arl Scruggs was standing on the stage of Nashville’s Ryman auditorium. At 84, he’s a little frail but still able to play his famous three-fingered banjo style. Two of Scruggs’ sons, both members of the band, grinned as their dad leaned into the microphone, pointed to a seat in the second row and revealed to the audience that in that seat, one evening back in the 1940s, sat an attractive young woman who caught his eye. Through an intermediary, he was introduced to the girl in the theater’s parking lot where, the old man recalled, sparks began to fly. The sons could forever be grateful for the second row at the Ryman – and the sparks.
More than romance began in the aged building, which was once known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry and still is the Opry’s winter location. According to an historic landmark sign outside the Ryman it was there that in 1945, an American genre of music began. The music was called Bluegrass and there, too, sparks began to fly.
All music is fusion and, like jazz, many streams influenced Bluegrass, including jazz. What happened at the Ryman was that an acoustical music influenced by Scotch-Irish traditions and seasoned in the mountains of the American South gained a stage as Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys first stepped into the Ryman’s spotlight. Because Monroe’s band was the most popular purveyor of the sound and because the Ryman was the most prominent place where it was played, the music took on the name of Monroe’s group and “Bluegrass” was chastened. The music took off in ’45 when Earl Scruggs and his banjo joined the band. Scruggs’ three-fingered roll on the banjo is arguably the key moment in the development of the music. Blue Grass had found its voice. (In later years Scruggs and another Monroe band member, Lester Flatt, would team up and become best known for recording the theme song to the CBS comedy The Beverly Hillbillies. To this day, without much prompting, Scruggs includes the song in his repertoire.)
Nashville is lucky that it can pinpoint a moment and place where a music form was crystallized. New Orleans and jazz have no equivalent. But then Nashville is lucky in many ways. The town has preserved what it’s best known for, country music, especially along a section of Broadway Avenue near the Ryman. Yet, only a block away is modern Nashville anchored by the splendid Country Music Hall of Fame, which faces a quadrangle that includes an arena (home of the Nashville Predators of the NHL), an all-suites Hilton and a new symphony hall. Nearby, within walking distance over a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Cumberland River, is the home of the town’s NFL team, the Tennessee Titans. Unless a visitor wants to go to Opryland or to The Hermitage, the home of New Orleans’ hero Andrew Jackson, a long weekend vacation can be spent in downtown Nashville walking from place to place.
As a reborn country music fan who has escaped to Nashville twice since Hurricane Katrina (and twice before) my idea of a good time there is to spend an evening going from honky tonk to honky tonk along Broadway Avenue, sipping from longnecks while listening to bands that are only one big break from stardom. (My favorite place is Robert’s Western World where the owner is also a performer who sounds exactly like the late Marty Robins.)
Another personal favorite is to take a taxi to the Bluebird Café where songwriters sit in a circle and sing their creations, some of which have been recorded by big stars, many of which should be. From the country kid strumming a fiddle for change outside a honky tonk to the Bluebird songwriter waiting for the big call. Nashville is about making it big. One who did is Gretchen Wilson. A few years ago she was a cocktail waitress at the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar on Printer’s Alley near Broadway. She would also sing occasionally. One night a cowboy urged her to make a record and said he would help. He was John Rich who was about to become a star himself as half of the off-the-wall country duo, Big and Rich. Wilson’s song “Redneck Woman” launched her to the fastest rise to number one in the history of country music.
There are lots of sad songs in country, too, but even feeling sad feels good in a honky tonk.
Nashville folks will be quick to remind you that the city is about more than country music. It is an intellectual center, the home of Vanderbilt University and the Frist museum. The Parthenon, a full-scale recreation of the Greek temple, underscores Nashville’s claim to being the “Athens of the South.” There is also justification in Nashville being called “Music City.” It is a recording industry for far more than just country.
Still, to go to Nashville and not hear country music is like going to New Orleans and avoiding the restaurants. Opryland, set away from downtown, has its charm and its theater is the regular home for the Opry. But the real soul of the city is found along Broadway Avenue. Between honky tonk stops, visit the Ernest Tubbs record shop and browse through the world’s best collection of country music. Then move on to another honk tonk and another longneck.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is one of the landmarks along the street. As the legend goes, two scruffy young aspiring songwriters once spent their nights sleeping on the roof of Tootsie’s as a way of economizing while waiting to be discovered. Fortunately for us, and for the roof of Tootsie’s, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson found their place in the spotlight. Two dreamers achieved stardom. Every day on the streets of Nashville a thousand others are waiting to do the same.
Visitwww.visitmusiccity.com. This is a great web site with the extra advantage of a music selection to listen to while surfing.
Getting there. Southwest Airlines has two non-stops a day and four connecting flights. Non-Stop flying time is approximately one hour and 20 minutes.
Where to stay. Hilton Nashville Hotel – This luxurious all-suite hotel has a great location near all downtown locations and Broadway Avenue. The Country Music Hall of Fame faces the hotel from across a pedestrian park.
Lowe’s Vanderbilt Hotel – Located on Broadway Avenue near the university, it’s a short taxi ride from downtown. Convenient with lost of services.
Hermitage Hotel – Grande dame of Nashville’s hotels. Swanky, full-service and within easy walking distance of downtown.
Opryland Hotel – Huge complex with atriums, themed areas and lots of shopping. Opryland is located about a 20-minute taxi ride form downtown. It is self-contained with lots to do, including the Grand Ole Opry; though a trip to Nashville isn’t complete without visiting downtown.