32. Releasing a piece of Nashville music history: Chris Gantry “At the House of Cash”

Older man with neck-length white hair and white goatee, and wearing black woven cowboy hat, black dress shirt with thin, white embroidery across chest and back shoulders, plays guitar before a small crowd in small room. He fills the right third of the photo, his body facing leftward. A music stand is in front of him with white paper. String lights cover the ceiling, with two pan lights among them, and are blurred along with the crowd in the background due to narrow depth field of photo. A shoulder brace holds a harmonica in front of him. His head is turned away from the crowd and he looks over the neck of his guitar held in his left hand. His right arm extends upward in front of him. Finger picks are visible on thumb and two fingers.

The album was dead and coming back to life. The venue where it would release was very much alive but on its last breath–at least at that location.

Things change. Except, maybe, Chris.

This is Chris Gantry at the album release party for his record, “At The House of Cash.” He was debuting the album at Grimey’s vinyl record shop on 8th Ave South, November 2017 (Grimey’s moved to a new location in East Nashville in 2019).

The story of the album is this: In 1972 Johnny Cash asked Chris to move in with him and signed Chris to a record deal. Even though Chris was working in the country music world he was aiming for something beyond the boundaries of any genre. He was one of the original “Outlaws” with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein, but Chris took “Outlaw” to a whole new level. Cash gave him freedom to record in the House of Cash studio and go any direction Chris wanted. This album was the result of that freedom.

Unfortunately no one would release the album, not even Johnny Cash who said it was so strange even drug addicts wouldn’t understand it (so the legend goes). And the album went away to some back room. And was forgotten. And lost.

Chris kept on being Chris, a stalwart writer who has now amassed a personal library of thousands of original songs, some of which have done very well. Then as if out of a dream Chris got a phone call. Johnny Cash’s son had found the long lost album. He realized maybe it had the possibility of coming to life after all.

Thirty-five years later, here it is, alive and breathing.

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From the journal 17 November 2017

Chris Gantry invited me to attend his album release show at Grimey’s last night, a claustrophobic vinyl record store in an old brick house on 8th Ave. South just south/east of downtown.  

As Chris set up his lone guitar and harmonicas in a cluttered corner, his friend of years, Mark the dentist (a dentist only by day, he says. By night a once-upon-a-time hippy jug player) is explaining he and his wife can’t stay long, “Sorry.” He was explaining they “have tickets to a show. Across town.” He says “across town” like he is saying he has to cross Afghanistan. Which is probably honest given the downtown traffic. But still his explanation sounded more like an excuse for not really wanting to be there–and I wondered why.

He comes and talks to me while Chris sets up. He says the name of the guy they have tickets to see “across town.” I don’t recognize the name. He mentions the singer’s hit I might recognize (I don’t) then says, “He has about twenty hit songs he has written for other people.” He says the one song title, “Everlasting love.” He says “the song has been covered by so many people.” He mentions the band U2. He says, “That one song has made him millions.” It feels as if he is trying to impress me and also justify his not sticking around for his friend’s special moment. I feel kind of sad for Chris that someone who has been with him so many years isn’t making Chris a priority. “We have tickets to his show tonight. We have to go across town,” he says again.

But I want to hear about Chris from back in the time when he made this album. I have heard about that time in his life from our mutual friend the photojournalist Nancy Rhoda (whose photograph of Chris outside Johnny Cash’s studio in 1972 is the album cover). So I press the dentist about Chris.

He tells a tale of wild times with Chris, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, and some other guy from that time whose name I didn’t catch. “We were all friends.” Some made it big, he said. They “became millionaires,” he said. Then he launched into stories about Kristofferson and Cash, again leaving Chris behind. 

I look over and watch Chris. He is gentle and humble. A kind man and generous. He seems to be a man entirely lacking ego. He doesn’t even dress the part of a country music legend–except his black shirt, he wears baggy jeans and sneakers. His “cowboy” hat is a Jack Daniels promotional hat! But he works tirelessly. He has had a few hits and done well for himself, though he never rose to the status of his friends. And yet it seems he has protected a purity of music and style the others couldn’t manage. But here is one of his oldest friends not seeming to want to talk much about Chris.

And here he is debuting a rejected album from thirty-five years ago. Debuting in a corner of a store that sells vinyl records.

If it wasn’t so tragically symbolic it would be beautiful.

A man named Peter Cooper is here and Chris takes me to him. Chris says Peter is the curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame and is the man responsible for this album finally being released. Peter Cooper seems uncomfortable being here too, though he is cordial enough. I sense he is a man who has outgrown record shops.

I arrived early so there was parking in front. As I pulled in Mark the dentist was lifting boxes from a trunk and handing them to Chris. I jumped in and lent a hand. They were transferring a trunk load—literally!—of old analogue tapes to Chris’ trunk. They said it was yet another old album of Chris’ they had recently discovered!

Will this be Chris’ golden sunset—a new career born of lost material? If so Chris is not showing a desire to play the marketing game. During his brief show debuting the new old album, Chris played as many or more new pieces than old. Chris moves on.

I asked the dentist, “Why did YOU have the tapes?” 

“Chris was always storing his things at our place,” he said. He said Chris was all over the place and like the wind back then and their garage became his storage.

It wasn’t clear if the dentist was only getting rid of clutter or did he bring the tapes as a gift? Hoping Chris could make another new old album. He said of the tapes: “They need to be baked.”

Chris explained the process. Old tape clumps together over time, he said. Heat takes it back apart. Old tapes can be saved.

The dentist and his wife stayed until the end of the show after all. And though I could tell he and Chris had been friends there was a tension in the dentist’s memory. I would say how steady and clear Chris is. He would raise an eyebrow and say, “Chris is in hiding.” He kept saying, “The real Chris is crazy. Hahah.” He laughed but there was an edge to his sarcasm. Maybe the edge of some wild times he doesn’t like to remember.

And maybe Chris was wild in those days. Maybe he still is. He if definitely not ordinary. But it doesn’t matter. Maybe only mad men can sing what is true.

Chris Gantry is in the heart of Nashville. He never stops dreaming. He writes poems and children’s books. He writes a song and publishes it—every morning! He is a flood of music and songs

People lose this, Chris said. Almost all do. Out of a sense of security we become dentists or worse, we become brands, he said.

When I first met Chris he told me about hearing a certain popular country singer reassure his fans during a news conference. Chris said the young guy said, “I promise not to let my divorce and my personal life affect my music.” Chris’ response was, “What the f*** are you writing about—or who are you writing for—if not from your life and for what all of us go through together?”

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