Set on a bluff by the Cumberland River amid the gentle hills and farmlands of central Tennessee, sprawling NASHVILLE attracts millions of visitors each year. The majority come for the country music, whether at mainstream showcases like the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, or in the funkier honky-tonks found not only downtown but also in Nashville’s many neighbourhoods.
Behind the rhinestone glitter and showbiz exists a conservative, hard-working city; one that for the visitor is less immediately accessible than those other great music cities, Memphis and New Orleans. Nashville has been the leading settlement in middle Tennessee since Fort Nashborough was established in 1779, and state capital since 1843. It is now a major financial and insurance centre and a seriously religious place: there are more churches per head here than anywhere else in the nation. Rapid development since World War II has transformed the town into a maze-like conurbation, stretching out in all directions along the undulating roads known as pikes. While there are hip little neighbourhoods ripe for discovery, most visitors will enjoy themselves most by launching full-tilt into what “Nash Vegas” is best known for: the flash and fun of country music.
Country music is generally reckoned to have resulted from the interaction of British and Irish folk music, as brought by Tennessee’s first Anglo settlers, with other ethnic musics, including the spirituals and gospel hymns sung by African-American slaves and their descendants. It first acquired its current form during the 1920s, with the arrival in Nashville of thousands of migrants fleeing rural poverty. As radios and record players became widely available, the recording industry took off and Nashville became the obvious base for the musicians of the mid-South. Local radio station WSM – “We Shield Millions”, the slogan of its insurance-company sponsor – first broadcast on October 5, 1925 and swiftly established itself as a champion of the country sound. Two years later, at the start of his Barn Dance show, compere George D. Hay announced “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present The Grand Ole Opry”. This piece of slang became the name of America’s longest-running radio show, still broadcast live out to millions two to three nights per week on WSM-AM (650). Swiftly outgrowing the WSM studios, the show moved in 1943 to a former tabernacle – the Ryman Auditorium. There it acquired a make-or-break reputation; up-and-coming singers could only claim to have made it if they had gone down well at the Opry. Among thousands of hopefuls who tried to get on the show was Elvis Presley, advised by an Opry official in 1954 to stick to truck-driving. The first appearance of Hank Williams, in 1949, commanded an unequalled six encores. Four years later, the Opry audience responded to his drink- and drug-induced death by singing his I Saw the Light. The decade of prosperity after World War II witnessed country’s first commercial boom. Recording studios, publishing companies and artists’ agencies proliferated in Nashville and the major labels recognized that a large slice of the (white) record-buying public wanted something less edgy than rockabilly. The easy-listening Nashville Sound they came up with, pioneered by Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, perpetuated by the likes of Barbara Mandrell and Kenny Rogers and rendered even further twang-free by Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, is kept alive today by million-selling artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum. The Nashville Sound remains the clean-cut face of country, even if the music has always retained its earthier side.