From Live Music Venues to Museums, You Gain New Appreciation for Country
By Karen Rubin
My first taste of music in Music City is not Country & Western, R&B or gospel of the honky tonks, Ryman Auditorium or the Grand Ole Opry. It is the Symphonic and Chamber Choirs at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. In fact, just about every kind of music finds expression in Nashville, Tennessee.
Music seems to be just about everywhere you turn in Nashville.
Nashville is such a mecca for musicians that even the young girl singing at the karaoke place on Second Avenue sounded like a recording star, as did the performers on the street. We get into a cab and the driver, with a familiar accent, tells us he has come from New York City to make his fortune in jingle writing, holding up a cassette (on the chance that we might actually have anything to do with producing a jingle, I guess). If that were not enough, just outside the “district,” the city pipes in music from black boxes.
You don’t even have to wait for night for Nashville’s honky tonks to come alive.
They are literally next door to one another, along Broadway (also known as Honky Tonk Highway) and along Second Avenue. You go from one to the other (most don’t even have a cover charge – the performers get paid from the tips you deposit) so you can feast on the music and the atmosphere. In Nashville, they have a name for this: Honky Tonking.
It reminds me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the way you can stand at certain spots on the sidewalk and hear the music float on the air from different directions, the neon signs adding to the atmosphere of this broad way.
The music starts in the early afternoon, and I see families with young children sitting on stools at tables, enjoying the music. This is really an enchanted time, with the afternoon sun backlighting the performers, the places not as crowded or noisy as they will become. It seems the music is purer then, perhaps because the people are more focused on the performance.
I first come upon Legends, at the corner of Broadway & Fifth, the gateway to “Honky Tonk Highway”. You can’t miss it: there is a giant electric guitar outside. True to its name, it features a collection of records dating back to country music’s Golden Age, along with fabulous live music.
At The Stage, you never know who will turn up. I happen upon Ollie Carlson and his Band – from Norway, where they are a big deal, with eight #1 hits on the European chart. They are here to do a record. They pose for a picture in front of a giant mural of Country music icons, including Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
The performers are dressed in varying modes, as varied as the styles of music – some favoring the traditional cowboy style which may or may not have anything to do with the music or the performer’s own background (later, in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I learn that this was part of the emerging showbiz fashion that turned Country from folk music to pop).
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is iconic in Nashville. Originally called, “Mom’s,” Hattie Louis Tatum Bess, known as Toosie, bought the club in 1960. Tootsie was a singer, singer/comedian who recorded “My Little Red Wagon” and “Tootsie’s Wall of Fame.”
She was an impresario in her own way – slipping a $5 or $10 into the pocket of a struggling writer or picker, and it is said she had a cigar box of IOU’s for drinks and food (supposedly, at the end of the year, a bunch of Opry performers paid back the IOUs). Willie Nelson got his first songwriting job after singing at Tootsie’s; legend has it that wrote “Dang Me,” while at Tootsie’s. The photos and memorabilia that line the walls are called the “Wall of Fame.”
Tootsie’s was in many films, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about Loretta Lynn; Dean Martin filmed a segment for his TV show here. There is a whole list of Sstars recently spotted at Tootsie’s” including EmmyLou Harris, Shania Twain and Pamela Anderson.
Tootsie’s does not disappoint. It is marvelously atmospheric, colorful – even to the orchid colored light coming in from the street that softly lights a table by the window – and the music is fabulous, each and every time I pop in.
Along the way, you see the famous Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway). Celebrating its 125th anniversary, it is one of the oldest letterpress poster print shops in America, produced the posters for many of the Opry stars, as well as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen’s “Live from New York” album (www.hatchshowprint.com).
I continue down Honky Tonk Highway to Second Avenue, where there and more music places, like B.B. King’s Blues Club & Restaurant. You might also check out Charlie Daniels museum (really more of a shop with a room of memorabilia).
Winding around, I find my way to the Printers Alley Historic District, at Church and Union St., the site of the first music publishing industry in Nashville, and later, a center for newspaper publishing. It became a strip of speakeasys during Prohibition, and still retains some of that mischievous character. It has the look of Bourbon Street, and in fact, one of the places there is Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar.
Indeed, Nashville did not develop on oil money, industry, railroads or cattle.
Nashville developed as a publishing center for religious material (and is still the headquarters for the Gideon’s Bible). This is the place the Bible built.
Publishing religious hymnals led to music publishing. And the rest is history.
Even the Ryman Auditorium, famous for the Grand Ole Opry, was built as a tabernacle.
‘Mother Church of Country Music’
One of the reasons Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge became so iconic is that it is just 26 steps from its back door to the Ryman Auditorium, which, from 1943 to 1974 was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. When Hank Williams and Patsy Kline were waiting to go on, they would play at Tootsie’s.
Known as “the Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman was built in 1892 by Captain Thomas Ryman, a steamboat captain and prominent Nashville businessman, as a tabernacle for his spiritual mentor, Rev. Samuel P. Jones. A mezzanine was added to accommodate a Gathering of Confederate Soldiers, in 1897; a stage was put in, in 1901. When Ryman died, in 1910, Rev. Jones, himself, suggested the name change from the Union Gospel Tabernacle to the Ryman.
Acoustics at the Ryman are said to be second only to the Mormon Tabernacle, surpassing even Carnegie Hall – the wooden pews (they are sacred and were preserved even after the 1993 renovation) actually help the sound.
In many ways, the Ryman is a story of Nashville, itself. The Ryman was losing money and would have closed, but for Lulu C. Neff, who became its manager, and brought in prominent entertainers of a wide variety – Mary Pickford, Valentino, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Rachmaninoff. Performances of Enrico Carusa, John Phillip Sousa and the Vienna Orchestra earned the Ryman the nickname, “The Carnegie Hall of the South.”
But the Ryman became famous for the radio show, Grand Ole Opry. My favorite part of the tour was learning about the comedian Minnie Pearl, famous for her country dress and draw hat with the price tag, $1.98 and her greeting, “How-dee! I’m just so proud to be here!” She performed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 50 years – even I remember her. I was surprised to learn that this was a totally invented character of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon; far from the country bumpkin she portrayed, she was educated as a theater major at Nashville’s most prestigious school for women, Ward-Belmont College.
“Hotter than Hades” in the summer, the entire building was about to be razed in 1974, when the Grand Ole Opry moved to its new venue, Gaylord Opryland. The Nashville Banner newspaper in an April 23, 1973 article, proclaimed it was “not worth restoring.” New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Hustable wrote a scathing retort, lambasting plans to tear the Ryman down.
“Scratch almost every major happening or trend and there’s architecture behind it,” she wrote, and that is exquisitely true in Nashville.
The Ryman was originally built at a cost of $100,000; it was shut down in 1993 and renovated in 1993 at a cost of $8.5 million. Today, it continues to be a venue for concerts, even for Grand Ole Opry in the winter months, and other presentations, but is most wonderful as a museum.
You can take a self-guided tour ($12.50), seeing many marvelous artifacts, photos (there is even a small recording studio where you can make your own CD). A 30-minute backstage tour ($3.75 more) takes you to the three small dressing rooms where John Cash, the Carter Family, Chet Atkins and so many others would have been – and back stage area – you actually go to the wings of the stage, set up for the Grand Ole Opry, and even have a picture taken on stage. There are wonderful posters and photos – signed photos of Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Marion Anderson, WC Fields, Fanny Brice (615-254-1445,www.ryman.com).
Historic Studio B
Imagine sitting at the very piano where Elvis Presley played during all-night recording sessions. Visitors to RCA Studio B get that unparalleled thrill.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, RCA Studio B, between 1957 and 1977, some 35,000 records were produced here, including 4,000 “hits,” and half of Elvis’ catalog. (The guide shows us where Dolly Parton had her first “hit” – where her car hit the exterior wall).
Acquired and reopened in 2002 as a museum, you visit RCA Studio B as part of a tour from the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is here that you discover the mystery of “the Nashville Sound.”
The 1942 Steinway, built for NBC Studios in NY, has not left the room since 1957 (Elvis’ attempt to buy it was rebuffed). “If a song was recorded on RCA session in Studio B, that’s the piano that was used,” the guide says.
The guide, who confesses, “Like everyone else, I’m trying to make music,” regales us with anecdotes about Elvis at the studio – and how “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” was a perfect take until one of the back-up singers of the Jordanaires, messed up a note at the end.
He explains the source of the Nashville Sound, and how Chet Atkins, a genius guitar player and music producer, was responsible for saving Country music by “smoothing out the rough edges to appeal to broader audience” making the crossover between Country and pop.
When it was built in 1957, at the cost of $40,000, this was the state-of-the-art. By the time it closed, in 1977 (as it happens, the day after Elvis Presley died), the musicians had moved on to Hollywood and other state-of-the-art production facilities that had been built in other places.
Even so, about one-third of all the music produced in America, comes out of Nashville.
It is so fascinating to see it, pretty much just as it was left, with the original recording equipment.
Seeing Studio B gives me a whole different perspective on what I see at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
On the bus ride back from Studio B, we go through Music Row – Nashville’s own Wall Street – where music producers and recording studios are concentrated. Reba McIntyre’s own building, he says on the short bus ride back, cost more to build than Country Music Hall of Fame; it has floating rooms, so there is no vibration and better acoustics.
Country Music Hall of Fame
If the Ryman is the Mother Church of Country Music, Studio B its shrine, the Country Music Hall of Fame is surely its temple.
The Country Music Hall of Fame, in a new $37 million building, sets out the historic and cultural context for the music, which is essentially evolved out of various traditions of folk music, from the fiddle players to the gospel hymns, and how it changed in response to commercial enterprise, even from the beginning. Early promoters had little respect for what they called “hillbilly” music: Ralph Peer called it “pluperfect awful,” even as early radio fans gravitated. Even the cowboy “look” was a costume that performers began to embrace.
The early performers bristled at the “hillbilly” appellation – it wasn’t until 1949 when Billboard Magazine retitled the “Hillbilly” music chart as “Country & Western.
You get to see Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac, with a gold-plated TV and 40 coats of crushed “diamond dust pearl” paint.
Huge walls are covered in gold and platinum records, and then there is the actual “Hall of Fame.”
There are special exhibits, as well. An exhibit dedicated to Ray Charles, on through Dec. 31, 2007, provides fascinating insight into this amazing musical innovator. Of particular interest is a display of one of his glittering jackets: “This was intentional – since he was blind, he couldn’t move around, so he wanted to be the focal point.”
You can easily spend a half-day here (fortunately, there is a small caf�). Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, 615-416-2001, www.countrymusichalloffame.com).
At Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Caf�, there is the added excitement of perhaps discovering the next superstar: here songwriters perform original material in an intimate “in the round setting”. This is considered a “must do” while you’re here. (To find an updated artist/performer list www.bluebirdcafe.com.). The Bluebird Caf� is one of the restaurants known for good food and live music; others are B.B. King’s Blues Club & Restaurant and the Wild Horse Saloon.
Union Station Hotel
Ada Louise Hustable said, Nashville’s story is very much told in architecture, and in the way structures take on new uses.
In this vein, our stay at the Union Station Hotel, a Wyndham Historic Hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America, provided a perfect venue.
The Union Station Hotel is quite literally a turn-of-the-century railroad station, built in the glory days. One can easily imagine the excitement and thrill that train travel evoked in those days.
The 106-year old building is exquisite, and has been stunningly restored to its glory at a cost of $10 million, by Turnberry Associates & Corner Partners, which acquired it in August 2005. It has been a hotel since 1986.
Enter the lobby and become awed at the Romanesque architecture, the original 65-foot barrel-vaulted Tiffany-style stained glass ceiling, the gold-leaf mirrors, 12 rare gold-accented bas-relief sculptures, marble floors, oak-accented doors and walls, limestone fireplaces.
Soaring 237 feet from track level to the statue of Mercury above the clock tower, it was built of Bowling Green limestone carved on site from massive blocks, with stunning towers and arches.
Over it all, at each end of the lobby, are two giant bas-relief panels. At the north end, two angels – Time and Progress – flank a bas-relief mural showing an ancient Egyptian chariot being pulled by slaves. On the South wall there is a bas-relief depicting a locomotive pulling passenger cars, and representatives of Miss Louisville and Miss Nashville on each side of the large clock above the mural.
Oak-paneled stair cases go up floor by floor to where the guest rooms – 125 of them – are located. From the fifth floor balcony you can look down at the entire lobby. The rooms on this floor have 18-foot high ceilings and were where the railroad executive offices would have been.
The lobby once held two alligator ponds; more than a million U.S. soldiers have passed through.
Even with the refurbishment, though, you feel totally transported in time. There is a giddy delight in going through a door that says, “Track 14 to Trains.”
The rooms have all been redone and offer luxurious amenities including plasma flat-screen television, Ergonomic Herman Miller Aeron work-chair, cordless telephone, custom CD player. The hotel also offers a new fitness center, complimentary business center and is opening a premier restaurant and lounge.
The hotel is located at the edge of the revitalized downtown “District” – a pleasant walk to the main downtown attractions and Music Row – and is literally next door to the incredible Frist Center for the Visual Arts, itself housed in a stunning Art Deco building that was originally the U.S. Post Office, built as a WPA project during the Depression.
For more information about visiting and the Music City Total Access Pass contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 150 Fourth Avenue North, Suite G-250 Nashville, TN 37219, 800-657-6910,www.visitmusiccity.com.
See also: Nashville Attractions
© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com