“Well, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee ant hill
Yeah, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks 'is guitar could play
Twice as better than I will”
Nashville Cats lyrics © CARLIN AMERICA INC, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC
John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote the song Nashville Cats many years ago. And as everyone knows, Nashville is Music City. But that’s just for country music, right? Well, no.
I recently had the pleasurable experience of hanging out in Nashville for a weekend. And let me tell you, that is one FUN town. We did the Airbnb thing, and got a nice condo right across the street from Vanderbilt University. Hotels are very expensive in Nashville, and the condo gig worked out really well – more space, less money – but you never quite know what you’re getting with the condo rentals until you show up. I don’t need a super fancy hotel, although I must say that I do like fancy hotels. My three “must haves” are a clean room, a safe location, and a good bed. The last one pretty much became a rule when traveling in Europe – have you ever had one of those European “king-sized beds” that is really two saggy twin mattresses pushed together? Well, I have, and I always seem to wake up repeatedly in the middle crack (that just doesn’t sound right, does it?) and it sucks. Anyway, this airbnb condo was clean, in a good part of town, and the bed was fine. So, it worked out well, and proved to be a convenient and well-appointed base of operations.
Now, the whole purpose of going to Nashville was to eat southern food and go see live music. We threw in some great history, too (more below on that). Let’s start with the music. If you’ve been to Nashville or are a country music fan, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Ryman Auditorium. The Grand Ole Opry was held here every Saturday night for about 31 years (1943 – 1974), so it’s loaded with country music history. But the building itself is so much cooler than just that historical fact.
Ryman started out as a church. To this day, it still has pews and peaked gothic-style windows that we would associate with Christian churches. If you’re in the south, and you have a church/music connection, you know you’re on to something special. Anyway, the place always was used for more than just praising the lord, and performances were a key part of its history.
One of the cool things about the Ryman is that it was first built in the round, but is now just a semi-circle. It was also originally built without a balcony, but one was added by the Confederate veterans of the Civil War (hence, there is a large sign that says “1897 Confederate Gallery” that still hangs from the balcony) and these two changes transformed the place into an acoustical masterpiece. Its acoustics are the stuff of legend. And with the church motif, it is as close as you come to a cathedral of music. I love this space.
Eventually, the Ryman was looking for anything it could find to fill its nightly bill, and through happenstance, it wound up being the home of the Opry. Now, if you think about when the Opry was based at the Ryman (1943-1974), you will recognize that the Ryman run coincides with the “golden age” of country music, and as such, just about everyone has played the Ryman. You know the names, no need to repeat them here. The Opry eventually left, moving to an ugly modern building on the Briley Parkway outside of downtown, and the Ryman fell derelict for a while. But it did not succumb to the wrecking ball, and was eventually restored to its former majesty. Not only that, it still has live music and the bands that now come through there are a “who’s who” of great performers, including rock, bluegrass, country, gospel, blues and everything in between.
I was so excited about the Ryman that I scalped some tickets for a Friday night show. And check out this double bill: Junior Brown, an American country treasure, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. For whatever reason, I ended up in the sixth row again, and it was fabulous. Unfortunately, I still had my crappy iPhone 5, and the pictures don’t do the place justice, but I took a lot of pics both during the show and the next day when we took a backstage tour of the building. (By the way, the backstage tour is very cool, and it is worth the price of admission.)
There was one flaw in the Friday night. We had a really obnoxious drunk guy sitting right behind us. He talked throughout the show, hollered “Susan I love you” to Susan Tedeschi repeatedly, and was simply boorish. I gave him some crap (yo, I’m from Philly, it’s what we do), the ushers talked to him a few times, and ultimately, he left early. He was with a girl, not bad looking, but clearly lacking in self-respect. Other than that, the show was badass.
Junior Brown is super cool. He comes dressed in a cowboy hat and suit with a tie. Junior has this funky guitar that looks homemade, and he plays it while it rests upon a stand, sort of like a standup pedal steel, but not really. He has great songs that are the archetype of country music: authentic, American middle class songs about bars, highway patrolmen, drinking, and the like. And he does this great homage to the Ventures with a montage of their songs mixed all together with a country twang. I had seen him open for the Rev. Horton Heat before, and loved him. For me, Junior Brown was as big a reason to go to the Ryman as the headliner.
And that’s not to diminish that headliner. Tedeschi Trucks is a damn fine band, too! They have a lot of good songs, an incredible 9 piece band with two drummers and a full horn section, and Susan Tedeschi, who is a really good singer. Oh, and did I forget to mention Derek Trucks who happens to be one of the best guitarists out there today? They orbit in the Allman Bros alumni circuit, but stand tall and proud on their own. We had seen them at the Warner Theatre in DC with my buddy Jonathan and his wife Sara, and they brought it then and again at the Ryman. I refrained from yelling out that I love Susan because, well, I love Derek, haha. But seriously, it was a rocking good time by a very solid band at the top of their game.
So that was Friday night. On Saturday, it was time to eat and then go honky-tonking on South Broadway. This is where the John Sebastian homage to guitar pickers in Nashville really takes hold. Nashville has become this musical artist’s haven that attracts talent from all spectrums. And the resulting mix of artistic talents does a few things. First, it makes the baseline for musicians in the town very, very high. There are any number of musicians playing with great bands for no cover charge in the city’s honky-tonks, and they are really good. Second, it means that the music industry in this town is thriving. That is clearly opposed to most other places. That happy result accelerates the conglomeration of talent in the town to the point where you have rockers like Kings of Leon, Black Keys, Ben Folds, Jack White, Ke$ha (did I say rockers?), etc, all calling Nashville home. And third, there is an amazing but healthy competition in the town among the musicians, and so much mutual respect it is absurd.
So there we were, going to Tootsie’s, the Stage, Layla’s and the other honky-tonks that line about four city blocks right next to the Ryman and downtown. You go from bar to bar, walk in and check out the live acts, and if you like it, you hang out or you move on if you’re not feeling it. Some even have multiple stages and bands playing in different places within the same venue. No cover charge, no drink minimums, no nothing. There are only a few cities in the country where this kind of live music atmosphere exists, with Austin, New Orleans and Memphis being the obvious examples. So it’s very cool and unique.
We stayed a lot at the Stage. A band led by a guy named Stephen Kelly Hunt played in the evening, and simply rocked out. They performed all covers, no doubt, but even the country music that they covered was backed by a smoking band that gave an edge to the songs. We danced and partied. And here’s one of the cool things about Nashville: the crowd is an incredibly mixed-age bunch, with plenty of boomers like us, but also plenty of college-aged kids and a ton of bachelor and bachelorette parties, too. So we hung with some drunk guys from Philly who were there on a bachelor party, a mixed aged family group, a young couple from rural Missouri, and others. There are plenty of cool people, and a number of eccentrics that only seem to exist in America. It was just terrific fun.
On Sunday, we hung out in Layla’s for a while, and shared a table with a guitarist who I didn’t know and wasn’t playing, but whom everyone else in the joint seemed to know. And there was this 16 year old kid that was playing with the band on occasion, and man, oh man, could this kid rip it up! I can’t remember his name, but he has the gift. And in Tootsie’s, in a middle bar between other bands, we watched some up-and-coming musicians take their chance at an open-mike hour. Nashville is interesting: even though the honky-tonks are touristy, the regulars go to them, too, and musicians just hang out in them to see who else is playing or to try and catch someone’s eye.
Did I mention food? Well, I love barbeque, and we hit two different joints: Edley’s and Martin’s. Both were outstanding, but Edley’s ran out of the brisket before I got my share! We also found a branch of Chuy’s, the small chain of Tex-Mex restaurants that started on Barton Springs Road in Austin. That was a terrific find, and I pigged out on chips and salsa to a disgusting degree. And we ate some southern chow (fried chicken, OMG) at a downtown restaurant, but I can’t remember it’s name – that’s unfortunate because both the food and the service were great. All that washed down by sweet tea. And let me tell you, the southern friendliness of Nashville was amazing, too. It was, my friends, southern heaven.
One other activity, and of the nerd variety, was to go to Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, which is about 20 minutes from downtown Nashville. I don’t have a picture of Jackson, but look in your wallet and pull out a $20 bill, and there he is (do it quickly, though, because Harriett Tubman is going to replace him). The Hermitage is interesting, there is a lot of historical information about Old Hickory, and you get to relive him kicking the Brits asses in New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. Actually, it was after the war officially ended, but hey, his internet was down and he just went ahead and ruined their healthy breakfast of bubble and squeak for good. And stay out this time! Seriously, the house is cool, and it was so deep in the boonies back then. I don’t know who went to visit him, or how long it took him to go east to the capital, but it must have been one helluva trek. A triumph of American individualism yet again!
So that’s it for Nashville, one of America’s greatest music cities. I want to go again. Yep, it was that fun. I took some pictures of the South Broadway strip as well as the Ryman, and I hope that you like them. If you get the chance, go and have a great time. What happens in Nashville doesn’t stay in Nashville. Rather it becomes a country song that everyone in the world will listen to over and over.
Until next time, thanks again for reading.
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.