Nashville: music city

by Dan.Hipgrave

From Hank Williams and Dolly Parton to Jimi Hendrix and, of course, Elvis Presley, the city of Nashville has music running through its veins


‘Play the song where the second line starts with thank you,’ shouted highly-acclaimed singer/songwriter Dana Cooper to Grammy-winner Jeff Hanna. Hanna is a member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who last year picked up best country song at the prestigious Grammy awards. ‘OK, but only if y’all help out with the harmonies.’ Hanna crooned the first line, paused to receive the rapturous applause, then politely and humbly replied, ‘thank you.’ 

This is Nashville, music city USA. A city where guitars are on display in the airport lobby, Grammy-winners mix with struggling songwriters, musicians outnumber non-musicians, and the dream to make a living from music is very real. If the person you’re talking to isn’t a songwriter, they’re probably married to one, have a sibling who's one or one day might well give birth to one. ‘My husband writes songs professionally,’ explained one lady I met. ‘He had an unfortunate episode with his heart last year. It’s incredible - as he woke after surgery, the cardiologist handed him a demo asking if he wouldn’t mind taking a listen.’ She continued proudly, ‘That’s Nashville for you!’
The show where Jeff Hanna performed his award-winning song was Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café, a cute little place just outside town. Dilapidated in appearance, it sits quietly between larger, newer establishments. But inside, history is made! Local stars such as Garth Brooks and Vince Gill sealed their fate here. Songwriters who may not be famous but have a commendable legacy of songs play here. You can’t talk about music in Nashville unless you mention the Bluebird and you can’t talk in the Bluebird without being hushed! The emphasis is rightly on the listening. 
The four singers who took to the central circular stage in this small intimate venue were amongst the best in town. Jeff’s folk-singer wife Matraca Berg, also part of the line-up, coyly announced in her beautiful southern drawl, ‘This year I’ve been nominated for best song at the Grammies. I want to win so Jeff stops prattlin' on about his’. These guys were talking about Grammies like they were just popping to Tesco to pick up some groceries!
Also performing was ‘the female Rod Stewart’, Kim Carnes, who performed her 80s classic ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, also a Grammy winner. For three hours they each took turns in performing one incredible song after another. My friend Jim and I sat at a small candlelit table just inches away and remained in utter silence for the duration. When we left to return to our hotel we were still speechless. I had just witnessed what could well be the best gig of my life!
Although Nashville has a small-town feel to it, the locals can make some noise. Downtown, the obligatory skyscrapers peer down on the older more traditional architecture, largely untouched during the civil war. Lower Broadway is the main tourist area, where you’ll find a plethora of bars and tacky gift shops. Nashville is also famous for its excellent barbecue restaurants, of which there are plenty. Jack’s Grill is one of the better-known amongst the locals for the best barbecue chicken. The system in this establishment is straightforward - you collect a ticket and tick the appropriate boxes for what you’d like to eat - and at $6, it’s nice and cheap!
The bars along downtown Broadway are filled day and night with people whooping and a-hollering to the sounds of country music. They call this honky tonkin’, something I imagined only took place in a Smokey and the Bandit movie. It amounts to a lot of drinking and shouting, and is a whole lot of fun. Just don’t refer to the music as country and western, as I did. Apparently that went out with John Wayne, and if line dancing’s your thing this isn’t the place for you. Locals sneer at the mere mention.

Rippy’s bar and grill, on the corner of Broadway and 4th, is a good benchmark for Nashville’s all-American lifestyle. A typical American bar, it’s inviting and friendly, with Nashvillians always ready to welcome you into their pack. The walls inside are plastered with posters of local heroes such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and numerous ice hockey stars. As in so many American bars, the centrepiece is the long bar, perfect for propping up with a cold Bud, the locals' tipple at $3.50 a bottle. I, on the other hand, prefer an imported European beer such as Heineken and get stung for $5.

The food here in the southern states isn’t the healthiest, but heck it’s nice! Barbecued ribs and chicken, beans and coleslaw, with a side chunk of incredibly sweet corn bread, are the staples. Southern food derives from the bad old slave days; it’s true comfort food and not half bad after a few drinks! The burgers at Rippy's come in any height, width or rawness. To my amusement, the menu’s got a ‘we dare you’ section, offering portions so big only genetically grown humans could contemplate finishing.

Another popular Nashville pastime is sport. Not playing it, but watching it, preferably with a beer. It’s almost impossible to sit anywhere without getting a front-row view of a 42-inch plasma. The Gaylord entertainment centre across the road from Rippy’s hosts ice hockey games and rock concerts and is a dominant building downtown. Across Nashville’s Cumberland River is the Tennessee Titans football stadium, which holds a staggering 70,000 people. But the main attraction is always the music.

Country music’s superlative quality is the laidback, honest storytelling in the lyrics. Yes, it can be repetitive; yes, most songs involve basic subject matter such as women, trucks, whisky and hound dogs. But there’s something remarkably catchy and easy about the whole genre. Dressed in washed denim, black boots and customary Stetsons, the two men who sat strumming away in the corner of Rippy’s looked every bit the cowboy. Yet as they harmonized Johnny Cash lyrics (‘I find it very, very easy to be true, yet I find myself alone when each day is through’), it revealed a sensitive side. As guitarists, they were exceptional, making me feel guilty for having been a professional for so many years. Then again, this is the city Jimi Hendrix was quoted as saying was ‘the city which really taught me to play’. Standards here are high!

The Country Music Hall of Fame on 5th Avenue pays homage to the great singers and records Nashville has produced. It’s a four-floor walk-through museum taking up a whole block covering 40,000 square feet of exhibit space. For me it was a real education. There are booths where you can hear recordings dating back as far as the 1920s. As the museum progressed so did the decades and I became more familiar with the artists, such as Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton and, of course, Elvis Presley.

Elvis made some of his most successful recordings in Nashville’s historic RCA studio B. The studio is open to the public and is one of the attractions I was most looking forward. It did not disappoint. On arrival, it looked more like a family home in a residential neighbourhood than a world-class hit factory. Inside, though, it was more like an Aladdin’s cave, filled with musical riches. Being in the room where Elvis recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ and ‘It’s Now Or Never’ and Roy Orbison laid down ‘Only the Lonely’ was eerie and electrifying.

After a long day I headed to downtown Broadway where 21st Street turns into the delightfully cosmopolitan Hillsboro village. This west-end district is packed full of civilised cafés, after-work wine bars and sophisticated restaurants. Expensive looking boutiques, interesting second-hand book shops, new and vintage clothing stores and elegant home furnishing stores feed the urban appetite here. It’s clearly where the anti-cowboy spends time. The place to eat breakfast in the morning is the popular Pancake Pantry. As I sat working my way through the mountain of bacon, eggs, hash browns and a tower of pancakes, I realised locals were willing to queue for as long as it took to get their morning fix.

At night hip Hillsboro comes to life. The clientele are a young, affluent, arty crowd. The bars are more reminiscent of San Francisco and New York and the restaurants actually have side dishes of healthy vegetables! There are no Stetsons and jazz is more likely to be on the melody menu! There is another side to Nashville and I’d found it at just the right time!



Dan Hipgrave made his name as the guitarist in rock band Toploader. He now travels the world as a journalist, writing regularly for publications such as The Independent, The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He also presents a regular travel item on BBC2's Market Kitchen. Dan believes the best way to truly discover a place is to immerse into local cultures and hang out with locals - they always know best! Favourite places: Andalucia Fes / Marrakech and anywhere in South East Asia