As I mentioned, I’ve jetted off to Tennessee to pick up a new dog to round out our terrier quota at Rancho Los Dos Terriers. But I managed to budget in a whirlwind tour of Nashville. Unlike my younger days where any travels involved seeing absolutely EVERYTHING in my guidebook, I’ve since evolved a saner travel methodology. Especially if I only have a few days, I pick a good hotel in walking distance to a lot of sights and see what I can see in a given radius. I also tend to focus. And my focus for Nashville was music. Specifically Classic Country Music. I know Nashville has symphony and all kinds of other music. Don’t care. I’ll see the symphony in San Francisco. Not sure if Nashville has a foodie scene. Not interested. I have a few Southern staples I wanted to try. But otherwise, it was all about the Country Music.
I picked the perfect hotel, the Art Deco Holston House, which is close to the honky tonks on Broadway but far enough away to be quiet at night. It’s also intriguingly located next to the Freemasons Temple and the Barbarshop Quartet Society headquarters and across the street from a large historic Baptist Church.
An evening stroll in and out of the music venues on Broadway was a good orientation on my first night. But I quickly learned that, for me, a daytime visit to this area was much better. I’m not really a nightlife person. And Broadway at night has a bit of a rougher feel. Kind of the vibe you get on Bourbon Street that, at any moment, someone might vomit in front of you. But during the day, it’s calmer and more family oriented. I also felt the acts were better or at least more interesting. I found the daytime acts seemed to fall into two categories: the very, very new artists trying to get a foothold, and the established session musicians who are earning extra in between gigs but, after a grueling tour schedule, want to work the daytime and go home at a reasonable hour at night. An example of the former was the very talented young ‘un Kayley Green. Someone requested a song that her back-up band knew but she didn’t. So during break, she went out onto the street and watched several YouTube versions of it, then came back and did a very creditable performance.
And that’s one of the great things about how Nashville’s live music scene seems to be set up, at least on Broadway. Bands are booked, there is never a cover charge and they are paid by passing the hat or the bucket between sets. Since the venue isn’t paying bands, they are more likely to take a chance on younger, untried performers, especially on the slots between 11AM and 6PM. In turn, these younger musicians get a great opportunity to hone their stagecraft in one of the toughest situations ever. Not just live performance, but engaging an audience that may not know them and may just have stopped in for a beer. Seems as if it would be an incredible education in what songs grab an audience, how to build a set, and how to craft a stage presence.
To make the whole convention keep working, tip your band generously. I’d say, at the minimum, give what you’d pay for an iTunes song download for every song you listen to. Better yet, figure out what a typical cover charge would be — $20 or $30 — and tip that. Also, if you are going to occupy space at a table or the bar, either order and tip or tip the waitstaff. I had to nurse one or two glasses of wine, so I ended up tipping at least the cost of every drink. It still ends up being a lot of music for not much money.
I’ll tell you what, I wish every city would institute a music zone and set up the same system. And why stop with music? Can’t we have an Art Zone where artists are provided with studio space with the only “cost” being that they have to let the public wander in and watch them and maybe buy a piece.
Lest you think my whole time was spent on Broadway, I had a heavy museum agenda. That included the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, The Johnny Cash Museum and the Patsy Cline Museum. All of them were excellent, especially since each is heavy on performance videos and audio files. In fact, I ended up going through the entire Country Music Hall of Fame Museum twice. The exhibits are set up to walk you through the arc and history of Country music from its earliest origins to the present day. I walked through once to read all the exhibits and look at all the memorabilia.
Then I walked through a second time looking only at the many screened performances that are at every section. It was a unique way to actually hear how Country music developed and note the influences that informed the next steps, disappeared for awhile, then were revived to influence again.
The Johnny Cash Museum and the Patsy Cline Museum (housed in the same building) are similarly instructive. These aren’t just museums of memorabilia. They are places to go to learn about the influences that shaped these artists, how they arrived at their particular sound, how they evolved as artists throughout their careers and the influence they had on the artists who came after them.
Museums weren’t all that I did. I spent a good amount of time just wandering around Nashville, looking at the wonderful architecture, crossing the iconic pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River. I even made a three mile slog — on a day when the local weather station was warning everyone to stay out of the heat and humidity — to get to a recommended fried chicken place.
Now let me say a word about the humidity. BRUTAL. Especially for someone from a semi-arid part of California. Dipping into Nashville’s humidity made me understand a line in Lawrence of Arabia that has mystified me for years. King Faisal asks Lawrence why, if he comes from a land of much water and green trees, he likes the desert. Lawrence answers, “Because it’s clean.” See at the Rancho, even if the Mountain Lion rips a deer to shreds, unless you stumble on it within five minutes, there is no smell. Everything dehydrates within minutes, so give that carcass a day and it will be a mummy. By contrast, in Nashville, anything that gets dropped on the ground or thrown in a trash can melts and putrefies. Just walking past a garbage can can make you retch uncontrollably. Not that Nashville is a dirty city. It’s remarkably clean. It’s just that so much of it is in the process of rotting. Even the vegetation in the medians. God forbid you pass a trash can with the remains of somebody’s “meat and three” lunch.
Then again, Nashvilleans are probably laughing at the idea that anyone would come visit in the middle of summer. They would laugh even harder once they heard about my three mile hike across town to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken place. I wasn’t really planning on any sort of foodie tour of Nashville, but there were a few things I wanted to try. I was told that Hattie B’s Hot Chicken was a particularly Nashville thing. I was warned that the hottest version, named Shut the Cluck Up, was not for the faint-hearted. But when I ordered, the entire counter staff, pegging me instantly as a tourist and probably a Yankee, refused to serve that order. They wanted me to order two heat steps down or maybe get the classic Southern fried style.
“Well, how hot is hot?” I asked. “Is it hotter than Mexican food?”
“Oh yes”, they chorused, “much hotter than Mexican food.”
I ordered the next step down and only afterward realized that when I said Mexican, they were probably thinking of Chipotle, not the authentic Mexican joints in California where they give you a few Jalapeños to chew on while you wait for your enchilada. Hattie B’s, I see your Hot Chicken and I raise you real Mexican and any of a hundred Indian restaurants in San Jose that will set your hair on fire. In all, the chicken was pretty good, but my limited experience with fried chicken was formed by a Texan, so I’m partial to that style.
For a slightly more than 48 hour trip, Nashville certainly delivers. Even in the humidity. I feel I’m now a Country Music scholar. Here’s what else I learned in Nashville:
*Although the Tennessee State Museum is closed for renovations, I gleaned enough from the various historical markers around town that Tennessee has given us two of our worst Presidents: “Genocide” Jackson and James “Manifest Destiny” Polk. Good thing Tennesseans gave us so much good music, otherwise we’d hardly be able to forgive them.
*You know that iconic Shepard Fairey Hope poster of then candidate Obama? A display and tour of the Hatch Show Press taught me that he ripped off that red, white and blue look directly from the letter press show posters Hatch has been putting out for decades.
*Loretta Lynn was the pioneer in gaining respect for female singer/songwriters in Nashville. And she did it while being mother to six kids. And winning prizes at the County Fair for her canned goods.
*Johnny Cash’s report cards show that he was a middling student, except in History. Given that he pretty much invented the concept album — especially tied to historical events — that makes sense. (He did themed albums about American railroads, about the movement West, about the treatment of Native Americans, and more).
*And Johnny Cash is the only artist whose recording career spanned virtually all recording media: from 78s through 8-tracks, reel to reel, CDs and ending with MP3.
*And back to that humidity. Or the supposed antidote. Nashville will kill you with air conditioning. My hotel room was set to 60! That’s the temperature in Sonoma where I put on a wool Pendleton jacket.
*Nashville is currently building another music complex, this one with a Museum of African American Music. That would be worth coming back for.
*Nashvilleans are incredibly polite and nice. I’ve never been Ma’amed so much in my life. Even by people older than me.