This May my wife Kath and I spent a week in Nashville, Tennessee (I spent a further week in the state, exploring Memphis and Chattanooga – more of that another time). It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And for one reason in particular – the music. Country music. My love for country music grew over time, starting tentatively in the 1980s. I write about this in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey” in a chapter called Duende – the beautiful sound of breaking hearts. That title says it all really. For me country music is the sound of melancholy. Mostly about losing love, or not finding love, or being down on your luck. But at the same time, finding strength through the music. I’m not so into the uptempo stuff – I’d rather go straight to rock’n’roll for that. And I’ve found that pretty well all my favourite country singers are women. Why, I don’t know, other than feeling that there is something in their voices and their perspective that truly reflects that sense of duende – what Nick Cave once described as “the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lies at the heart of certain works of art”. I would add that there is, at the same time, something uplifting in the sound, when it takes the form of music. The beautiful sound of breaking hearts.
It was Elvis Costello, in the early 80s, who handed me the keys to country music, when he released an album called “Almost Blue”. That was a celebration of many of the great country artists of the past, rendered in Elvis’s inimitable style. Amongst others that that album introduced me to was Patsy Cline. There was a film about her tragically short life at around the same time, and the soundtrack to that became my second country album. Songs like “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy” became favourites. Of course I had Bob Dylan’s ventures into country too, principally “Nashville Skyline”; while some of Bruce Springsteen’s more stripped-back music (think “Nebraska” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad”) had the dark soul of country at its heart. But I didn’t really delve deeper until the 2000s – dance, reggae, rap, soul and jazz, along with a steady diet of indie and punk, were my staples in the intervening period.
It was the discovery of singers like Laura Cantrell, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch in the 2000s that reignited my interest in country, though none of them would necessarily be described as in the mainstream of the music. Lucinda Williams’ “Ventura” off “World Without Tears” from 2003 may just be the saddest song ever. Laura Cantrell’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” is another song I love to this day – a classic example of the strong relationship between all that melancholy and having too much to drink! But it wasn’t until 2013 that I discovered the singer who remains my favourite country artist: Lindi Ortega. I was introduced to her music by her album of that year, “Tin Star”. She has everything that I want from my country music: a beautiful voice, heartfelt songs and a sense of defiance. She can also get a little weird at times with her lyrics, which keeps you free of too much schmaltz – the biggest risk in listening to country music. I loved “Tin Star” so much that I went back to her earlier albums, which are even better – notably the wonderful “Cigarettes and Truckstops”. And I’ve bought everything since, as well as seeing her a few times when she has come over to the UK. She’s a great performer, and mixes up the ballads with some hard-nosed bluesy rock’n’roll. She’s not huge in the country world, which baffles me, but she has a decent following and a lot of respect. That’s not bad.
The other singer I most like these days is perhaps more predictable, and that’s Kacey Musgraves. I’ve been listening to her since I discovered her first album “Same Trailer, Different Park” around 2015-16 – it came out in 2013. So many great songs on that one, but my favourite remains the wistful “It Is What It Is”. As with Lindi, I love the combination of sensitivity and feistiness, and a refusal to comply with the mainstream expectations while being rooted in the traditions of the music. Of course, with the success of “Golden Hour”, Kacey has crossed over big time into the pop world, and what a great album that is. My No 1 of 2018. A brief mention for Catherine McGrath too, a young Northern Irish singer who made my second favourite album of last year, “Talk of This Town”. She makes country music with a strong pop sensibility – and the influence of Taylor Swift is obvious. She’s in Nashville right now, writing new songs, no doubt with input from some of those seasoned songwriters in the city who write hits for the stars. I’m looking forward to her next album, not least to see what direction she takes.
So yes, I’ve been ready for a trip to Nashville for some time. And music was at the heart of it. Some extraordinary history, great art, excellent beers and food too. But I’ll concentrate on the musical journey in this piece.
We stayed downtown in a very pleasant apartment on Polk Avenue, surrounded by building works and a parking lot – two common features of central Nashville. From there it was a short walk down to lower Broadway, which is where we ventured on our first evening. Crazy place, and what a noise! The entire street was lined with bars with their windows open and bands playing. The streets were packed. Tourists, obviously, though from the rest of the USA mostly. Not so surprising, I guess, given the size of the country. For us in London, the comparable experience would be going down to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, something we generally try to avoid! But, as a tourist myself, I enjoyed Broadway. It was buzzing, the vibe was friendly, and all the music was very enjoyable, if you stopped to listen. Country-ish, but generally veering towards the rockier side. The spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, especially in the noisiest establishment of all, Kid Rock’s place.
We settled on a bar that had two guys with acoustic guitars, who were playing the Allman Brothers’ “Rambling Man” as we walked by. We had a couple of drinks there and enjoyed their set. Not quite as in-yer-face as some, with no drums reverberating around the room. We didn’t hang around for too long, as we were pretty tired from a day’s travelling, but we did pop down to Broadway on a few occasions during the week, and it was always fun. At one point in the week we got talking to a local Nashvillian in an art gallery on 5th Avenue who absolutely hated Broadway, which I can understand; but it is a magnet for visitors and must bring in a lot of money, some of which will find its way to all the aspiring musicians in the city who play in the bars (mainly for tips).
One place that we had recommended to us was the Listening Room café, which sounded like a small place where we might see one or two artists close up. I liked the idea of that, although the reality turned out differently. We went twice, having enjoyed the first evening so much. That was on our first full day there, Thursday 9 May. The Listening Room café is in an area called SoBro – south of Broadway. Still downtown, and only about ten minutes’ walk from Broadway; but really, it looks and feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. And hardly anyone is on the street – everyone seems to drive. Kath and I didn’t hire a car; we walked when we could and otherwise got taxis or took buses. The latter were interesting – it’s fair to say that we were the only people like us on the buses we took. But, you see, walking and taking public transport is entirely normal in London, so we just did it in Nashville too. It meant we got to know the streets a lot better than we would otherwise have done.
Two shots on 4th Ave South in the vicinity of the Listening Room show you what I mean.
The Listening Room café turned out to be quite a lot bigger than expected, and was more a restaurant than a café; but the concept was a good one. Four different artists each sang four songs, taking turns song by song, rather than playing all their songs at once. Typically the singers were people who made a living writing songs in Nashville, and in some cases, were looking to make a name as performers in their own right. From what they said as they introduced their songs, most had been living and working in Nashville for a good number of years. On the first occasion we went there the singers were Hannah Bethel, JD Shelburne, Ryan Calhoun and Stephanie Owen (accompanied by guitarist) who was also the host. They were all pretty good. I really liked Hannah Bethel, whose sound and style was right up my street, and JD Shelburne had a hint of Bruce in his songs and delivery, which naturally appealed. I looked up Hannah’s music afterwards, and there wasn’t that much on Spotify; but she has just released a third track called “Rhinestone Rodeo” which she played on the night, as well as her second release “Train”. Hope she makes it over to London some time.
The second time we went there, which was the second show on Saturday, it was all men. I’m afraid I didn’t note all their names and have now forgotten all but one. They all seemed to know each other and a few beers were consumed. The quality of the songs was high – all of them were songwriters for a living and obviously enjoyed playing their own songs from time to time. Three of them looked exactly how you would expect male country singers to look these days: denim shirts, jeans, baseball caps. One at the end of the line stood out: dressed in black, more indie in appearance than country. At first he also seemed slightly detached from the others, but that changed during proceedings. I fact it seemed like he was regarded as the senior figure amongst them. You could tell from his songs too: they had real depth to them. Two were called (I think) “Drinking about You” and “Don’t Call Me When You’re Drinking”, which gives you some idea of his subject material! His name was Matt Rogers. As it happened Kath found herself sitting next to his wife in an upstairs space where we were allocated a table. We got talking to her; she said Matt made a good living from writing songs and had no plans to go out on the road himself. Fair enough, though I do wonder, when you write such good songs, how you feel always giving them to someone else. We had a chat with Matt after the show. He was a really nice guy, very humble. I mentioned to Catherine McGrath to him, as she was in town. You never know!
Of course, being tourists in Nashville, we had to have an evening at the Grand Ole Opry, the self-styled home of country music, and a place where every aspiring country artist dreams of playing. We went there on the Friday evening, having visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during the day. The latter is just down from Broadway and opposite the Bridgestone arena, which is home to the ice hockey team, the Predators, as well as being a big concert venue. The museum was really interesting, well put together and very informative about the history of country music. At any one time, three or four artists are featured in depth. One such during our visit was Emmylou Harris. It reminded me that I’ve never really listened to her music properly, apart from some of the music she made with Gram Parsons, and that was a long time ago. And yet, I’m sure my favourite artists have been strongly influenced by her. I was also reminded that I really ought to give a bit more time to some of the greats, like George Jones, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and the rest. One day, one day! I was amused that there is now a Taylor Swift Education Centre attached to the museum. Or maybe that should be impressed rather than amused. She is obviously putting something back into the place that she started from.
The Grand Ole Opry is about half an hour’s bus ride out of town, next to a large shopping mall and a theme park called “Opryland”. And yes, we took the bus out there and back. Very cheap too! Unlike the tickets and the drinks at the Opry, but that is to be expected. Going to the Grand Ole Opry is an experience. Again, mostly tourists I would guess, but very, very American – white, middle class American. The show too, was everything you’d expect – very slick, very self-referential; and highly enjoyable. The show is recorded live for radio, and there is still announcer who sounds like something straight out of some kind of 50s talk show and gives corporate sponsors endless plugs. The music, of course, was what mattered, and that was great. There were twelve different acts, divided into four half hour segments. Each segment had a host who also sang a couple of songs, along with each of the other acts. There was a tremendous variety, within the context of country music, from rootsy blue grass to the latest Taylor Swift style country-pop. That was reflected in the age range of the performers too. The youngest was a singer called Tegan Marie, who was 15, though she looked older. She obviously had the marketing men behind her, and was in the Taylor mould. Oldest was Jesse McReynolds, who was still holding his own in his bluegrass band at the age of 87. From time to time the music veered into that middle-of-the-road schmaltz – at one point I had a frightening vision of watching Val Doonican in his comfy sweaters on family TV in the 1970s – but there was some really good stuff too. Highlights included the vocal harmonies of The Isaacs, and the high speed bluegrass of veteran Ricky Skaggs and band at the end. Their technique on both acoustic guitar and electric mandolin was astounding.
Yes, even if most of the music wasn’t really my thing, this was an event to be remembered, and a highlight of the visit.
On the Sunday evening we went down to “The Gulch”, a somewhat soulless modern development of office blocks, restaurants and bars on the south west edge of Downtown, to a place called the Station Inn, which specialises in bluegrass – the mountain roots of country music. On Sunday night they have a jam, where anyone can bring along their guitar or mandolin and play. I imagine there’s a core of people who do it all the time. Most of them looked like mates. They were mostly older, but there were a couple of young lads, who were in the thick of things. The place was very busy – we fortunately got there early as another bar we planned to have a drink in had closed at 4pm. 4pm! So we got a table and a jug of beer and settled in for a couple of hours. Most entertaining; the music a reminder that a lot of it came over from Ireland and Scotland in the first place.
On Monday evening it was back to Broadway, starting down by the river at a place called Acme Feed and Seed. My friend Paul had recommended we go and see a Grateful Dead covers band there – Monday night is Grateful Dead night! He’s a massive fan of the Dead (as it were). They’ve rather passed me by, but I have to say the band we saw were very good. All Nashville session musicians I suspect. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was a pleasant hour or so. After that we went to one of the bars recommended in our tourist guidebook: Robert’s Western World. The place was rammed. The music was good and there were a few people dancing (not us!). Has to be done.
The last musical experience came on Tuesday, our last night in Nashville. We went down to a place called the City Winery, which has a couple of music venues. This was the smaller venue, called the Lounge. We saw a Canadian country/folk act called Kacy and Clayton. They were pretty good. On Spotify they’d sounded a bit 60s-ish, looking back to the roots and also just slightly psychedelic. Live it was a bit more straight folk. They had a rather quirky between-songs banter that put me in mind of David Byrne from Talking Heads for some reason. Support act Dori Freeman (with a drummer called Nick Falk) was engaging too. The two bands were clearly friends, and supported each other’s shows. It was an enjoyable, unassuming evening, accompanied by some nice food and excellent wine. Only 40-50 people there, but the atmosphere was good.
After that we returned to what became our favourite Nashville bar, the Tennessee Brew Works, which was nearby. Again rather in the middle of nowhere, right next to a highway flyover (probably called something else in America). Excellent range of pale ales and other beers, and a fairly young and probably local crowd. Some decent bands playing at times, too – there was one that reminded me of Little Feat. Check it out if you are ever in Nashville. Another bar we liked was the Flying Saucer, which was near the Frisk art museum and Union Station hotel. A superb range of beers from all over the world and decent food. There was a Flying Saucer in Memphis too, which I popped into while there.
And that was music of Nashville, one week in May. We didn’t get over to East Nashville, where all the cool people live apparently, and country musicians put on the occasional informal show. But I think we saw and heard enough to agree that Nashville deserves its title of Music City.
And to end, I must share this video of the song about Nashville that introduced me to Lindi Ortega. “Tin Star. As Lindi sings, if the music wasn’t flowing through the blood in my veins, I might just walk away. But it is and she didn’t. And so many others are the same. The dreams keep coming and the music keeps flowing.
This will be very helpful if I ever get to Nashville (as vaguely planned) – thanks. I too loved Elvis Costello’s foray into country and western and I loved the Springsteen country based stuff (he has a new album out which has some similarities) but never really moved on to listen to much else in that genre. I will give some of the names you mention a try.
Hope you make it sometime.
Quite a tour de force, John! You will never look back on Nashville – or indeed Memphis and Chattanooga – and think you should have made more of the music there.
Glad you made it to the Grand Ole Opry, which does look joyously naff, but – as you point out – is simply a legendary venue, and (like Graceland) it would be inconceivable to go there and miss it.
As you know, I still can’t get it into my head to like a lot of the stuff that you favour, so I fear a swing through these southern cities would be lost on me. Wouldn’t mind a similar sojourn through soul, R&B, jazz and blues, in which case Philly, Chicago and Detroit would seem to hit the spot. I dare say you’ll be trying to do that too.
I focused on the music in this blog, but there is much more to enjoy. Recommended on all counts!