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VOL. 38 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 9, 2014

Schleicher builds an alternate Music City dream

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The songwriting carpenter who found his niche remodeling and restoring homes of Nashville’s music community admits a huge regret.

“I wish I’d done more for Cowboy,” says Bill Schleicher, who’s just finishing up a project at the home of acoustic wizard, singer-songwriter, sometime Mark Knopfler sideman and sultan of swing, Tim O’Brien.

Back when aspiring singer-songwriter Bill was discovering how to make a living as an artisan carpenter, Cowboy Jack Clement, Nashville’s Falstaffian godfather, hired him for little projects around The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa, a resort of renegades and rascality on Belmont Boulevard.

As his own business grew from the small jobs to the long-term projects for clients like O’Brien, Suzy Bogguss, Nanci Griffith, Gary Nicholson, Verlon Thompson and Demetria Kalodimos, Bill no longer had time to turn Cowboy Jack’s fanciful and fancy-free dreams into wood-and-nails reality.

Now that Jack’s gone – he died last year – Bill regrets it. “I really liked Jack,” he says.

But he celebrates that he has found a loyal word-of-mouth clientele among this city of poets, pickers, prophets and pilgrims, most of who occasionally worshiped at Cowboy Jack’s cheerfully askew altar.

On a sunny spring afternoon, the lanky fellow with wind-blown hair works the table saw in O’Brien’s yard, cutting trim to customize the “privacy” section of the new second-story deck, which will allow the music master peacefully anonymous views of his Oak Hill neighborhood. While the work requires serious precision, the smile of a guy who loves what he’s doing lights Bill’s face.

Bill Schleicher found his success in Nashville’s music business, though not exactly what he had in mind when he arrived from Indiana in 1977.

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

Like countless wannabe Nashville Cats throughout honky-tonk history, Bill packed music-making dreams in his satchel when he arrived in Music City 37 years ago. And his own songs constantly play in his head when he’s tending to his thriving business of tuning up the homes of Nashville’s artistic community.

“I’m always songwriting,” the carpenter admits. He loves his Creative Building Design business, but his voice nearly chirps when the subject turns to guitar picking and matching up words to tell a story.

“Nothing better,” he says.

“I came down here on one of the last Amtraks to roll into Union Station in the snow. Must’ve been early January 1977,” adds Bill, during a soft respite from the high-pitched scream of his table saw.

“Coming into Nashville on a train in the snow … I like saying that.” That image could one day be preserved as a classic three chords and the truth country tale.

He rescues Longshots & Short Tales – his first CD – from the black SUV parked in O’Brien’s drive. “And I’ve got a new CD coming.”

Don’t expect Bill to be some overnight iPod sensation. He sure doesn’t. Now 57, he was just 20 when his passions for music and carpentry bought him a seat on the southbound train from Bloomington, Indiana.

“I came down here in 1977 because my father had already come down here. He was trying his hand at songwriting,” Bill says. “But he was in construction, as well. Things were so slow in Indiana in the wintertime, he said there was work here….. One of the first jobs I got here was when they were working on the Opryland Hotel.”

What started out as a simple way to pay his bills became a profession.

“I didn’t really think I’d end up working as a carpenter for people in the music business,” Bill explains. “I was very interested in the songwriting aspect of it. Music always had been a part of my life.

“My dad would hang out on the old Music Row, and there was a bar down there called The Country Corner. I’d go down there after work and meet my dad and we’d drink a beer. Remember that horseshoe pit that was out back? My father and these old songwriters would hang out, and they’d say how hard it was.

“These guys were complaining that they had to chase down Waylon Jennings in a parking lot” to get him to look at their songs.

Greeting these pitchmen with his “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” glare, Waylon didn’t need to shop for songs in a parking lot, especially since what these guys offered was hardly “Dreaming My Dreams”-quality material.

“So I told these guys: Why don’t you quit bitching about it and go write some good songs?”

While Bill’s dad never got a cut by Waylon, Willie and the boys – or by anyone else for that matter – he did make some tunesmith chums, like Cowboy Jack.

“Actually, my dad was a friend of Aileen, Jack’s lady.” After his pop introduced the young carpenter, Bill began frequenting The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa.

Bill quickly became entranced by the lord of the manor’s magical presence.

“I started doing some repairs. I was fascinated with being around there. Jack asked me to make some backdrops for the stage, because he was always filming things and taping things.”

He made one pair that had F-holes (the curved sound holes in violins and the like) that could be backlit. “Cowboy sees ’em and sticks his finger in the corner of his mouth and pulls. I asked him ‘what’s that mean?’ and he said ‘You hooked me.’“

Cowboy Jack’s trout-on-a-hook pantomime and his enthusiasm provided inspiration as Bill moved to larger jobs, almost always staying within the music community.

His reputation as a designer and carpenter spread in large part due to a barn-to-house conversion for singer-songwriter Verlon Thompson.

Thompson’s friends saw that transformation, and Bill became “the guy,” the answer when one musician asked another: “Do you know a guy who can build me a deck or build me a studio?”

His in-demand status sparked the growth of his carpentry and remodeling business headquartered in the old Bank of Santa Fe building, not far from the Maury County farmhouse where he lives.

Sometimes the work is too much for Bill, so he joins up with a “loose affiliation” of similarly independent craftsmen.

His reputation as a guy who could turn a relic of a garage into a state-of-the-art studio space was birthed when he was hired by singer-songwriter-producer Gary Nicholson to turn a Richland Park garage, complete with a chicken coop, into a studio.

“Gary (with Richard Leigh) had written the Don Williams hit ‘That’s the Thing About Love,’ so he had a few dollars in his pocket.”

Bill’s interior and exterior work on what Nicholson named “The Chicken Shack” studio became the envy of others in the business. Musicians – from bluesman Mike Henderson to songwriter Bob DiPiero and then-wife Pam Tillis – lined up to get their own Chicken Shacks designed and built by the carpenter.

A more recent project is The Filming Station, an old Gulf garage he resurrected as a multi-purpose film-maker’s oasis and performance venue for documentary-filmmaker and beloved news anchor Demetria Kalodimos. “Verlon helped me get that job, too.” Bill says with a laugh. (Thompson is married to Kalodimos.)

Bill prides himself on his ability to look at an old house, barn or garage (or gas station, for that matter) and figure out how to recycle it for modern purposes while retaining its historic charm.

“Musicians like me so much as a designer, and they keep hiring me. And I like it, doggone it,” says Bill, a zest for life in his voice that his mentor Cowboy Jack would have appreciated.

“I’d still like to have luck in music, but it’s not quite as important now. This ain’t so bad.

“You know, sometimes your occupation chooses you.”

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