Set on a bluff by the Cumberland River amid the gentle hills and farmlands of central Tennessee, big-hearted 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 hipper honky-tonks and other live music venues found not only downtown but also in Nashville’s many characterful neighbourhoods.
Behind the rhinestone glitter and showbiz exists a conservative, hard-working city. 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 notably religious place: there are more churches per head here than anywhere else in the nation.
Downtown Nashville is spread along the Cumberland River, and while it looks much like any other regional business centre, “Lower Broad”, along Broadway between 2nd and 5th avenues, is prime country music territory, lined with honky-tonks, bars, restaurants and gift stores. In addition to the venerable structures you’d expect in a state capital, downtown boasts many of the city’s premier attractions, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium and the Johnny Cash Museum. Further afield, Music Row, which centres on Demonbreun Street a mile southwest of downtown, forms the heart of Nashville’s recording industry, with companies including Warner Bros., Mercury and Sony operating out of plush office blocks.
The city has a number of hip little neighbourhoods ripe for discovery, particularly East Nashville, located across the river. It’s a left-leaning place made up of aspiring musicians and young families, where quirky galleries rub elbows with thrift stores and stylish restaurants. East of Centennial Park, across West End Avenue, the campus of Vanderbilt University abuts the colourful Hillsboro Village, a four-block radius sliced through by 21st Avenue South and abounding in cafés and arty boutiques. Most visitors will enjoy themselves immensely by launching full-tilt into what “Nash Vegas” is best known for: the flash and fun of country music. If you’re hankering for more local flavour, venture out of downtown to swill regional beer, browse oddball record stores and hunt for the perfect pair of cowboy boots.
Everyone’s first stop should be the superb Country Music Hall of Fame. A wealth of paraphernalia from countless stars, including all manner of gowns, guitars and battered leather boots, not to mention Elvis’s gold Cadillac – combine with video footage, photos and, of course, lots and lots of music, to create a hugely enjoyable account of the genre from its earliest days. Songwriters and musicians give regular live performances and masterclasses.
The Hall of Fame also offers short bus tours (daily 10.30am–2.30pm) of RCA’s legendary Studio B on Music Row. Between 1957 and 1977, forty gold records were cut here, including Dolly Parton’s Jolene, but it’s probably most famous for a thirteen-year run of Elvis hits. Restored and rewired, it’s open for business again, and is very much a hot ticket – book online to guarantee a timeslot.
In 2013, after more than a century in their original Broadway store, the music publicity wizards that make up Hatch Show Print found a new home here at the museum. Established in 1879, this atmospheric workshop prints and sells posters from the early days of country and rock’n’roll, using the original blocks, and continues to produce new work.
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 music, including the spirituals and gospel hymns sung by African American slaves and their descendants. It first acquired its current form during the 1920s. As radios and record players became widely available, the recording industry took off and Nashville became the base for 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, 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). Soon 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 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, is kept alive today by million-selling artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum.