When the Irish emigrated to America, they brought with them their love of music and song. Much of this heritage was instilled in future generations in the form of country and bluegrass music. The songs of love, hardship, and tragedy, the reels and other tunes battered out on barn floors and stages, live on in Nashville, Tennessee.
On April 27, a group of 51 travelers left from Philadelphia to visit this mecca of traditional, old-time country music. The group was a cross-section of folks who had heard about through the Irish Center on or on the Sunday Irish Radio Shows when it was announced by Vince Gallagher and myself. Out of the 51 folks, well more than half were Irish-born and had grown up listening to Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, among others. This was their first time to see the halls and honky-tonks where the music had been played for years.
Little did any of us know that we were going to be caught up in the extreme weather story of week—the torrential rains and flooding that left much of Nashville and its environs under water and as many as 19 people dead.
But when we arrived in Nashville a week ago, we started out as enthusiastic tourists. Our first stop: the Country Music Hall of Fame. One of the current exhibits was “The Williams Family Legacy” charting the tragic, short life of one of country music’s biggest stars, Hank Williams. Providing on-board entertainment were three of Philadelphia’s finest musicians (and comedians): Luke Jardel, Fintan Malone and Pat Kildea. The three of them have played in a dozen or more local Irish groups, duos or bands, experience that served them well when they were called on to lift the spirits of some stranded travelers and beleagured locals.
Although we were in the home of country music, we managed to end our first evening in Mulligan’s Pub singing along to Irish music. Our second day, bright and sunny, was spent wealthy musicians’ homesteads and the haunts of Nashville. We spent some time at the Ryman Auditorium and then the Grand Ole Opry.
It started to rain on Saturday, and we made our soggy way to the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson, then to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel Complex, luxury hotels are set completely under glass with beautiful indoor gardens, restaurants, a small river flowing through, shops and even a boat ride. Most of the group went to the historic St. Mary’s Cathedral in Nashville, dating back to the Civil War, to go to Mass where we discovered the visiting priest was from Dublin, Ireland. Our prayers were to serve us well over the next few days.
We started a special evening at the Cock of the Walk Restaurant—where dinner is served on tin plates—then on to the legendary music bar, John A’s where one of the regular performers is an amazing singer named Brenda Mullin, whose grandaunt, Rosemarie Timoney, was on the tour with us. Originally from Canada, where she won on the T show “Canada’s Most Talented”, she was recruited by a Nashville record company to record and perform in Nashville.
During the overnight hours, the steady rain started to pelt down. The wind started howling, the tornado sirens started blasting. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to make it to Memphis that day on our tour coach, but the driver decided to go after checking weather reports and conferring with other drivers. But this weather hadn’t be predicted. We weren’t far out of Nashville when we realized we were not only not going to make it to Memphis, we might not make it back to Nashville. The highway became a shallow stream, then a roaring creek, then a raging river.
So what did our travelers do? They started to party on the bus. Musician Luke Jardel kept the group laughing with his jokes and stories, and even managed to squeeze into one of the overhead luggage compartments to take a short nap.
After several hours of vehicle jockeying, Ronnie, the amazing man behind the wheel of our bus, was able to back the bus over a mile down the thruway, maneuver a K-turn and drive off the on-ramp. But once back on the main road, he discovered that all roads leading back to Nashville were closed. This left just one option, find a gas station and confer with other drivers about possible detours.
In the small town of Kingston Springs, sits a BP station, two or three small motels, a Mexican restaurant, an Arby’s, a Mapco and a Quizno’s. This turned out to be the tours’ home-away-from-home-away-from hotel for the next several hours. Several folks went off to the Mexican restaurant for two-for-one beers and margaritas. Other folks chose to buy food and watch the movie on the bus for a while. A few more walked up to Quizno’s. When they told the manager about the bus stranded in the BP parking lot, we were surprised and thrilled to see the employees coming down to the lot with trays of subs and cases of cold water for us.
It is said that the Irish can always make their own fun, as long as they can sing or dance. How true this proved to be! As the sky grew dark and the rain started to lift, an amazing thing happened. Luke, Fintan and Pat set up their instruments outside the BP station. A cooler full of beer appeared for all to share. The music started and before you could say “Gas Pump Ceili” the parking lot was full of Irish folks dancing the Gay Gordon, the Highland, and the Two Hand Reel. Locals joined in not just for the dancing, but also got up to sing. After two or more hours of total craic, Ronnie met a local gas company worker who told him there was a way to get back to Nashville! With a final singing of the Irish National Anthem, led by Rosemarie Timoney and the American National Anthem, led by Luke Jardel, we said goodbye to our new friends, filed back onto the bus and made our way back to our beds at one of the few hotels in Nashville that hadn’t been flooded.
When we got up the next morning for the bus trip to the airport, we were shocked to see how much damage the storm, which dumped as much as 12 inches of rain over 24 hours on the Tennessee Valley, had caused. Homes were under water. Bridges had collapsed. Schools were destroyed. Even the Grand Old Opry sustained damage as three inches of water seeped into this icon of country music, forcing shows to other, undamaged venues Nashville for the week.
Hearing the news reports—$1 billion in damage, 10 people dead in Nashville alone, two people missing—we realize just how lucky we had been.
To help repay the kindness of the people we met in Kingston Springs, TN, we are now planning a benefit concert to raise money to help those who have lost their homes and businesses. If you’d like to volunteer your band or just a hand, please contact me at email@example.com.
Editor: Some Texas tourists were so delighted to have stumbled onto the impromptu ceili dance at the BP station, they filmed it and posted it on YouTube. You can see it here.
Check out Marianne’s photos here.