If you’re looking for me in East Nashville on a Friday evening, there’s a good chance you’ll find me stopping by The 5 Spot around 6 p.m. to catch Tim Carroll’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Happy Hour. The rocker’s weekend-christening residency began in 2013, and it’s become a fixed star in East Nashville’s musical firmament. Of course, playing a steady original music gig week in and week out could lead to diminishing returns if the act wasn’t up to the challenge of keeping things fresh.
“First of all, I like writing new songs. But I also keep doing it for opportunities through my publisher, for future releases, and because I play a weekly show, and I need to give people reasons to keep showing up,” Carroll says.
In fact, when I stopped by Carroll’s happy hour show back on Sept. 15, I was specifically impressed by how little music I recognized. I’ve been going to Tim Carroll gigs since the mid-'90s, and the show that night was full of all the rough riffs, sly rhymes and punk irreverence I’ve come to expect. But these were different arrangements of those elements with different lyrics about different subjects. And then Carroll played “Williamson County Jail,” a song that he wrote this past summer.
“Too big to fail. Williamson
County jail /
I’m asking for a friend. When will
this all end? /
How can it be that the richest county in the state of Tennessee / could have a jail that would fail any test of common human decency?
The John I. Easley Jr. Criminal Justice Center is the county jail in Carroll’s song. After visiting a friend there, and hearing stories from another who had also been incarcerated, Carroll was surprised by the state of the place.
“Once I saw a personal view, it brought the problem to my attention. It was grungy — a leaking roof and dirty drinking water.”
Nashville is the home of private prison profiteer CoreCivic. Readers might better remember the company as Corrections Corporation of America — the Orwellian monicker that was done away with in October of 2016 after a decade of controversies such as inhumane treatment and conditions, understaffed facilities, the sexual assault of prisoners by guards, excessive violence in incarcerated populations and fatalities. President Donald Trump recently rescinded an Obama-era ban on federal dollars going to private prisons, and CoreCivic and others are set to be booming again. The John I. Easley Jr. Criminal Justice Center is a public facility, but it might be a great example of how the private model of less-than-bare-bones inmate care has spread throughout corrections culture.
“I was shocked that it was so dirty. There was green mold on the mattresses,” Carroll says. “The mattresses are green.
“Things are cruddy down there. I was really surprised by the conditions, and I think a lot of people would be. I mean you’re already in a pretty tough situation: You’re locked up. You don’t know anybody. You don’t have your wallet or your credit card. You can’t go anywhere. And you can be thrown in with some people who are pretty dangerous. There needs to be care taken, but I know it’s a complicated issue.”
Musician friends of mine on social media have recently been complaining about the lack of protest music produced during this era of cultural turbulence. I’d call Carroll’s song a protest song, but, like all musicians, Carroll resists labels.
“As an artist — and especially as someone who writes lyrics all the time — I’m usually just writing whatever comes to mind,” Carroll explains. “It’s not a very self-conscious thing. People can latch onto music, and things can become anthemic regardless of the artist’s intentions. It’s like when Reagan was playing ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ An idea can require a long gestation period before I write a song about it one day. You could say it’s a protest song, but I just think of it as a realistic song.”
Of course, protest songs take on all shapes. Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” reads like a universal parable, while “Who Killed Davy Moore" is a ‘realistic’ song based on actual events. Dylan and his pal Phil Ochs both wrote tributes to Moore when The Little Giant was killed in a boxing match in 1963.
“I wasn’t sure if Williamson County was the richest county in Tennessee when I wrote that line, but I looked it up and I was right.” A filthy jail in a wealthy county in a state playing haven to the for-profit prison industry is the perfect target for a troubadour takedown. You better believe this is a protest song.
Hear “Williamson County Jail” at Tim Carroll’s Happy Hour at The 5 Spot every Friday night from 6-8:30 p.m.
Joe Nolan made contact with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, but inquiries about their facility’s services and maintenance had not been responded to at press time.