So how long does it take to get a good shine?
About seven minutes, give or take, says Carlos Deford Bailey, known to many as simply the “Music City Shoe Shine Man.”
Bailey repairs and polishes shoes all over Nashville, including inside the Woodmont Circle building in Belle Meade where our office is located.
He’s had a lot of time to perfect this delicate art, he says, since he first began working in his great-grandfather’s shoe shop at the age of 15.
Throughout the course of his career he’s met doctors, nurses, businessmen — people from all walks of life.
Each pair of shoes has its own character, a different feel, just like the person wearing them. The customer’s preference often depends on their particular line of work, Bailey says. Walking around in a pair of newly shined shoes can be a little ego boost.
“Doctors will like the regular shine because they don’t want anything too fancy,” he says. “Some of the businessmen, though, are looking for something a little brighter and more flashy.”
What about the man who makes it happen — what does he like?
“My favorite part of the job is meeting new people,” he says.
“Striking up a conversation is pretty easy. Once they sit down in that chair, they start asking you questions and you get to know a little more about each other.
Shining Music City
He knows just how to take care of footwear that’s cracked, scuffed or torn. After all, shoes that are kept in excellent condition can bring together any outfit.
“I really love shining shoes,” he says simply.
Bailey uses all the tools at his disposal: a few brushes of different sizes; a buff rag that wraps tightly around the leather; a few tins of inky residue that create a masterpiece. Customers can choose from a regular shine or a spit shine, which produces a very high gloss that leaves the surface of the leather with a reflective glow (and contrary to the slang, uses shoe polish, not spit).
The way he works is a natural and instinctive thing — polishing each loafer, heel or sneaker until it shines.
Practice makes perfect
When Bailey isn’t shining shoes, he’s performing all across Nashville and in other cities throughout the Southeast. A triple threat, he sings, produces and plays harmonica.
Bailey comes by his musical talent honestly. His grandfather, Deford Bailey, was the first African-American star of country music. He was an original performer on the Grand Ole Opry and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
“Because of him I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people in the music industry,” he says. “He had a big impact.”
Bailey was seemingly destined to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
As a child he remembers getting a Magnavox guitar and learning the basic chords.
But when he first heard the Jackson 5 perform on television, he knew he wanted to be out front — the lead singer.
He began living out his dream fronting the R&B group Hot Ice while attending North Nashville High School.
After graduation, he toured the United States for over a decade before eventually returning to his home city.
That’s when he picked up his brush and began shining shoes again.
Soles and soul music
Bailey tries not to make the common mistake of using too much polish, whether he’s shining shoes or singing tunes.
In his live act, he hopes to be a master of words and melody: real, honest and vulnerable.
He embraces the opportunity to connect with his audience in an intensely personal way.
“I feel the energy coming from the crowd,” he says. “I take it very seriously when I’m up there, but once I come off the stage, I’m a friendly and outgoing person.”
Carlos is drawn to songs that evoke strong emotions and inspire a powerful reaction from his audience (his favorite is Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”).
“You have to pick the right songs,” he says.
“I like a lot of love stories. I feel like I bring a lot of energy to the stage, and happiness and joy.”
He may be a man of two jobs, but Carlos leaves no doubt about his favorite role of all: family man.
He enjoys spending time with his wife, two sons and two grandchildren. In the end, he wants to be known for his friendly demeanor and generosity as much as for his work.
“People who know me will say, ‘You’re the same guy all the time,’” he says.
“I try to be good to everyone I meet.”