Nashville, Music City

The curtain is raised and the crowd leaps to its feet, whooping and hollering like only Americans can.

Johnny Cash sang, “Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, and I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky” in the song Big River.

Country music has never been known for its cheerful disposition and, while I’m partial to the odd lament and have a deep reverence for the man in black, on the whole the genre has never been my cup of moonshine. I’ve always taken pains to steer past it, as it walked the line down the middle of the road somewhere between Mopestown and Hokeyville.

Perhaps it’s a bid odd, then, that I’m in Nashville, the capital city of Tennessee and the home of country music. It has a population of about 620,000, most of whom seem to be aspiring country stars. This is a city built on dreams, where hitchhikers roll into town with nothing but a beaten-up guitar and the will to make it. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson have all called Nashville home. 

I’m here for a different reason than most: to confront my own musical prejudices and find out exactly what the city has to offer someone with a record shelf largely devoid of country albums. An exercise in masochistic curiosity, perhaps.

Nashville was founded on music. In the 1700s the first settlers arrived safely on the Cumberland River and wildly celebrated with fiddle tunes and buck dancing – probably after they’d unpacked. In 1925, radio station WSM broadcast its first one-hour country music show, the Grand Ole Opry, sparking Nashville’s nickname, ‘Music City’.

Today, Nashville is still famed for the Opry  now a live venue  as well as Jack Daniel’s, a thriving university scene, legions of can-on-forehead-crushing NFL fans and a diehard music culture. 

If you want to see country music’s elite, head to the Grand Ole Opry, about 30 minutes’ drive from downtown. It’s dubbed ‘The Home of American Music’ because of its history and reputation for showcasing the biggest stars.

I take my seat beside a young trucker and do my best not to glance at his girlfriend. Commercials for hunting gear and fishing tackle blare from a giant screen. The imposing semicircular stage is hidden by a heavy red curtain. Thousands of people are packed onto wooden benches, and a two-tiered balcony seats hundreds more above. The curtain is raised and the crowd leaps to its feet, clapping to the frenetic sounds of banjos and steel guitars, whooping and hollering like only Americans can.

It’s a revolving door of artists, ranging from gospel and bluegrass to country and western. Mike Snider blends banjo with drawled one-liners, and champion bull rider Justin McBride gets the ladies going. It’s a great spectacle, but the production feels overly polished and commercialised. Every other song is punctuated by an ad, and while I appreciate the musicianship, it’s a little hokey for my taste.

If the Grand Ole Opry is the pinnacle for established stars, then The Bluebird Cafe is where many began the journey. Located on a small strip mall in Hillsboro Village, a 20-minute drive from downtown, it was opened in 1982 as a restaurant with live music. Three years later, Sunday writers’ nights were added and the venue became a mecca for aspiring singer-songwriters. Emmylou Harris, Dixie Chicks, Cowboy Junkies and Garth Brooks are just a few to have graced its stage. I’m hoping that Billy Ray Cyrus hasn’t, but something tells me that he probably has.

Tonight, a queue has formed outside. This place is so popular that guests are seated on a first come, first served basis. Once the 100-seat venue is full, latecomers are turned away. Wedged in the queue, I chat with a local, Richard Trest, to gain insight into the city’s country obsession.

“Country music is fragmented, it’s not as niche as people think,” he says. “There are so many subgenres within country. If you speak with the writers in town, they’re working with anyone from Snoop Dogg to pop stars. Everyone wants to work with a country writer because they know how to verbalise in a way that people react to.”

The Bluebird Cafe has an intimate feel, with tables and chairs clustered around a tiny stage. There’s a convivial atmosphere and you can strike up a conversation easily. When the first band takes to the stage, we’re asked which of us has travelled furthest. I raise my hand, confident Australia is a sure bet. But when a girl from Singapore pipes up, there is some confusion. In the end, we’re both tossed a T-shirt, to an amused round of applause.

There’s a mix of soulful acoustic and rousing country tunes, arguably the best of which come from Rodeo Pony, a mostly female ensemble. There’s more of a connection here with the audience, the music is more eclectic and I feel less alienated than at the Opry. After the show we spill out into the car park, chatting. Rodeo Pony vocalist Shauna Lee is kind enough to offer me a lift downtown. I ask her why people should come to Nashville if they’re not enamoured of country, adding that said people would, of course, be crazy not to be.

“Tennessee is gorgeous,” she says. “You have the Great Smoky Mountains and the rolling hills and there’s a lot of culture here too. But if you’re into music, the best of the best live here. I’m still blown away by the talent in this town; musicians are here because they honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.” 

As alternatives to the mainstream music scene, Nashville has several options. Lee drops me at 12th & Porter, an unassuming little joint with low lighting and oil paintings of The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Johnny Cash and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The live music here is more raw and on the fringes. Other bars around town, such as Douglas Corner Cafe and 3rd and Lindsley, are also local favourites. 

However, no trip to Nashville would be complete without visiting the honky-tonk strip on Broadway from 2nd Avenue to 5th Avenue. It’s the city’s central artery. Along with nearby Printers Alley  a cobblestoned lane that was home to more than a dozen publishers in the early 20th century  this area is often referred to as ‘The District’.

Broadway’s moniker is attributed to its abundance of small live music bars. At night the street is ablaze with neon signs casting a glow on throngs of tourists and US stereotypesstetsons and flannel shirts abound. Live music pumps from packed bars while the smell of southern cooking wafts from restaurant doors.

Iconic bar Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a cool little place with a purple exterior. It was taken over in the 1960s by Tootsie Bess, a singer/comedienne known for her generosity to struggling musicians. She is said to have kept a cigar box full of IOUs from hungry artists and nurtured the early careers of Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings, among others.

Today, it’s a venue for up-and-coming musicians. I weave through drunken patrons, grab a beer and take in the show. It’s a foot-stompin’, whisky-drinkin’ affair and I can’t help but get caught up in it.

By day, Broadway has a low-key feel. The smell from Jack’s Bar-B-Que has attracted a queue, and music plays from bars as out-of-towners browse guitar shops.

Seeking respite from the music scene, I duck into Hatch Show Print, one of America’s oldest letterpress print shops still employing the same techniques used in the 1800s. This is where everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen comes to get tour posters designed. It’s a must for fans of Americana, designers or anyone looking for a decent souvenir.

My musical education in Nashville takes me to the Country Music Hall of Fame, a couple of blocks east of Broadway. Reopened in May 2001, the $36.5-million exhibit is an intense tribute to the near- biblical significance of country music here. I navigate three floors charting the history of the genre from its earliest days through to the shiny-toothed superstars of today.

Even if you’re not a fan of country music it’s an intriguing experience, if only to see Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac limo and honky-tonk singer Webb Pierce’s 1962 Silver Dollar Pontiac Bonneville convertible, complete with pistol door handles and steer horns on the bumper. I opt for an audio guide, to get the inside scoop on the exhibits. 

Also worth the fee is the tour of Studio B on Music Row, a 10-minute shuttle ride from the museum. Although Nashville is home to more than 500 music studios, this place has been immortalised thanks to recordings by musical deities such as Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Elvis.

On my final night I head to The Station Inn, Nashville’s most respected bluegrass and roots venue. I watch an outstanding 12-piece outfit, The Time Jumpers, with more fiddles and banjos than a Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack. It takes a measure of self-restraint to stop myself from slapping my thigh and hopping wildly on the spot.

I almost hate to say itslowly but surely Nashville has made a convert of me. Sure, there’s plenty of schlock (Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain won’t be entering my record collection any time soon), but this is music that transcends boundaries. Many artists not associated with the genre have been heavily influencedthe Rolling Stones for a while there, and even Ray Charles, known more for rhythm and blues, recorded a number of country albums. Seminal jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was known to be a Hank Williams fan. When asked why, Parker replied, “Listen to the stories, man. These cats really know how to tell a story.” 

Music City has more than 2,000 square kilometres of national park on its doorstep, hundreds of music venues, thousands of wannabe stars, enough pairs of cowboy boots to satisfy Sergio Leone and more hairspray than a season of Dynasty. But at its heart is country music. And if you keep an open mind, its charms might affect you more than you think.    

Words by Guy Wilkinson - Published in Voyeur March 2011
Quick Facts 
Population 433,000
Area 21,694 km2
Time Zone GMT - 4
Languages English (official)
Currency US Dollar (USD)
Electricity 114 - 126V 60Hz
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