Dropping names for fun and profit

Jim Lauderdale (I call him “Jim”) does a characteristically hilarious name-dropping bit on stage, which often involves the names of semi-famous government officials, e.g. Madeline Albright. I paraphrase: “I was just talking to Condoleeza Rice on the phone, and she agreed with me that name-dropping is really tacky.”

I love this routine because for some perverse reason, I’ve had a fascination with name-dropping that started long before I moved to Nashville, a place that offers classes in name-dropping at local community colleges. I’m told that Belmont University is considering offering a four year degree in the discipline.

A musician friend in Chicago named John Rice (I know him as “Johnny R”), with whom I used to play in Special Consensus, is particularly hard on name-droppers, and he was the one who made me aware of the first bluegrass name-dropping line that I ever remember hearing, and it was a good one: “I left my jacket at Don Reno’s house.”

I won’t reveal the source of this name-dropping zinger (okay, I don’t remember it, and isn’t that ironic?), but this is a beautiful bit of work: it establishes that the person was at the house of a bluegrass legend, where apparently he was also comfortable enough to take his jacket off, and it implies that he stayed for a while, may have had a drink and maybe even picked a little with Don. It also leaves open the possibility that he’ll be returning to Don Reno’s house to retrieve said jacket. Good stuff.

Though many consider name-dropping annoying, I’ve decided that I actually like it for its entertainment value. However, after years of hearing it in Nashville and elsewhere, I’ve become a little bit of a name-dropping connoisseur, maybe even a snob. I’m no longer content with the simple dropping of the first name and adding the last name just so you know whose name is being dropped: “I was just on the phone with Dan…..Tyminski.” This is annoying, and it’s a little amateurish.

“I left my jacket at Reno’s house” is an example of how you can do better.

If you’re thinking you can get by with just dropping the first name and assuming everyone will be impressed with your familiarity with “John.” “Bill” or “Jimmy,” I’m here to tell you that this just won’t cut it. In fact it would barely earn you a C- in your average Nashville college course in name-dropping.

For one thing, what if your intended audience has no idea which “John,” “Bill” or “Jimmy” you’re referring to. Just last year I was greeted at IBMA by someone I didn’t know, who proceeded to unleash the longest string of first names (without taking a breath) that I’d ever heard. When he was done, I tried to look impressed (I think I need to work more on that look), but I had no clue who he was talking about.

Knowing your audience is important, but it’s just better to use a little more creativity in name-dropping in the first place.

You could start by studying famous people and how they drop names. If you’re thinking that people who have a high public profile don’t drop names, think again. Whatever it is that motivates people to do this, achieving some level of fame or notoriety doesn’t seem to affect it at all. I was present at a festival when someone that I considered to be relatively famous did a solo act that consisted almost entirely of name-dropping, punctuated by the occasional song (“I was at a party recently with my friend Kanye West, when he said to me, ‘Hey man, you’re into that country stuff. I have a friend who wants to meet you, whereupon he introduced me to Little Jimmy Dickens,’ ” etc). Just because you might be inclined to drop that performer’s name yourself, doesn’t mean that they can’t name-drop with the best of them.

Remember that “fame” is a relative term. In the bluegrass world, we consider anyone who’s making money in the high four figures playing music and who’s been on television at least once, to be “famous.” That same person, though, may not feel particularly famous, and so he or she will seek validation by dropping the names of people who may have been on television several times and may have even guested on a Food Network show.

Famous people know how to create some context for their name-dropping story, in this case, a party attended by both Kanye West and Little Jimmy Dickens. Then it’s important to give this story a little extra weight by making sure that it’s really about you. It’s not enough that you were invited to this exclusive event; either Kanye or Little Jimmy need to be saying something about you, preferably how impressed they were with your recent album/movie/scent.

Here’s an example of how to give name-dropping a little more punch:

Suppose it’s your intention to convey to a few friends who are stuck listening to your story that you are close personal friends with Larry Sparks, so you launch in with this: “I was backstage talking to Larry a few weeks ago, and he was telling he how he got that guitar of his.” Your friends are already walking slowly backwards at this point.

The word “guitar” gives the only hint of which “Larry” this might be, but you still wouldn’t have any way of knowing. Is it Larry Sparks? Larry Cordle? Larry King? Pausing a second and adding “you know, Sparks,” as mentioned above, just sounds unprofessional at best.

Just go ahead and give the whole name, then explain why this meeting was so important, and how it in turn makes you seem important:

“I was talking to Larry Sparks backstage last week, and he said to me ‘Bob, how long have you been playing that D-28 of yours?’ and I said, not nearly as long as you’ve been playing yours, Larry. Then he said, ‘funny thing about this guitar that most people don’t know is…(proceed to relate the entire story).’ I said ‘wow!’ I never knew that.’ Then he said ‘Come on down to the house some time and I’ll try to sell you a guitar. It’s bound to be better than what you’re playing.’ That Larry’s such a card (add forced laughter here)!”

Even though your friends are probably still walking slowly backwards, this is name-dropping with some entertainment value. You’ve established that you know Larry Sparks, that you’re on friendly terms with him, and most importantly, that Larry Sparks knows you. Sure, maybe some of the details of this story aren’t technically “true,” but you’ve still accomplished what you set out to do: make yourself seem important to your peers, and entertain them at the same time.

I could write more on the subject, but Kanye, J.D., Mike (Dukakis) and I are supposed to meet for lunch at 2:00.