Cole Slivka has never posted anything in her life. Not a photo, not a meme, not a word of advice. If the gasps and shudders have subsided, let her explain.
“I keep my life pretty simple, [and] I’m not on social media,” Slivka says on a recent evening from the green room at The Family Wash, where Slivka is scheduled to play with a hardworking bunch called the Carpetbaggers L615. “I kinda think someone has to balance out the narcissism — is it narcissistic to say that?” she asks with a laugh. “I feel like I’m from another era, and I don’t understand [the obsessions with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and such].
“I don’t think I’m that interesting, first of all, to be posting photos of myself nonstop and talking about my life. I also don’t understand having a conversation [on Facebook] with so many people at once, because if you were to take every one of those people who were on your page and have a conversation with them individually, you’d have all these very unique conversations.”
As old-fashioned and quaint as Slivka’s take on social media may be, it can probably serve as a reflection of how she created and built an East Nashville listening vibe that is still reverberating after 15 years. Known as Short Sets, it’s a weekly songwriters night that got its start not long after Slivka met The Family Wash owner, Jamie Rubin. She had hosted similar nights at previous locations, but the name and consistent structure of the gig didn’t come along until it moved to The Wash in 2002. And though tweets and posts and shares are what feed today’s pipeline for upcoming shows throughout Nashville and beyond, Slivka likes to keep things organic. She’s all about word of mouth and spreading the message across the front porches and backyards of nearby neighbors.
“I enjoy encouraging others to keep playing even though they may get discouraged [in the music business],” Slivka says. “Everybody shows up here wanting to be successful; they want to get things happening, make their living playing music, and it just doesn’t play out that way. I enjoy giving people a place to play to keep their spirits up. We have all different levels of notoriety and it’s a great place to come out and try new songs. No matter how your life plays out, music is so important and rewarding — for music’s sake, it’s good to keep playing. You don’t have to be making a living and reach fame.”
As it happens, Slivka will be taking Shorts Sets to Vinyl Tap beginning Sept. 20. It will start on a schedule of every two weeks on Wednesdays “just to see how it goes and see if people are still interested,” Slivka says, but the format will otherwise remain the same. That means that Slivka will keep playing guitar and singing as a duet with her husband of 18 years, bass player Paul Slivka, while others will also take the stage for a few short sets on a bimonthly basis. And both Slivkas will continue performing at The Family Wash with the Carpetbaggers L615 lineup of Rubin, Pete Pulkrabel, Reeves Gabrels, Tyson Rogers, Goffrey Moore, and others from time to time.
Though The Family Wash decided to part ways with Short Sets for another Tuesday night showcase, Rubin says the longtime arrangement with Slivka was just what the East Nashville music scene needed. “Cole is my sister, my spiritual other, and one of the most talented, beautiful singers and songwriters I know,” Rubin says as he joins others who have made it to the green room, where a sense of friends and neighbors fills the space. “Cole helped to orchestrate what was going on in her own neighborhood. They’re all singers and songwriters and guitar players and fiddle players and drummers and bass players — everybody. There were also other people that lived in our neighborhood for some time.”
Slivka’s creation of Short Sets can be traced, in a sense, to four years of realizing she isn’t all that compatible with today’s music industry. Slivka grew up in the Badlands of North Dakota, where music didn’t radiate much save for her father, a multitalented musician whose passion filtered down to only one of his seven children: Cole. “I’d play rhythm guitar, and Dad would be playing accordion one day, electric guitar another day, pedal steel — it was something different every day,” she says. “He’s a true lover of music. It’s all-consuming. So I got the bug from my father.”
The bug was potent enough for her to move to Nashville when she was 18, attending Belmont University to get a degree in music business. While still in school, Slivka had the opportunity to travel with Kathy Mattea and sell T-shirts wherever the country artist was touring. She stresses how nice Mattea was, but the experience made Slivka understand the road wasn’t for her.
“That was a pretty good education,” Slivka says, chuckling at the irony in the fact she never graduated. “I saw how the business really was and what it was really like to be the artist, and decided, ‘Mmm, no thank you.’ The road is so hard, even when you’re staying in nice hotels and you’re on a nice (tour bus). I’m essentially a homebody. I think since I had to deal with fans selling the T-shirts, I just saw what that was like and it wasn’t really my thing. The idolatry part of it really kind of bothered me a little bit.”
Though Slivka’s road experience turned her away from the business of music, it only strengthened her passion for the soul of music. In fact, the seeds for Short Sets were planted when Slivka became “either the first or the second person to play Radio Cafe in 1993 or ’94,” she says, referring to the small club that more or less jumpstarted East Nashville’s live music scene. She later introduced a writers night of sorts at Jack’s Guitar Bar on Nolensville Road, and that lasted about a year until the joint’s closing night. “That was a fun night,” Slivka says. “I helped close it down with Keith Urban and Patty Griffin. They were friends of Jack (Sawyer).”
Cole and Paul Slivka continued playing here and there, encouraging other East Nashville musicians to join in and help build the district’s reputation as an eclectic music scene. Cole recorded her one and only album, Neurotica, in 2000, though she is currently putting finishing touches on another one.
When she isn’t playing music and rubbing elbows with others doing the same, Slivka enjoys her me time, evidenced by her desire to study different religions and to pause regularly to meditate. And then there’s her knitting, a hobby for the inward-leaning if ever there was one.
“I started knitting when I was 8, I taught myself,” she says. “My parents thought it was so strange — they’d say, ‘Go outside and play, you can knit when you’re a grandmother.’ I’d say, ‘No, thank you, I like knitting now.’ I really enjoy it, I think, because it’s binary code, ones and zeroes. Everything you create is two stitches, and there are endless combinations.”
Not unlike Short Sets — a stitch here, a stitch there, and a stage filled with endless combinations.