In Nashville, music is as much a part of life as breathing. Then there the many other experiences to be had. This is no one-trick city.
The lights fade to black inside the small room with its piano keys waiting for hands that will never make sweet music again. The voice of Elvis begins singing Are You Lonesome Tonight. Our senses are sharpened by the dark, and his velvety tones are so pure that it feels like he is in the room with us. His spirit might well have been because in that room, in the famous Studio B at RCA in Nashville, Elvis recorded that song, in one take mind you, along with 260 others. An ‘X is marked on the floor to show where he used to stand to take advantage of the sweet spot in the studio. I am not a real Elvis fan, but hearing his voice in that studio, made the hairs on my neck stand to attention and goosebumps rise like an avid congregation.
The history within these walls is mind-boggling, with a veritable who’s who of country music recording at RCA, including Willie Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton – who wrote and recorded I Will Always Love You and Jolene – all in one day.
The tour of RCA Studio B starts and finishes at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with the vintage bus ride to and from providing plenty of information and no shock absorbers. The Hall of Fame and Museum has a cleverly designed exterior; it looks like a bass-clef from the air, and the windows replicate a piano keyboard.
Inside, it contains a treasure trove of country music history. Imagine 500,000 images, nearly 500 musical instruments, more than 1,900 items of stage wear, personal clothing, and accessories, and thousands of other three-dimensional objects—from microphones to automobiles—documenting the history and culture of country music. Highlights for me are Elvis’ Cadillac with its diamond-encrusted exterior, Taylor Swift’s tour bus where you can actually record a song, and the Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City exhibit. Many people are surprised to find out that Bob Dylan had a lot to do with the growth of country music, changing it from the original routes to a broader music form. Pleasingly, you can visit the Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City exhibition online.
Don’t miss a visit to the Hall of Fame. To be inducted here is country music’s highest honour. You can see the plaques of all the members of the Hall of Fame in the Rotunda – designed in the round to ensure that every Hall of Fame member has a place of equal importance. All members inducted have plaques in here. They are placed randomly apart from the inductees of this year – one of whom was Ray Charles.
Also check out the Walk of Fame which is across the street from the Hall of Fame.
A new addition to the music scene in Nashville came this year – with the opening of the National Museum of African American Music. NMAAM is the only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans.
Another place that has helped the careers of people like Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Carole King is the Bluebird Café; a nondescript building tucked in a small suburban shopping strip between The Patio and the Green Hills Barber Shop. There are no big names playing when we slip into the magical world inside, but we are treated to a beautiful evening with Sonia Lee, Lisa Bokrop, Hobo Cane and Jon Vezner, all telling stories about songs they have written before performing them to a crowd that does not utter a sound. The policy is ‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ and the crowd laps it up, ears tuned to every nuance, every chocolate tone and every single word. We leave feeling privileged and with some newly purchased CD’s from the singers clutched in hand.
There is more to add to your musical itinerary. Nashville is the home of the Grand Ol Opry. There is nothing else like it. The Opry started out as a radio broadcast in 1925 and is now an entertainment phenomenon. The shows feature a perfect mix of country music legends, new stars and up and comers. But the thing I love is that the show is still broadcast on the radio. When I was there, an up and comer by the name of Brett Young was performing at this first Opry show. Now, he is a fully-fledged star.
The Ryman Auditorium is another country music icon. It is hallowed ground. It is at the Ryman that bluegrass was born. It was at The Ryman Johnny Cash met June Carter. It was built by a steamboat captain named Ryman. It had its glory days when the Opry called it home. And then it sat empty and crumbling. Thankfully it was saved, restored, and now is the place that many careers are made. It is also one of the best places acoustically – which is why not just country music artists play here. Even the Boss – Bruce Springsteen has played here.
Elsewhere around Nashville, you’ll find music everywhere. Go for a stroll down Broadway and find pumping honky-tonks, bands in windows, bands on rooftops and music pumping from pedal taverns. These things are a sort of movable bar – they move around the streets using the pedal power of progressively drunken partygoers. There are also long open-aired limos that hold groups of bachelorettes. It might not be my scene, but it does add an air of excitement. There is street art, art galleries, western boutiques, and fabulous dining experiences to be enjoyed. You have to try Nashville’s famous hot chicken. Not like – warm chicken. I am talking hot-set-your-mouth-on-fire-hot. The place to try this hot chicken is Hattie B’s. The chicken here is rated from mild to hot, to damn hot, and then there is the Shut The Cluck Up. We are talking seriously hot. I did a tiny, teeny taste of the Damn Hot chicken, and my lips were burning all day. Imagine what the Shut the Cluck Up would do.
Nashville also surprised with a full-sized replica of The Parthenon in Centennial Park. Yes, that Parthenon. It was built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. A highlight is the massive and, yes, true size replica of the statue of Athena. It stands a whopping 12.8 metres tall and shines in gold. The Parthenon is also an art gallery. Add its glorious grounds, and it is a place not to be missed.
Another string to the Nashville bow is Belle Meade Mansion and Winery. It covers a history that is not always sunny but nonetheless happened. The property dates back to 1807 and, as well as other things, has a great history in breeding thoroughbreds. A horse named Bonnie Scotland was the greatest sire to ever stand at Belle Meade, and his descendants represent more than two-thirds of all Kentucky Derby winners to date, including 11 Triple Crown Winners. Pretty impressive. Do a tour of the mansion, then the amazing stables with a treasure trove of carriages and other memorabilia. It is also a very successful winery with tastings available and also offers bourbon tastings. When you tour the property, look at the columns out the front of the house. You can see bullet holes left from a small skirmish on Belle Meade’s front lawn in 1864 during the Battle of Nashville.
Nashville Tourism: www.visitmusiccity.com