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Key West In A $150 Celica

"The car comes with the stereo" I repeated, and the tow-truck driver finally caved. "A hundred bucks, plus a ride down to that Best Western". Along with the $80 we made busking across Florida for the past five days, it'd be just enough to get a room for the night and two bus tickets back to Nashville. Just in time for the Midtown sessions. Not bad for a car that cost me $150 a month before.


I'd been picking apples up near Lake Erie earlier that year, and caught wind of a Toyota Celica just south of the turnpike. A farmer had it in his side yard, which wasn't visible from the main road. So I guess it had sat there for a few weeks before I finally ventured down to inquire about it. And by the time I did, the old farmer was more than happy to hand me the keys for the hundred and fifty dollars I had in my pocket. "You're gonna need a starter" he said plainly as I followed Linstrum out of the driveway. But it was a stick-shift. And as long as you were clever in parking it, a starter wasn't an issue. So we set out down I-71 south and back to Nashville.


Terry had booked a high-dollar session at Midtown Tone & Volume for the following month, and we still had at least two songs to turn in within the next week. Terry had his own project studio, where all of his staff-writers would demo their new tunes regularly. And then every few months or so, he would choose his twelve favorites; to be recorded at an outside studio with a band leader and hired-gun session players. It was a big deal to get a handful of spots on those sessions, and Linstrum and I always brought our A-listers in when we knew he had one booked. We also knew about a cheap apartment for rent in Key West though, and we needed a way to get there without borrowing the company car. The $150 Celica was our answer, even if it meant push starting it across the eastern US.


You see... Terry Rose Music had a Mercedes called "Otis" that I was allowed to drive whenever I needed to. Songwriters Rounds at the Bluebird, Piggly Wiggly grocery runs... Terry was cool with me driving it, even though I didn't have a valid driver's license. But he wasn't cool with us taking it to Florida, to sing into a boom-box and turn in cassette demos every two weeks. Terry liked us being on Music Row, where we could mingle with the other writers, and where he could keep an eye on us. By that time, we had been writing long enough to know that the quota was all that mattered. Turn those songs in on micro-film or xerox copied... the check would be direct deposited into your account. And we got comfortable with recording new songs into a boom-box and mailing the cassette (with lyric and chord sheets) to Nashville. Meeting our quotas gave us the money to venture out further into the world, and teenage me had a thing for the Florida Keys. So we push-started the Celica down an embankment behind a waffle house in Atlanta, and down another outside a Publix in Miami.



Linstrum and I had been to the Keys a handful of times before, and we got this insane idea to get an apartment there during the winter months. This was before everything was online, and we only knew about it because Tim McGraw's old tour manager had seen it a week earlier. He spent an hour dishing out all the sordid road tales, and only mentioned the apartment in explaining a promoter from Key West. But "apartment" was the only thing we heard, and he gave us the promoter's number before we left. I called the guy as soon as we got to Key West (from a pay phone in the lobby of his restaurant) and we met him thirty minutes later - with a deposit and three months' rent. I told him that Tim McGraw's tour manager had suggested the place, and he looked surprised as he mumbled under his breath. "All utilities included" he said. "You boys are good here till March 1st".


We'd squared away our dream apartment in Key West, and would be living there for the winter... just as soon as we got through the Midtown sessions. We just had to go back to Nashville long enough to track four songs, then we'd be in the clear to live like bards - within earshot of Cuba - till early spring. We had the $150 Celica and nothing could go wrong.


I remember push-starting it one last time somewhere just south of Chattanooga. By the time we hit those mountains, the four-cylinder engine was clanging like cast-iron wind chimes, caught in an old GE floor model fan. It let out a sigh and a plume of white smoke as we crossed into the corporation limit, and we got it to the shoulder. Our $150 investment had gotten us as far as it was gonna. We waited for the state trooper to show up (which he did) and call a tow truck (which he also did), and we rode back to the garage with the tow truck driver. He mentioned the stereo in that Toyota Celica before he even put the truck in drive. I told him the car was for sale, and he laughed. "The stereo's worth more than the car" he said, and headed up I-24. "That's for sale, too" I replied. "But it's a combo deal. The car comes with the stereo".


We slept well that night, and took a Greyhound back to Nashville the next day. Terry was livid and insisted that we be on Music Row from that point on. We tracked four solid tunes that week at Midtown, and we never did get back to that prepaid apartment in Key West, Florida. This might've been another story though - if we'd found another $150 car right after that session.


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