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WELCOME TO

MUSIC
CITY
Under Nashville’s gleaming new skyline, the beating
heart of country music is still going strong

By Robert Kiener

Honky tonks on Lower Broadway are magnets


2 reader's digest 04.2019 for up-and-coming singers and musicians.
A
s my plane flies over Do these lyrics, I wonder as my
the country music plane taxis to the gate, still apply to
mecca of Nashville, I Nashville? Minutes after I step off the
see a flurry of activ- plane, I spot a country singer perform-
ity. Tennessee’s capi- ing on one of the six stages that the air-
tol city has become port has set up under its one-of-a-kind
something of a boom “Music in the Terminal” program to en-
town lately. Scores of building cranes tertain travelers.
dot the downtown area, giving birth to Joe West, the 58-year-old singer/
over two billion dollars’ worth of shiny songwriter, is a six-days-a-week per-
new skyscrapers and an ever-changing former at the airport and is immensely
skyline. popular. Harried travelers stop and
Forbes magazine has called this city listen to him and devoted local fans
of 660,000 one of the nation’s “hottest” drive out to the airport to catch his
(as in trendy) cities, The New York performances.
Times has dubbed it the nation’s “It” After a moody Hank Williams classic,
city (as in very trendy), and GQ maga- he sets down his much-loved, battered
zine labeled it “Nowville” (as in even guitar and confesses to me that “Crazy
trendier). Town” could have been written about
Robert’s Western World is one of the hottest venues for showcasing would-be stars.
Long before it got those labels, him. He’s been in Nashville writing
though, Nashville was known around songs, singing, peddling his CD’s, and singer/songwriters, has agreed to give a decade younger than his 71 years.
the world as “Music City,” and “The “bang-banging” on this guitar for the me a behind-the-scenes tour of the As we sit in the historic theater’s
Home of Country Music.” Generations last 20 years. 127-year-old Ryman, Nashville’s most upper balcony watching electricians
of legendary singer/songwriters, from When I tell him I have come to Nash- famous music venue. The one-time rig the stage for an upcoming perfor-
Hank Williams to Johnny Cash to Wil- ville to discover if it’s still the heart of church is best known as the longtime mance, Gatlin tells me, “You know
lie Nelson to Taylor Swift, have gained country music, he smiles. “Definitely! home of the Grand Ole Opry country ‘holy’ is a good word to describe the Ry-
both fame and fortune here. With all That’s why I came here. And I’m music radio show. man.” He gestures to the stage some 50
that’s going on, I’ve come here to see if thrilled to be living my dream of per- Gatlin, an acclaimed solo artist feet away and adds, “When you think
the city is still in touch with its much- forming and making a living with my and member of the trio the Gatlin of the stars who have performed on
vaunted musical roots. music here.” Brothers, meets me in the lobby. If that stage, from Elvis Presley to Patsy
As I land at Nashville International A passerby drops a five-dollar bill in the Ryman is the “Mother Church of Cline and Johnny Cash, there’s no
Airport, I recall the lyrics to “Crazy his tip jar as West explains, “Nashville Country Music,” as it’s often called, other word for it.” Even rockers such
Photo/Illustration credit

Town,” country singer Jason Aldean’s has been growing by leaps and bounds, Photo/Illustration credit then Gatlin is one of its most famous as Neil Young described the Ryman as
hit song about the city: but music is in this town’s DNA." He high priests. His hit songs include “All “like country music heaven.”
It’s a crazy town, full of neon dreams. suggests I visit the Ryman Auditorium, The Gold in California,” “Broken Lady,” Gatlin, who still performs at the
Everybody plays, everybody sings, adding, “It will never change.” and “Houston,” and he still performs Ryman, remembers the first time he
Hollywood with a touch of twang. with his brothers across the country. visited it, in July 1971. “I’d just moved
To be a star you gotta’ bang, bang, I’m in luck. Larry Gatlin, one of He has a guitar slung behind his back to Nashville, hoping to make it as a
bang. Nashville’s Grammy-award winning and, but for his gray hair, looks at least singer/songwriter. I’ll never forget

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A
quick walk around the cor- Grand Ole Opry used to duck out the
ner from the Ryman brings me Ryman’s backstage door between
to perhaps the most famous, shows, cross the alley (34 steps) to
some may say infamous, neighbor- down a few beers here.
hood in Nashville, known as Lower Both Tootsies and its near-neighbor
Broadway. Home to a dozen or so on Lower Broadway, Robert’s Western
neon-heavy bars known as honky- World, are two of the hottest venues
tonks, this is ground zero for tourists in Nashville for showcasing would-be
and locals in search of cheap drinks, country music stars. When I walk into
wild dancing, and live country, west- jam-packed Robert’s Western World,
ern, and bluegrass music. Happily, I’m reminded of what Grammy
it’s also a magnet for up-and-coming Award-winning songwriter Tim Nich-
talent: musicians, singers, and song- ols, once told me, “Nashville is the
writers who have come to Nashville place to be if you want to make a
to make their musical dreams come name for yourself in this business. Af-
The Nashville skyline at sunset frames a riverfront park that sometimes hosts concerts. true. Even more happily; there’s no ter all, if you want to hunt tigers, you
cover charge, food is inexpensive, and have to go where the tigers are.”
watching Dolly Parton and Roy Acuff He picks up his guitar, tunes it and no reservations are needed—
perform onstage. It still gives me begins singing softly: or accepted.
chills thinking about it.” She’s the Ryman, I duck into Tootsies Orchid
He says he was thrilled when it was mother church of country music. Lounge, one of the street’s
saved from the demolition squad in For almost a hundred years, most popular honky-tonks,
the 1990s and recently renovated. stars of country music have and head for an upper floor,
"The fact that the Ryman has been made her rafters ring. dodging a phalanx of hard-
saved proves how much this town If her old walls could talk, drinking bachelorette par-
cares about its musical roots.” they’d sing. tiers who sport cowboy boots,
During our discussion, curious The tourists who have gathered cut-off shorts and T-shirts
fans have begun snapping pictures around us seem as moved as I am with slogans like, “Smashed
of Gatlin and the braver ones have by this impromptu Nashville musical in Nash,” “My Last Ride Be-
approached closer, possibly gather- moment. Gatlin sets down his guitar fore I’m The Bride,” and “He Museums honor the mega stars of country music.
ing up the courage to ask for an au- to warm applause. This mini-perfor- Popped the Question.” The music is I’ve also been told that many, if not
tograph. He smiles and acknowledges mance from one of country music’s high decibel, professional caliber, and most, of the bartenders and other em-
Photo/Illustration credit

them but tells me he wants to play a brightest lights reminds me of what much appreciated. Even the bar’s ad- ployees in Lower Broadway’s honky-
song for me that he has been work- one writer noted about the Ryman: vertisements are rowdy: “Come to tonks are country music hopefuls
ing on. “I just started writing it, but I “At the Ryman, anything is possible: Tootsies for a holler and a swaller.” (A supporting themselves while they
think it will help answer your ques- A soul can find redemption, a crum- shout and a drink.) hone their craft. When I ask Roberts’
tion about how important it is that we bling building can find salvation, and I order a beer and imagine what it barmaid Theresa Bradford if any of
preserve the Ryman’s and Nashville’s unknown kids with guitars can find must have been like between 1960- the staff are also aspiring musicians,
role in country music.” their name in lights.” 1974 when performers at the nearby she laughs and tells me, “You’ve

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Studio B, and the Musicians Hall of famous music studio in Music City,
Fame & Museum. Exhibits range from RCA Studio B, where many famous
the spectacular, Elvis’s “Solid Gold” singers recorded hits. On an early visit
1960 Cadillac, to the less than spec- to the studio, Dolly Parton smashed
tacular: a group of stuffed squirrels her car into the side of the building
that had been shot by Hank Williams. and later quipped, “That was my first
In the Ernest Tubb record shop, big hit.” Elvis fans take note: visitors
started in 1947 by Tubb, one of the can sit at the same piano where he
Grand Ole Opry’s brightest stars, I recorded some of his hits.
meet manager Victor Black, a one- At the end of my visit to Nashville, I
man walking encyclopedia of country feel confident that the city’s musical
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is music-themed both inside and out. music. He shows me the highlights legacy is in good hands. The skyline
among the store’s treasure trove of may be changing, parts of the city are
just described 90 percent of our interesting time,” says Mayor David memorabilia, hard-to-find CDs, and gentrifying, new restaurants are com-
employees.” Briley as I join him for a coffee at the the hundreds of historic vinyl records peting for trendiest, but at its heart,
She introduces me to Matt Camp- ultra-hip downtown hotel, the Noelle. and photos that line the walls. Nashville is still “Music City, USA.”
bell, who explains he came to Nash- Briley is a grandson of the town’s first I also explore the oldest and most Happily, it’s a town where cowboy
ville, “lured by the beacon of country mayor. “We’re growing quickly, evolv- boots, jeans, and guitar cases out-
music” five years ago and landed a ing, becoming more multicultural. But number high heels, suits, and brief-
job working as a beer stockman—a at the same time we’re concerned to cases and is, as Jason Aldean noted,
“schlepper”—at Robert’s. “It’s a great preserve what has made Nashville so TRAVEL TIPS "a crazy town, full of neon dreams,"
place to make connections and, if special—that unique spirit that attracts where “everybody plays, everybody
you’re lucky, make music,” he says. 14 million visitors from all over the LODGING: Good values downtown sings."
include the Union Station Hotel,
Campbell, a multi-talented singer/ world each year. And music is a huge
doubles from $165, and Courtyard
songwriter, performs regularly at Rob- part of that.”
by Marriott, from $149. In trendy,
ert’s and on tour across the country. Music superstar Waylon Jennings historic Germantown, the Germantown
Among his tunes is “The Night That I might as well have been describing Inn, a bed-and-breakfast, has doubles
Found Jesus Down at Robert’s West- Nashville itself when he said, “Coun- from $199.
ern World.” Before Campbell joins his try music isn’t a guitar, it isn’t a banjo, DINING: Seek out southern specialties
band for their gig on Robert’s Western it isn’t a melody, it isn’t a lyric. It’s a such as barbecue pulled pork and fried
World’s main stage, he echoes what feeling.” catfish sandwiches for $14 at Merchants
Tim Nichols told me. “If you have Restaurant, BBQ trays from $12
Photo/Illustration credit

something to say, you need to take Signs abound that Nashville still re- at Martin’s Bar-B-Que, and inexpensive
it to the marketplace,” he says as he veres its past. Music-related museums menus including fried bologna
slings his guitar behind his back. “And are everywhere. Highlights include sandwiches at Robert’s Western World.
there’s still no bigger country music the 350,000-square-foot Country Mu- Attractions: One-hour walking tours
marketplace than Nashville.” sic Hall of Fame and Museum, the from the Nashville Visitor Center take in
much more modest Johnny Cash Mu- Lower Broadway honky tonks and other
“You’ve come to Nashville at an seum, the Pasty Cline Museum, RCA historic neighborhoods and buildings.

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