Nashville. The Big Time.

As I hadn’t stayed in a big city for many a moon, I was hit by a kind of urban shock when I finally hit Nashville. Ironically, Nashville, the biggest city I visited, was the only place where I used my tent. I pitched it on a patch of lawn in a RV park just down the road from Opryland, a gleaming new megalithic entertainment and shopping complex on the outskirts of the city. For what I could see, I was the only tent in the entire RV part, perhaps the only tent in the city of Nashville.

Right smack dab (I do like that phrase) in the middle of downtown, Music Row is a one-block-long stretch of record shops, bars and restaurants featuring an array of neon and live country music acts. While the music didn’t appeal to me all that much, it was good to see that much live music happening.

What did appeal to me – and one of the main reasons I had come to Nashville -- was going to hear a western swing band called The Time Jumpers. I knew that every Monday night they held court at a little club off the main drag. I was there an hour early. While nothing fancy, The Station Inn is a legendary bluegrass venue and after hours hang out for hot Nashville pickers. Led by fiddle player Hoot Hester, The Time Jumpers is a nine-piece (!) western swing band made up of Nashville session musicians and, man, they are tight. I stayed the whole night soaking it all in.

Ryman AuditoriumRyman interiorFortunately, it turned out that the Grand Ol’ Opry show was not out at the new Opryland, but rather back downtown at its original home at the Ryman Auditorium. How could I not go to the Opry? So the next morning I painfully plunked down my $32.50 for a ticket to that evening’s performance, then headed out to salve my pecuniary wounds at a couple of music stores.

First stop was the Gibson factory store in the Opryland complex. The impressive thing about this store – in addition to its size and array of fine instruments – is that you can watch the Gibson employees hand-crafting mandolins, resonator guitars, and banjos through a long, Plexiglas window that divides the showroom from the factory. While it was a little odd to stand staring at these folks seated at their workbenches mere inches away, it was fascinating to watch them really doing it.

Gibson guitarDuring my visit to the Gibson store, I joined in an impromptu gospel jam session with two or three other guys. Grabbing the closest guitar off the rack, I spent the next hour singing and playing licks for the Lord. Hallelujah. Though I’ve never been a big Gibson fan, I had to admit that the guitar I was playing sounded mighty good. When the jam ended and I went to hang it back up, I happened to glance at the price tag: $10,000. No wonder it sounded so good. It was very cool that the store employees didn’t object to me playing it. So, in conclusion, I can honestly say that I have played in Nashville.

The other music store I had to check out was Gruen Guitars, located right in the heart of Music Row. Gruen’s is widely known for dealing in quality vintage instruments and that afternoon I played a bunch of them. I’m a guitar and mando junkie, to be sure.

Turned out that the Ryman was just off Music Row, so I hung out, ate some decent barbecue at some famous local joint, then hoofed it over to hear the show. Recently refurbished, the Ryman, the grand ol’ gal of country music, looks great. It must have been a church at one time, because the audience sits in long, wooden pews. Hard seats or no, the place was packed. There’s obviously a great tradition associated with an evening at the Opry show. An emcee stays on stage the entire time and introduces the ten or so acts, who perform just two or three songs apiece. It was good to see Porter Waggoner and Little Jimmie Dickens in their bespangled stage outfits. The musical highpoint for me, though, was The Osbourne Brothers, the only bluegrass act on the bill. Bobbie’s high tenor voice still rings high and lonesome. The other acts were variations on country, from classic to pop to near rock n’ roll. Was it worth the bucks? For the music: not quite. To see the Ryman: yes. I still have the ticket stub.

That night, driving back to my solitary campsite, I figured I had seen enough of the fabled Music City and decided to pull up stakes and head out the next morning. As it turned out, it was a wise decision as, mere minutes after I had broken camp and packed up the Ranger, it started raining cats and dogs. Sitting in a café over my coffee and French toast, I watched with a certain amount of smugness as the rain pounded the parking lot. Nosiree, Nashville ain’t gonna rain on me. (Hmm, a song title…?)

(Note on style of restaurant interior decoration in this part of the country: call it "cute country craft clutter." If there’s an empty few square inches of wall space, hang a piece of quilt or bundle of dried leaves or a little print of a kid gone fishin’. I have no problem with crafts, but this "more is better" philosophy clashed with my more Zen-like style of sparseness. But I guess you could say it reflects the countryside, which is, indeed, cluttered with trees and signs and craft shops and, of course, Baptist churches. It sure ain’t the wide open spaces of the Far West.)

Roadside site: Billboard on Tennessee highway:

ELVIS SOUVENIRS!  FIREWORKS!   T-SHIRTS!

What more, I ask you, could a person need?

Next: Way down in the Blue Ridge Mountains…


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