Country & Western Travel: Nashville
When two of my close friends and I decided to visit Nashville last fall, it wasn’t because the city was named one of the best places to visit in 2014 by Travel + Leisure, although it added justification.
Nor was it entirely because of our passion for country music – although that certainly played a major role. Admittedly, our desire to spend a few days in Music City had been spurred by the TV series, Nashville, created by Callie Khouri (of Thelma & Louise fame) and, in particular, by the show’s dark and brooding (he’s a musician, after all) male lead, Deacon Clayborne, played with gravely masculine finesse by actor Charles Esten.
Call it wishful thinking, but we hoped Nashville would prove a beacon for Deacon types – that all-American male who drives a truck, plays guitar and croons in a tight T-shirt and tighter jeans (I’m looking at you, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw). If nothing else, it provided a rom-com narrative to our trip: find ourselves a singing cowboy in a city known as the home of heartbreak songs.
We touch down on a Saturday and check into the newly renovated Sheraton Nashville Downtown, a slick hotel that hints at the town’s renewed status as a symbol of cool. It’s only a 10-minute walk to Nashville’s main tourist thoroughfare, Lower Broadway, a loud and boisterous street lined with honky-tonks that play live music from 11 a.m.
Across the street is the Station Inn, the famous bluegrass bar. It hadn’t opened yet, but my eyes catch a poster for an upcoming show. I recognize the face – it’s Charles Esten! We could see the man in the flesh – until we note the date. Exactly one week after we depart. Close but no guitar.
Never ones to be discouraged, we set our sights on the evening’s plan – the Grand Ole Opry, which in 2015 celebrated 90 years since its first radio broadcast, a tradition that continues to this day with shows broadcast live three nights a week. The Opry has launched and relaunched countless careers and, the night we attended, we were honoured to witness one of the last performances of Little Jimmy Dickens before he passed away.
Sunday rolls around, and we find ourselves heading toward Broadway again. This time it wasn’t honky-tonks we were after but a peek inside the Ryman Auditorium. Known as the “mother church of country music,” it started out as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, renamed the Ryman after the man who built it passed away in 1904. The stage is hallowed ground with many international luminaries of stage and screen treading its boards over the years, including Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn, Harry Houdini, Helen Hayes, Mae West and, of course, country legends like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, to name but three.
The acoustics are second to none, and the wooden church pews and stained glass windows evoke the building’s earlier spiritual connection. We peruse the glass display cases that line the upper portion of the balcony. Inside are costumes and instruments and other memorabilia of the performers who have graced its stage. As we do, far below, stagehands set up for a performance, a further testament to Nashville’s ease at co-existing with its past and present and its dual role as tourist destination and hard-core functioning music town.
That night, we have reason to be excited – our destination is the Bluebird Café, made famous in the series for both its songwriter nights, which take place each Sunday, and as the spiritual home for the series’ star-crossed lovers, Deacon and Rayna James played by Connie Britton. Fans line up for two-plus hours to get into the 100-seat venue.
My friends and I were given passes and ended up in the artists’ line where the musicians take us for one of them. I am quick to break it to the gorgeous six-foot-six cowboy standing behind me, complete with guitar case in hand, that I’m media. “That’s alright, ma’am,” he tells me in what I would soon discover is an Alabama drawl. “We like press.”
And I like musicians but I digress. While at the Bluebird, you get to listen to the next big “thang” – musicians audition to play – with performers bearing names like Colby James and BoDean Adams (who came with his mom). We are also treated to a set by Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Don Schlitz, who penned Kenny Rogers’s iconic hit “The Gambler.” After the show, musicians mingle with guests. It’s all very homey and intimate.