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Nashville, TN – As you know by now from my columns, Printers Alley, where I live and write is literally the “home of the blues” as the famed Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar is situated right in the heart of the bustling historic district of downtown off Church Street. And though there are a few regulars here who are declared (or claim) to be the “mayor of the alley,” only one man is king of the blues in these parts: Gil Gann, “the man.”
If you’ve walked through the alley only once, you’ve likely seen him in his signature performing regalia of top hat and black cotton matching shirt and pants—either putting out the signs for the club, sitting on the café chairs outside grabbing a smoke, or where he weaves his daily magic “on da porch” as they call the famed stage at Bourbon.You’ll know it’s his set by the colorful Nola-style beads that he carefully decorates the stage with, in and around the “bucket of love” tip jar. “I’m a pretty, pretty man,” Gann claims from the throne of Bourbon Street as he croons the old-school blues, Motown, and other soulful favorites and originals he’s known for.
His moniker, “150 Pounds of the Blues” refers to his slight weight, but Gann comes by his blues with a heavy dose of hard work, and more than enough hard times in his past to give him the heart of a true bluesman.
Gann is a man who once (while serving a 120-day stint in jail for an alcohol-related offense, for which he atoned and did his time) pinned the lyrics to songs like “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” and “The Sky is Crying” to the insides of horse stalls he was responsible for maintaining for the Nashville Mounted Police Patrol.
“I knew I needed to learn those covers for when I got out and had to do the long sets again, so before I reported for jail, I printed out all the lyrics I could and had my wife send them to me,” said Gann. In the morning, he led horses named “Storm” and “Joey” out to pasture, but all day he sang and mucked the stalls—sometimes in the freezing cold.
During his set, you’ll get a hint of that past as Gann willfully gives up the gems and little details of his life such as “I’ve been thrown out of the house seven times by my wife.” You’ll then hear the song he wrote during one of those times, (“Plain and Simple Truth”) and about how the love of his life (not mentioned here in this column for privacy reasons) is still going strong; they’ve been married 34 years and raised five children together. In fact, during that rough patch of jail-time, his wife would bring his guitar for him on Saturday visitation days. “That’s when I’d work on my originals,” Gann said.
Gann is honest about where he’s been and grateful for where he is today. “There ain’t no shame in my game. Everyone fights their demons,” the musician says. And for Gann, there have been some tough ones to fight. After moving to Nashville from L.A. where he hung out at the Palomino Club (ironically the same club famed Nashvillian and fellow musician, Billy Block, hailed from) the West Texas native’s dreams of being a country music artist fell short. Yes, that’s not a typo.
But he “hit a wall,” as he describes it, with country in Nashville, being a black artist. “I didn’t fit the mold,” he said. He had the opportunity to sing a bit of country in Nashville, including on stage at the old Skulls Rainbow Room, just next door to the Boogie Bar where he now holds court up to six days a week for the daytime matinee, Happy Hour, or night gigs.
But by the time he turned 40, Gann (who is now 58) thought if he didn’t see the success he craved in country that he’d lay the guitar down and do something else. He inherited his family’s hard-work ethic and worked in several fields including as a carpenter, a hardware store manager, and a file clerk for Magellan Healthcare where he ended up becoming a project coordinator due to his knack for computers and his successful digitizing of their records.
But putting down the guitar and endeavoring in a day-job existence only worked against him. The lack of passion and excitement of music led him to feed himself with drugs: namely crack. “I was geeking a lot,” he said. “Here I was working to vet patients (at Magellan) who wanted to get free healthcare for drug rehab and recovery, and I was on crack myself.”
Gann claims he was always functional, however. “I always worked and didn’t do drugs until after 3:00, and I didn’t spend a lot on it. I’d make it last,” he said. Even when he was smoking crack with other addicts during the times he lived apart from his wife and family, he said “I knew I wasn’t like the others. I was always thinking. I was always telling the other dudes, I’m going to do something.”
Many people doing drugs regularly make such grand statements, but Gann made good on them. First, the veritable “house of cards” he thought he was holding together had to crash in. “I was thrown out of the house. I was living in a horrible place. No power because I didn’t pay the bill. My oldest son was living with me because he wanted to be with his dad, but I was ashamed and sent him back home.”
That same night, it began raining. Gann, who usually would’ve parsed out his drugs, smoked a little too much crack. “I was seeing Banshees” he said. At that moment, he walked out the door and into the rain; he looked up into the sky to ask God to help him, and walked straight to the Alamo Club, an AA organization. He got a scholarship to a rehab center and got off the crack for good.
He didn’t know at the time exactly where it might lead, but knew that a new direction could only lead to better things. It was there at the Boardwalk Café that he met some influential bluesmen like Shannon Williford, Nick Nixon, and Jack Hunter. To this day, he is still friends with these musicians, some of whom also grace the stage of Bourbon Street.
Through those early jams, he learned everything about the blues and he bought a cheap guitar to get back on track playing. He formed a band, “Gil Gann and the Manz” which had a good run in the clubs of Murfreesboro and other locales around Nashville.
The noted singer and American Idol Finalist, Miss Jackie Wilson, even sang with the group for a time. That is, until one day he told Jackie: “You’re too good to be messing around with us singing back up. Go out and make a name for yourself.” That storied friendship would reap unexpected rewards for Gil, but not until years later.
Gann was having a blast playing and learning more about the blues and managing his band, but he still had his sights set on a place called Bourbon Street in Printers Alley. He got a busking license for $50.00 and sat down on the “pot of gold” outside the adjacent former Skulls (a “Wizard of Oz” stone fixture and symbol for the “Rainbow Room” stage inside, which by then had closed down), playing his songs on nights the wildly popular Stacy Mitchhart Band was playing at Bourbon.
The pot of gold was more than a metaphor. He’d catch the alley traffic tips and also caught the eye of the lead bluesman he’d been watching and admiring from afar. “Stacy would come out on breaks when I was playing. He’d just kind of give me a look. I’d ask if I could sit-in, and 9 times out of 10, he’d say “no,” but those times I did get up on stage, I’ll never forget.”
Gann credits Mitchhart with helping to chart his direction toward a new genre-bending approach to the blues. “Before, I was either all or nothing. I was all country in L.A. and Nashville early on, and then I made a transition to all blues. Stacy showed me I needed to incorporate different aspects of southern soul and other elements,” Gann said.
I showed him one of my songs. He (Stacy) said “that’s a good-ass song, but it’s too bluesy. Mix it up.”
Gann still loves country, even though he doesn’t get a chance to perform much of it on the stage of the Boogie Bar. But country is still in his Texas blood. In the last year, he’s taken a liking to a young artist he books at Bourbon Street and who he claims “is the only artist allowed to play country on da porch” at the famed blues club: Jordan Umbach, a singer/songwriter who also plays Americana, Rock and Blues. (Full disclosure: he’s my son.)
Gann says he sees something in the young Umbach that reminds him of him when he was younger. He’s become a mentor to him, bringing him on first for just an hour on a Sunday, and then expanding his set time and adding gig days. “I light up when he does the old George Strait and the Johnny Cash.”
Over the years, Gann has had gigs at other venues, including the “other blues bar” in downtown: B.B. Kings. “I was hired on as a dishwasher when I was just starting out in the blues direction, when the manager came in and asked me what I really do. When I told him, he told me to bring in my guitar the next day.” (Gann even had the honor of playing at the legendary B.B. King’s birthday celebration party several years ago.)
But as every Nashville insider knows, Bourbon Street is home to more “real blues” more of the time than anywhere in town, and the Boogie Bar is now Gann’s second home. He spends more hours there and in the alley then at home. “I’m a disciple of Phil Martin,” Gann says of the owner of the club. “He gave me my first chance here (it was his soul-sister, Jackie Wilson—by then an established act at Bourbon Street—who called him up one day and told him they wanted him for the gig) and then a second chance after I had some personal issues. “I owe him quite a bit.”
As with many aspects of Gil Gann’s life and times, things seem to always come full circle. One night, at the end of the alley, after all the bars had announced last call, some members of the Nashville Mounted Police Patrol were doing one of their stoic and routine “stands” they do to ensure the peace on busy tourist-season nights.
As Gil was preparing to leave Bourbon Street for home, he caught sight of some familiar friends: “Storm” and “Joey:” the horses he had once cared for at the police horse barn. “I walked toward them and they remembered me,” Gann said.
By then, the bluesman’s path had taken him a far distance away from his former demons; he’s now living out the blues every day on stage, rather than in real life. And for Gann, the “King of the Blues” in Printers Alley, life is good and the music (be it country, blues or soul) is “king.”
Epilogue: It’s more than a bit of poetic justice that the old “country-loving” Gann was recently plucked out of one of Bourbon Street’s outside café tables to be in a video that was being shot across the alley by none other than two famous country music stars of today: Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. His trademark top hat and distinctive look and style were wanted for a featured spot in the song, “I Have a Real Good Feeling Something Bad’s About to Happen.” You can see him opening the door for the divas in the finished video. Even though Gann can’t name a song by Lambert or Underwood, he was honored to be part of the project, and is now know as “that guy” in the video.
Take a look at it here at this link:
*Sandee Gertz (Sandee Gertz Umbach) is an author and award-winning poet from Western Pennsylvania whose work focuses on working class and blue-collar themes. Her book, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, is available at Amazon and through Bottom Dog Press (www.smithdocs.net). She is currently completing a book-length memoir about growing up with a seizure disorder in a coming of age story, entitled “Some Girls Have Auras of Bright Colors.” She has a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing Program and has two sons, Jordan, who lives in Nashville, and Christian Umbach, who is a junior at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SectionsArts and Leisure
TopicsAmerican Idol, B. B. King, B.B. Kings, Billy Block, Blues Music, Boardwalk Cafe, Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, Bryan Grayson, California, Carrie Underwood, Charlie Pride, Crack, Crack Cocaine, Drug Addiction, George Strait, Gil Gann, Jack Hunter, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Cash, Jordan Umbach, Los Angeles CA, Miranda Lambert, Murfreesboro TN, Nashville, Nashville Mounted Police Patrol, Nashville TN, Nick Nixon, Palomino Club, Phil Martin, Printers Alley, rock and roll, Salon 615, Shannon Williford, Skulls Rainbow Room, Stacy Mitchhart Band, Texas
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