“It’s a quaint, old mystical city / Where legends and idols have stood / It’s a place, where dreams come to harbor / A country boy’s Hollywood”
And here I am in Music City. Just like Marty Stuart sings above, in time for Sundown in Nashville. Why am I in Nashville? I’m picking up a new Smooth Fox Terrier puppy. See this is the kind of crazy-ass thing you do when your husband has racked up a million jillion air miles and you can basically fly around the world four times for free. But your husband is also so sick of traveling, that when he comes home, the last thing he wants to do is go anywhere using those air miles. So someone offers you a new Smooth Fox Terrier and you say: “What the hell? I’ll fly practically across the Continental United States to pick up a puppy. Why not?” But puppies are a story for later. Now it’s NASHVILLE.
With all the moving about I did as an Army Brat, I didn’t spend nearly enough time in the South. I’ve only been to Nashville once. It was practically a drive through, but I spent enough time here to be astounded at the musicality of this city. As I walked around Music Row and Broadway with my 24-year-old niece, we were amazed at the quality of music emanating from live bands in every bar. And even more impressed by the street buskers who had a level of musical talent you’d pay a cover charge to hear anywhere else. I’m told Nashville is home to much more than Country music, but I’ve lived in Europe and had season tickets to the San Francisco opera for the better part of a decade. I’m not coming to Nashville to hear no opera. Unless it’s spelled “Opry”. My itinerary is set and it includes The Johnny Cash Museum, The Patsy Cline Museum and The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I might even drop into the George Jones Museum and Barbecue, although I’m not a huge fan of The Possum.
Sadly, I won’t be going to the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ol’ Opry. That was one place we had time for on my last flying visit and we saw an amazing evening of Bluegrass with Cherryholmes — an incredibly talented family group — and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, a staple of the Bluegrass scene. I still have the CDs I bought at that concert and play them frequently. But guess who’s playing the Ryman this week? Donny and Marie! Not that I’m not a huge Donnie Osmond fan and unashamed to admit it. But I want to catch Donny and Marie in Vegas, even if she is a little bit Country. I want to keep my Bluegrass memories of the Ryman. And don’t even talk to me about going to some mall/complex/faux Country World that the Grand Ol Opry has become now that it’s moved across the Cumberland River. I’ll get my twangy fix at a more down-home venue.
Nashville is a good place for that. Down on Music Row, which is basically a stretch of Broadway lined with honky tonks, Western wear shops, record stores, dives and some great old skool neon. Sure it’s also touristy. A bit like Bourbon Street except with Country music rather than Jazz and with Papst Blue Ribbon instead of Hurricanes. But sometimes a place is touristy for a reason. Amazingly, all the places seem to have no cover. For the price of a beer and a contribution to the band tip jar, you can hear some great Country music. I shouldn’t be surprised at the quality of bar music here. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful allegedly wrote Nashville Cats when he was slumming after playing a big headlining show and heard 18 year old “never as famous as he should have been” Danny Gatton playing in the lounge and ripping out riffs Sebastian felt were beyond him and anyone he knew. But then, as Sebastian will tell you:
…there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee anthill
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And anyone that unpacks his guitar can play
Twice as better than I will.
My chosen venue for the evening was Robert’s Western World, which started life as a Western wear store and morphed into a honky-tonk. Although there are still a lot of custom made boots on display. I’m not sure if they are for sale. The act during my time there didn’t disappoint: John England & The Western Swingers. A featured performer is their 90 year old fiddler, Pappy. They started their set with a medley of “Sally Goodin” and “Rocky Top”. So pretty much on point for Tennessee. The only problem: this isn’t exactly a wine or cocktail town, at least not down on Music Row. So I had to order Papst Blue Ribbon like the locals. And I had to nurse it because, yuck, now much PBR can you drink. That meant tipping the waitress more than the cost of the beer for taking up her table, but still, a cheap evening. I toyed with ordering their Recession Special — a fried bologna sandwich, chips and a PBR. Then I thought better of it after looking at the grill.
So that was a lot to pack into an evening that didn’t start until I made it to my hotel at about 6:30 PM. But I did have time, wandering around town and in in out of honky-tonks to form some impressions of Nashville:
- The humidity can kill. Although they told me at the hotel that this was a mild day. Even more deadly is Southern air conditioning. My room was cranked down to 60 degrees! That’s the temperature where I put on my wool Pendleton coat in Sonoma.
- Another thing about humidity — garbage smells atrocious. In Sonoma, where any drop of moisture dries in ten minutes and compost literally dehydrates — I’ve almost passed out every time I’ve walked by a garbage can.
- Southern girls are still sporting a LOT of make-up. But, thankfully, flip flops remain respectable dress. My Tevas are positively formal wear.
- Nashville — or at least the areas I’ve walked from my hotel — is a beautiful city with many handsome old brick buildings. And also a lot of great retro neon.
- I chose the perfect hotel. It’s so close to the action that I can see the Ryman and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge out the window when I exit my room. Yet it is far enough away from Broadway, that it’s quiet. Also, it’s a beautifully restored old Art Deco building with a proper cocktail bar. So best of both worlds.
- There are a lot of ways to get in touch with your inner Redneck here. I saw a bar tour where customers literally sat at a wheeled bar and drank while pedaling down Broadway. There is also the Nash Trash Tour that includes dirty jokes, improv, a beer stop and lots of insults. I might pass on those.
So Nashville! Can’t wait to get up early and see you by sunlight. Tomorrow I pay homage to the musical greats. Especially considering I have just recently signed up for lessons on the guitar I bought with my babysitting money when I was sixteen, I am not worthy.
By the way, here’s Marty Stuart, who is not nearly as famous as he should be, singing the definitive song about hope and heartbreak in Nashville. I generally like classic Country, but this guy was a son-in-law of Johnny Cash and now is married to Grand Ol’ Opry star Connie Smith. So he’s Young Old Skool.
Oh, and here’s the act I saw in the venue where I saw them: