September 13, 2009

Three Days in Nashville - The Music City

Mention a trip to Nashville to almost anyone and the first question is "Did you go to the Grand Ole Opry?" But the Opry is just a part of the music scene in this town where country and honky tonk rule and music recording and production are a major industry. Even if your heart belongs to grand opera, it's hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm and excitement that make Nashville The Music City!

Not being an aficionado of country music, I thought the best way to start was with a visit to the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame. The original facility opened on Music Row in 1967 and was replaced by the impressive current structure just off Lower Broadway in 2001. Visitors to the museum will be amazed at the depth of the displays covering the history of the genre from its early days to the present time. With country classics playing in the background, I took a trip down memory lane via two floors of memorabilia ranging from Hank Snow's guitar to Johnny Cash's black suit, from Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac to Dolly Parton's wig. Finally I got to the Hall of Fame, a soaring Rotunda with 100+ gold plaques honoring the elected members. Fittingly, the only other decoration in the room is Thomas Hart Benton's iconic painting "The Sources of Country Music".

Now that I had a little history and flavor under my belt, it was time to hit the streets and take a walk through Lower Broadway, home to dozens of honky tonk bars and clubs. Never mind that it's the middle of the day - almost every joint has live music playing! Somewhere in the cacophony of tunes wafting out the open doors and windows is the next great hit and star waiting to be discovered! Squeezed in between great neon signs advertising institutions like "Jack's", "Rippy's" and "Tootsies Orchid Lounge" is the historic Hatch Show Print. Not a club but an old fashioned printer that has been publishing handbills and posters for the music and entertainment industries for 130 years. Using a very low tech letterpress printer with carved wooden letters and logos, Hatch Show Print has produced advertising for shows from vaudeville to the Grand Ole Opry with their distinctive, hand-crafted look. In this digital age, it's worth noting that the only computer in the place is the one that takes email orders from customers!

Right behind Hatch Show Print, on Fifth Avenue, is the shrine of country music, the Ryman Auditorium. First opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, a revivalist temple, it achieved nationwide fame in 1943 when it became the home of the Grand Ole Opry and its weekly radio broadcasts. Audiences sat on pews as they listened to country music stars like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Loretta Lynn, Dotty West and Emmylou Harris. As popularity grew, Ryman's 2,300 seat capacity was insufficient for the crowds and in 1974 a new 4,400 seat venue was built about nine miles away. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Ryman is open for tours and still offers special performances during the winter.

Little Jimmy Dickens (Tater) on the Opry stage

Which brings me to the highlight of my country music adventure - Friday night at the Grand Ole Opry! Starting promptly at 7 and running exactly two hours, WSM 650 AM radio broadcasts live country music to listeners across the country and Canada. Performers are members of the Opry and are required to sing or play, at nominal fees, a certain number of times per year. But what performers they are! Never mind what the posted program states, the joy is in the surprise when the host introduces a country legend who nonchalantly strolls onto the stage and starts to sing. Old timers and new, all are welcome and the smooth delivery of the radio spokesman keeps the audience totally entertained. The Grand Ole Opry tradition continues not only in the format and the quality of the performances but also in the six foot circle of oak planks cut from the original Ryman Auditorium stage and grafted into the new so contemporary performers tread the actual boards of their illustrious predecessors.

Marty Stuart and his Band

The two hours flew by and it was wonderful! A completely transporting experience unlike any other live show I've ever attended. I was exhilarated, but more than that, I was hungry! What else would do but an after-Opry plate of barbecue at one of the speakeasies in town? After a beer and ribs and a pretty girl singing a poignant ballad it was time to go home. I fell in love with Nashville - its diversity, its gracious Southern hospitality and its independent spirit - and can't wait for the next time to go "honky-tonkin"!

Friday Night on Lower Broadway

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