Adventures of Hollywood Jim Ch. 44byhollywoodjim©
East Coast Image's contribution to the annual Vanity Fair music issue gave us a sudden jump in photo offers. I liked to think it was the photos I took of Carrie Underwood. In a way, I was right. The photo I took of her outside of Tootsie's at daybreak was published in all of Vanity Fair's editions around the world, became the advertising photo for her tour, and even though it was credited to "East Coast Image", I knew it was my photo all the way. Our work caught the eye of Gretchen Wilson's people and we got an offer to do photos for her upgraded website. Chris had no interest in going back to Nashville, so the job was mine.
The assignment was last minute, so I only brought what I needed for the photos. Gretchen would be part of a free outdoor show on Nashville's main drag along with Kellie Pickler and Julianne Hough, lovely ladies all I had to admit. Now that I think of it, maybe this was the country music world's version of the Triple Threat Tour we'd done. Pretty good lineup, if you asked me!
Downtown Nashville was a mob scene that night. There had to be close to 100,000 people on the streets and in the nearby bars. Once I made my way to the backstage area I met my contact from her agency, Mike Jensen.
"Hey! You made it!" he said when we met
"Yes, a little last minute, but what the hey." I said
"Well, your timing couldn't be better. Gretchen wants to meet with you before she goes on, just logistical stuff."
Mike led me to her tour bus, a very cool shade of black with silver stripes. Inside, she had 2 assistants on cellphones and they were calling out to Gretchen, who was apparently in the back. Her daughter Gracie was on a couch immersed in a book and seemingly oblivious to the excitement around her mom. Gretchen finally emerged in black leather pants with turquoise accents on the legs and a black Harley-Davidson tank top, her black hair looking casually unkempt, and very hot.
"What do you think, baby?" she asked Gracie
Gracie shook her head in response
"The jeans were better, mom."
Gretchen went back to the bedroom and a few minutes later returned wearing faded blue jeans with fashionable tears and what looked like rattlesnake skin boots.
"You're right, this is better. I'll save the leather for next time."
Mike stepped in
"Gretchen, this is Jim from..."
"Oh yes, East Coast Image. I saw your work, you guys are great. Is your crew outside?"
"Uh, no, just me...inside too."
"Perfect, less baggage." She said "OK, what I just need are some cool shots for the website, take any shots you need, just don't get in my way or the band's."
"Great, I've gotta have a smoke." She said as she looked around for a pack, and then lit one up letting the smoke drift slowly upwards.
"Oh man, these are gonna kill me, I know it." She said "you smoke?"
"Uh, No, I never took it up. Guess I'm lucky."
"You sure are." She replied
Mike poked his head inside the bus and called
"Time, Gretchen! They're all set."
"Alright! Let's go!" she said as she jumped up from the couch.
Gretchen gave Gracie a quick kiss and said she'd see her at home on Tuesday.
I followed her out of the bus and as we went towards the stage I spotted Julianne Hough. She looked gorgeous in a glittery tank top, tan suede mini skirt and pointed toe cowboy boots. She and Gretchen exchanged greetings and Julianne gave me a quick wave and a wink as she followed her band to a reception area. Man, I should see if Mike can get us a photo deal with her!
Gretchen and her band had a pre-show prayer, then the band went onstage and counted off the opener "Here for the Party". At the top of the stairs, I scoped out where my best shots might be once the band started playing. As I stood there, Gretchen was next to me listening.
"Sound OK?" she asked
"Yeah, I love it!" I replied. Her band sounded like every cool Southern rock band I'd ever heard.
Gretchen turned to me and planted a quick kiss on my lips
"Wish me luck, Jimmy!" she said with a smile as she defiantly strolled out onstage to raucous screams from the crowd.
With her smoky eyes and straight black hair, plus the faded jeans and Harley top she wasn't the picture of a Southern belle, but a Southern rock belle. And I couldn't help but notice how she had such a nice ass too. And her breasts would make any redneck girl proud and redneck guy drool. Not to mention a northern Yankee like myself.
Gretchen was all energy onstage and threw in a cool cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Truck Drivin' Man". For her encore she did an incredible cover of Heart's "Barracuda" and she looked at me when she came to the famous line of "Ooooooo...Barracuda." I smartly got a shot of that. Her smile to me said it all.
I knew I'd gotten some great photos of her as I wisely prowled the back and sides of the stage. As she was finishing her final song, "Redneck Woman" she defiantly thrust her fist into the air as the crowd yelled out its "hell, yeah!" chorus, I snapped the camera several times quickly. I doubted my timing was right but at least I tried.
"See ya next time Nashville!" she yelled to the crowd
Gretchen was sweaty and exhausted from the show but also because it was a rather steamy evening. She was led back to her bus but still gave me a little wave and smile. I knew there was still a great photo op and went back out onstage and snapped off a few more shots from the stage, then looked down and saw her setlist taped to the stage. I carefully removed it, figuring she might autograph it for me.
With the show over, I wondered what I should do next? My flight home wouldn't be leaving for several hours. Luckily I saw Mike.
"Hey, what's next? Anything more you need?" I asked
He looked at his watch
"Well, we're all going over to Rocky Tops, wanna come?"
"Sure, why not?"
As we got into his truck and drove away, I suddenly had to ask
"What's Rocky Tops, anyway?"
Rocky Tops was the perfect bar, it was devoted to everything University of Tennessee-related. There were helmets, uniforms, signed photos, game posters and balls everywhere. I sure was glad I didn't wear my University of Connecticut hat there! Gretchen and her crew had taken over a back table and the beer and hot wings were in plentiful supply. She was now wearing a simple gray t-shirt, loose jeans and holding a longneck Miller beer as the jukebox played.
"Hey! It's our paparazzi!" one of them called out as I entered.
"Great! I wanna see your photos, I could see you prowling around the stage." She said
I got out my gear and quickly showed her how to click through them.
She was excited over each one and showed it to her band mates who were also impressed.
"Oh, this one's so cool!" she said to her manager, he agreed "Wow! I look good there."
I smiled as I sipped my beer, hearing compliments like that never got old.
One photo made her blush slightly, I had revealed a tattoo she had on her lower back of a heart with roses around it.
"You're not supposed to see that." She said with a sly smile.
"I can always delete it..."
"Oh no, leave it." She quickly added "it's sometimes called uh, a tramp stamp."
"Ah, I see..." I said with a nod.
"Do you like it?"
"Um, it's kinda sexy." I said with a blush.
"Thanks, I got it long ago. Little memento of my wilder days."
"I always thought of getting one of those fake ones, just to freak out my Mom."
"Oh, my god, that's sneaky!" she said laughing heartily.
We both were laughing now as another round of beer and wings arrived.
"Any more photos, Jim?" Mike asked
"Oh, yes!" I pulled out my other camera and Gretchen eagerly looked at each one.
I got up to check out the jukebox nearby, it was stocked with classic country songs, definite redneck, that's for sure, and very cool, too. I had just finished off my third (or was it fifth?) beer and was heading to the bar for a refill when I heard Gretchen screech with excitement.
"This is it!" she said "This is the one!"
I turned around and she was eagerly showing the camera to Mike.
"Mike! This is it! This is the photo, I can't believe it! Wow!"
Mike called me back to the table.
"Congratulations, Hollywood." He said
Her band mates seemed to say "Hollywood?" in unison
"This is my album cover!" She said with a big smile to me
She had stopped on one of the last photos I took. I had quickly snapped off a few when she was doing "Redneck Woman" and didn't think they were that good. But to Gretchen, they were perfect. She was positively giddy as she showed the photo to everyone at the table and Mike explained to me that she was recording shows from the tour for a live album but had been struggling to find the all important photo for the album cover.
Now she had it.
Gretchen thrusting her fist into the air along with 100,000 others made for quite a statement.
And once again, I had taken the photo!
"It's so perfect! I really feel like a rock star there, wow!" Gretchen turned and hugged me as best she could given the confines of the table.
"You don't know how much this means to me, thank you, Jim" she said, then whispered in my ear "thank you, baby."
As we parted, her eyes and smile seemed to say a lot more.
"Man, I was so right to bring you on tonight. Carrie was right."
"Yeah, Carrie Underwood, she said you were the best she's ever had."
I nearly spit out my beer.
"Uh, at what?" I said coughing while the other guys laughed.
"Aw, you know what I mean!" she said with a laugh and her arm around me "but I like your way of thinking!"
Gretchen's band was a mix of good old boys and Nashville pros. Another pitcher of beer came by and I loved hearing their stories of life on the road with Gretchen. She could clearly keep up with the boys drink for drink.
"Don't forget, I used to be a bartender, Jim." She said as she poured herself another one.
She sat close to me the whole time, still fascinated by all my photos. Even the ones where her tattoo was visible.
"It seems so strange seeing it from this angle. I got it so long ago, still looks pretty good."
"Tramp stamp, that actually sounds like a song title." I said with a chuckle.
"Hey! You're right!" she said excitedly "You should be a songwriter, Jimmy!"
"Geez...the last person to call me Jimmy was my Grandmother." I said shaking my head.
We all laughed at that.
As it got later, Gretchen's band mates began to slowly say their good nights. They had 2 days off before the next round of shows started in New Orleans. I learned from Mike that Gretchen would be taking her bus down there ahead of them as she wanted to check out a studio there.
"Hey, why don't you come with me Jim?" she said "you can get more photos for the site."
"I'd love to, but I've got a flight back to LA in..." I looked at my watch "about 2 hours."
"Aw, come on man!" Gretchen said "come with me, you can get a better flight in New Orleans, right Mike?"
"Sure, let me make some calls...what's your flight, Jim?"
I handed Mike my ticket and he went off with his cellphone.
Gretchen went off to the ladies room and I was now alone at the table, beer bottles and shot glasses mixed with chicken wings and pretzels. I was reminded of the time when I was a kid at the old Agora Ballroom and as a gag I sat alone at recently vacated table. The pyramid of leftover beer cans made others think a serious drinker was sitting there, instead of a geeky kid waiting for Robin Trower to come onstage. I had to smile at how this night had gone.
"You're all set, kid!" Mike said as he returned "United's got flights leaving pretty much all day for LA, you can exchange your ticket for whichever one you want."
"Wow, thanks Mike!"
"No, thank you Jim. I'm gonna make sure everybody knows who did these photos."
Gretchen returned and grabbed a weathered leather purse
"All set, guys?"
"Jim's all set...thanks for a great night Gretch..." Mike said as he gave her a quick kiss "see y'all in 'Nawlins."
Gretchen looked at me
"Shall we hit the road, kid?"
Gretchen's tour bus was outside the club. Her driver, a burly guy named Red welcomed us inside.
"Let's go, Red!" Gretchen said in a jaunty tone
Red eased the bus out of the lot and we were off for the Crescent City.
Everyone I'd previously seen was gone and it was just me and Ms. Gretchen.
I could now see the bus' interior better. It was done in shades of brown and black, almost like a rustic cabin. Gretchen went into the kitchen area and lit another cigarette as we smoothly pulled away from the club.
"Like a little whiskey, Jim?" she said as she took out a bottle of Jack Daniels
"Um, maybe a little bit...three fingers worth." I said remembering I'd said the same thing when I was with Kelly Clarkson not so long ago. "I should probably slow down a little, I think I lost track of how many beers I had."
Gretchen brought 2 glasses over and handed me one.
"Let's have them in the back, we can relax there. But I'll warn you, this bus is very sleep inducing."
Gretchen led me into her bedroom on the bus. It was furnished similar to the rest of the bus. Her bed had a thick satin comforter, a fleece blanket with a wolf design and cushy pillows too. A large TV was mounted on the wall. Gretchen hopped onto the bed and spread her long, denim-clad legs out cowboy style.
She tapped the space next to her on the bed.
"Have a seat Jimmy." She said
I carefully lay next to her on the bed as she clicked on the TV.
Almost immediately, I realized how right she was about her bus. The humming from the wheels on the highway was very relaxing.
"So Jim, what's life like for you out in LA? I meant to ask you that back at the bar."
"Pretty good, I must admit." I started "My friend has the photo business, best move I ever made working for him."
"You never thought of going out on your own?"
"I doubt it'd work for me alone. I actually like having some kind of structure."
"I see what you mean." She said as she sipped her whiskey "I really heard a lot of good things about your company so that's why I was so glad you could come down here, last minute and all."
"It was my pleasure, Ms. Gretchen...is it OK for me to call you that?"
Gretchen laughed heartily.
"Ha! Baby, you can call me anything you like!" she said with a big smile, very uncharacteristic of her, she always seemed to have a look that said "oh yeah?" in every photo I saw of her.
"OK, uh, I'll call you Gretchen." I said with a laugh
"Sounds good to me, babe."
And we tapped our glasses.
"So, you like my bus?" she asked as she took another sip of her drink.
"Well, big bed, nice TV, good driver...I guess I could get used to this."
"I like it too." She said calmly "I can't tell you how much I love those photos."
"Oh, just doing my job." I said with a shrug.
"No, I mean it. I'm taking a big risk forming my own record label and all. What you did just makes this a little easier."
She raised her whiskey glass
"Here's to the best photographer in the world..." She said
"...Or at least the best photographer on this bus." I said as our glasses clinked together.
Gretchen laughed heartily at that.
I couldn't help but notice she had very pretty brown hair that accented her eyes perfectly.
"You're a funny guy, Jim." She said between laughs
"Well, standup comedian, I'll never be." I said as I sipped my whiskey
"Nice guy, you'll always be." She said "not easy finding one of those, you know."
"Not available at a...what's the line...Wal-Mart discount rack?" I said quoting her "Redneck Woman" song to her
She laughed again at that.
"No, you don't find those there!" she said as she rested her head on my shoulder. I didn't realize how close she'd gotten to me. Maybe the drinks had more of an effect on me than I thought they did. She looked up at me and smiled.
I smiled back at her.
She slowly sat up and was still close to me.
"Anyone ever tell you how sweet a guy you are?" she asked
"Uh, maybe my Mom did." I replied.
Gretchen leaned in closer to me.
"I think...you're a sweet guy." She said softly
"Well, uh, thank you Ms. Gretchen."
"A sweet guy who can make me laugh is always good, you know."
We were looking into each other's eyes now. It seemed like the hum of the road and the TV sound were magically muted.
"Damn, it's getting hot in here." She said breaking the silence as she got up off the bed and started to rummage around in a pile of clothes off to the side.
"Gracie sometimes sleeps in here too, so that's why it's a little messy now."
"Doesn't bother me," I said "reminds me of my condo sometimes."
Gretchen found a pair of satin boy shorts.
"Hope you don't mind, I'm gonna put these on." She said
Before I could reply, she'd unsnapped her jeans and removed them. I got a quick glimpse of bright red panties before she put the shorts on.
"Ah, that's better." She said
Her legs weren't too bad either, kinda muscular but very nice. I doubted she was the workout-queen type. She still wore the grey t-shirt from the bar.
"Gets hot wearing jeans all the time." She said
I could see red nail polish on her toes, a very nice shade of red, too.
"Do you guys photograph a lot of Hollywood hotties?" she asked.
"We've done a few, but it's just work."
"Yeah, bunch of airheads if you ask me."
"Oh, I don't know...some of them are okay." I said "We did the photos for this movie with Blake Lively, she's on..."
"Oh! Gossip Girl! Gracie loves that show! I can't figure out why...geez it's nothing but money on that show. Anyways, I'm sorry, go ahead."
"Right, we did the photos for her movie, she's a sweet girl, was really into her character, asked a lot of questions about where we were filming, she did her homework, I'll say that."
"What movie was it?"
"You're kidding! I got the script for that film, somebody had the idea I should try acting and wanted me to be in that."
"Oh yeah, I'm no actress, believe me!"
"You know, you might've been good in that. What part was it?"
"Uh, I think I was running some bar in the film Janis hung out in."
"Uh-huh. They were gonna do some kinda CGI shit and have her sitting with me."
"Man, that would've been..."
"Creepy. That's why I said no. I've got too much respect for her."
"Well...I think if it's done right it might've been good. As long as you didn't have like a conversation with her. If you're just in the background with her for like a minute or two that's not bad. You know, like in Forrest Gump, it was kinda cool there."
"OK, maybe you're right. Like a refill?" she asked holding her whiskey glass.
"Uh, sure. I must be developing a taste for this stuff, I never did in the past. I got sick as a dog last time I had any."
Gretchen got off the bed and went back to the kitchen area and refilled my whiskey glass.
"Well, I like it...makes me feel good." She said with emphasis on 'good'
"Smooth stuff." I said as I took a long sip.
"Yeah, makes things a little more mellow." She said as she sat back on the bed, closer to me now than before. "So, is there a lucky lady in your life, Jimmy?"
"Nah, haven't had the time for that. What about you?"
"Nope, same story as you. I was seeing a guy off and on awhile back. I think a lot of guys are put off by me anyway."
"Oh, I don't know. They probably still think I'm some kind of tough girl, I guess."
"Well, I never saw myself as a ladies man, anyway."
"Oh, man...you're too modest." She replied
"Uh-huh...you're a sweet guy..." she said, her voice became more of a whisper as she got closer to me "I like sweet guys..." Her lips were just slightly open and I could see her tongue lick her lips slightly.