Damien Gabet hits the road to try and fulfil a lifelong dream of playing live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Finally, the right kind of place. I’ve been looking all week. Somewhere I can get up on stage and play the bass guitar at an open-mic night. It’s been a long-held dream to perform in Music City.
Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, tucked away on Printers Alley, isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to find in downtown Nashville. The first perception of downtown is as a place of endless, raucous honky tonk bars, vying for hen-do traffic and hosting country & western party bands.
Downtown Nashville by night © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp
This makes it sound like the musicians playing downtown are second rate. Far from it. My Friday-night saunter down tourist-trap Broadway was humbling to say the least.
Neon-lit Robert’s Western World – a ‘cold-beer’ honky tonk, still frequented by locals hosts bands worth wading through the scrum on the street to see. Music at Robert's is a serious business, not the sort of place where a tourist with itchy fingers can get up and play.
Bourbon Street Blues is different – you can be a local, a tourist, or anything in between. If you’re good, you’re up. And so on a Sunday evening I sat nursing Bud Light and watched the house band kick things off. It took around eight seconds for me to realise that there was absolutely no way I could put my name on the list. Everyone on stage was achingly talented. It would have been like John Sergeant auditioning for principle dancer at the Bolshoi.
The guitarist delivered the kind of licks you see on Youtube videos. The ones that go viral. In this company I was content to quietly sit and sip and gawp. The blues was a pleasing soundtrack for contemplation – time to think about what a remarkable week it had been.
A banjo player gets in the groove © michelangeloop/Shutterstock
When British Airways launched direct flights to Nashville this summer it gave weight to the feeling that the city was in the spotlight A buoyant music scene, sure, but food, art and other cultural pursuits are now also following suit.
According to my tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, things have been ‘happening’ since the early '90s. In 1992, country singer Emmylou Harris won a Grammy for her live album At The Ryman, which helped to revive interest in the crumbling ‘Mother Church of Country Music’ and consequently put Nashville back on the musical map.
My own experience of the Ryman on a Friday night has left an indelible mark. Many Americans have a general propensity for enthusiasm – I’m still recovering from the last NFL game I went to – but here there were standing ovations before the bands even come out on stage.
Ryman Auditorium in Nashville © enjoy.the.image/Shutterstock
When the first band eventually made it on stage, the crowd’s Richter-rocking reaction quite literally shook the auditorium. The show was a choreographed, madcap romp through classic country tunes that everyone knew the words to. A pleasure to watch.
But country music (and the blues) is not the only genre this city has to offer. Rolling Stone magazine reported last year on an underground music scene that was thriving under the stewardship of indie musicians creating ‘DIY rock 'n' roll’. One of the best spots to see exciting, grass-roots bands play is Basement East, in hip East Nashville.
Following dinner at Shoreditch-style Butcher & Bee, I went to ‘catch a show’ at Basement East. It happened to be Americana Fest that weekend – an annual multi-venue festival dedicated to the genre. The singer on stage beguiled her audience by channeling the most ethereal qualities of Joni Mitchell's sound.
Butcher & Bee in hip East Nashville © Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp
The venue is very close to an area called Five Points, which houses a cluster of ‘divey’ bars, clandestine cocktail dens and on-trend, small-plate restaurants. It was in the nearby Edgefield Sports Bar & Grill that I felt I got the best of East Nashville. A girl I'd met earlier in the day at a vintage clothing store was in there with her troupe of '70s-styled friends. The invited me to play darts, passed around cigarettes (to smoke indoors) and did bourbon shots at the bar. It felt like being an extra in a Guns 'n' Roses video.
On my way to the next bar, I happened to bump into a music-publicist friend who'd emigrated to the city for work. "This is where it’s all happening, man!" he told me. "You need to move out here – I’ll hook you up." I must say, I’m tempted.