It is a foggy morning in Nashville when I wake. The local TV station is reporting traffic delays and accidents on all sides of the city – along with a shooting in Hermitage, which is slightly worrying as that is where I am due to perform this evening!
Breakfast is a buffet in the lobby of the hotel and I have some cereal and pastries to go with my coffee. After the fellowship of Pigeon Forge everything here suddenly feels very impersonal and sterile. I am definitely back on dry land after my virtual cruise experience.
I have plenty of time today, as I do not have to be at The Hermitage until 4.30, so I have a chance to catch up on a few things.
My first job is to rehearse for a while. In a few days’ time I will be in Omaha, where I am presenting a new reading based on A Tale of Two Cities. I have spent plenty of time at home preparing four passages from the book that I believe represent some of Dickens’ greatest writing and now I can run them through in my hotel room.
It is impossible to tell the entire story, of course, but I really want to capture the essence of the book and I think that the passages I have selected achieve that.
After an hour or so of reading and editing, I put the script to one side and decide to go out on an adventure. Where to go? Well, when in Nashville it really has to be The Grand Ole Opry, doesn’t it? (my Microsoft spell-check is obviously not a country music fan, as it is suggesting that I visit the Grand Old Osprey instead!)
It is only a fifteen-minute drive from the hotel along empty largely freeways which are now bathed in sunlight. As I drive I notice a matrix-style message on a gantry across the carriageway. The dotted orange letters are difficult to read and the bright sun makes it even harder. I squint, trying to focus, all of my attention concentrated on the letters as they begin to form into recognisable words:
‘ENDING DISTRACTED DRIVING STARTS WITH YOU’
I turn off the highway and am directed into a parking lot, but discover that I am actually at the Opry Mills shopping mall. The walk to the venue itself is therefore a rather long one.
I don’t know what I expected, but I rather imagined the Opry to be a small, old-style venue and am very surprised to see a relatively modern building towering into the sky.
Unfortunately, the theatre is closed for the advertised back-stage tours as there is a major show tomorrow – including The Charlie Daniels Band. I used to have a CD in my car featuring The Devil Went Down to Georgia and played it over and over again. I was also once booked to be the narrator for Stravinski’s A Soldier’s Tale (in which a young soldier makes a pact with the Devil, swapping his violin for untold wealth). I always rather liked the idea of performing the classical piece and then letting the orchestra loose on Charlie’s greatest hit.
I walk back to my car through the mall, and it is rather disappointingly like any other mall in America, featuring an awful lot of shoe stores.
On my way back to the hotel I stop at d have a delicious chicken noodle soup.
I still have a couple of hours to spare so I open the computer and do some admin work. Ian and I are trying to keep track on the sales of the souvenir programme, so that we can market next years’ version more effectively. I am keeping a spreadsheet of sales related to audience numbers, and Bob Byers has provided a spreadsheet showing how many copies have been pre-ordered; by combining those two sets of data we can get an overall picture. I have never done anything like this on tour before, it’s almost like having a ‘real’ job!
Incidentally there is a column on Bob’s spreadsheet detailing sales via the Byers’ Choice website – for those who are not able to attend one of the shows in person…
Time moves on and it is time to start getting ready for my evening’s performance. I have a shower and make sure that I have everything that I need. I have already hung both costumes in the car, along with the top hat and walking cane. In my case I make sure I have two sets of braces (suspenders), cufflinks and my fountain pen for the signing session after the show.
The drive to The Hermitage is about fifteen minutes and I pull into the beautiful rolling farmland that surrounds the house itself. The final cars of the day’s visitors are vacating the car park as I pull in. I am due to perform in a building called The Cabin on the Spring, access to which requires the summoning of a golf cart to take me and my costumes.
It IS a cabin, nestling in the countryside, with its wooden boards and stone chimneys, which are already emitting twin columns of sweet-smelling wood smoke.
I am greeted at the door by Hannah who is in charge of all the events at The Hermitage. She is delighted by the response to this event (the first time I have performed here) and has a complete full house booked, even to the extent of having to turn board members away. She shows me the ‘auditorium’ which is packed in with white chairs. The stage is at the far end of the room, and while running the entire width of the room, it is narrow, so I won’t be able to move much. Behind the stage is a roaring fire: this is going to be a very hot show!
My changing room is a cleaner’s closet in the kitchen, but I have plenty of room to hang my costumes among the mops and buckets
Although I won’t need a microphone here, I do want to have my opening sound effect playing as I enter. Hannah thinks there is a CD player in the kitchen, which we find and liberate. It is decided that one of the two girls who are looking after the bar will operate it, so we all gather round the machine. The girls look helplessly at it: ‘we don’t know how to work these; we are only used to computers and i-phones.’ I suddenly feel very old.
The show is due to start at 6.30 but the first audience members turn up at 5 and start drinking wine from the bar – they should prove to be a jolly audience. I retire to my closet and get changed, then go to meet the audience members as they arrive. I station myself near to the merchandise table and show off the programme as I chat.
I am introduced to Howard, who is the director of the Hermitage, and will be introducing me this evening. We talk a little about Charles Dickens, and about President Andrew Jackson, whose home this is. Jackson was born in 1829 and rose to fame during the war of 1812 (the year that Dickens was born) and in particular at the Battle of New Orleans of 1814.
I mentioned earlier that I used to listen to The Devil Went Down to Georgia, well the other track I loved was The Battle of New Orleans:
In 1814 we took a little trip Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip. We took a little bacon and we took a little beans And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.
Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise If we didn’t fire our muskets ’til we looked ’em in the eye We held our fire ’til we see’d their faces well. Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave ’em … well
Soon the cabin is bustling with people, so I retreat to the kitchen where I sit playing Backgammon on my phone until it is time to start. It takes quite a long time for Hannah to usher everyone into their seats. Even as Howard begins a very eloquent introduction people are still filing down the narrow centre aisle, making me nervous that I will not be able to make my entrance.
‘And so will you welcome Gerald Charles Dickens……’ I must have a little of the Moses about me, for the aisle magically clears and I am able to make my way to the stage.
The audience are up for a good evening, and they laugh at everything – EVERYTHING.
The heat from the fire is slightly negated by a wide open window (which I am able to use in the telling of the story), and the fact that the stage is so small that I don’t move about nearly as much as usual.
The show is an exceedingly successful one with amazing audience reactions and I am very pleased with my first appearance at The Hermitage.
I hurry back to my closet and get into my replacement costume, before going to sign. There is a long line and everyone wants pictures taken, so it takes a long time to get to the very end. The comments about the show are gushing and it is very apparent that the hope is for me to return next year, maybe even for an extra day.
Everyone drifts away and I change back into street clothes, remembering to fetch my scarf and hat from the theatre room. A golf cart is summoned to take me back to my car, and I drive away from The Hermitage.
There are lots of malls around this part of Nashville so I look out for a restaurant where I can have a late-night snack. I see an O’Charley’s which suits the bill, and order a basket of Chicken Tenders to keep me going.
Having finished supper, I start the drive back to my hotel and the fuel warning light comes on. So long as I can get to the Holiday Inn, and to the airport tomorrow, this is perfect as I have prepaid for a tank and don’t want to refill now.
The first leg of that journey is successful, and I take all of my costumes in ready to be packed – for tomorrow I fly to California.
For those who are unable to attend performances and would like a copy of the Souvenir Programme, they are available in the USA from Byers’ Choice:
And in the UK by contacting me via my own website: