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Meet Classic Rocker Norman Greenbaum - Nashville's Mr. AmericanaFest

by Rich and Laura Lynch

With his most recent birthday now in the rearview we wanted to re-introduce to the MCN reading audience - our friend - the legendary classic rocker Norman Greenbaum. Now, most likely you will recall him as the man who gave the incredible song with the unbelievable staying power "Spirit in the Sky" to the world. To a lesser degree you might remember him from his group Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band and their novelty hit "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago". But, in Music City we know him as Mr. AmericanaFest. Let me explain.

Norman Greenbaum takes the stage at Robert's Western World in Nashville.

Norman Greenbaum accidentally "discovered" Nashville during a 2018 trip to the state to visit some of his relatives here. By a matter of chance and a little bit of fate the city's eclectic and all-consuming week-long music-themed AmericanaFest was taking place at the same time. So, Norman and his partner Bonita Kay Capps bought themselves a couple of tickets and a love affair with Music City quickly ensued. But, it would be on repeated visits that the pair would begin to understand just what a lucky town Nashville really is.

In 2019, Norman appeared onstage at the Basement East performing an extended and celebratory version of "Spirit in the Sky" with the help of top East Nashville talent. Greenbaum also found himself behind the microphone as a guest on WSM's Coffee and Cody and that organization invited him to the Grand Ole Opry where they brought him out from behind the curtain to introduce him to the large Opry audience during the start of the second act. Following a few years off due to the pandemic scare, Norman returned in 2022 and played his heavenly hit at the Mother Church of Country Music - otherwise known as the Ryman Auditorium - with the Kentucky Headhunters.

As a newly minted octogenarian in 2023 Greenbaum couldn't stay away and he returned yet again to his home away from home to play "Spirit in the Sky" at Robert's Western World on Broadway during AmericanaFest week followed by a follow-up visit with the morning show team at WSM 650 AM at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

"Spirit in the Sky" goes out once again across the WSM AM airwaves.

All this to say that there probably isn't another musical icon who has gotten this much out of Music City U.S.A. this late in life. Norman loves Nashville and the fans and admirers he meets here on the streets of Nashville during his visits return the affection.

So, that's why we believe - and are making it our mission - to have AmericanaFest recognize Norman Greenbaum for his undeniable contribution to popular music at next year's festivities during AmericanaFest week in 2024. Maybe the leadership over there can take a page out of the Musicians Hall of Fame (MHOF) and create a new category of award - perhaps something like the "Americana Legend" award that would recognize a particular artist or song. Earlier in the year the MHOF recognized Ringo Starr when he made a tour stop in the city.

Not only did the MHOF conduct a rare one-off induction ceremony for the Beatle but they also crowned the drummer with the inaugural Joe Chambers Musicians Legacy Award - named for their fallen founder who created his own acclaimed museum and Hall of Fame in Nashville. We think AmericanaFest can pull from the same playbook to provide more flexibility in recognizing amazing Americana artists at their annual week-long celebration in Music City.

But, why Norman exactly? Because as one of the event's recent themes can attest - "It Starts With a Song" - and there may be no more significant and long-lasting track then "Spirit in the Sky" within the annals of recorded music. Don't believe me?

In March of this year - more than a half century after its initial release - "Spirit in the Sky" led the Top TV Songs Chart for its use in 'Maisel' on the Amazon Prime Video series earning 9.5 million on-demand official U.S. streams and 9,000 downloads - according to industry watchdogs Luminate.

Norman Greenbaum on the air in Nashville.

"Spirit in the Sky" still gets written about regularly with notable feature placements over the years in Rolling Stone and The New York Times touting the track's prowess for its continued use in dozens of movies, television shows and TV commercials. So many that even Norman has lost count even as he remains enthralled with his own creation.

"I don't like to brag," an affable Greenbaum told a fan on the BMI Rooftop opening night for AmericanaFest in 2023. "But, I wrote the song and its amazing!"

It's hard to disagree with him and that's why we would like to see a special recognition and acknowledgment of the song at a future AmericanaFest Awards night. If only for the simple reason that this track was mining the meaning of Americana long before that term was ever applied to a specific and hard to define category of music.

Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" became a gold record selling two million copies from 1969 to 1970. It reached number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 while Greenbaum's original take and two cover versions by Doctor and the Medics and Gareth Gates reached the number 1 spot in the UK in 1986 and 2003 respectively - proving again its very unique place in music history. Its appeal spans continents, generations and decades!

In 2019 during AmericanaFest we observed John Oates at the City Winery pose the question, "What is a pop song"? He answered by saying that in its simplest form a pop song is something people can hear on the radio or buy from a store.

At Coffee, Country and Cody: Charlie Mattos, Bonita Kay Capps, Bill Cody, Norman Greenbaum and Kelly Sutton.

Norman achieved both in quantity with "Spirit in the Sky" that remains a favorite on classic rock playlists to this day. Greenbaum was a folk singer from the east coast who moved to the promised land of California to pursue his musical dreams and he struck gold with one of the most recognizable tracks in recorded music history.

Plus, there's a Nashville connection. Greenbaum has credited Music City's Porter Wagoner as the driving force behind the creation of the track. Norman was trying to replicate the gospel form that Wagoner was presenting during a television appearance. Additional inspiration is said to have come from a classic country and western movie and the idea of dying with your boots on. When Greenbaum added his 60's blues-based psychedelic rock perspective the unforgettable tale with the fuzzy and groovy guitar riff became an instant rock classic.

At its heart it doesn't get more Americana than that.

The last we heard from him Norman was still working on his American and Nashville dreams with plans to prep a working Nashville-based group for future shows on both land and sea. He was also updating his website with regularly scheduled podcast programming and creating new items for his online store including Greenbaum branded guitar strings, a fuzzbox foot pedal and some new clothing designs.

It's good to see that Norman Greenbaum still has the spirit and we can't wait to see what he does next. Hopefully that includes hoisting an award high in the sky on the Ryman Auditorium stage next year.

These Norman Greenbaum guitar strings coming soon to his online store.

Related Links: For more information on NORMAN GREENBAUM and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - Norman Greenbaum | Norman Greenbaum Receives a Spirited Standing Ovation at the Ryman Auditorium | Norman Greenbaum's Spirits Are Elevated in Nashville Return | For Norman Greenbaum - There's Still Spirit in the Song at Americanafest | AmericanaFest was Overflowing with Spirit in Nashville | AmericanaFest | WSM Radio


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