Finding America's Music Roots in Nashville
Published: April 2009
By Jesse Kornbluth
Skip the rhinestone cowboy cornpone and dig down to the real roots of America's music city
During two decades of visiting family in Nashville, I have see all the things that must be seen. I have watched country music acts like the Gatlin Brothers, Barbara Mandrell, and, yes, Minnie Pearl perform a song apiece at the Grand Ole Opry in its newfangled quarters at Opryland USA, the amusement park and concert hall that is Nashville's main attraction. I have toured Andrew Jackson's house, walked around the replica of the Parthenon, and rolled up the Cumberland River on a paddle wheeler. But in recent years Nashville has been a boomtown, and so I have fallen behind on my must-sees.
I missed the opening of the umpteenth Planet Hollywood, with Demi and Bruce and Arnold winging in for the ribbon-cutting. I haven't yet line-danced at the Wildhorse Saloon, the giant club off Lower Broadway that has a 3,300-square-foot dance floor. I haven't been to the newly opened Nashville Arena, the first venue in town big enough for Garth Brooks. And I haven't yet made tailgate-party plans for the day in 1999 when the Houston Oilers become Nashville's National Football League franchise.
It's not that I'm ignoring the goings-on in one of my favorite places in America I've just been looking elsewhere in Nashville. For as the city has become a sort of country-and-western theme park, down to the Civil War sites and occasional antebellum mansion, another kind of tourism has experienced a parallel spurt in growth. It too focuses on Nashville's glorious past-- but unlike those merchandised and marketed by Official Nashville, these attractions are as engaging for the locals as they are for visitors.
A mile up the road from Planet Hollywood, for example, crowds still gravitate to Hap Townes, a dumpy old cinder-block diner that has taken the meat-and-three-vegetables lunch plate to the level of art. Around the corner from that mammoth line-dancing club, Robert's Western World serves up cheap beer and music that sounds pretty much as it did 40 years ago. Just down the block, Hatch Show Print continues to create concert posters with type that's almost 150 years old. Unlike other cities that have become tourist destinations, Nashville matches every sign of Disneyfication with a thriving slice of the city's authentic, native culture. There's no danger that these small enterprises will put a dent in Opryland admissions, but their street-level survival represents a triumph of continuity; by preserving the past, they reach out to the future.
Twenty-five years ago, Nashvillians will tell you, the only time you saw people downtown after dark was when shifts changed at the phone company. No longer. Lower Broadway, the street that used to define the heart of commercial Nashville, is once again a magnet. However I construct my Nashville days, Lower Broadway is where I tend to spend my evenings, for a very simple reason: Nashville is one of the last cities where you can hear great American music at bargain prices, in informal settings, and without reservations. And by music, I don't mean just achy-breaky Eagles rip-offs sung by studs in cowboy hats; I'm talking about thought-provoking lyrics and crafty tunes by performers you've never heard of but who are just as good as (or better than) ones you have. Know this: Nashville's best live music has nothing in common with the stuff that afflicts you when your car radio lands for a few seconds on a commercial country station.
The perfect spot to kick off your first day in town is the Pancake Pantry. Looking in, you might not think it's the absolute best place to have breakfast, but that's because they've renovated this Nashville institution, froufrouing it up with sconces and green Naugahyde booths. Regulars might complain about the redo, but it hasn't driven them away. And if you're fortunate enough to have Joyce Stubblefield, a 33-year veteran of the Pantry, as your waitress, she may tell you about the time Garth Brooks told Jay Leno he ate only cereal for breakfast. So Leno got Joyce on the air and she, as is her way, told the truth: "Garth has two scrambled eggs, ham, and hash browns, with two hot chocolates."
From the Pancake Pantry, I'd go immediately to the most important repository of Nashville's musical history. The artifacts at the Country Music Hall of Fame tell a story that's easy to gather in an hour or two: this music was originally played at barn dances and church socials, and it developed alongside the blues as an indigenous, unpretentious folk art. Then radio came along, and, with it, the Grand Ole Opry. After singers became stars, it was only a matter of time before country became big business.
These exhibits testify to a love of music more than of money. It's evident in the wonderful footage of country greats from Jimmie Rodgers to Travis Tritt. Or in the handwritten lyrics to songs you know well, such as Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," scrawled on the stationery of the Monument Records company. Happily, there's also goofy stuff, like Willie Nelson's sneakers. And, of course, the showstopper: Elvis's 1960 Cadillac limousine, with 40 coats of paint to give it a "solid gold" look, a shoe polisher, an ice machine that makes cubes in two minutes, and gold records lining the roof.
For a fresh perspective on Elvis and a host of other musicians, walk (or drive) the few blocks to RCA Studio B for the museum's ultimate exhibit, the no-frills birthplace of countless hits on the order of Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and much of the classic Nashville sound, syrupy with strings and backup choirs. Still a working studio, it was created in the 1950's and looks as retro as The Flintstones. Nostalgia is one thing, but kitsch is another; I'd avoid the mini-museums and gift shops that surround the hall of fame.
Better to make a radical mood shift and tour Belle Meade Plantation, a Greek Revival house called "the Queen of Tennessee Plantations." It was built in 1853 by owners who had taste as well as money. Evidence of the slavery this fortune depended on has been stripped away, and only the beauty of the grounds and house remains. And then I would stroll through nearby Cheekwood, the city's best museum. There's a good collection of regional art here, but I'm more taken by the lush grounds, including 27 acres of botanical gardens, that surround this Georgian mansion just 10 minutes from the center of town.
If, like me, you're someone who believes that a day of travel without a bout of shopping is a missed opportunity, the place to do it without breaking your nostalgic reverie is the White Way Antique Mall. The 55 dealers who stock this 9,000-square-foot emporium seem to bring only their quirkiest items and best-preserved vintage clothes. Howard Finster folk paintings range from $250 to $600, 1930's-style plastic clocks top out at $75, and a cherrywood corner cupboard costs $2,500. For years, I've been buying perfectly preserved pink Schiaparelli hatboxes here, never for more than $40, but now I have my eye on a $65 ladder-back chair with a cane seat, and an early-fifties bicycle that's unaccountably selling for $110.
The ideal choice for dinner on your first night of Nashville time-traveling is Jimmy Kelly's, which opened in 1934. Southern hospitality lives on: the owner is third-generation, the waiters wear white jackets, and the menu features corn cakes, blackened fish, and steak. If there were a swing band and after-dinner dancing, the supper club experience would be complete.
After a soothing martini and a hefty meal, Lower Broadway will come as a shock. The main drag is aflame with lights and awash with people; it's like an Edward Hopper nightscape, but painted on a night when Hopper was in a rare good mood. First stop, Tootsies Orchid Lounge. It's not enough for Tootsies to have one ancient and legendary music room that doesn't charge admission you can stroll past the band and the knots of dancers to an even shabbier and more exalted shrine, Upstairs at Tootsies. Part of the magic here is that the Ryman Auditorium, the celebrated home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, is just across the alley; Opry stars used to slip out between sets for a drink at this bar.
As midnight approaches, time to move down three doors to Robert's Western World, also known as "the Boot Bar" because the walls are lined with official country footwear. The boots are allegedly for sale, though no one I know has ever witnessed a purchase. The main attraction is music. If you're lucky, you'll catch the group called BR5-49, which takes its name from a license plate on the old TV show Hee Haw. This band has a repertoire, and then some; they've regularly played four or five hours a night here, and gained a Grammy nomination for their brand of high-quality hard country that honors the tradition and fools around with it, too: at the stroke of midnight, they break into "Me and Opie Down by the Duck Pond," an homage to Andy Griffith.
Unlike music joints in your town, Robert's Western World charges no admission. On Lower Broadway you can nurse a drink, dance with abandon, shout over the throng, toss a contribution into the band's tip jar, glide down the street into another music bar for a great set by another group you've never heard of and end the evening with change in your pocket.
I would start Day Two where I ended Night One. just off Lower Broadway is the Ryman Auditorium, which functions occasionally as a theater by night but is now mostly a museum. The Ryman doesn't have nearly as many artifacts as you'd like, but it's got the best photo opportunity in Nashville. There's a velvet rope, some steps, and there you are onstage, with an Opry microphone in front of you and an Opry sign above, so you can be photographed as an Opry star.
It's a short walk from this fantasy moment to Hatch Show Print, the shop that has been creating posters since 1879. Everything here is printed on a letterpress, by hand. Famous for the posters that advertised performances by yesterday's Opry stars, Hatch is still pumping out art and design for current entertainers at rates, claims manager Jim Sherraden, that are "cheaper than Kinko's." Some collectors are shrewd enough to buy one copy of everything Hatch turns out each month; clever visitors line up to buy inexpensive restrikes of classic posters; the luckiest get a crack at Sherraden's own artwork.
As long as you're on Lower Broadway, the prudent next stop is Gruhn Guitars. Founded in 1970, this four-story operation is both a store and a living museum. Odds are that the original 1957 prototype of the Gibson "Flying V" electric guitar will be on display whenever you visit it's selling for $100,000, so a buyer may be slow to appear. You can also see a dazzling range of instruments: old Stratocasters and Les Pauls, hollow-bodied Gibsons, Martin flattops, a National resonator, and, as founder George Gruhn quickly adds, a great many guitars in the $500$2,000 range. Even if you know nothing about guitars, Gruhn Guitars is quite a show. Last time I was there, I watched a salesman strum over the phone to a distant customer.
If you take my suggestion and head to Hap Townes for lunch, you are due for a bad moment: Hap Townes is an unadorned bomb shelter of a place in an industrial zone, and the folks who wander in surely don't look like the movers and shakers of the Nashville boom; it's almost certain that someone in your party will say, when confronted with the place, "Hey, I don't know . . ."
Some history: Gordon "Hap" Townes built a pie wagon in his back yard in 1921 and operated his ever-growing restaurant until he was 88. Now Terry Paysinger runs it, and it's still, as they like to say, "the meat-and-three capital of the world." And a bargain at about $5 a lunch. Do order the stewed raisins as one of your three vegetables. And leave room for the $1.25 peach cobbler.
After lunch, you won't regret dropping in on Nashville's version of Chanel, a custom tailor named Manuel. It was he who gave Johnny Cash's penchant for black clothing a customized, showbiz spin, resulting in the moniker "the man in black." He also made jumpsuits for Elvis and rhinestone cowboy garb for just about everybody. There's little danger you'll have much occasion to wear these eye-popping outfits. His jackets start at $1,250, at least double that if you want rhinestones and embroidery. Happily, it's free and a hoot simply to gawk.
For subtler stimulation, drive over to Elliston Place, an old row of stores near Vanderbilt University, where I go for my ritual visit to Elder's Bookstore. This is a cheerfully independent shop of the kind that seems increasingly antique; instead of big aisles stocked with best-sellers, an old table holds Colin Powell's book resting against a biography of Robert E. Lee. "Know where everything is?" Mr. Elder asks. Sort of, I say. "Well, I don't," he replies, with a smile that melts my resistance to a Walker Percy novel he's hoping to sell me.
For later that night, you've got to call ahead to reserve tickets for the club that is the living heart of Nashville music. You'd never guess; the Bluebird Café's home is a nondescript shopping plaza that seems like a suburb of a neighboring mall. There is no stage at the Bluebird, just a circle of chairs for the performers and a few spotlights at most, you're 20 feet from the musicians. A bad night at the Bluebird is an impossibility, but an especially fine time is guaranteed when the club features musicians who are friends playing in the round. The night I went, the musicians were Jonell Mosser, Pierce Pettis, Tom Kimmel, Tom Britt, and Leslie Tucker. If you've never heard of any of them, don't worry-- they're not exactly staples of hit country radio. But over 21/2 hours of chiming guitars and gentle harmonies augmenting Mosser's rough-edged love songs, the foursome projected deep intelligence and sensitivity. The room filled with respect and admiration.
In the afterglow of that sweet performance, I drove to my parents' house the long way, doubling back through the deserted streets of downtown. If I kept my sight line low, away from the glassy skyscrapers, Nashville seemed like a literary creation, something out of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, or Sherwood Anderson.
But it was a scrap of an article I'd seen in the window of Robert's Western World that contained the lines that defined this moment, this Nashville experience. It was a quote from Chuck Mead, the guitarist for BR5-49: "Lower Broadway is the natural continuation of history rather than a preconceived product concept."
Like so many before them, BR5-49 have become popular far beyond Nashville's city limits, but they keep the home fires burning at Robert's Western World. "No matter how high we go," said Mead, "you'll find us playing there."
This sentiment cheers me. It's a hopeful sign that the denizens of the authentic, unofficial Nashville will always revere, as I do, the places that time and hype forgot.
Pancake Pantry 1996 21st Ave. S.; 615/383-9333; breakfast for
two $15. This is to Nashville what the Hotel Bel- Air's dining room
is to Hollywood: a place where movers and shakers start the day.
Hap Townes 494 Humphreys St.; 615/242-7035; lunch for two $15.
Don't get hung up on what the place looks like or its location. This is
your essential "meat and three" spot.
Jimmy Kelly's 217 Louise Ave.; 615/329-4349; dinner for two $45.
The Old South lives on: white-coated waiters, thick steaks, and more dealmakers
than you see at `21.'
Bluebird Café 4104 Hillsboro Rd.; 615/383-1461.
There are two shows a night, at 6:45 and 9:30. Reservations are recommended;
cover charges vary.
Tootsies Orchid Lounge 422 Broadway; 615/726-3739. Hangout
with a second music room even more casual than the first.
Robert's Western World 416 Broadway; 615/256-7937. The crowd
dances, but not in a line.
Country Music Hall of Fame 4 Museum Square E.; 615/255-5333;
admission $9.95 adults, $4.95 kids. Costumes, Elvis's gold Cadillac,
and a theater that shows clips of country's greatest performers.
Belle Meade Plantation 5025 Harding Rd.; 615/356-0501; admission
$7 adults, $2 kids. The tour buses will go to Andrew Jackson's mansion,
but this smaller spread gives you a better window onto antebellum life.
Cheekwood-Tennessee Botanical Gardens & Museum of Art 1200
Forrest Park Dr.; 615/356-8000. Nashville's best museum, with grounds
that make for a pleasant walk.
Ryman Auditorium 116 Fifth Ave. N.; 615/254-1445; admission $5.50
adults, $2.25 kids. The legendary home of the Grand Ole Opry, now a
museum and music venue.
Hatch Show Print 316 Broadway; 615/256-2805. They still
produce concert posters that look a century old; a collector's paradise.
White Way Antique Mall 1200 Villa Place, at Edgehill Ave.; 615/327-1098.
The best assemblage of dealers in Nashville.
Manuel 1922 Broadway; 615/321-5444. Clothing for country stars and rich folk with a taste
for spangles and glitter; a fun fashion museum for the rest of us.
Gruhn Guitars 400 Broadway; 615/256-2033. You don't have to be in the market for a guitar to appreciate the vintage instruments and watch musicians check the merchandise.
Elder's Bookstore 2115 Elliston Place; 615/327-1867. The books are stacked in ways that would never pass muster at Barnes & Noble. Just gives you more reason to ask questions of the personable staff.
Doubletree 315 Fourth Ave. N.; 800/528-0444; fax 615/747-4894; doubles $99$144. A conveniently located modern high-rise.
Union Station Hotel 1001 Broadway; 800/331-2123; fax 615/248-3554; doubles $129. Comfortable accommodations in one of Nashville's most striking buildings, the former passenger train station. The lobby demands to be seen, and admired.
Hermitage Suite Hotel 231 Sixth Ave.; 800/251-1908; fax 615/254-6909; doubles $164. In the heart of downtown, historic and plush in the grand style. Another lovely lobby.
Bed & Breakfast Host Homes of Tennessee 615/331-5244. Provides listings.
On the Web
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