Country Nirvana in Nashville
Nashville, the Country Music Capital of the World isn’t called “Music City” for nothing. But as much as chasing country stars brings visitors to Nashville in their droves, this is not a one note town. Nashville loves a catchy tune across all genres, from jazz, blues and soul to bluegrass, rock and gospel, even if country is the transcendent king.
In a city spilling forth with nascent talent begging to be discovered, who knows how many Carrie Underwood’s you might uncover? For a deep dive into Nashville’s back catalogue, you should start your initiation at the revered Ryman Auditorium: the “Mother Church of Country Music.”
Its back-story is enthralling, named in honour of the riverboat captain and Nashville businessman who fundraised for the venue to be built in the late 1880s. Nashville was a raucous and debauched party town and Thomas Ryman was concerned that the rise of evangelism was a threat to the vitality of the bar and club owners.
However, when he met with the famed travelling evangelist Sam Jones, legend has it that he was converted on the spot by the preacher, and set about raising the money for the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Opened in 1892, it was renamed the Ryman Auditorium upon his death in 1904. Alongside religious revivalism, the venue evolved into the “Carnegie hall of the South,” particularly under the management of Lula Naff.
It hosted a glittering parade of luminaries, from Rudolph Valentino to Mae West. 1943 was the year that its greatest legacy began, when Lula signed a contract to rent the Ryman out on Saturday nights for a popular live radio show. Yes, the Grand Ole Opry. Over the decades, the building’s stature as the Mother Church of Country Music was secured, with pioneering performers of country and bluegrass music, including Hank Williams and Patsy Cline treading its boards.
In 1974, the Grand Ole Opry’s fame necessitated it finding a new and bigger venue, but after years of uncertainty, public affection secured the Ryman’s restoration and re-opening as a premier entertainment venue. It’s a delight to visit and those old church pews that comprise its seating arrangement, are just as uncomfortable as they surely were when it first opened. Harry Styles performed there, just recently.
A short drive out of town in Music Valley, I attended an evening show at the Grand Ole Opry, which is celebrating its 75th year. This live radio broadcast is an American institution, originally broadcast every Saturday night, but now broadcast and live-streamed five nights a week, in deference to its extraordinary popularity.
To be part of the grand ole gang, Opry members are invited performers who must agree to a certain number of Opry appearances. Their stellar roster includes Trace Adkins, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Randy Travis and Carrie Underwood.
It’s classy and highly engaging encounter with Nashville music royalty, with each show showcasing half a dozen artists performing 30-minute sets. Taking pride of place on centre-stage, is the venerated “unbroken circle,” transplanted from the floor of the Ryman stage to the Grand Ole’ Opry, and where a galaxy of music gods electrified their audiences, including Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
You’re certainly in the heart of Trump’s America. Virtually every SUV in the carpark was brandished in a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker. It’s safe to say Nashvillians are somewhat obsessed with the Grand Ole Opry. So much so that it’s rumoured the famous Nashville candy the Goo Goo (G for Grand, O for Ole, O for Opry) stands for the city’s claim to fame.
Another indelible Nashville venue, particularly for experiencing the next wave of country stars is the Bluebird Cafe: With its excellent acoustics and two shows a night, only the most inspiring fresh talent make it here. Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who were “discovered” here.
The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum is a colossus befitting country music’s grand pantheon. I perused the multitude of plaques lining the walls of the towering rotunda, which pay homage to all of the inductees in the Hall of Fame. The permanent exhibition galleries span two floors, walking you through the history of country music from its humble roots in the rural South, with compelling multi-media displays.
The museum groans with over 2.5 million artifacts, one-of-a-kind recordings, instruments and costumes, including Hank Williams’s cherished Martin guitar and Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac. (Decorated with crushed diamonds and iridescent fish scales with 24 karat gold accents.) A revolving roster of temporary exhibitions adds to the experience, which currently play tribute to Loretta Lynn, Shania Twain and The Judds.
It’s worth paying extra to take the guided tour of the nearby RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley recorded a 262 songs including his Christmas album. The red, green and blue lightbulbs, designed to help the King get into the festive spirit in July, are still hanging there. He also recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” here.
Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” are just some of the 1000 hits that were created in Nashville’s oldest surviving studio. This humble building on Music Row finally closed in 1977, but the big four music labels, including Sony BMG and Universal Music still have swanky offices here, with a regular regular procession of glinting limos purring in and out.
Opened five years ago, the Johnny Cash Museum should definitely be on your short-list, with a compelling collection of personal artifacts on display, ranging from his custom-made Gibson J200 guitar, gold records, and costumes. Interactive displays vividly bring to life the story of the legendary Man in Black and include stations where you can remix his songs and listen to other artists cover his music.
The adjoining Patsy Cline Museum is also superb, who tragically was killed in a plane crash while returning to Nashville. Live music literally spills into the streets in Nashville, particularly on lower Broadway between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, which is more informally known as Honkytonk Row.
Studded with neon-spangled bars and clubs, the street positively throbs with live country and bluegrass music, rock, jazz, blues and folk. You can bar-hop by day and by night, across all genres. Some venues have giant open windows, so that they artists totally ham it up for the impromptu crowds that gather outside on the footpath, dancing and singing along. It is absolutely electrifying.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is the queen of Nashville honky-tonks, she’s loud, crowded, and just 37 steps from the Ryman. Virtually every country-music star and wannabe has frequented this institution, where three bands often perform at once inside the pulsating venue.
Launching the careers of so many country greats, a young Willie Nelson turned heads with his song “Crazy”, at Tootsie’s in the early ‘60s. Honky Tonk Central is another prime mecca, abuzz with revellers in this three-level club, which was started by the same owner as Tootsie’s. I also really enjoyed Robert’s Western World which once housed a highly-acclaimed steel-guitar company, before later becoming a rhinestone-studded boot and clothing shop.
It’s probably the best place to catch live traditional country music, and like most honkytonks in Nashville, the bands swing into action from as early as 11am. A great way to accentuate your urban exploratory of Nashville is to jump onboard an Old Trolley Tour, which laces together all the key neighbourhoods and attractions.
An unexpected sight is the Parthenon, the world’s only full-scale replica of the temple that adorns the Acropolis in Athens. It was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial, complete with a 42-foot-tall gilded statue of Athena and casts of the Parthenon (aka Elgin) Marbles.
“Meat-and-three” restaurants are embedded in the Southern dining scene and Arnold’s Country Kitchen is widely considered the Tennessee king of the “meat-and-three” diner. Music Row executives and tradies are all part of the mix at Arnold’s, chomping into fried chicken, catfish and a slate of tasty sides, like mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, fried green tomatoes, and their fabled banana pudding.
Just three blocks south of Broadway in trendy SoBro, I fell in love with Martin’s Barbeque Joint, which the locals fawn over. They proudly proclaim they don’t own a microwave or a freezer and they’re sticklers for the West-Tennessee style of whole hog barbecue.
They smoke their hogs for a full day and serve it until it runs out—period. The place has four fire pits, each slow-roasting a whole hog at a time, lending succulent, melt-in-your-mouth flavour to the pulled pork sandwiches and BBQ ribs. Their Redneck Taco with pulled pork and coleslaw served on cornbread hoe-cake is a party in your mouth.
Just two minutes walk away is the chic and urban SoBro Guest House, which has fast become an alluring accommodation preference for Nashville visitors. Blending the services of a high-end boutique hotel with the comforts of home, this fun and funky property is very high tech with mobile self-check-in and free self-parking.
This all-suites property has all of your needs covered, from French press coffee and a fully equipped kitchen to washer and dryer. From cloud-comfortable bedding and comfy couches, to plush guest robes, it’s delightfully indulgent. All sorts of special touches sweeten the experience, from the daily dispatch of helpful hints and tips to the in-suite record player and vinyl collection. I absolutely loved it and you will too. www.sobroguesthouse.com
There is a palpable spark permeating Nashville. The city is absolutely on a roll, with explosive job growth and hordes of start-ups sprouting across the Tennessee capital, making it one of the USA’s fastest growing cities. Personifying the spring in Nashville’s step is The Gulch, one of the city’s hottest neighbourhoods blending gleaming modern architecture with the adaptive reuse of old warehouses.
The culinary scene is on fire, rooftop lounges mix it up with craft cocktails and cool beats, while independent retailers are another huge draw. Whether you’re heading to Nashville with just your guitar and a dream, or for multi-sensory holiday bliss, Nashville’s star dust will cast you under its spell. www.visitmusiccity.com
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By Mike Yardley.