My Journey to Nashville, by Jen Tortorici

Music has the power to heal, renew, awaken, inspire, bring joy, solace during misery, and capture the memories of your life. It elevates the soul. 

Music has played a key role all of my life.  My existence basically occurred because of it. My mother met my father at one of his band practices while she accompanied a friend who was dating one of the other members. When I was growing up, the practices were held in our family’s basement so I often fell asleep to the music and voices of collaboration and camaraderie wafting up through the vents. Around the age of 8, I was begging my parents to let me take piano lessons. I had to barter my time by promising I would be diligent in practicing regularly. Before we got even got a piano, I would practice on my dad’s keyboard. I remember my brother hoarding in on my time to play until my parents eventually signed him up for lessons too. They would drop us both off at the house of frail, French piano teacher’s house, named Mrs. Black, who had a thick accent. While my brother played for his half hour, I would sit in the kitchen reading or writing poetry and stories.  We didn’t have a very close relationship during our teen years, but years later we grew closer and bonded over concerts and he accepted me in with his group of friends during shows. They were notorious for their house parties in Toledo, and as the crowd started to disperse and the evening grew short, I was welcomed into their song circle that always ended the night.

While those few nights I did find a way over their house made me feel at home in a strange place, most of the home-sickness was quelled with conversations with my grandmother, whom I had always felt I shared a special bond with. She and I would talk at great lengths on the phone while I was away. Being alone herself, she understood what I was feeling. Her death was a very traumatic experience for me and my family. She sustained a head injury on a weekend while I was home from school to be with my family for my birthday dinner. She fell down the stairs going to her sister’s house who was sick that weekend. She remained mostly in a coma for 2 months before she passed away the weekend of my brother’s birthday. We had to go through her things afterward and I came across a CD still in its cellophane wrapping called Moonlight Serenade. It was one of those obscure mixed CDs found in a Bed and Bath Store, not a popular purchase. I had just bought the same exact CD not knowing she had it. To me, it was a comfort that we did share such a strong bond, it strengthened my connection to her even though she was gone. I also found a small gold ring with one of her initials engraved on it that to this day, I still haven’t taken off.  

I still hadn’t realized how much music was a force in my life at that time. I just naturally gravitated toward it, like an essential element in life. Like the time a group of friends were planning a camping trip in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a pull up and park on a piece of grass and pitch a tent camping, it was hiking 7 miles into a designated area of land. It was also my first real camping trip and I hardly knew what kind of provisions were needed. My gear had to be bungee corded together and I learned that not all boots were made for walking. But the one thing that I made sure to have was a vertical CD player I bought special for the trip since we would be out of range for any radio stations. My one friend had an extensive CD collection and volunteered to bring the CDs. After we got settled in, he said he forgot the CDs. He stayed real quiet for a while feeling bad, even though everyone said not to worry about it. He said he was thinking of going back to get them. Everyone thought he was nuts…except me. I said I’d go too and off we went. My feet were already hurting but I didn’t care. That hike became the most memorable part of the trip for me. Because we didn’t have all that gear with us, we climbed up to see one of the most beautiful views my young eyes had seen at the time. Later that evening, when it was dark and cool and the fire was burning bright and the music was playing, there was a moment of reverence the whole group had for a collective moment. Someone spoke up and said how glad he was that we went back to get the music, then we all laughed and carried on. On our way back out, I wanted to experience that view one more time. But it was so foggy out that day, you couldn’t see anything anymore. Had we not gone back for the music that other day, I would have never seen that view at all.

After I moved back to Cleveland, music became a key role that led in one of the most profoundly affecting relationships of my adult life. (In an upcoming article I will answer a question I was asked recently, which was, “do you feel bad for someone who’s never had their heart broken?”) Working side by side after the bar’s closing time was when he would play songs on the jukebox for me. During the nights of isolation and broken heartedness, his music collection kept me company and I took solace in my writing. Sometime after our break up, he would send me music videos or lyrics to communicate what he could never express himself. In those moments, I felt loved. In those gestures, I felt I had actually mattered in his life after all.   

I was only able to connect in some relationships through music, and through music is where I also started to establish my independence. I used to bend and mold myself, unintentionally, to try and make relationships work, but I started to crack the mold the night I took myself to a Ray LaMontagne concert in downtown Cleveland. I stumbled upon his show at the last minute, and rather than argue over going and conceding my night, I decided to just go. Because it was something I wanted to do for myself for once. I embraced the entire evening. From walking down the sidewalk by myself, buying only 1 ticket at the box office, welcoming the stranger next to me talk about other artists, and allowing myself to get lost in the music. I met up with my fiancé and his friends after and never mentioned it. Not because I wanted to hide it, but because I didn’t want it to become devalued in a fight. I was very proud of that evening. I started to do more for myself, I went back to school, signed back up for soccer, and joined a photography club. Eventually, that relationship unraveled because I was becoming ‘me’ rather than just an image of me.  

When graduation time came, a friend in my class and I debated on if it was worth the trip to Indiana just to be able to walk and receive our diploma rather than having them sent. We decided we worked hard and wanted to make the trip. Along the way, we stopped in Kettering Ohio because I found out Jonny Lang was playing there that weekend. A simple trip became a commemorative experience because of the addition of that show. That same friend and I had another musical experience which he captured on his website  http://www.seepossibilities.net/Experiences-To-Share.php.

I still wasn’t picking up on the impact of music in my life. I was just enjoying it. Or letting it touch my heart individually without appreciating it as a whole. Such as the simple little song, You Are My Sunshine that I used to sing to my dog Jack at random times over the years. He was my faithful little companion for 10 years, accompanying me through the difficult relationships, life transitions, moving, trips, the many adventures and was my furry little joyful guy whenever I came home. So when he collapsed suddenly a few years ago, I panicked. I took him to the vet and after hours of testing, they told me I needed to go to a specialty heart clinic about half an hour away. It was a very long night and I was told there wasn’t anything they could do because they found a heart tumor that was starting to shut down his bloodflow to the rest of his organs and it was only a matter of time before his organs would start to shut down one by one. I had him kept overnight so they could tap and drain what they could, but the next day he wasn’t eating, he was throwing up blood and collapsing and struggling. I was told surgery wasn’t an option because that would just cause an aneurysm which would kill him and they couldn’t keep draining because that would kill him too. I was heartbroken. I felt responsible because I was supposed to be able to take care of whatever he needed. The only thing I could offer was singing You Are My Sunshine before he was euthanized.

I started to take myself to more and more shows around town. I appreciated the experiences so much, I wanted to bring awareness to others through a friend’s magazine she was trying to launch. The magazine didn’t take off, but my desire remained. I met some wonderful artists, one of which inadvertently illuminated the possibility of combining my passions for music and writing together. He shared his music with me and his one song triggered a memory of something I wrote many years before any of those other events took place. I took out my writings to try and find it and found myself going through years and years of material. It reminded me of how important writing like that had been all my life and I wanted to start expressing myself like that again. It had been so long, I wasn’t sure how to get started again, but he helped me with exercises and ideas until I was able to get more personal with it again. I became fascinated with the idea of writing songs. I bought books and read articles online to learn the craft of songwriting. I found out that workshops were also being offered for songwriting, but they were in Nashville.

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One weekend I went to visit a friend at his family’s lake house and shared, for the first time, what I was working on. At the time, I was still wondering how possible it could be and feared the idea would be laughed at if I shared it. Instead of laughing, he said I would have to move to L.A., New York, or Nashville if I was serious about it. I was thinking about it on the 2 hour drive home. About 15 minutes away from home, I saw someone ahead walking down the side of the highway. The person was so far away I couldn’t make it if it was even a guy or girl but I felt bad because it was so hot out. However, offering a ride would not have been a very safe thing for me to do so I reasoned that the only way I would offer a ride was if the person had a guitar, based off of the experiences I had been having and the very rare odd that would actually happen. However, I saw that the person did in fact have a guitar so at that point how could I not stop…what were the odds indeed. He was a younger kid, wearing work boots, jeans rolled up and a bandana around his forehead because of the heat, and was beet red from being out in the sun for so long. He put his guitar and bag in the back seat and thanked me. He said wherever I wanted to drop him off on my way was fine and he appreciated any little distance from walking. We got to talking and he said his name was Dallas and that he was from Arizona making his away across the country to New York. But he was making all sorts of out of the way stops along the way since he was young enough to make a trip like this in his life. He said he could have stayed with the last driver through Pennsylvania but he wanted to be dropped off so he could go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a Sunday and I had nothing else planned so I told him I could just drop him off there. He talked about his life and why he was doing this now and his travels so far. One of his favorite detours was Nashville. He talked about how much he loved it and how music was everywhere down there. I never heard anyone describe a place with such admiration as he had and figured that Nashville must be one amazing place. The rest of that summer, Nashville kept cropping up in my life. My brother went there for a bachelor party, his in-laws went for vacation that summer, 2 of my friends talked about planning to go separately. It seemed everyone I came across was talking about it, even a guy stocking the vending machine at work was making small talk about his commute and how he missed where he used to live, when I asked where that was, he said Nashville. Songs I listened to, movies I was watched, and books I was reading were all randomly mentioning Nashville suddenly. During a rather bad day at work, I googled workshops again and came across a Performing Songwriters Workshop. I read the description and the belief of the primary instructor resonated with me, then I saw the other contributing songwriter and recognized his name from one of the songwriting books I bought and thought I had to sign up for this workshop. While there, I had a very clear sign that I was meant to be there. One of the members had a song about a Lighthouse, which had become a guiding symbol in my life over the past several years that was brought on by a very vivid dream I had one night.  

The people I met at this workshop came from all over the world. Their stories were inspiring, their music was touching, and their caring and nurturing spirits encouraged the first song out of me. It was a very profound moment in my life, and I knew it was a turning point. I was very humbled to be taken in by such a talented group of individuals and felt I had become part of another type of family…a tribe. The workshop ended, and my new life was beginning. The artist that enlightened me on this path has encouraged me to keep “chasing that feeling”. I was also encouraged by one of kind and caring members of the workshop to spread that feeling to others through this publication. His encouragement and passions have helped give me the courage to be vulnerable to the world and put myself out there so others can start doing the same. So I quit, not only a dead-end job, but one that had become toxic to my well-being, and began the adventure of a lifetime. All the pain and the patience over the years were finally making sense. I am now pursuing fulfillment and joy in life. I am taking all the broken pieces of a life that wasn’t working before and, with a lot of help, (which I am also learning how to accept and ask for now) am starting to rearrange back together into something meaningful, at least to me. The full picture is starting to shine through, like a beautiful stained glass window. All because of music.