It started and ends in the Music City.
Seven writers were specially invited down to Nashville, Tennessee to not only test the new 2018 2.0T Equinox and to participate in an event dear to the Chevrolet brand.
Small SUVs represent a vital portion of the market not just for Chevy but all major automotive brands. Ask anyone in the market: cars suck! The majority of both urban and suburban shoppers are demanding one vehicle to do it all-- a combination car, office, playpen, home theater, babysitter, and camping HQ during the odd escape from the concrete jungle.
How did GM respond to this insatiable market?
For 2018, the Equinox was completely redesigned from bonnet to backside, the effort was doubtlessly an expensive investment, but some of its new technologies will migrate into GM's other brands and products.
Drawing parallels from the ever-evolving and innovating Internet, you could call the 2018 Equinox version 2.0. The redesigned model was officially introduced to the market earlier this year on March 21, the spring equinox. Exactly six months earlier during the autumn equinox, Chevy revealed the prototype to the world beneath the dome at Chicago's renowned Museum of Science of Technology.
But no one got to test-drive that prototype, obviously, and media on the March event were only offered a taste of the Equinox's 1.5T, with the more powerful 2.0T and 1.6-liter turbo diesel slotted for release at a later date.
This is that later date.
Music City Chevrolets
As we roll into town Nashville is buzzing with activity, we've landed smack dab in the middle of the Country Music Association's CMA Fest. For the second year running, Chevrolet USA is giving a rarefied few automotive writers who happen to play musical instrument an exclusive experience: Recording music in Nashville's legendary studios.
Last year, we drove Malibu Hybrids down the Gold Record Road from Nashville to Alabama where we would record at the venerable Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and the equally incredible Fame Studios which played host to Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Wilson Picket, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding and Tom Jones.
Our experience a year ago was a bucket lister none of us realized had been on our bucket list because of the audacity. This year, Chevy hooked it up with another heavy hitting venue, Castle Recording Studio in Franklin, Tennessee. Castle has hosted Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, BB King, Al Green, Alison Krauss, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Ziggy Marley, and Meatloaf, among others. Not to mention, the place was built by Al Capone, a name with more than a few famous 'hits' attached to it.
The scenery's lovely and the ride there is quiet, but why would Chevy go to such lengths? Surely they could get excellent coverage for the Malibu Hybrid, and now the 2018 Equinox with much less sound and fury.
"Music has always been integral to the Chevrolet story," said Joe Jacuzzi, Executive Director of Global Chevrolet and Brand Communications. Joe doesn't bother with most press junkets but for the last two years, he's made an exception.
His point about Chevy and music is inarguable, considering over a thousand pop songs mention Chevrolet or its models, crossing genres and generations.
But let's talk about how the crossover drives.
Nearly every automotive press jaunt pairs writers off for test drives on a carefully curated route. Together, the bass player and I navigate Tennessee's interesting B-roads which are mostly free of traffic, always. Recently, we both drove the base version of the 2018 Equinox featuring the standard 6-speed automatic hooked to a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, but this new 9-speed 2.0L turbo engine is a step up, capable of hauling 3,500 pounds thanks to 252 hp and 206 lb.-ft. of torque.
Firewall the pedal and there's a touch of lag, sure, but then 'whee,' as it shoots up the gears with aplomb, like a strongman's mallet ringing the bell at the Chattanooga State Fair.
We're on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 400-mile stretch of pristine blacktop that strictly enforces genteel speed limits, but features enough twists, dips and inclines to challenge the dynamics of any vehicle.
An arrow points to Tupelo the sacrosanct birthplace of King Elvis Presley, 171 miles southwest, while six miles in the opposite direction is Nashville. Already it's enough to captivate any music nerd, however, the sign is interrupted by a bullet hole.
Thank you, Tennessee Board of Tourism!
The Natchez Trace Parkway and the other winding roads in the countryside around Nashville are perfect for this quick test. The Equinox bends and dances well for an SUV, thanks to shedding 400 lbs between 2017 and 2018.
What' more, you don't need to spend lavishly to enjoy some excellent comforts and safety features.
Driving in AWD mode is, simply put, more expensive than front-wheel. "Depending on how you drive", Chevrolet Engineer Jill Dennis says "AWD can cost you up to half a mile per gallon." That can add up fast.
Rather than deciding for you when to go into AWD, the Equinox suggests when to use it and when to lose it with audio and visuals prompts from the instrument binnacle, a standard feature on all AWD models.
Other standard goodies include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; a large touchscreen powered by Chevy's easy-to-understand MyLink interface; a rear vision camera - which I believe is far more important than AWD if you live in the city.
These drives are usually punctuated halfway with a coffee and nature stop at some country store, where drivers switch positions with their partner. If they can, the planners will find interesting places with built-in story potential for color. For instance, at the Equinox 1.5L launch in March, we switched drivers at a charming bakery in, no lie, Transylvania.
Today's pit stop is part store, part church, staffed with sweet-natured Amish women in modest full-length dresses-- the Country View Market in Charlotte, TN isn't just Bible Belt as much as Bible Suspenders, providing a keen contrast to our destination 40 miles up the road.
"Castle wasn't always a recording studio."
Our producer Frank Rogers gives us a brief tour, he's been here before, many times, working with numerous stars. Modern cars have made the jaunt from Nashville to Franklin a quaint half-hour drive, but when it was first built the ride was "more like two hours," so we're remote but well situated.
Giving the locale some context: Nashville is nearly halfway between Chicago and Miami, the two leading places of business for Al Capone, that infamous bootlegger.
In the days before the miracles of modern travel were invented, like paid-for Yelp reviews and United Airlines deplaning techniques, the greater Nashville area made a great spot to stop, rest, and conduct a little 'business': bootlegging, no doubt; gambling, probably; prostitution, possibly; and tax evasion, factually.
The gambling has never been officially confirmed, but Rogers and others surmise this bizarre little palazzo was your Nashville playa's quiet getaway because of hints left in the stonework leading to the front door. There's a stonework heart, a diamond, and several patterns like refrigerator-art versions of suns. With little imagination those flowers could also be casino pits.
No one living knows for sure what else may have went on here during the '30s, but ask any middle-aged Vegas conventioneer who had to visit a clinic less than a week after his trade show: where there's gambling, there's usually prostitution.
The world's oldest profession goes tastefully unmentioned on the Castle's website, but the lavishly carved wooden pilasters supporting the ornate fireplace shamelessly feature topless nymphs.
Though never formally educated, Capone was an astute businessman. Consequently, he didn't assume all the risk in this iniquitous rural venture. Instead, his known associate, Ed Welch - albeit a terrible name for a guy running a gambling joint - quarterbacked the building and running of the Castle.
Not immediately visible from the road, nestled close to a hilltop, the Castle looks and behaves like a compact European castle. Guards can see visiting allies or invading enemies for miles from the parapet and, defend is necessary. Moreover, a river borders much of the property, making sneak attacks nigh impossible, while providing convenient access to fishes for former associates to sleep with.
As we loitered out front conversation turns to the subject of naming our band. Someone likes the simplicity of The Band--but someone else liked it first. Given our connection now to Capone, maybe we could call ourselves The Banned or The Bandits?
Probably not, whatever, let's go inside and make some noise!
The Equinoxes Are Parked. The Recording Begins.
We'd all received homework from Frank Rogers back in May. It was a good idea. Unlike last year, when we composed a so-so song (Frank's the only pro songwriter) before recording it immediately, this year, we would learn great songs ahead of time. Before making so-so recordings.
We begin with Let the Good Times Roll, an ancient bluesy showstopper that the immortal BB King rebirthed in 1999 and simply owned thereafter - like how Johnny Cash's Hurt just happened to be written by Trent Reznor.
With seven of us, Rogers, and a musical ringer he has visiting, the mixing board has enough inputs for any of us to take a break from time to time.
Send emails, take calls, modern plight.
This is still technically a workday, but the best kind of workday: one with an open bar, paid-for ride home - and a wizardly producer from Nashville who genuinely wants to help us sound better than our tepid so-so! Though we all take "work" breaks over the next eight hours, the atmosphere is more like an Irish wedding with Wi-Fi than a tortured offsite team-building exercise.
BB King is one of my favorite musicians - ever - and I'm old.
The prospect of covering him is intimidating, I will never sing half as well as he once did, so I decided not to try. Instead, the rendition is a lyrical pivot. Meaning? Currently, Nashville is making a bid for the Stanley Cup and hockey is incongruently ubiquitous here. (Imagine seeing Donald Trump without his orange makeup and steely bouffant. Jarring, right?) By shifting the odd word around, our version of Let the Good Times Roll becomes a celebration of us Canadians being in town, driving around in Chevrolets.
Frank Rogers is a gifted producer with a golden ear, and a golden eye for talent. His friend Jim Brown is visiting, a fluent multi-instrumentalist currently playing guitar for Bob Seger, but that's only a side hustle to his main gig working as one of Nashville's premier session keyboardists. I had come on this trip not just to sing but also play piano.
I had come on this trip not just to sing but also play piano. After watching Brown for three minutes, I lay myself off and just sing. Most piano parts in the coming final mixes will not be mine.
However, Jim is also a songwriter, who usually goes by the name Moose. It just so happens that Jim 'Moose' Brown did some extra homework, writing another song we're recording, a song you probably know. It's Five O'clock Somewhere was a massive hit for Alan Jackson in 2003 and went on to become the #3 Billboard Hot Country Song of the decade. It's a standard you'll often hear played live in those honky-tonks on Lower Broadway.
After the BB experience, the pressure is off and we relax. Yet even with Moose's encyclopedic support and Frank's deft touch, our nameless band's interpretation doesn't, as critics say, shed new light on Alan Jackson's version.
Our Chevy hosts, Frank Rogers and Moose Brown all ask us what we want to do. "This is your time," says Jacuzzi.
This blank aural canvas is still ours for hours.
A month ago, my friends had a baby girl and I wrote them a song to welcome little Morgan to the world called It Takes a Village. I nervously offer it to our nameless assembly as recording material.
Several players, the really good ones, are happy to rip through it, and we manage three takes before those other members who can't read charts speak up and want back in the studio. Fair enough.
Everyone packs back in and the scene is raucous. Moose performs some brilliant interpretations of famous hits in hilarious alter ego fashion, an out-of-tune lounge singer with maudlin passion and ears of purest lead. Picture a wrestler channeling Edith Piaf during Happy Hour in the Topeka Holiday Inn on some sad January Wednesday.
Earlier when he sang us a couple of songs, it sounded like Moose has perfect pitch. Now he's earnestly, consistently and passionately flat as a deflated tire. Moose never breaks character. Technically, it's the best playing I've seen during my entire time in Nashville.
But it's getting late and we start to play some famous songs, loud and proud. The engineers are recording these Stones, Beatles and Band classics, but even the most terminal optimist wouldn't hear dollar signs when listening later.
No matter: we've made several recordings, two of which I'm genuinely pleased with.
And we still don't have a name...