Travel Report: Nashville Nostalgia.
May 2007 & May 2009.
The American city of Nashville had never been on my radar. And it almost certainly never would have been, had I not befriended a guy called Jon who hailed from Music City. I met Jon in Bratislava way back in the summer of 2002 when we began working at an English language school.
We went on to share an apartment together and embark on numerous travel adventures across Slovakia, Austria, Poland and Hungary. This was a wonderful period of my life and one that I’ve documented on these pages via my short story series The Slovak Files.
Finally, in May 2007, I got to see Jon in his home city. Naturally I got to crash at his place, a homey bachelor’s pad on Blair Boulevard with an awesome porch. Perfect, as it turned out, for lazing around, drinking beers, snacking and generally not doing very much.
In fact, this was just what the doctor had ordered. I’d arrived in Nashville on the back of an amazing but hectic week in New York City, followed by an equally full on five days in Washington DC.
Thus I was actually in need of some rest. Suddenly, all that relentless walking and sightseeing gave way to simply hanging out at Jon’s place. For the most part, I lived like a local. I picked up groceries at the supermarket and listened to Johnny Cash on the porch. I also checked out Jon’s decent (to my uneducated ears at least) mandolin skills.
In the evening we had long, lazy dinners in the garden. Jon’s housemate Steve, who looks a bit like President John F. Kennedy, usually joined us. These grand feasts soon attracted the interest of the local possums, who began congregating around the trash cans in the small hours.
I’d never seen a possum before. Hence I made several attempts, with the aid of a gas lamp, to catch a glimpse of one. Unfortunately, I was not successful.
However, one animal I saw plenty of was Jon’s antagonistic cat, Brave Little Apple Sauce. Never before or since have I met such an unfriendly, territorial feline. She glared at me with her piercing, distrustful green eyes. She scratched me several times, unprovoked. Heck, she even jumped on my lap to hiss in my face when, foolishly, I fell asleep on the living room chair one afternoon.
Apple Sauce and I may not have been best friends. But I still felt a twinge of sadness when I heard she passed away in 2016. And it was almost heartwarming to see her parting words to man and animal kind.
Eventually, we headed out for drinks at Jon’s local watering hole, Sam’s Place, in Hillsboro Village. It was the archetypal American sports bar, with framed football memorabilia, TV screens all over the walls and attractive waitresses dressed in skimpy outfits.
The food was great, with burgers, fries, chicken wings, ribs, potato wedges, nachos… all that good greasy stuff. And yet my defining memory of Sam’s is the charged banter between my English friends and one of Jon’s American buddies during my second visit in 2009. The subject was sports and it went something like this:
American dude: “You guys and your soccer! Fifty pounds a ticket and at the end of the game it’s 0-0. Here we got REAL sports, like basketball”.
Steve C: “In England it’s called netball and it’s played by girls”.
American dude: “We got American football!”
Steve P: “Yes, we call it rugby. And we don’t bother with the helmets or shoulder pads!”
Ah, Sam’s. They actually have a bunch of locations across Nashville, although I see that old joint in Hillsboro Village is no longer there.
I recall how much I loved the sleepy vibe of downtown Nashville. Typified in many ways by the occasional busking cowboy and its soft, predominantly low-rise skyline. Even a certain Bob Dylan seemed charmed by it. So much so that he altered his famously raspy vocals for a lilting country croon on his brilliant 1969 album Nashville Skyline.
Wherever we went, there was one bona fide skyscraper that seemingly held court over the entire city. Known to locals as the Batman Building, this 188 metre office tower stands as the tallest structure in Tennessee. The cheeky nickname references its resemblance to the caped crusader’s signature mask.
Its official name is The AT&T Building. This is due to the fact that AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company, has offices here. The block has also been home to branches of BellSouth, The U.S. Bank and Nissan.
Pretty much all my exploring around Nashville revolved around its rich history as a major music industry hub. Home to around 200 recording studios, they say Nashville is the capital of America’s country music scene. As a result, plenty of singers and bands call the city home, including Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Kenny Chesney and The Kings of Leon.
At the time of my visits Nashville was still home to a bunch of legendary record stores, such as Ernest Tubb and Lawrence Record Shop. Indeed I spent an hour or so browsing the shelves at Lawrence, said to be country music star Emmylou Harris’ favourite spot for music shopping.
Opened in 1954, Lawrence was famed for their huge range of vinyl albums. They also had CDs, cassette tapes, signed music posters, instruments, boots and cowboy hats. Sadly, in this digital age of YouTube and Spotify, these kinds of record stores are dropping like flies. Indeed I see that Lawrence closed its doors in 2016.
Of Nashville’s legendary recording studios, you simply can’t leave town without stopping by RCA Studio B. Built in 1956 in the city’s historic Music Row district, this is where some of America’s biggest stars came to lay down their most celebrated albums.
Dolly Parton… Waylon Jennings… Willy Nelson… Roy Orbison… they all camped out at RCA Studio B, contributing to the development of The Nashville Sound.
Happily, there’s an exhibit in the studio that sheds light on how this sound developed. Including a tribute to the production wizardry of Chet Atkins, who was influential in brining in harmonious backing vocals and strings. All of which helped create a new brand of country music that was smoother and had a broader appeal.
Elsewhere, Jon and I got to do some fun posing at sound engineer Bill Porter‘s original 1960s audio console. Amazingly, Porter conducted around 7000 recording sessions at RCA during his thirty year career. Nicknamed “the man with the golden ear”, his work produced 300 chart records. 11 of which hit number 1, 49 went top 10.
RCA Studio B.
Finally, our wanderings brought us into the main recording room. As we entered, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as Elvis Presley’s Little Sister crackled into life over the sound system.
Elvis was certainly no stranger to RCA. He recorded over 200 songs here. One of his most productive sessions came in the summer of 1970 when he laid down an impressive 30 tracks in just five days. Known as The Marathon Sessions, many of these numbers ended up on his 1970 album That’s the Way It Is.
Moreover, I was free to sit and tinkle on the great Elvis Steinway Piano. Built in New York City’s Steinway Factory in 1942, this was The King’s favourite piano. The very one used on a number of tracks with the acclaimed pianist Floyd Cramer. Definitely a highlight of my adventures in Nashville.
Another unmissable Nashville musical institution is The Ryman Auditorium. As far as live music goes, this is the city’s most cherished historical venue.
Constructed between 1885 and 1892, it initially served as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, a grand Christian assembly hall. A local businessman, Thomas Ryman, funded the project, which led to the building bearing his name following his death in 1904.
The Ryman Auditorium.
Over the subsequent decades there was an increase in non-religious events, such as poetry reading, boxing matches, political lectures and concerts. Furthermore, Harry Houdini famously performed his milk can escape within these walls in 1924.
But The Ryman is best celebrated as the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a live weekly country music stage concert that also broadcast live on WSM Radio. The first show took place here in 1943 and ran through to 1974 when it relocated to a brand new facility, The Grand Ole Opry House.
Losing The Grand Ole Opry was a huge blow for The Ryman. Consequently, the venue sat decaying for nearly twenty years before a full renovation restored it to its former glory in the mid 1990s.
Naturally, I was really hoping to catch a concert here. But alas the show calendar didn’t bring up much while I was in Nashville, so I made do with one of the free daytime tours. It was very cool to take a seat on one of the wooden pews and admire the stained glass windows.
WSM Radio still broadcasts out of The Ryman. Indeed there was a show live on air that day while we explored.
Today The Ryman can pack in over 2300 people for live concerts. It would be a dream of mine to come back one last time and catch say a Ryan Adams show. Who knows, it might just work out one of these years. For a look at what’s coming up at The Ryman, head to the show calendar on their official website.
Luckily, I did get to see some live music in Nashville. The Crawfish Boil is a music and food event with a main stage in the city’s Riverfront Park. There were some pretty big acts that weekend, with the likes of Papa Roach, Soul Asylum and Cake all playing raucous sets.
I also got to see Son Volt, a band formed from the ashes of alt-country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo. This was especially interesting for me, as I’d long been a big fan of Wilco, the other group spawned from Uncle Tupelo’s messy breakup.
There was more memorable live music at a number of swingin’ joints across Nashville’s downtown honky-tonks. My Bratislava buddies Bill and Mary had come to visit from Iowa. And so unfolded a fun night of beer, bar food, Slovak reminiscence and country tunes.
Robert’s Western World.
Most of that evening played out at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. Formerly home to the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar Company, Robert’s is one of Nashville’s most popular honky-tonks, the so-called “undisputed king of traditional country music”.
I came away from my second Nashville trip with some very cool vintage style posters. And it’s all because of my visit to Hatch Show Print, a letterpress print shop dating back to 1879.
The store was opened by The Hatch Brothers, Charles and Herbert, whose hand printed designs covered everything from handbills and concert posters to billboard ads, circus signs and postcards.
A great deal of the posters I saw revolved around the music industry, with many of the aforementioned RCA stars featured in various poster designs. One guy I hadn’t heard of who caught my eye was a grizzled old singer, comedian and banjo maestro by the name of Uncle Dave Macon.
Known as “The Dixie Dewdrop” and “The Grandfather of Country Music”, Macon was one of The Grand Ole Opry’s first stars. This poster gave me a good giggle, especially the odd monkey and peanut line.
“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.”
– The Hatch Brothers
Today HSP stands as a fascinating display of handprinted artwork, in addition to being a living museum of the city’s history through print. While visiting, it’s possible to take part in a number of educational workshops covering subjects like The History of Advertising and The Technical Elements of Letterpress Printing.
Last but not least… I spent an afternoon feeling a bit lost in The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. If you’re really into Country Music, this place will blow your mind. It is massive… with a seemingly endless array of exhibits on every star you’ve ever heard of, plus several hundred you haven’t. If so inclined, you could easily spend all day here.
For me, it was more than enough to seek out those sections that interested me the most. Like, for example, the bits on Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.
Coming face to face with Elvis’ gold Cadillac was also a cool moment. As was taking a stroll through the two-story record room, where gold and platinum albums cover the walls from floor to ceiling. Cheers Nashville, hope to see you again someday!
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.