Craig Gerdes had to get out of town.
For years, he pounded the Nashville pavement without making any significant progress in a country music industry which lost control of its boundaries by concentrating on younger, pop-infused artists.
Frustrated, Gerdes returned to his central Illinois roots. He started playing local honky-tonks when he was 10, and by 12, he was a wicked guitarist. When he turned 16, he had the type of year that could have been the inspiration for classic songs by the likes of Jones, Haggard and Jennings.
“In the same summer, I totaled my car, broke my best friend's neck, dropped out of high school, got arrested and got married,” Gerdes said.
Gerdes will be releasing a new album Feb. 9, which will be full of original tunes that were inspired by his many years of hanging out on Music Row and playing the famous Texas roadhouses — where he once opened for legendary Billie Joe Shaver.
To promote the new project, Gerdes has short samples of “Dead In A Box In Kentucky,” “Almost To Alabama,” a cover of Johnny Paycheck's “Slide Off Of Those Satin Sheets” and title cut “Smokin', Drinkin' & Gamblin'” available for listening on his website, www.craiggerdesmusic.com.
Gerdes and Marion outlaw singer Clayton Gribble will serve as the opening acts for the Brandon Harris Band, of Nashville, Tennessee, at 6 p.m. Dec. 9 in the Marion American Legion for the annual Jon Mcanelly Christmas Party. Danny & The Dreamers will also perform.
Mcanelly hosts the event each year as a customer appreciation for businesses he owns, but he also uses it as a fundraiser for the Ritual Team of the American Legion, which provides services at veteran's funerals.
There is no admission fee, but donation boxes will be placed throughout the club during the show.
Another reason Mcanelly hosts the event is to expose Southern Illinois music fans to the style of music being playing seven days a week in the famous clubs on Lower Broadway in Nashville. When the major stars are not on the road, the musicians keep their skills sharp and pick up a few extra bucks playing clubs.
The Harris Band uses Josh Turner's drummer and the bass player from Easton Corbin's road band. On steel guitar is Tom Killen, who played with the late George Jones more than 30 years.
Harris has been a driving force on the Nashville music scene since migrating to Music City from South Carolina in 2012. Besides playing solid lead guitar, Harris quickly wins over fans with soaring vocals that Killen says are among the top five he has ever heard.
The remarkable Renae Truex will play fiddle. She has toured all over the world in bands ranging from golden oldie Tony Booth to newcomer Bucky Covington. Her Facebook photos show her on stage a Robert's Western World with Suzy Bogguss, hanging out backstage with Sammy Hagar and playing the Grand Ole Opry with Billy Ray Cyrus.
“A few years ago, there were only seven bars in downtown Nashville that had live music, now there are 53. It has become too commercialized and the talent level is watered down,” Mcanelly said. “Everywhere you go, the band is singing 'Don't Stop Believing.' This the country music capital of the world. You expect a little more fiddle and steel guitar.”
Mcanelly says the quality is still there — you just know where to look. He likes The Stage and Legends Corner, but the new gold standard is AJ's. The newly renovated club is owned by Alan Jackson, the newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Management at AJ's has to approve the song list of bands that play there. You can't throw out pop crap and 'Wagon Wheel' all night long. They expect traditional country music from the 1990s or earlier. I know the customers appreciate the higher standards,” he said.
A friend tipped off Mcanelly that Jackson was going to make his first appearance at the club earlier this month after the CMA Awards, so he was able to secure a prime second-row seat.
Mcanelly may be the biggest music fan in Southern Illinois. He went to Nashville three times last week for concerts. Venues in Atlanta and Las Vegas are easily within his travel range. He has attended five John Prine shows this year.
“I've made a lot of good friends through the years. Staying in Nashville is expensive. I'm thinking about buying a house boat to save a little money,” he says with a wry chuckle.