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Christmas in Nashville

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FIllustration by Nancy Harrisonew of us get to live out a Cinderella experience. I, however, have come close.

My life during any ordinary week is that of a hardworking suburban attorney. When I’m not in court, I spend my days in my law office on what I like to call the extended Main Line. I’ve been writing songs for more than 20 years, but with a busy law practice and young children, I’ve had little time for musical pursuits.

Enter Jay Vern. And while I wouldn’t quite call him my fairy godmother (he’s a guy, for one thing), he did make my Cinderella experience possible.

Vern runs a small recording studio in Nashville. I first found him when I was down there peddling songs back in the late 1990s. Although I was never successful at selling anything, I’d always remembered how Vern was able to take a song, line up great musicians and make a pretty darned good recording out of it—quickly and on a relatively affordable budget.

When I realized I’d be in Tennessee on spring vacation last March, it suddenly dawned on me that I had a song I might want to record. It was a Christmas number, one I’d been meaning to finish for years. (Note to music history lovers: Many of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters.)

In between writing wills, administering estates and poring over medical records and police reports from my auto accident cases, I somehow managed to finish the song just in time for my trip. Next thing I knew, I was hopping out of a rental car in front of Jay’s Place Studio, housed in an unassuming little bungalow in Nashville’s Music Row district.

The carved wooden sign out front had letters that were oddly off-kilter. I later learned it was designed by the late Shel Silverstein, of the popular
children’s books and strange songs. Vern had produced his records way back when.

After I sat and listened to a few other songwriters’ tracks being recorded, it was finally time for my stuff. Vern introduced me to my guitar player, my drummer and my bass player. They were nice guys, all.

Then he handed out the charts for my song to each of them, written not in standard musical notes but in something known as the “Nashville Number System,” a kind of musical shorthand all musicians in Music City understand. First, they laid down the rhythm tracks—real drums, bass and rhythm guitar. All the while, Vern zipped around the studio between the recording console, a grand piano and the keyboard in the control room. If he ever had to give up the recording business, the guy could be an air traffic controller with no additional training.

Finally, it was time for my vocals. During my earlier trips to Nashville, I’d gone with professionals. For surprisingly little cash, you can hire a talented but undiscovered singer down there who can belt one out as well as the best folks on the radio. (Just a few years before my first trip down, you could’ve hired Garth Brooks or Trisha Yearwood to sing your song for the princely sum of about 50 bucks).
 

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This time, however, I would attempt to do the vocals myself, despite a nagging case of laryngitis and my perpetually clogged eustachian tubes. I had no illusions about selling this song to Garth, Trisha or Willie.

Jay installed a big pair of headphones on my head, and suddenly the music started playing. He cued me in, and I launched into the song, jumping in at the appropriate moment and hoping I could nail the song on the first or second try before my voice gave out.

The instruments sounded out of this world, from the hopping bass and drum tracks to the multiple guitars. There were even the sleigh bells I’d requested. A huge smile came across my face as I listened to the finished product. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

The following Monday, I was back at my desk in Thorndale, returning client calls, going over my to-do lists and shoveling my way to the bottom of a massive mail pile. That night I’d be home in West Chester, putting the kids to bed, taking out the trash and eventually passing out after writing one more legal document. My life hadn’t changed, nor had I expected it would.

But it was a heck of a ball.

Barry Rabin’s “The Year the Elves Went Out on Strike” was distributed to radio stations across America this fall.

 

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