When Damon Atkins walked into my office on the campus of Catawba College in December, 2015, the words he spoke left me speechless, a foreign state for me. “Whatever you tell me to do next, I’m going to do. I think I want to quit school now and go try to be a performer.” I’d gotten to know Damon, a gifted & growing guitarist, pretty well. His proclamation as junior-year exams wound down put me in a perilous position with no counselor training and the start of our progressive Segue 61 music-industry connectivity program still 55 weeks away.

We talked for over an hour, during which time I treaded through a mine-field of well-crafted concerns he had, until he included information that gave me my foothold to a more logical future idea than academic defection. “I know I should finish because I’ll be the first one in my family to get this kind of a college degree.” I then made my case for a compressed concept that reduced three remaining semesters to two and a December, 2016 graduation, just in time for consideration into our Nashville-based Segue 61 that seemed tailor-made for his talent-level and old-soul sensibility. My relief was considerable when he agreed, exited my door with Christmas best-wishes and disappeared down the hall. 

It seems like a logical time to see how Damon’s decision is playing out in real-world terms. He completed his undergraduate requirements on schedule (a semester early). He was accepted as one of the inaugural class for Segue 61 made immense creative gains before the May mid-term break after 16 straight weeks of intensive engagement with an extensive list of music industry mentors helping mold the students’ gifts and goals toward an more positive entry into the business later this year.

Damon has forged a series of synergies with both his S61 partner group on their creative journey as well as gifted artists/talent in the marketplace not involved with the program, including Jack Pearson & Charles Treadway (if you have to look them up, you don’t need to know). And he’s performed live shows around Nashville with singer Rylie Bourne, herself a Segue 61 student currently working on content for her second album.

He’s adopted quite seriously the value of the visibility/relationship building mantra preached by legendary bassist Michael Rhodes to generations of aspiring younger artists who come to Nashville with a big dream but not much of a clue…..”You must be present to win.” So he has been, damn near everywhere there was a note being played live in Music City. Absorbing everything thing his senses could capture.

AND so also he was….to begin his “spring break” on May 6, when he was invited on-stage mid-set at the storied Station Inn—The Carnegie Hall of Bluegrass—to join a veteran group of Nashville first-call musicians, including Segue 61 team-mentors Guthrie Trapp and Pete Abbott as well as program mentors Mike Bub & Jimmy Stewart.

Actually….it was mid-solo, mid-solo when Atkins was summoned to the stage by Trapp, a guitarist with myriad talents and tones as well as blistering singular moments of genius almost weekly in some live venue around town. No pressure here. Take the wheel, young man, and jump into the rolling current of this blues piece we have going. And stay in key. (“What IS the key, Mike?” Atkins asked the versatile bass player Bub as he jumped onto the moving musical treadmill. He held his own.

In his half-year in Nashville (so far), Atkins had been to the Station Inn a dozen-plus times to see an stellar array of artists in one of Nashville’s final, original canvasses for musical creativity. Though small enough to host a church canasta tournament, it’s stage has hosted almost every relevant acoustic star in the Nashville constellation during its 43 years, including Dolly Parton, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Reba McIntyre, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. And as it holds its own to survive the real-estate tsunami in Music City’s red-hot Gulch neighborhood, the Station Inn can add another unknown(for now) musician with unlimited hope & horizons to its list of performers; Damon Atkins.

On Saturday morning May 13, Atkins put on his cap & gown, then later participated in the Catawba College graduation ceremony he was destined to attend. But he was very different from many of his music-track peers accepting their diplomas from school president Brien Lewis on that stage. His Segue 61 training to that point accelerated Damon light-years further that he could have dreamed had he not moved to Nashville and engaged in the mentor-driven connectivity S61 is providing…..a tether which has pulled him up onto other stages of his dreams since January, including one of the most iconic anywhere in the music business exactly one week before his graduation.

It was a Graduation Day of celebration for the Atkins family, who were there in force on the Catawba College campus. Every one of them. Because Michael Rhodes is right….you must be present to win.