Music City, USA
If there is a town that loves Johnny Cash more than Nashville, Tennessee, I haven't seen it. His likeness is everywhere, there is a JC museum downtown, and every bar band seems to play Folsom Prison Blues. I was back in Nashville this past weekend to attend a wedding, but hey, it's BRP, I love Johnny Cash, and there's live music everywhere. No caution needed here - time to party at the wedding and then enjoy Music City.
Nashville - wasn't it a flyover city for those on the coasts just a few short years ago? - is one fun place, and it exudes music everywhere. Not only is there ubiquitous live music, but there is music row (full of record labels, agents, attorneys and others serving the music business), the Grand Ole Opry (which was dark on my free night in town), music museums, record stores, and on and on. But like its later embrace of Johnny Cash, it is constantly changing and it isn't just a country music hotbed anymore. Far from it.
I've been to Nashville a number of times. You can catch blues nightly at Bourbon Street Blues in Printer's Alley, hit tons of venues spread all over the city, go to the Opry, or venture to the Ryman which is a cathedral of music. And if you're just in town to have fun or no one is playing of note, you can stroll down South Broadway and check out the honky tonks. Sure, you'll hear George Strait, Toby Keith, Travis Tritt, Merle Haggard and the aforementioned Mr. Cash. But people still like to rock out, and it's amazing how much rock you'll hear, particularly the electric blues. It's ubiquitous.
I saw one show at the Acme Feed & Seed that I'll post about separately, but I spent about 4 hours in the honky tonks on a Sunday afternoon/evening, and was impressed by the variety and quality of the music. Yeah, they're all cover bands, but they are GOOD cover bands, a testament to the fact that the Nashville scene has a high density of super-talented musicians looking to be discovered. And they play all kinds of music.
But let me tell you about some other things going on about town that are making it a bit less pleasant than that last time I was here about 3 years ago.
Nashville has become the number one city in the country for hosting bachelor and bachelorette parties. Cool, right? Well, maybe not cool. Maybe more like interesting. I don't know when it became de rigueur to have out-of-town, multi-day stag or hen parties, but it's the norm among the millennials, and they flock to Nashville (that might explain why they can't buy a house or pay off their college loans). I have a few pictorial examples of them riding around town in these various contraptions (some are pulled by farm tractors, haha), dancing and drinking. We saw them at 11 in the morning on Saturday already tanked up and yelling and screaming.
The locals call them "woo hoo" girls. Sorry, ladies, but the women are more visible screaming and drinking than are the men, who simply drink to oblivion. In fact, we saw a bachelor party on Friday night, and two of the 8 or so guys were so freakin' drunk it was hard to believe they were still standing. One guy almost fell down flat, and he was big. In fact, the group was going into a honky-tonk, and he slurred out that his license was incorrect: It said he weighed 380 pounds, but he really was 340. Honestly, I couldn't tell whether he was lying or not, but if he went down, it was going to take some serious muscle to get him tossed out on the sidewalk. But the women are far more visible than the men, and the woo hoo moniker is used as both admiration of women hitting it and having fun and derision for some of the over-the-top hijinks going on.
Anyway, the stags and hens are in Nashville for a different reason than many others, and I'm beginning to think that the two are becoming less and less compatible. There is an industry that has grown up around them, and it's getting to the point that the locals have had enough. There are tons of people, many of them drunk, on those electric scooters that seem like a good urban idea until you see it in practice. Those scooters are everywhere, and many are just dumped on the sidewalk, and SUI (scootering under the influence) is an epidemic and a dangerous one. Anyway, the city council is voting soon to ban them. Hmmmm, had enough? It took me about an hour in the city to say "hey, this place is overtouristed now - I wonder where the next yet-to-be-discovered music city is so we can visit?" But then I remembered I was in Nashville and that Nashville is great.
But it's different than before. Nashville is compact and not really a very big city. When something runs amok, you're going to notice it. Just like when something cool runs amok, it's going to be in your face everywhere. So we're back full circle: time to talk some music.
We were on SoBro, and went first to The Stage. We had had a great time here before, and wanted to see if lightening could strike twice. It came close - this band was kickin' it with a hopped up rockin' country vibe. The woman on fiddle was terrific and blazed through some great solos. Sure, the lead guy had the cheesy Nashville front-man thing down, but as corny as that can be, it's still fun. We hung here for a while, and then went looking for something a bit more rock 'n' roll. We decided not to eat at the Stage, but that fried bologna sandwich was tempting and looked like a good value.
I can't remember the name of the next bar, but the band below was playing. That female lead up front had a super sweet voice, and the band was tight. They played a good variety, but we only caught about 3 tunes before they took a break. Onward and upward.
Layla's was the next bar, so in we went. These guys were cranking out the Allman Brothers Whipping Post when we entered, and it was great. They moved on to CCR, The Outlaws Green Grass and High Tides (which is hard to play without that 3 lead guitar attack, but they did a credible job), Wild Night by Van Morrisson (not too good, but I love that song anyway) and then they ripped up Badfinger's No Matter What, another BRP favorite and the first time I've seen a band cover it. Our table neighbors seemed bemused that I knew every word. The last song we listened to was a mediocre cover of the Stones Street Fighting Man. Alas, they then took a break and we moved on again.
Dierks Bentley has opened up a huge honky-tonk and we plopped in there. It has about 4 levels with bands on each of them. We liked these guys as they were rocking. They played Brian Adams Summer of 69. I know Jonathan isn't a fan of this song, but he's wrong about it as it is fun and good to sing along to with tons of other baby boomers. But really blew me away was this trio's take on the Who's We Don't Get Fooled Again. The synthesizer parts of that song were played on this dude's guitar, and it sounded amazing. He was quite a good performer and really rocked it hard. We enjoyed these guys, but got the stink eye from a blue-haired waitress because we didn't buy a second round, so we hit it again.
It's amazing that this much talent is just playing without cover charges. They ask for people to hit the tip jar, which I do every time if they are worthy (most are), but you'd be surprised how many people just strut out without parting with a thin dime. But they pony up when it's time for bar food and drinks. I felt downright svelte in Nashville, which was nice. It was also nice to be surrounded by a lot of people from the South, with their kindness and manners. There were also a lot of people who were wearing Americana stuff - flag shirts, veteran shirts and the like. It's different here.
Anyway, we sauntered down to Acme Feed and Seed, which is at the very end of SoBro and has a nice view of the Cumberland River. It was worth it. The band that we caught, but only for about 5 songs, was just RIPPING it. They rocked hard - I can't remember every tune, but they played a particularly memorable version of Sweet's Barroom Blitz at the appropriate volume and level of enthusiasm. We were groovin' to these guys. But once again, we didn't catch their entire act, and thus, we moved on yet again. I had to hit the head before we left, and came upon one of my favorite signs about hippies, too. Nice!
Dierks isn't the only one who has put up a huge new honky-tonk since the last time I was here. Another one is Kid Rock, who now lives in Nashville (well, outside of town in a trailer with a huge party deck - it's true, look it up). We were disappointed with the band who played a mediocre version of the Allman's One Way Out. But we had 20 minutes of fun at the American Bad Ass's venue.
We were heading back to get something to eat, and passed the Mellow Mushroom. I don't think I've ever seen a funk band on SoBro, but here it was and we pounced on it. Whoa, baby, did we save the best for last. These guys were great, having fun and playing just wonderful songs. They did an 8 minute version of Ben E. King's Stand by Me, complete with a verse of Cupid and a verse of Tracks of My Tears thrown in. They played Marvin Gaye, they played Stevie Wonder and we were loving it. But we were also burning out and getting hungry. When they cranked into (wait for it....) Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, we called it a day. But what a day!
Yeah, Nashville. It's great, but it's getting saturated and overtouristed. But it's great. I would go back again in a heartbeat, and bitch about the woo-hoo's as I jump in bar after bar featuring cover band extraordinaires. It's fun fun fun. And when you pump yourself full of barbeque or hot chicken, well, you get to strut around having fun in a way that you just can't replicate north of the Mason-Dixon line. Yeah, I know, I love Philly and it's music scene, but Nashville doesn't have a scene, it has a way of life. And it's cool. The only other places that are anything like it are Austin and New Orleans.
Well, and maybe another town in Tennessee where I'm off to next. Oh, and there's this place in Georgia called Athens that also has a pretty pumped up scene for a city it's size. Check back as my mid-South music adventure continues. I hope it's nice where you are, and that you're inspired enough after reading this to listen to Folsom Prison Blues, a truly great song. Keep rockin'!
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My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.