Driving his shiny Cadillac along busy Interstate 65 south of Nashville, Aaron Neville may be in Music City, but he's a long way from his musical home in the land of bayous and beignets.
Neville was on tour last year in New York when Hurricane Katrina hit, and he could only watch helplessly as TV reports documented the flooding, the delayed rescues and the creeping despair in New Orleans.
Eight feet of water consumed his $300,000 home, ruining gold and platinum records and priceless mementos from a career spanning five decades. Family salvaged his four Grammy awards, though one was broken.
Now, a year later, the 65-year-old singer is still living in exile, working and recording music, but separated from the musical city that shaped his sound and birthed his career. He has no plans to return.
"I've got a memory and I'll leave it at that," Neville said.
Neville, who has asthma, was advised by his doctor to stay away from New Orleans, so now he lives in Nashville, where grits and country music rule, instead of gumbo and zydeco.
Neville had some musical connections here; his lawyer had an office on Music Row, the square where record labels and publishing houses have their headquarters. The city is also known for having some of the finest sessions musicians in the world.
But mostly, Neville remembered enjoying the weather in Nashville when he drove through the town on tour.
"I liked the four seasons," Neville said. "It's home now."
In exile, it's been music that's helped him heal.
‘Songs I grew up on’His new CD, recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles, "Bring It on Home ... The Soul Classics," will be released Sept. 19. It's a collection of 13 songs that showcase his famous tenor vibrato.
Included are songs like "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Ain't No Sunshine," "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and "A Change is Gonna Come."
"I connected with all these songs," Neville said. "It was a joy doing songs I grew up on, but I held back a tear on some of it."
Especially on "Ain't No Sunshine" — "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not warm when she's away." His wife of 47 years, Joel, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004. Given only three months to live, she's baffled her doctors.
"She's strong," Neville said softly. "She's even been going shopping."
As he sat patiently for an hour-long interview, Neville pondered whether Hurricane Katrina affected his singing. After a pause, he said, "The music didn't die."
Neville reflected on his readjusted life _ and remarkable achievements _ as he sipped on bottled water in the plush production room of a recording studio outside of downtown Nashville.
A member of the R&B family The Neville Brothers, he has sung pop, blues, soul, gospel, jazz and country. Few in recorded music history have performed a more diverse repertoire.
He's best known for his 1966 hit "Tell It Like It Is" and his two duets with Linda Ronstadt _ "I Don't Know Much" in 1989 and "All My Life" in 1990 _ both Grammy winners.
He also won a country Grammy in 1994 for "I Fall to Pieces" with Trisha Yearwood. His fourth Grammy came in 1989 for "Healing Chant" with brothers Art, Charles and Cyril.
Haunted by memoriesHelping people has been paramount since Katrina. He estimates he's done a couple dozen benefit concerts for hurricane victims, including some shows in Italy and France.
"I can't remember them all," he said.
Last February he joined Aretha Franklin in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in Detroit. He also sang it in 1990 when the game was played in New Orleans.
"It's a cool feeling. You're in the stadium, so you don't see the millions of people listening on TV," he said.
But those pleasant memories can't erase the images he saw on TV, images of people abandoned in the wake of a storm.
"I kept asking, `When is the cavalry going to come and rescue these people?'"
He still has dozens of friends and acquaintances whose fate after the storm remains unknown to him, and it seems almost needless to ask how he feels about New Orleans now.
"It's a pocket of memories," he said. "But the New Orleans I know is not there any more."