I heard music and smelled smoke as I scrambled down the bank and ducked under the bridge. There were nearly a dozen men gathered there. We did not exchange greetings. Several men were sitting around a stinking, smoky fire. One of them had a guitar. When I arrived he was singing and playing ‘Chug-A-Lug’. Some of the others sang along, laughing and wheezing, on the chorus.
I shrugged out of my pack and leaned it against one of the bridge piers. Then I took off my coat, made a show of sliding my knife around from my hip to my side, and dug a wool sweater out of my pack. After I’d put on the sweater and my coat, I sat down, huddled against my pack, and looked things over.
Two men off by themselves sat on a tarp together, silently sharing what I took to be their last cigarette. One man with his back to the rest stood at the edge of the rain looking out at the river, smoking a cigarette, like a man standing on his porch. Others sat huddled alone in the darker recesses, their tarps, sleeping bags, rags and blankets drawn around them. Others like them had lain down and seemed to be sleeping. Some were old, some were young, all were thin. Once I’d sized them up, none of them looked like a threat.
We were not a community. We’d been tossed together by happenstance. I imagine that we each felt we didn’t belong there among the others. Despite the singing and laughter around the fire, an undercurrent of mutual wariness remained.
When the singer began the Grandpa Jones song, ‘Good Ol’ Mountain Dew’, his audience hollered their approval. After it was over, someone asked him to play ‘White Lightning’, which he obliged. I sidled up to the fire. No one moved to make a hole for me, so I sat a little behind the circle. As a result, I got more smoke than heat, but still, it felt better to be nearer the fire and music. After he finished ‘White Lightning’, the singer sang ‘Hey, Good Lookin’. Someone pulled out a harmonica and tried to play along, without much success. I joined the others in the chorus, but only at a mumble that no one else could have heard.
Young men with guitars have always made their way to Nashville, ready to play for anyone who’ll listen. Some end up at the Ryman, some end up under the Deadrick Street bridge, and some end up under the bridge on their way to the Ryman. Our singer was about my age. He wore a dented cowboy hat, pushed way back on his head, which signified friendliness. He had a black eye. He wore gloves with the fingers cut off. Like the rest of us, he needed a good cleaning up, some dental work, and a few hot meals. He brought the song to a close.
“Play ‘Lost Highway’,” I called out. The expression that came over his face was like that of someone who’d been overtaken by his pursuer after a long chase. He looked at me over the fire, speechless for a moment, and then said, finally, “I don’t know that one.”