Notes from Nashville, the music city

Ananya Bahl | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Sound of music: Honky-tonking on Lower Broadway   -  ANANYA BAHL

The best way to savour the capital of Tennessee is to go “honky-tonking”

I first heard the term “honky-tonk” while grooving to the Dire Straits cult classicSultans of Swing. In the song, lead vocal and guitarist Mark Knopfler croons about a certain “Harry” who saves up his tunes for a Friday night. Representing both country music and a type of bar where you can hear such tunes, the honky-tonk is deeply ingrained in Tennessee capital Nashville’s social and cultural mise en scène. But honky-tonking in the American city isn’t reserved just for Friday nights. It’s thumping through the week, even during the day.

The best way to savour this musical milieu is to go honky-tonking on Lower Broadway: Flashy neon lights and signboards welcome you as country music bands play covers and originals at these pubs. Make sure to pub-hop as you stroll down this avenue — happy hours, hits and cowboy hat-clad patrons add to the revelry. Begin with Robert’s Western World and move on to Layla’s Honky Tonk and Kid Rock’s Big Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse for a guaranteed good time.

Another classic Nashville experience is an evening at the Grand Ole Opry. The world’s longest-running radio show, it showcases a bevy of seasoned and new country music singers, who perform live in front of 4,000-odd people at the Grand Ole Opry House. On the evening of my visit, country music stars such as Kathy Mattea, Doug Seegers and Mark Wills perform. In addition to great music, what catches my eye (and ear) is the way the advertisement announcer narrates the copy live, just like you would hear it on radio. The show goes on for a little over two hours, with a break in between.

Don’t miss this iconic experience, which has seen the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and even former President Richard M Nixon perform.

Dubbed the “Smithsonian of Country Music” is the 350,00-sq-ft, multi-level treasure trove called Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Located in Downtown Nashville, this institution is replete with artefacts, recordings, photos, and videos about the origin, rise and spread of country music. The museum, in its 52nd year, includes an 80-seat CMA theatre, the Taylor Swift Education Centre and dynamic galleries.

Poster boy: At the legendary Hatch Show Print letterpress workshop   -  ANANYA BAHL


Also on the premises is the legendary Hatch Show Print letterpress workshop, where I learned to make an entertainment poster. Started by William Hatch, who moved to Nashville from Wisconsin in 1875, the company has been making posters for everything from circuses and church congregations to carnivals and concerts. From Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons, you name the artiste and they’ve made a poster for their concerts. With over 2,000 pieces of wood types in the kitty, Hatch Show Print has a reputation for filling up seats for its many workshops.

Just a stone’s throw away is another gem on Nashville’s notable musical scene: The Johnny Cash Museum, which is said to have the largest collection of artefacts and memorabilia relating to the legendary singer-songwriter, who called the city his home for a large part of his life.

Another must-visit is the historic RCA Studio B. Situated on the historic Music Row, it’s where Elvis Presley recorded 260 songs, including the evergreen Are You Lonesome Tonight. It was also where I learned about the Nashville Sound — a subgenre of American country music characterised by background vocals and strings. The studio not just revitalised the popularity of country music in the ’60s, but it also developed the Nashville Number System: A shorthand for notating chord structures.

Last on my musical agenda is a unique restaurant-cum-performing-venue concept called the Listening Room Café. It’s a place where songwriters perform their tunes and narrate the stories behind their songs. The “heroes behind the hits” for the evening are musicians Josh Martin, Brittney Taylor and others. They tell us about how friends, dreams, and hopes inspired their lyrics.

As I sip on gin and tonic, I think of the various elements that influenced my trip through Nashville — creativity, groove, freedom and history. All of them do justice to the moniker of the “music city”.

  • Travel log
  • Getting there
  • United Airlines connects New Delhi and Mumbai directly to Newark. From there, the airline has easy connections to Nashville.
  • Stay
  • The Hilton Nashville Green Hills is well connected to many of the popular music spots
  • Getting around
  • Nashville has a well-connected bus and rail system. In addition, Uber and Lyft are very active in the city.
  • There is a flat-fee of $25 for a local taxi carrying four passengers for point to point between the airport, downtown and Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
  • Eat
  • Don’t miss out on a Nashville original: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (and keep a glass of milk handy in case the spice quotient is too high).
  • The Downtown Sporting Club is a great place for a meal and drinks before you begin your honky-tonk sojourn on Lower Broadway.
  • Save some space for Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint for West Tennessee-style whole hog barbeque. The restaurant famously has no refrigerators and microwaves; it’s all fresh.
  • Take a sip of the city’s thriving craft beer and distillery scene at Nashville Craft Distillery, Diskin Cider and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery.
  • BLink Tip
  • Buy some cowboy boots and hats, in true Tennessee fashion, at Boot Barn on Broadway.
  • Visit the Bluebird Café, where Taylor Swift was discovered at age 14. Watch out for surprise performances by the star.
  • Most honky-tonking bands earn by way of tips, so be generous.

Ananya Bahl is a travel writer based in Mumbai

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Published on September 06, 2019
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