Sunday, 4 August 2013

Nashville: Music City for the weekend


Friends and colleagues were bemused. Nashville?!, the word said with barely disguised incredulity, the query left unsaid. We had paid a fleeting visit in 1996, but had seen far too little as the bus tour of the South had us staying out of town. Having visited dozens of cities, including New Orleans and Memphis, the self-styled Music City lived up to expectations and must rank among the top of places to spend a long weekend. Not only for the music, though that is great - and more varied than sceptics might expect - but also for a good sense of its own history.
We just had three nights in the town that has become synonymous with country music, but could happily have spent seven. There was so much to see, and so much music to enjoy. And with the TV series Nashville, and its music produced by T Bone Burnett, the city is enjoying a tourist boom especially at venues featured on the show.
Of course, we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. There is a lot of kitsch, of course, with plenty of rhinestone outfits and dazzling boots, but there is also a good mix of country music and social history, including the role of the depression and the Dust Bowl, and a nod to Cecil Sharp and the roots of country in Britain and Ireland. A special exhibition on Bakersfield was fascinating, showing the California town brought forth more than Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and was as important as Nashville in its day.
Sitting alongside the Steinway in RCA Studio B where Elvis recorded most of his records (only a few were recorded at Sun City in Memphis) - and where the Everly Brothers and many country legends recorded their hits – felt like being a part of pop history. And walking the corridors of the Ryman Auditorium – original home of the Grand Ole Opry – evoked a sense not only of music history, but also the politics and culture of the South. It saw political rallies, Presidents passing though, great opera singers like Caruso and McCormack, and the full impact of women’s suffrage and civil rights politics in its day.

There was music coming from every doorway on Broadway from 11am until late, and the standard in the honky tonks was pretty good. But we had real treats with a group of up and coming singers at The Listening Room caf√©, which serves good food too, wonderful bluegrass at the Station Inn in the Gulch (expect to pay just $30 for cover, a pizza and two beers), and superb blues at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers’ Alley. Unfortunately, we had no chance of getting into the Bluebird Cafe, since the TV series made its name.

We had seats near the stage for a varied mix of acts at the Grand Ole Opry – most impressive was Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Senior, but there was a mix of rock and traditional country, good Cajun music and a few ageing legends still in good voice too – interspersed with the in-you-face advertising that characterises American radio. The Opry is now 11 miles out of town, but worth the $25 cab ride for a unique experience. The two hour show is split in four sections, and gets through a dozen acts a night.

But Nashville has more than music. The Tennessee State Museum (free admission) is currently hosting an excellent temporary exhibition of civil war documents, and a well presented permanent exhibition on the civil war and the political and social history of the state. I hadn’t realised there were Black politicians elected to the Tennessee legislature in the 20 years after the Civil War, though none from then to the 1960s, as the appalling segregationist laws took hold.


A 12-mile $30 taxi ride out of town took us to Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, a well-preserved early 19th century home in a 1200 acre farm, with surviving slave quarters preserved on site. Jackson was the first US President elected my popular white male franchise and helped found the Democratic Party, but was also a slave owner and a pretty unscrupulous politician in many ways. An admirable warts and all approach is taken at the site, which is one of the most visited Presidential homes in the US.

We stayed at the charming century-old Hermitage Hotel . Its old-fashioned, well-equipped and cosy rooms, delightful staff and a location in walking distance of most attractions, make it a great base in the city, though there are plenty of less expensive alternatives downtown.
Two useful things that Nashville does, which others could emulate. First, while we were there the stores were enjoying a boom thanks to a state tax holiday, on clothing worth below $100 and on computer equipment up to $1500 value and school supplies. It may give a fillip to families, but is undoubtedly helping trade and the local economy too (although it is also true that the biggest lines were at the Apple store). Its temporary nature – three days only – suggests a more productive approach than a long-term VAT holiday.

Second, the city (as does Miami) has set fares from the airport to Downtown and other zones, and to the Opry. Such a scheme could provide reassurance at British and European airports (especially, to pick two from the top of my head, Prague and Madrid, where the taxi drivers are particularly helpful – to themselves).

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