When I saw the first sign on Interstate 40 that told me Nashville was fast approaching, I spun the iPod wheel to a country playlist. I wasn't raised on this music, but it's something you can learn about later in life. Kind of like heartache, one of the genre's indispensable muses, I suppose.
As I pull into town, I think I've identified the only original country song that's yet to be written. It's a sad tune with a whining guitar and forlorn vocals, and it's all about the Belmont Bruins. I'm telling you, all this song needs is passing reference to whiskey and maybe a pickup truck. The Bruins' tournament torture is country gold, and there needs to be a song to commemorate their plight.
"There oughta be," Vince Gill says with a laugh. "There really oughta be."
Gill has sold more than 20 million country albums, has more Grammys and Country Music Association Awards than most people in the South have cousins, and he's as qualified as anyone to dish the lowdown on Nashville basketball. He'll be in Washington for Belmont's first-round game today, and then he'll hop a flight to Tampa, Fla., to watch Vanderbilt open tournament play tomorrow. Nashville happens to be one of just four cities -- the others are Baltimore, Washington and Los Angeles -- with more than one team in this year's NCAA tournament field.
While Gill is friendly with both programs, he's a bona fide fanatic when it comes to Belmont, a small liberal arts school that's known for its music business program. Belmont doesn't graduate NBA stars, but it can boast about Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley and Minnie Pearl, of Hee Haw fame.
In an area where the University of Tennessee will always be top dog and where Vandy receives its fair share of attention, Gill says Belmont is "kind of like the stepchild of the stepchild."
And lately, it has been treated as such by the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Bruins have won the Atlantic Sun tournament each of the past three years. Their reward: first-round matchups against UCLA, Georgetown and now No. 2 seed Duke (Belmont is a No. 15 seed.)
"It's kind of funny. You go, 'Oh good, we got in,' " Gill says. "And then you go, 'Oh great, look who we got.' "
Gill didn't attend Belmont but befriended coach Rick Byrd two decades ago when both men were in the early stages of Hall of Fame careers -- Gill in music and Byrd as an NAIA coach. Gill has been a constant presence behind the Belmont bench ever since, and Byrd often jokes that he could use a gym full of fans as loud and as passionate as the crooner.
Gill says his wife, fellow recording artist Amy Grant, used to be embarrassed by his antics but finally has just accepted that he's predisposed to being that guy in the stands.
"The players all expect it, and the referees all look at me and smile. They know what's coming," Gill says. "Never distasteful, mostly in fun. ... I'm saying a lot of the stuff Rick wishes he could. 'Watch so-and-so, he travels. Watch this. That kid's holding.' It's all basketball stuff, but it's always laced with humor."
Byrd and Gill have a mutual admiration for the other's area of expertise, but the common denominator has always been golf. For years, Byrd would hop on the tour bus, or Gill would accompany the coach on recruiting trips, and they'd always find a nearby course to play. Along the way, Byrd has learned a thing or two about the music business, and Gill's appreciation for basketball has deepened.
So, armed with this front-row knowledge, I ask him for a scouting report. More than a few fans would like to see an upset of Duke. The two teams are similar philosophically, Gill says, from their set plays to their methodical coaches.
"It's a fun level of basketball. Not quite as much jumping out of the gym, throwing things down. It's old-school, well-coached, well-thought out basketball," Gill says of the Bruins. "For me, it's always been a great level of basketball. It's always a bunch of smart, good kids, the kind who always graduate."
But can they beat Duke? The Blue Devils rarely lose a first-round game. The Bruins have never won one.
"There's gotta be a first time for everything," Gill says.
That's it. That's our song, I realize, and the rest of the day is spent trapped in a hotel room, penning a chorus about heartache, basketball, tournament selection committees, and maybe even a pickup truck, if I can work it in.
Blue Devil might be a-sharpenin' his pitchfork
But in March sometimes, it's Cinderella who's King
So bring on Duke, bring on the world, Cuz
There's gotta be a first time for everything.