In Josie Kuhn's novel "The Carnation House," a book that is both comic and disturbing by turns — and often both at once — a terrible car accident leaves 40-year-old singer-songwriter Jessie James in recovery at a nursing home in East Nashville, badly battered and broken. Six weeks into her stay there, Jessie is finally able to rise from bed to a wheelchair and explore her surroundings. The Carnation House is a grim institution, hardly the cozy B&B-like environs that its name suggests, but Jessie, relieved simply to escape her two unsavory roommates for a few hours a day, makes fast friends with some of the other patients. They bond over Bingo games and daily smoke breaks on the patio, during which a large African American patient known as Ray-Ban slips away to a nearby Kwik Sak to procure snacks and smokes for the gang. The Carnation House's meals are nearly inedible, so convenience store fare is a treat.
Before long, Jessie begins to discover that sub-par grub is the least of the Carnation House's ills. It is a facility foul with corruption. When one nurse makes her rounds with the nightly pain meds, she pulls a fast one on Jessie: The white paper pill cup is empty. "You gave me an empty cup!" Jessie protests. "Don't talk back to me. I saw you take it. Now stop your whining and leave me alone," the woman snaps. Later, Jessie overhears the nurses cackling about their scam: They're pilfering pills for black-market sale, hoodwinking patients with outright lies and vitamin C tablets disguised with food-coloring to resemble Valium.
As the days go by, circumstances at the home worsen, and Jessie discovers more shady dealings and cases of outright abuse and neglect. She realizes that the patients are in more danger than many of them can conceive.
When rumors circulate of an investigation and the facility's imminent closure, Jessie and another patient muse over the building's fate. "Probably convert it into little boutiques," Jessie says. "Maybe a hair salon, a dress shop, an expensive bakery."
Sound a bit . . . familiar? Indeed, a real-life analog for the Carnation House is the Cornelia House, a now-defunct, 159-bed nursing home formerly located on Porter Road in the building that now houses a home for the hearing impaired as well as Pomodoro East, Montessori East, and a handful of boutiques and other small businesses. The Tennessee Department of Health shuttered Cornelia House in 2007 for a string of deficiencies and violations over several consecutive years, including inadequate precautionary measures against patients wandering off premises. Remember Ray-Ban?
Kuhn was a patient at Cornelia House when it was shut down, and she and fellow patients were relocated to other facilities. She kept a journal while staying there, but is quick to point out that she drew from experiences at three different nursing homes while writing "The Carnation House", liberally embellishing both the bad and the good. The result is a work of fiction, not "an expose on nursing homes," she says. "But I'd like people to understand that while there are some good nursing homes, there are also some bad eggs."
A longtime singer and musician who has toured extensively, released several solo albums, and played with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and the Mavericks, Kuhn lives today in the Little Hollywood home where she put down roots nearly 20 years ago. The accident and its aftermath were a blow to her music career, but she's finding her way back to the stage — playing new songs, delivering her marvelously smoky vocals, and reading from The Carnation House, which is available at East Side Story, in the Idea Hatchery at Five Points.
The East Nashvillian caught up with Kuhn recently to hear more about the story behind the story:
Can you tell us a little bit about the terrible car accident you survived?
I broke just about every bone in my face, my neck, arm, pelvis. My right foot was severely crushed. The doctor at Vanderbilt did five surgeries to save my foot. I was in nursing homes for nine months after that, and when I got out, I was still in pretty bad shape. I stayed with a friend, then I went back to Mexico [where I'd lived for a few years previously] because I had health insurance down there. I stayed for two years and started getting my life back together.
How did the accident affect your music career?
My voice suffered a lot, I think due to the trach I had in the whole time I was at Vanderbilt Hospital, about three months. It damaged my vocal chords. Plus I was rusty as all get-out. And my guitar playing skills suffered because I didn't play for about a year. But I'm getting back into it now. I don't think I'll be able to do three-month tours anymore, but I'm working on a small tour in the Netherlands.
What led you to write a book based on your nursing home experience?
One day I came across the journal I'd kept while I was in the homes, and I thought, wow, I should write this as a book. When I got back to Nashville, I started writing it all down in longhand. Writing it was rough. I had to dredge up all these memories I had wanted to forget.
You're something of an Eastside old-timer, right?
I'd been here almost 13 years before the accident; now I'm coming up on 20. When I bought my house over here, everybody thought I was nuts. East Nashville? Ew, you can't live over there! I said, "It's what I can afford." There were likeminded musicians like me: Sergio Webb moved over here after me, Todd [Snider] a few years later, and of course the legendary Skip Litz, who was the sound engineer at the Radio Café. That was our hangout. It was a nice tight community of musicians, and I really loved it. But I like seeing the new young people and a lot of musicians moving here. What I don't like is what [developers] are doing to the neighborhood: tearing down cottages, putting up condos and duplexes. And of course, the traffic. There never used to be any traffic over here.
Are there any stories you wish you'd put in the book?
[Singer-songwriter] Steve Forbert came to see me. I was very good friends with him back in the 80s in the Greenwich Village scene, and he produced my second CD. He came to see me, and he ended up getting me a TV and cable. I couldn't believe it. I don't know how he did it, but Comcast was there in 20 minutes. I never got to thank him for that. I haven't seen him since then.
Have you written any songs about the accident?
I just finished one! It's called "Life Can Turn on a Dime," and it's kinda rocky, Los Lobos-y. I'm real happy with it.
What's next for Josie Kuhn?
I'm going to start working on a screenplay version of the book and try to promote it more. And I just finished a little EP with a friend of mine, Jim Criner—we're going by the name Kühnenkriner. It's five songs, very different genres, titled Fölkenrockin'. There's one blues song about the economy, one swamp song about climate change, one funny country song called "Honky Tonk Trail," and two positive up-tempo love songs. I haven't written too many of those.
I've been playing music all my life. It's in my blood. Never got rich or famous, but I've been really lucky to play for people all over the world. Now I have little gigs here and there. I wish I could do more, but it's a little rougher to be a musician at my age. I'm not ready to hand over the torch just yet, though! You do what you can with what you've got.