In a dive bar in Nashville I see the greatest gig of my life. Picture a dark, dusty room with fold-up tables and plastic chairs, no lighting and barely a stage. But then the band starts to play: fast bluegrass guitar, hard drums, fiddle soaring over the top, a roller coaster ride for the ears. There’s a point when music becomes as much circus as art: something impossible to behold, like juggling a thousand balls at once — but each ball is a note, and together they make a melody, and the melodies become a song, and that song means something and makes you want to cry and gawp and laugh out loud. All at the same time. That’s Nashville. It’s not about celebrity; it’s about the players. They call it Music City but that doesn’t go far enough. Nashville is Music Top Gun.
That dive bar is actually the Station Inn, one of the world’s premier bluegrass venues. The John Stickley Trio was performing that night, but the ghosts of Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and the great Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, were strumming along too. Nearby is the Ryman Auditorium, a former home of the Grand Ole Opry — a Southern music concert broadcast live every week since 1925. Echoes of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash swirl around the red bricks and stained glass windows and wrap around church pews.
Then there’s RCA Studio B: ‘the home of 1,000 hits’, including 51 from Elvis, who’d drive over from Memphis in his gold-plated Cadillac, greasy burger in hand. I take a tour and see the old analogue equipment, the gold records and the beat-up 1942 piano where the King would play gospel to warm up before takes. Are You Lonesome Tonight? washes over me on full volume — soul, heartbreak and hope; everything Nashville is in three minutes of song.
But this city is no museum: music is a living thing here. It spills out of every open window and door in a whirlwind of sound. I bounce from bar to bar on Broadway, aka the legendary Honky Tonk Highway, and see old boys in dungarees playing bluegrass one minute, a young girl with a voice that makes me cry the next, and finally a cowboy in a pink rhinestone suit singing I Met Jesus in a Bar, without a hint of irony.
And away from the mobs and madness, in the backstreets, are the places only locals go. At 3rd and Lindsley, in what’s usually a backstage room for bigger bands, I find Lazer Lloyd playing guitar. He has scraggly hair, sandals, a dusty cowboy hat and a T-shirt that says: ‘Never Give Up’. That’s Nashville. It’s not about selling records or packing shows. It’s about the players, the circus: songs and sweat, dirty jeans and vintage guitars, candles burning through the night.
Book ahead to reserve a spot at the Bluebird Café, where the ‘heroes behind the hits’ (the songwriters) perform the chart-topping songs they’ve written for some of the music industry’s biggest stars.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)