Nashville: more than the music

Nashville is home to all music genres, from jazz, blues and soul to bluegrass, rock and gospel,...
Nashville is home to all music genres, from jazz, blues and soul to bluegrass, rock and gospel, but country is king. PHOTO: VISIT MUSIC CITY
Nashville is awash in live music, around the clock. It’s the perfect destination for couples who love music but don’t necessarily like talking to each other, because you’d struggle to be heard over the noise anyway, writes Mike Yardley.

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 Underwoods are waiting to be discovered.

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 backstory 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 riverboat captain and businessman 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 travelling evangelist Sam Jones, legend has it that he was converted on the spot and set about raising the money for the Union Gospel Tabernacle.

Ryman Auditorium, the ‘‘Carnegie Hall of the South’’. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Ryman Auditorium, the ‘‘Carnegie Hall of the South’’. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
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, but its greatest legacy began in 1943, 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.

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 reopening 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.

A short drive out of town in Music Valley, I attended an evening show at the Grand Ole Opry, which was 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 Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton and Randy Travis. It's a classy and highly engaging encounter with Nashville music royalty, 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, including Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, electrified their audiences.

The Ryman Auditorium during the recording of the Grand Ole Opry.
The Ryman Auditorium during the recording of the Grand Ole Opry.
Back in the heart of Nashville, 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 multimedia displays.

The museum groans with over 2.5 million artifacts, one-of-a-kind recordings, instruments and costumes, including Hank Williams' 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 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 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 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 artefacts on display, ranging from his custom-made Gibson J200 guitar, gold records, and costumes.

Inside one of the neon-spangled honky-tonk bars.
Inside one of the neon-spangled honky-tonk bars.
Interactive displays vividly bring to life the story of the 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. Cline was tragically 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 Honky-tonk 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 the 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. A young Willie Nelson turned heads with his song Crazy at Tootsie's in the early 1960s.

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.

Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint smokes its hogs for a full day and serve it until it runs out ... period...
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint smokes its hogs for a full day and serve it until it runs out ... period.
A great way to accentuate your urban exploration of Nashville is to jump aboard 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 13m 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, such as mashed potatoes, mac and 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 Bar-B-Que Joint, which the locals rave 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 babecue ribs. Their Redneck Taco with pulled pork and coleslaw served on cornbread hoe-cake is a party in your mouth.

There is a palpable spark permeating Nashville, with hordes of start-ups sprouting across the Tennessee capital, making it one of the United States' 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.


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