Music City USA
By Craig Guillot
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In downtown Nashville, it’s just as common to see people walking with guitars as with briefcases. After all, music is one of this city’s top commodities, and it has been that way for more than half a century. Back in 1950, announcer David Cobb dubbed Nashville "Music City, U.S.A." on Red Foley’s NBC radio show.
Far more than just an epicenter of country music, this city is a musical birthplace that stretches farther and wider than most people realize. On any given night, live music flows from the honky-tonk bars on Broadway. Tucked between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Honky Tonk Row is a tightly packed block of hole-in-the-wall joints where men and women with wide-brimmed cowboy hats and shiny boots play their hearts out in a haze of cigarette smoke and neon lights.
People come here from all over the country to make and break musical careers. From the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium to the smoky stages of the clubs on Broadway and the sidewalks, musicians truly find what they’re made of when they get to Nashville. It is to country musicians as Los Angeles is to aspiring actors, perhaps reason enough why USA Network’s "Nashville Star," now in its third season, takes the Nashville dream to television.
According to some estimates, thousands of people are trying to make music careers in Music City. They can be found just about everywhere — washing dishes in restaurants, smiling from posters plastered on the sides of downtown buildings, and peddling their albums on street corners and out of the back of their cars. Some will go on to become household names, while others will pack up and leave or eke out livings in low-paying jobs.
Randy Travis was a cook at the Nashville Palace before his career took off; Kathy Mattea was a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame; and Bluebird Cafe bartender Mark Irwin wrote the Alan Jackson hit "Here in the Real World."
"That was the first thing I noticed when I moved out here — instead of being an outcast, I was one of the many. You come here, and everybody’s either a singer, songwriter or musician. You just immediately feel at home here," says Grammy-winning songwriter Harley Allen.
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Allen has been in Nashville since 1989. His songs have been recorded by such artists as Linda Ronstadt, Don Williams and Alan Jackson.
Tucked between the honky-tonks on Broadway, Hatch Show Print is one of the oldest press poster shops in the country and a first stop for self-promoting artists. Founded in 1879, it creates handbills and posters for acts and events all over the Southeast.
The images and posters covering the walls bring visitors to a bygone era of entertainment before the advent of mass advertisements. When the Opry started in the 1930s, the owners found one of the most effective ways to advertise it was by placing cards in the windows of businesses.
Hatch Show Print, which creates posters for clients such as Nike and Bruce Springsteen, still uses old-fashioned wood-engraved blocks. It was a humble start in a city that has become a master at promoting its musical commodities.
Honky-Tonk Row is unusual in that there is rarely, if ever, a cover charge to get into the clubs. Musicians rely on tips and donations from guests — every couple of songs, a barmaid or band member wanders through the crowd with a bucket.
It is said that Willie Nelson started playing at Tootsie’s for tips only and felt there never should be a cover charge to see live music on the row. As a result, visitors can wander from bar to bar and get a great sampling of Nashville’s music scene. Locals, country-star wannabes and tourists all mix, mingle and shake their legs while musicians bounce from club to club with guitars in hand. The singers who don’t have gigs scheduled stake out street corners and play for passing spectators.
MUSIC AND MORE MUSIC
Just about everything in Nashville relates to or can be traced to music in one way or another. The city is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Country Music Television and more than a half-dozen magazines dedicated to music and entertainment, and it seems as if just about every establishment in Nashville has a minimuseum or a handful of shrines to one musician or another.
Restaurants, bars, gift shops, even clothing stores and pawnshops pay homage to the local music gods. And just when you thought you couldn’t escape it all, there’s an autographed record of some music legend in the bathroom.
When a nasty tornado swept through Tennessee in 1998 and uprooted a historic tree at President Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, Gibson Musical Instruments hacked it up and made 200 "Old Hickory" guitars to support the Hermitage’s restoration.
Relocated to its 130,000-square-foot, three-story landmark building in 2001, the Country Music Hall of Fame glorifies everything the struggling artists and songwriters of Nashville are seeking. It tells the long history of country music in chronological order, from its rural roots in the 19th century to mainstream popularity.
Dozens of glass cases house artifacts, photos, instruments and costumes, and even one of Elvis Presley’s Cadillacs is on display. Even those who have the mildest interest in country music will gain a greater appreciation after setting foot in Nashville. Music legends from many genres — Jimmy Hendrix, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley — have all left their stamp on the city.
Regular tours leave the museum and take visitors to Studio B, known as one of the cradles of the Nashville sound in the 1960s. Built in 1957, it helped establish the city as an international recording center and has given birth to more than 1,000 top-10 hits, hosting hit makers such as Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, Mr. Orbison and the Everly Brothers.
Studio B’s most famous guest was Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, who recorded more than 200 hits there. Visitors can wander through the studio, which has been restored to its original condition, and soak up the ambience where the King spent many long nights.
GRAND OLE OPRY
Just blocks away from the hall of fame is a great place to learn about the roots of the Grand Ole Opry. Opened in 1892, it is known as the "Mother Church of Country Music," and it was home to the Opry from 1943 to 1974. As the world’s longest-running live radio program, the Opry has been broadcast to millions of listeners around the country.
The Opry now is held in its own theater, which seats more than 4,000 people and fills up almost every weekend. It showcases a great diversity of country music, with traditional and modern acts and a lot of surprises. Performers have included Garth Brooks, Ricky Scaggs, Clint Black, Miss Parton, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and more. For about $20, guests can hear a three-hour sampling of both country newcomers and legends.
Although stardom is big and bright in Nashville, many visitors might be surprised to find an entire subculture of musicians who haven’t the slightest desire to be famous, just the drive to write good music. They can be found almost every night in places such as the Bluebird Cafe, Tootsie’s Wild Orchid Rose Lounge and Robert’s Western World.
Unknown names such as Gary Burr — who has written songs for performers including LeeAnn Rimes, Mr. Brooks, Faith Hill, Michael Bolton and Lynyrd Skynyrd — represent the unsung heroes of the music world. A surprising number of these low-profile singer-songwriters with big hits can be found performing just about every week in Nashville.
Although you may not know their names, you more than likely have heard their songs on the radio or in a commercial, movie or music video.
Victoria Shaw has written songs for Mr. Brooks, Olivia Newton John, Miss Hill, Ricky Martin and Michael McDonald. She emerges from her studio and home to try out new songs on the public and satisfy a need to play for a live audience.
"The average Joe thinks the person singing the song is the one who wrote it. I used to think that, as well," Miss Shaw says. "There’s a face behind the song; people are shocked and surprised that the artist is not the one who wrote it. Sometimes, you play a hit you wrote, and people think they’re hearing a cover song."
TIN PAN SOUTH
Every spring, the Tin Pan South songwriters festival showcases some of the city’s finest musical commodities. The weeklong celebration highlights Music City as a capital of songwriting and features more than 70 shows at various venues.
Nashville musicians seem to have a great commitment to their fans, and this can’t be more apparent than during the Country Music Association Music Festival.
Also known as Fan Fair, the event is held every June in downtown Nashville and was started in 1972 after fans started showing up for an annual disc-jockey convention.
Last year, there were more than 400 country music artists, who played shows, got close to their fans, signed autographs and posed for photos.
Nashville’s downtown is music, food scene
Musical attractions and live performances abound in Nashville, Tenn. Upcoming special events include Tin Pan South, which opens Monday and runs through Saturday, and the Country Music Association’s Music Festival, June 9 through 12.
Most of Nashville’s major music attractions, including the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Honky Tonk Row, are within easy walking distance of one another.
Among other airlines serving Nashville, American Airlines operates a hub there; taxi service, car rentals and city shuttles are available at Nashville International Airport.
For a musical stay near downtown, head to the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, 2100 West End Ave. (615/320-5019, www.loewshotels.com). It has an impressive collection of autographed records, memorabilia, a jukebox in the lobby and a staff that’s very knowledgeable about the local music scene.
With nine acres and almost 3,000 rooms in Music Valley, the Opryland Hotel, 2800 Opryland Drive (888/777-6779, www.gaylordhotels.com), is one of the largest resorts in the world.
For historic charm and a central location, head to the Wyndham Union Station, 1001 Broadway (615/726-1001, www.wyndham.com). The lobby is the former main hall of a railway station.
Nashville is filled with inexpensive barbecue and bar food, but a number of places combine food with great live music. Many of these places center on Broadway and Second Avenue.
B.B. King’s Blues Club, 152 Second Ave. (615/256-2727, www.bbkingclubs.com), serves good Tennessee cooking and features live blues every night.
Just a block off Broadway, Wildhorse Saloon, 120 Second Ave. (615/902-8200), serves steaks and barbecue and features live music, dancing and plenty of good times.
For a hearty brunch after a late night at the honky-tonks, head to the Pancake Pantry, 1796 21st Ave. (615/383-9333), for countless flapjack creations and Southern-style breakfasts — or the Loveless Motel for country cooking, www.lovelesscafe.com.
For more Information, contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/657-6910, www.musiccityusa.com.
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