Photograph by Will Van Overbeek
From the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Clutching a map—and a demo recording of his band’s country tune—the author plumbs the heart of Music City hoping to find someone, anyone, who can open the door to showbiz.
It takes talent, perseverance, and faith to make it as a songwriter in Music City, U.S.A. I've come to Nashville with none of the above. Fortunately, I have no shame, either, which is why I'm roaming the back streets of Music City pitching "Moon Pies and Rib Eyes," a hillbilly song written and sung by my ex-wife (I played drums). Hey, the critics panned "Achy Breaky Heart," but it was a gold mine for the guy who wrote it. And even if I don't score big in the music business while I'm here, I get to hit the city's hot spots.
There's plenty to see in Tennessee's capital and biggest city, from the antebellum Belle Meade Plantation to the high-tech Adventure Science Center. There's the world's only full-size replica of the Parthenon. (Nashville bills itself as the Athens of the South—and it's got a 42-foot-tall statue of the goddess Athena to prove it.) Over in the old post office is the swanky Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and just a short hop outside of town you can stroll past block after block of spiffed-up Victorian and antebellum homes in historic Franklin. But in Nashville, it always comes back to the music.
Songwriters are the rainmakers of the Nashville music industry, so I'm hoping to get our demo CD into the hands of an established songwriter, one of the best ways to break into the business. I've just snagged the last empty barstool at the Bluebird Cafe, the tiny, no-frills club with a legendary reputation for up-and-coming as well as established songwriters. It's "D4A$" (Don for a Dollar) night. Don Schlitz is a songwriter with dozens of top-ten hits to his credit, including "The Gambler," which helped make Kenny Rogers a household name and helped him launch his fried chicken franchise.
Make that two country music legends for a dollar. Sitting on a stool next to Schlitz is the triple threat himself—singer, songwriter, and ace musician Vince Gill, wearing a Sonic Drive-In shirt, jeans, and lizard-skin loafers without socks. Schlitz kicks off the show by looking at Gill's loafers and saying, "You're pretty secure in your masculinity, aren't you, Vinny."
For the next two and a half hours, I don't move from my seat, take notes, hail a waitress, or crave a cigarette, and when the show's over, everyone packed into the tiny Bluebird Cafe has been reminded of what the country music industry boils down to: a voice, a song, a guitar—and the sheer joy of making music. Unfortunately, Schlitz and Gill are surrounded by a crowd of fans before I have the chance to pitch them "Moon Pies." Dang.
The next afternoon I'm standing center stage in "The Mother Church of Country Music," the Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry show from 1943 to 1974. I figure soaking in the vibes of this old place can't hurt a budding star. The history of this legendary building dates to 1892, when a riverboat magnate and saloon owner came to a tent revival in Nashville to heckle the preacher. Instead, Captain Tom Ryman saw the light and dropped $100,000 to build the Union Gospel Tabernacle.
The oak church pews arrayed before me and the stained-glass windows glowing in the upper balcony have seen not only the legends of country music on this stage but also the great vaudeville acts. I could be standing in the exact spot where Hank Williams, Sr.; Patsy Cline; Mae West; or the Great Houdini once stood.
Thanks to a major renovation completed in 1994, the acoustics in the Ryman are said to surpass that of Carnegie Hall and to be second only to the Mormon Tabernacle. Neil Young said playing the Ryman was like performing inside an acoustic guitar.
This is surely a place of magic. I can hear the packed house going crazy as I hop on the drums and count it off for Vince Gill as we launch into our third encore of "Moon Pies and Rib Eyes."
"Are you coming?" the tour guide breaks in, jarring me back to reality and ruining everything. I want to say, "No, I'm staying here where I belong." Instead, I reply, "Yes, ma'am," and slowly exit stage right, away from the magic.
But there's plenty more magic where that came from. It's Saturday night, and in Music City that means it's Opry night. The Grand Ole Opry—the world's longest running live music show—began in 1925 when the National Life and Accident Insurance Company built a radio studio in its downtown Nashville headquarters, hoping to sell more insurance policies. The Opry outgrew several locations in Nashville before moving to the Ryman Auditorium in 1943. Many of the performers honored at the Country Music Hall of Fame were introduced to Opry audiences during the show's 31-year run at the Ryman. The Opry had its final broadcast from the Ryman on March 15, 1974.
The next night, President Nixon was on hand to open the new Grand Ole Opry House, the first music hall designed specifically for the Grand Ole Opry some ten miles from downtown Nashville. I'm surprised to discover that the new structure (well, it's 35 years old now), centerpiece of the Gaylord Opryland entertainment megaplex, is basically the Ryman Auditorium writ large: church-pew seating for 4,400; the familiar barn backdrop flanked by jumbotrons; and at the heart of center stage, a six-foot circle of solid oak cut from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. Tonight's performance will be broadcast live on radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, as well as on satellite radio, the Internet, and cable television. You don't want to blow a guitar lead or drop a drumstick here.
My next surprise is seeing 89-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, standing 4 feet 11, introduce the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a young African-American string band making its first appearance on the Opry. The trio, specializing in the fiddle, banjo, and jug music of the Piedmont region, earns a standing ovation. Old folks who had trouble getting to their seats bounce around like sixth graders.
Marty Stuart wraps up tonight's show. If there's one Mississippi boy who deserves to wear a fancy cowboy suit, it's Stuart, who was 13 when he made his first Opry appearance as a mandolin player with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. Watching Stuart breeze through his special blend of hillbilly rock, I realize why I still crave honky-tonk, Cajun, and gunslinger ballads. It's the music of my father, and my father was never happier than when he was flailing away on his patched-up Sears acoustic, throwing in yodels, cattle calls, and gunslinger guitar riffs as required.
"This is a hobby that got out of hand," George Gruhn says from his fourth-floor office at Gruhn Guitars, a Nashville icon where countless big-time musicians shop for rare vintage instruments. Gruhn knew he had a problem shortly after his parents bought him his first guitar. "I realized I had an addiction," he says. "I really liked guitars."
Gruhn started collecting—buying and selling maybe 50 guitars to get the one model he wanted. This went on unabated through his college years at the University of Chicago and through grad school at Duke. By the time he moved to Nashville, no insurance company in its right mind would insure the collection of vintage guitars stuffed into his apartment. So what else could he do but open a guitar shop?
The public generally sees just the first-floor showroom at Gruhn Guitars. High-dollar customers looking for specialty pieces are brought to the second floor. "We have some interesting goodies in here," Gruhn says, launching into a hillbilly riff on a $135,000 Martin D-45 acoustic. Martin made only 91 of these guitars, and two of them are in this room.
"Rarity alone does not equal quality," Gruhn says. It's the pre-WWII pedigree of these vintage guitars that attract the likes of Vince Gill, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young. "You must understand," Gruhn says, switching to a $35,000 banjo, "these instruments are so well made, with the proper care, they'll last 200 years. Neil Young is still using the guitars he bought from me back in the '70s. That's also true for Pete Townshend, who no longer smashes his guitars."
The repair facility on the fourth floor is where the real work is done at Gruhn Guitars. Nine full-time employees spend most of their days undoing previously botched repairs, often spending 50 to 100 hours restoring an instrument before it reaches the showroom. "These instruments are almost alive," Gruhn says appreciatively as he plays a 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin.
Eyeing the price tags around the Gruhn showroom, I know it's time to move on. I head for a Nashville experience not listed in the brochures: Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, set in a small shopping center in East Nashville near Oprah Winfrey's childhood neighborhood.
"Whoever hasn't ordered yet, step up to the window," a voice shouts from the kitchen. I weave through the customers waiting for take-out orders, past the register to the little window where Vince, a skinny guy in a white apron, raises an eyebrow and asks, "What do you want?"
"Your hot chicken sandwich, please. "
"You ever had our hot chicken?"
For some reason, I say: "I'm from Texas. I eat jalapeños for breakfast."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"No sir, but I'd like the hottest chicken you've got anyway." I'm handed a brown paper bag that feels like it came straight from the oven. Inside are two fluorescent green pickle slices; a plump, fire engine red chicken breast; and two slices of white bread. The pickles make my scalp tingle. The chicken is spicy hot but nothing I can't handle. Halfway into the meal I realize something more complex than chili powder or Tabasco sauce is at work here. By the time I finish, sweat is dripping off my nose, running down my back, and blurring my vision.
"Hot enough for you?" Vince yells from his window. I give him the thumbs-up. "Yes… chicken… delicious."
Back to my quest, I make for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, one of Nashville's most popular attractions. I can see why. Build a four-story, block-long, modern art museum—with a facade resembling piano keys that swoop up to form a giant Cadillac tail fin—and they will come. The 5,300-square-foot rotunda alone, which houses the bronze plaques of the Hall of Fame inductees, is worth the journey and exemplifies the museum's motto, "Honor Thy Music."
There are listening booths; interactive computers that allow you to ask questions of your favorite performers; projection screens showcasing rare performances; a massive Gold Record Wall; and the "Precious Jewel" exhibit displaying some of country music's most revered instruments, including Hank Williams's scratched-up 1944 Martin D-28 acoustic and Mother Maybelle Carter's 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar. The exhibit "Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music," traces the considerable influence of African Americans on country, blues, folk, and jazz. The exhibit also tells about immigrants from Ireland and Scotland who moved westward across America with their fiddles and songs about shipwrecks, adultery, and lost causes. These people were crying in their grog long before the first honky-tonk or jukebox came along.
An added fee gets you a short bus tour to the Historic RCA Studio B, "home of 1,000 hits," located in the heart of Nashville's Music Row, a leafy neighborhood of recording and music-publishing houses centered along 16th and 17th Streets South. On board today are two guys from Tokyo wearing wraparound shades, a foreign photographer, Billy the bus driver, and our guides, Dee Dee and Anita. Before entering Studio B, Dee Dee points to a section of the building that still shows the signs of "Dolly Parton's first hit." Dolly was so excited about buying her first car she plowed it smack into the studio near the front door. Dolly was unfazed by the dumb blonde jokes because "she knew she wasn't dumb and she knew she wasn't blonde."
RCA Studio B, we learn, produced a string of chartbusters during the 1950s and '60s under the guidance of guitar maestro Chet Atkins. As a producer, he broadened the audience of country music by adding "pop" techniques such as echo, choral arrangements, and strings. Recorded here were some of the biggest hits for Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Charley Pride, and Elvis Presley himself.
Back on the bus, I learn that Anita has a beautiful singing voice and was a backup singer for Patty Loveless. I ask Anita and Dee Dee if they'd like to hear my demo. As Billy wheels our bus out of Music Row, my captive audience listens to "Moon Pies and Rib Eyes" over the sound system. Dee Dee and Anita giggle. The Japanese guys smile politely behind their dark sunglasses. Billy suggests pitching "Moon Pies" to the huge health care industry in Nashville. "Since the song's all about eating right and then dying anyway," he says. I can't tell if Billy is just jerking my chain.
Time to hit the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway. First stop, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the famous dive where the likes of Willie Nelson, Terri Clark, and Kris Kristofferson got their start in Nashville by playing for tips. Supposedly, this is where Willie wrote "Crazy," Patsy Cline's monster hit, after multiple beers. Tonight, Tootsie's is packed, the band downstairs competing with the band upstairs. I'd need a flamethrower to clear the way to the bar.
I don't spot anyone I can corner to talk about "Moon Pies," so I move on to Layla's Bluegrass Hillbilly & Country Inn, which is more to my liking. There's an opening at the bar; the beer is ice-cold; and the band, Just Plain Trouble, is laying down some solid truck-driving music featuring a singer who wears her pearl necklace as recklessly as she plays her low-slung bass guitar. Trouble indeed.
Next door to Layla's, a red neon boot draws me into Robert's Western World, a bona fide honky-tonk where you can catch a class country act, try on a pair of boots, and eat a fried bologna sandwich.
I meander over to 6th Avenue South and stumble into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. It would be the smartest move I make during my visit to Music City. The exhibits cover the full spectrum of American music, displaying instruments tied to specific songs. If you have a favorite guitar solo, harmonica run, or drum break, chances are the actual instrument used in the recording is here. Matching the instrument to the song in your head breathes life into the exhibits. I fill up my notebook and photograph everything, but my real education begins when I meet Joe Chambers, the man who built this attraction.
"Any questions about the exhibits?" Chambers asks. He then proceeds to offer up stories about Hank Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart" was an unrehearsed, one-take recording that Williams never played before an audience) and George Jones, arguably the finest voice in country music (he recorded rockabilly tunes in the 1950s under the name "Thumper Jones").
"Yeah, I wrote three or four songs for George," Chambers says nonchalantly.
"Really? Anyone else I might know?"
"Well, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Randy Travis, Johnny Paycheck, Ricky Van Shelton, Lacy J. Dalton, Mark Chesnutt, Gene Watson, B. J. Thomas," he replies. Working for CBS Records as an A&R("artists and repertoire") man—that is, as a talent scout and producer—"taught me how to write songs," Chambers continues. "I could decide within five seconds if the song was going anywhere."
I tell Chambers about the song I've brought to Nashville. He ejects Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" CD and slaps in "Moon Pies and Rib Eyes," causing confusion among paying museumgoers. Then he gives me a thoughtful expert's critique:
"Well, the tracks are good," he says, meaning the musicianship.
"No tempo drift on the drums?" I say.
"Nothing that jumps out. But obviously, whoever wrote this song doesn't write songs for a living. I mean, it's visual…. It has a beginning and an end…. The words rhyme… but this is probably not something anyone would want to record." I can tell this is torture for Chambers, but I keep staring, hoping for more.
"Then again, let's say, if Kenny Chesney…
"Or Vince Gill," I say.
"Or Vince Gill, anyone with a major following. If, for some reason, they wanted to record this, I couldn't say it wouldn't be a hit."
"So, you're saying…."
Chambers throws up his hands. "I'm saying this is not a terrible first attempt."
Not a terrible first attempt. That's music to my ears. I came. I pitched. I got a critique by a genuine Music City songwriter/A&R man, who also let me hold the Fender Stratocaster Jimi Hendrix used to record some of his hits. Even for a drummer, that's pretty damned cool. Mission accomplished.
Did I really expect "Moon Pies" to score? Maybe. Maybe not. The miracle is that we recorded the song at all and then gave it a shot at success. When I get home, I'm going to see how soon my ex-wife and old bandmates can get together to work on our next recording. Nashville is waiting.
Intelligent Travel: Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is on central standard time.
Adventure Science Center 800 Fort Negley Blvd.; +1 615 862 5160; www.adventuresci.com.
Belle Meade Plantation 5025 Harding Pike; +1 615 356 0501; www.bellemeadeplantation.com.
Bluebird Cafe 4104 Hillsboro Pike; +1 615 383 1461; www.bluebirdcafe.com.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum 222 Fifth Ave. S.; +1 615 416 2001; www.countrymusichalloffame.org.
Frist Center for the Visual Arts 919 Broadway; +1 615 244 3340; www.fristcenter.org.
Gaylord Opryland 2800 Opryland Dr.; +1 615 889 1000; www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylord-opryland.
Grand Ole Opry 2804 Opryland Drive; +1 615 871 6779; www.opry.com.
Gruhn Guitars 400 Broadway; +1 615 256 2033; www.gruhn.com.
Historic Franklin 109 Third Ave. S.; +1 615 791 3217; www.franklin-gov.com.
Layla's Bluegrass Hillbilly & Country Inn 418 Broadway; +1 615 726 2799; www.laylasbluegrassinn.com.
Manuel Exclusive Clothier 1922 Broadway; +1 615 321 5444.
Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum 301 Sixth Ave.; +1 615 244 3263; www.musicianshalloffame.com.
Parthenon 2600 West End Ave.; + 1 615 862 8431; www.nashville.gov/parthenon.
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack 123 Ewing Dr.; +1 615 226 9442.
Robert's Western World 416 Broadway; +1 615 244 9552; www.robertswesternworld.com.
Ryman Auditorium 116 Fifth Ave. N.; +1 615 889 3060; www.ryman.com.
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge 422 Broadway; + 1 615 726 0463; www.tootsies.net.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contributing editor Patrick Kelly wrote “Born to Be Wild” for our May/June 2007 issue. Photographer Will van Overbeek has shot feature stories for Traveler in Austin, London, Montreal, and Las Vegas.
Travel Photos From Your Shot
See photos of World Heritage sites in Europe submitted to National Geographic by users like you.