Emmylou's Tour of Nashville
Published: May 2009
By Kimberley Sevcik
Down-home Nashville still exists. You just have to ask a famous singer to help you find it
My first night in Nashville, I set out in search of good homegrown music and was directed to Lower Broadway, where I found myself in a nondescript bar watching sorority girls do their best to get down to ZZ Top covers. I should've known better: you can't expect to find authenticity on the same street as the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood. But there's probably no better way to find it than enlisting as your guide a musician who has lived in Nashville for 15 years. Especially if that musician happens to have collaborated with George Jones and Merle Haggard, taken home an armful of Grammys, and been immortalized by the Country Music Hall of Fame—which is the first place Emmylou Harris takes me the next day at five.
The barn-shaped Hall of Fame isn't exactly below the tourist radar; then again, how often do you get to wander through it with a woman whose guitar (a glossy black Gibson inlaid with a red rose) and dress (a long white sort of poncho, more roses) are both enshrined there?Considering her position in the country music pantheon, I expect Emmylou to be blasé about the whole thing. But she's almost as excited as I am, rushing from display to display, rhapsodizing over Hank Williams's low-rider lace-up boots ("I should get me a pair like that"). Occasionally she sings a few bars of the Carter Family song being piped into one of the rooms, in her lovely wistful voice. I get a glimpse of where that wistfulness is summoned from when she points out the first guitar owned by Gram Parsons, her musical mentor, who died at 26 from a mix of morphine and tequila. "I just loaned it to the museum," she says as we peer through the glass. "I couldn't bear to part with it."
Afterward, we sit on the porch of Bongo Java, one of those listless coffeehouses that let you lose track of time. Emmylou sips chai tea and smokes delicate Indian cigarettes. No one approaches her; no one even whispers or nudges a friend. In fact, she's the one making overtures, leaning over to scratch a big black-and-white mutt under the chin and to chat up its owners. When I tell her I'm surprised by this, she says, "Nashville's like that. It's a pretty laid-back place."
Here, under the cedar trees, it is laid-back. But the down-home side of Nashville is slipping away, a victim of the Top 40's grip on the country music business, among other things. The honky-tonks of Lower Broadway have lost ground to theme restaurants, and the record-label bungalows on Music Row are being overshadowed by the hulking corporate headquarters of bigger, brasher industry players.
"Nashville still has places with character," Emmylou insists. "You just have to know where to find them." She's annoyed by many of the changes being made in the name of modernity. Chain stores. Strip malls. "Why do people fix what isn't broken?" she asks. "We should value the things that are indigenous to this city."
I imagine Emmylou would include on this list the Nashville Sounds, the city's minor-league baseball team. Her idea of a great night out is to sit in the bleachers with a group of friends and a couple of beers, even though she doesn't really like beer, "but you kind of have to have it at a baseball game."
One by one, her family and friends join us in the stands—her mother, Eugenia; her ex-husband, songwriter Paul Kennerley; her stage manager; her 20-year-old daughter, Meghann—until there are 12 of us. Emmylou proves to be a connoisseur of the Greer Stadium menu. She loves the hot dogs, though they've gone and made them smaller, so you have to buy two. "I should write a letter," she says. And she loves the beer vendor, who brings as much passion and creativity to hawking as any major leaguer. "How about a beer?Maybe next year," he bellows in a gravelly baritone.
Not much happens over the course of the two-hour game—a few base hits, a few double plays. "I hope you're not bored," Emmylou says a couple of times. I'm not. I'm happy just to watch the golden afternoon sink into twilight, to stand up when a fly ball soars our way, and to clap for the between-innings variety shows, which include a boy-versus-girl gyrating competition; a 60-second pseudo-sumo wrestling match; and some pretty impressive tricks performed by the minor league mascot, Jake the Diamond Dog, a golden retriever who used to be Emmylou's neighbor.
After the game, we all caravan to a fifties dairy bar called Bobbie's Dairy Dip. Though the fluorescent sign is still glowing, the lights inside are dim. "Oh, no!" Emmylou cries. "I promised my mom a milk shake." But owner Claire Mullally, a former New York attorney, happens to be married to a musician, which means that Emmylou happens to know them. Luckily, they haven't yet shut down the chocolate soft-serve machine. So we hang around the parking lot with our chocolate cones and shakes, American Graffiti-style. I could happily linger in the high school cosmos of parking-lot socializing, but we have a concert to catch at the Radio Café. "I can't believe I ate all that," Emmylou says, turning to Meghann from the front seat. "I'm fasting tomorrow." "What good will that do?" Meghann asks.
There are clubs where people go to drink and maybe hear a little music, and there are clubs where people go to hear music and maybe do a little drinking. The Radio Café is definitely an example of the latter. Seated at the candlelit tables are girls in beaded sundresses next to men with ten-gallon hats next to couples in expertly creased khakis, and they are talking in whispers or not at all. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are performing; they're known for Appalachian-style folk tunes, lyrical and mournful. Tonight, however, they're churning away on electric guitars and rocking back and forth in sync.
When I return from the ladies' room, I'm thrilled to see Emmylou onstage with them in her sexy-librarian glasses. "We haven't practiced this one, but we know you love us and you won't kick us out," she says before going into Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Next, Emmylou surprises Meghann by calling her up to play "One More Day," a song Meghann wrote for a close friend who died too young. She drapes a guitar strap over Meghann's shoulder and half-whispers, "Just put it in position and play when you're ready." They haven't sung this number together in ages, so the performance is tentative, unpolished, but that's the beauty of it: it's extraordinarily intimate to watch a diva and her daughter feel their way through a song.
We'd planned to have a nightcap at the Sunset Grill, which is sort of the music industry canteen. The group opts instead for South Street, a gimmicky restaurant where trees grow through the tables. "I bring my family here for Christmas Eve dinner every year," Emmylou tells me, which suddenly makes it more interesting.
Still, I'm curious to see what I missed, so the next day I stop by the Sunset Grill. It's slick and minimalist, more L.A. than Nashville. At one table, two men in Hawaiian shirts are talking about the marketing possibilities of a fan site for the Charlie Daniels Band. "Give me a bottle of champagne," one of them says. "Make it cold and fresh."
I'm grateful that we didn't end the night here. It would have been like going to a Johnny Cash concert and having the program interrupted by Kenny G. I prefer to hang on to my vision of Nashville as a small town trapped in a big city, the kind of place where you can still find performing dogs and dairy bars and music in its rawest, most spontaneous form.
Kimberley Sevcik is the features director at Marie Claire.
Music: Clubs, Shops, and Shrines
Radio Café 1313 Woodland Ave.; 615/262-1766. A great place to see local talent, especially for fans of American roots.
Station Inn 402 12th Ave. S.; 615/255-3307. Bluegrass reigns. The act to catch, says Emmylou, is the Minute Men.
Great Escape 1925 Broadway; 615/327-0646. Rare records and more.
Country Music Hall of Fame 4 Music Square E.; 615/416-2001, fax 615/255-2245. Fetish Objects "R" Us.
Manuel 1922 Broadway; 615/321-5444. A disciple of the great Nudie, Manuel designs outlandishly embroidered getups for all the local stars.
Pangaea 1721 21st Ave. S.; 615/269-9665. Emmylou's source for Indian bedspreads and Mexican candles.
Restaurants and Cafés
Bobbie's Dairy Dip 53rd Ave. N. and Charlotte Ave.; 615/292-2112; lunch for two $12. Burgers, shakes, and, for Modernists, Belgian fries with creole mustard.
Rotier's Restaurant 2413 Elliston Place; 615/327-9892; dinner for two $20. Southern fare. Only Emmylou's mom makes better lemon icebox pie.
South Street 907 20th Ave. S.; 615/320-5555; dinner for two $50. A joint that bills itself as the "original smokehouse, crab shack, and authentic dive bar."
Sunset Grill 2001 Belcourt Ave.; 615/386-3663; dinner for two $60. New American fare, plus daring desserts—try the coconut sushi.
Bongo Java 2007 Belmont Blvd.; 615/385-5282. Porch hangout.
Four Walls 1804 Blair Blvd.; 615/292-7162; doubles $115, including breakfast. Three bedrooms in Hillsboro Village, Emmylou's favorite neighborhood.
Gruhn Guitars 400 Broadway; 615/256-2033. Emmylou, like most Nashville musicians, buys guitars here. You'll want to, too.