people you've ever met."
So how do they reconcile their country music with their liberal views? They put their philosophy into their music: that a healthy life is a good life. They write a lot about love, and there is often a spiritual message in their lyrics. When they wrote a song called "Look Both Ways before You Fall in Love," they got a lot of calls from gays, thanking them. "The Power of Love" ("Been around the world, and nothing compares to the power of love; it's working everywhere") also expresses their UU values. So does "Heaven with You," about a heaven on earth rather than in an afterlife. "Spinning Straw into Gold" is an anthem for immigrants, written with Barry's Armenian grandfather in mind.
The traditional, fundamentalist country-western songs are "too tragic" and conservative for them, the Tashians say, which is one reason they write their own. The country music they love to play is upbeat and fun, their harmonies pure and clear and emotional. "You can't go out and sing a song you don't believe in," says Holly. She laughs and adds, "I mean, I just couldn't sing something like ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E'"--referring to Tammy Wynette's huge hit of the 1970s.
John Rakestraw, another Nashville UU into country music (a college professor, he plays guitar and sings in a folk trio called Second Thoughts), says, "I think of country music as kind of a music of the people. Country and folk are typically done by people with less formal training. The music expresses the hearts of people."
At the Honky Tonk Hardware this particular Saturday night, Y'all's performance is clearly getting to the heart of the people in the audience. Let the tourists find their way to the overpriced seats of the Grand Ole Opry. Here at the Honky Tonk, there are puppet shows featuring beehive hairdos, songs with soulful harmony, raffles of Moon Pies, and of course, the guy in the dress and the guy in the overalls. Jay Byrd, 34, says his "lucky green dress," a garish rhinestone-studded number, was given to him by an uncle in Texas for good luck. Of the duo, he's the more gregarious. Both he and the quieter, more thoughtful Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, 33, took a circuitous route to the UU church.
Byrd's daddy, an Assemblies of God preacher in smalltown Texas, took the Bible literally. As a youngster, Jay spoke in tongues and was "saved" at a tent revival. He and his family attended church daily. But when his father died several years ago, Byrd says he discovered "a whole different world that existed outside that religion."
As for Cheslik-DeMeyer, his parents were Catholics who became disillusioned with a church that told them they had to keep having kids they couldn't afford. (He's one of seven.) He describes his religious upbringing in Indiana as "agnostic" and says he didn't think much about God until his 20s.
The two, who met in New York and formed Y'all in the early 1990s, played gay clubs in the East Village and restaurants and theaters in the West Village. But they were only making "half a living," as Byrd puts it, and folks in the city didn't take country music very seriously. So two years ago, they moved to Nashville. But could a gay duo, one of them in a dress, make it in the macho land of spurs and Stetsons?
So far, so good. Y'all have written, produced and marketed several CD's; put up their own website; and published an autobiography, The Good Book: The True Story of Y'all, which includes recipes like "Nana's Chicken and Dumplings" and original songs like "Are You on the Top 40 of Your Lord?" These days, they're on the road a lot, playing nursing homes and coffeehouses to earn their bread and butter. Their ultimate dream is a television variety show, a cross, they say, between Hee Haw and Sonny and Cher.
New in Nashville, the duo found their way to the UU church by playing a benefit there, performing a kazoo duet as part of a skit called "Humor in Everyday Life." Byrd says he was clueless about UUism; Cheslik-DeMeyer had been in a UU church once in his life, while in high school, to attend a wedding of a Jew and Catholic. "I sort of knew what it was," he says, "but I didn't truly know until we moved to Nashville." But soon after their performance at the benefit, they were back at the church regularly.
"We just liked the energy there," says Byrd. In New York, their friends were all around their age and also in the arts. At the Nashville church, they found a diversity of ages, including young Y'all groupies who adore their act.
Then there's the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn. "Her sermons will move you to tears," Byrd says. Adds Cheslik-DeMeyer: "She is the embodiment of a liberal religion that we didn't know existed."
The duo say they consider their newfound religion tolerant and gentle, like their music. Instead of being harsh and judgmental, like the religions they grew up in--and like some fundamentalist country-western music--the couple plays whimsical, sweet songs like "Christmastime in the Trailer Park" and "My Mama Likes the Feel of Cottage Cheese." They say they also see another connection between their UU faith and their music: both are honest and direct, with ample allowance for fun. Their album "Are You on the Top 40 of Your Lord?" offers a return to what the duo believe is country-western's true roots: humor. While their New York audiences wanted the duo to poke fun at country music, Y'all refused. Real country music, they stress, pokes fun at itself, a different matter altogether. "We're trying to bring humor back to it, it's gotten so serious," says Cheslik-DeMeyer.
But Y'all is serious about church. Their congregation, they say, offers them a community of people where they can comfortably explore spiritual issues with others on a similar journey. "I feel like it's a constant process, and there's something divine in that," says Cheslik-DeMeyer. "It's people being kind to each other, being tolerant." Adds Byrd: "It's okay not to be sure about anything here. It's so different from the way I grew up."
It's Sunday morning, the 9 am service at the First UU Church of Nashville. During Joys and Concerns, various people get up and speak about a loved one, a job, an event. Jay Byrd rises and asks folks to keep Y'all in their thoughts as the duo heads out on the road for various gigs. After the service, minister Morn takes a second to discuss her fondness for country music.
"I guess what pulls me to it is the simplicity of it," she says. "As one UU minister once said: ‘The worst thing we do for Unitarian Universalism is to present it as though it is complicated, when the truth is, it's a very simple message.'" The same is true of country music, she says: "It's a simple message of hope and how we should live and communicate and love together."
To which one can only say, "Amen, sister!"
How to Have a C&W GA
Country-western acts the Tashians and Y'all are headlining events at this June's Nashville General Assembly. Y'all will perform at an event billed as Old Time Country Music for the 21st Century (Saturday, June 24 at 7:30 pm; repeat performance Sunday, June 25 at 12:30 pm), while the Tashians will lead a workshop on vocal harmony performance (Sunday, June 25 at 7:15 pm ). These events will take place in the Tennessee Room of the Renaissance Hotel.
Bella English writes for the Boston Globe. She is a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Milton, MA.
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