lyle e davis
The Nashville Skyline -
the Cumberland River
in the foreground
Well, I don’t want y’all to think we’re the uppity type but . . . well, let me ‘splain.
We are simply not honky-tonkers.
A nice young lady told me when she learned we were headed for Nashville, Tennessee, to attend an International Kiwanis Convention, “oh, you just have to see Tootsies!” Tootsies, you see, is a world famous honky tonk on Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville.
We arrived at Tootsie’s, entered, walked about 20 feet into the joint (for that is what it was, a beer joint) and I took Evelyn’s hand and said . . “OK, we’ve seen Tootsies. Let’s get out of here. This is not our type of place.”
The place was dirty, linoleum peeled up off the floor, there was a band that played fairly well, a blonde female singer who was brassy and loud, but not very good. I was to find out that this was not totally unusual for Lower Broadway and its various honky tonk bars. There were a lot of tourists on the streets, and in the honky tonks. The regulars (other than touristy types) tended to need haircuts and shaves, chewed tobacco, possessed at least two teeth, and were not dressed terribly well.
Lower Broadway, however, is not indicative of what Nashville is all about, or like.
In all honesty, I pretty much had in my mind’s eye that this is what Nashville would be like. A lot of honky tonks, record shops, souvenir shops, and restaurants that were “down-homey.” That’s what you find on Lower Broadway . . . but Nashville itself is a mighty big city. Very modern, lots of skyscrapers . . . but a skyscraper might be built right next to a church that was built in 1830 and that had as one of its congregants, one Andrew Jackson.
Little Jimmy Dickens - 88 years old! Still performing!
Nashville is known as Music City . . . and with good reason. It has a huge number of music related businesses. Music Row is an area just to the southwest of downtown Nashville, that is home to hundreds of businesses related to the country music, pop, gospel music, and Contemporary Christian music industries. Centered around 16th and 17th Avenues South (called Music Square East and Music Square West, respectively, within the Music Row area), along with several side streets, Music Row is widely considered the heart of Nashville's entertainment industry. In this area, one will find the offices of numerous record labels, publishing houses, music licensing firms, recording studios, video production houses, along with other business who serve the music industry, as well as radio networks, and radio stations. This is high level, corporate America . . . . nothing at all like the seedy, tawdry, honky-tonks on lower Broadway, downtown. The quality of recording studios is such that you will see artists such as Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Wings, and, formerly, the Beatles . . . top names in entertainment come to Nashville because they simply have the best equipment, the best facilities, and the best recording talent.
Near Music Square East is the "Music Row Roundabout," a circular intersection designed to accommodate a continuous flow of traffic. Within a nearby park is a large statue ("Musica") depicting nude dancers (see photo below). Musica brings out a bit of a culture class in Nashville. The statues, you see, are not only nude, but anatomically correct. Well, Aunti Maude was just fit to be tied! (Remember, Nashville is known in some quarters as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). The statue was the subject of a controversy upon its 2003 unveiling, spurred by religious, parenting groups, and other organizations who were offended by the portrayal of the nude human forms in the statue.
The more modern thinkers, admittedly more Liberal, think the statues are just fine; that they are magnificent works of art, comparable in some respects to Michaelangelo’s “David.” I’ve seen the statues. I side with the argument that they are artistic and one ought not to be offended by them. (And I am anything but Liberal).
At the other end of Music Row, across Wedgewood Avenue sits the Belmont University campus, and Vanderbilt University is also adjacent to the area. Belmont is of particular note because of its Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business (CEMB), and a major program in commercial music performance. Nashville's music industry is estimated to have a total economic impact of $6.4 billion per year and to contribute 19,000 jobs to the Nashville area.
But back to Lower Broadway.
You most certainly will want to visit Lower Broadway. It is full of color . . . and history. Probably a better honky tonk to visit is Legends Corner at 428 Broadway where from 11am each morning to 2am each night, the music in this Music City Honky Tonk never stops. Legends Corner is rated as the Number One Country Bar in Nashville. It’s cleaner than Tootsies, and I think the music is marginally better.
You’ll hear a lot of music on Lower Broadway. Almost every storefront is that of a beer joint with a stage up front, right next to the front door. You can poke your head in and listen a bit, or you can just walk on in if you like what you hear. You’ll also see lots of musicians totin’ their instrument cases up and down the street; you’ll see some itinerant musicians playing for pocket change . . . but they ain’t much good.
And panhandlers. You’ll meet lots of panhandlers. Best to not give them a dime. They’ll just spend it on booze or drugs. Most times they’re polite, but they’ve been known to be aggressive. It that happens, call a cop. They’ll handle it quickly. You just have to see the souvenir shops. There’s dozens of them. Probably the most famous is Erntest Tubb’s Record Shop. Even today, long after Mr. Tubbs has passed on, it is impressive. Most every record you ever heard of, and some you haven’t, is there, all catalogued and easy to find. They have a Midnight Jamboree broadcast live from the store every Saturday night on WSM, the same radio station that has, for years, played the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Ah, yes! The Opry!
The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly country music radio program and concert broadcast live on WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee, every Friday and Saturday night, as well as Tuesdays and Thursdays from March through December. It is the oldest continuous radio program in the United States, having been broadcast on WSM since October 5, 1925.
On June 5, 1943, the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium, which is right next door to all the honky tonks on Lower Broadway . . . and where more than a few artists were known to duck in for a quick snort. Top-charting country music acts performed there during the Ryman years, including Roy Acuff, called the King of Country Music, and also Red Foley, Hank Williams Sr, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Lefty Frizzell, and so many others.
On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley made his first (and only) performance there. Although the public reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly music, after the show he was told by one of the organizers (Opry manager Jim Denny) that he ought to return to Memphis to resume his truck-driving career, prompting him to swear never to return. In an era when the Grand Ole Opry represented solely country music, audiences did not accept Elvis on the Opry because of his infusion of rhythm and blues as well as his infamous body gyrations, which many viewed as vulgar. In the 1990s Garth Brooks was made a member of the Opry and was credited with selling more records than any other singer since Presley. Brooks commented that one of the best parts of playing on the Opry was that he appeared on the same stage as Presley.
It was fun and interesting, however, to take a tour of the ‘old Ryman Theatre,’ to go on stage and to actually walk and sing where country music stars have sung for years. I sang Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine” to a standing room only crowd. Evelyn joined me and then sang her solo of “I’m Walking the Floor Over You.” I think we were a hit but so far no one has approached us about becoming a member of the Grand Ol’ Opry. The Opry has since moved to the Opryland Theme Park and a new 4400 seat state-of-the-art theatre.
Come Friday night and we took in the show at the current Grand Ol’ Opry theatre. As usual, it was a sold out show.
To my amazement, there was “Little Jimmy Dickens” who was emceeing part of the show. He sang two or three songs but mostly he acted as an interlocutor, telling jokes and introducing other artists. I knew the punchlines to every one of his jokes but he told them quite well and the audience loved it. Little Jimmy Dickens never was one of my favorite performers but, hey, the guy is 88 years old! He deserves a tip of the hat just for still being able to perform at that age.
The Ryman Auditorium
Also on the show was Jeannie Seely, a one-time star who is fading quite rapidly. She’s a singer who has a whole lot of years on her. She’s a grandma, and has been one for years. She still enjoys the limelight, however, and tries to sing, but not terribly well.
The top artist of the night was Ricky Skaggs. He can still pick that mandolin and sing with the best of ‘em . . . but someone ought to tell Mr. Skaggs that long hair on an old man just looks scroungy. (He could also stand to lose a few pounds. He’s become Mr. Chubby.)
They broadcast the Grand Ol’ Opry live on WSM so you have to sit through commercials after every two or three songs . . . but that’s rather interesting for those who’ve never seen how old time radio shows were produced.
During the commercials the artists walk about the stage just chatting . . . except for Jeannie Seeley. She was up front posing for all the folks who had cameras in their cell phones.
It was an interesting, fun evening of entertainment; certainly, something out of the ordinary. As Evelyn said, “everyone should see the Grand Ol’ Opry at least once.” So now I have.
On balance, we did a pretty good job of behaving ourselves down South. We're not uppity, not by a long shot, but we just ain't honky-tonkers. We walked past a lot of the honky-tonks, even poked our nose in a couple of them. One place had a fella singing “Okie From Muskogee,” and was a pretty fair singer. Most of them, though, are just loud. And dirty. They’re just glorified, but not by much, beer joints.
Nashville does not have wonderful mass transit systems. We had shuttle buses from the hotels and they were generally good but had a few hiccups along the way. They would shuttle us to and from the convention center and would take us to entertainment venues within a two mile radius of the hotel as well. If you have a rental car, or a private car, be aware that parking will likely run around $24 a night. We chose to not rent a rental car, figuring (a) we didn’t really need one with the shuttle buses, and (b) if we rented a car for $30 a day, the $24 nightly parking fees would cause the car rental rate to be outrageous. Hotels tend to do a lot of business with corporations and corporations will put us with nonsensical prices. I won’t.
We stayed at the Marriott at Vanderbilt University, right next to the football stadium. Vanderbilt University is a lovely college campus . . . but the Marriott is not one of my favorite hotels. We stayed there only because Kiwanis had booked the California delegation there. The room was nice, the bed, linens, pillows, comforters were outstanding, and I slept like a little puppy. But our room rate of $139, which is quite reasonable, was also attended by taxes of $22. (I know, the hotel does not control the taxes, but neither do they advertise that the total cost would be more than $139). I don’t like hidden costs. Again, corporations put up with that. I tend to complain.
A few other things while I’m venting. Little things didn't work. The answering machine would not let you delete phone calls after you had listened to them, there was no free airport shuttle bus (you pay $12 per person, one-way), the food at Marriott, in particular, is waaaay overpriced. $12 for a breakfast? Not for me, kiddo. A simple bowl of oatmeal was $6.00. This shy, innocent, little Nebraska farm boy may not be the sophisticated jet-setter some of you think he is . . 'cause he still objects to paying high prices for a simple breakfast. If corporations tolerate that, they are simply nuts.
Bar and restaurant charges are waaaaaaaaaaaay too high. We seldom drink, but if we had wanted a drink I would have gone elsewhere. The restaurant is ridiculously high. It was the same in New Orleans.
So far, I prefer Embassy Suites above all other hotels.
Next time perhaps . . . I will rent a car. But I won’t be staying at the Marriott. I would like to return to Nashville when I didn't have convention business to attend to. There’s lots to see and do. I think, however, I'll go in the spring, when it's cooler. It was 108 degrees on the day we left! And lots of humidity!
So, what I saw of Nashville, I like. It has a really pretty and modern downtown area with some really old buildings interspersed amongst state of the art architectural marvels of design. I kinda expected a bunch of honky tonk cafe's, bars, saloons, recording studios and sweet little old ladies with tattoos and body piercings telling me how sweet I was and saying things like "bless your heart." Haven't seen that yet, but given all the honky tonks, I reckon I will one day.
There is one other sensitive area I must mention. How do I say this diplomatically?
Yes, even though the Marriott and several other hotels were located in an upscale west end of town, you would take a stroll outside and a smell of raw sewage would greet you. I mentioned this to the front desk, saying I didn’t know if it was a hotel problem or a city sanitation problem, but someone should tend to it because folks (even corporate types who put up with a lot of other garbage) would likely not enjoy this particular aroma. Later, however, I noticed a similar pungent odor while walking in downtown Nashville, adjacent to their magnificent Convention Center. So, it appears that the Nashville city sanitation deparment, not the hotels, have a job to attend to.
The background on Nashville? Well, Nashville is the capital of Tennessee. It is the second most populous city in the state after Memphis. It is located on the Cumberland River in the north-central part of the state. Nashville is a major hub for the health care, music, publishing, banking, and transportation industries.
Most of us think that (a) music is the number one industry of Nashville. It isn’t. Healthcare is, and (b) most of the music recorded and produced in Nashville is country. It isn’t. Pop is. Gospel is also very big there.
The city was founded in 1779, so it’s been around for awhile. Originally called Nashborough, after a Revolutionary War Hero named Francis Nash. The city quickly grew because of the prime location, accessibility as a river port, and its later status as a major railroad center. It incorporated in 1806; in 1843 it was named the permanent capital of the state.
By 1860, when the first rumblings of secession began to be heard across the South, antebellum Nashville was a very prosperous city. The city's significance as a shipping port made it a desirable prize as a means of controlling important river and railroad transportation routes. In February 1862, Nashville became the first state capital to fall to Union troops.
Though the Civil War left Nashville in dire economic straits, the city quickly rebounded. Within a few years, the city had reclaimed its important shipping and trading position and also developed a solid manufacturing base. The post-Civil War years of the late 19th century brought a newfound prosperity to Nashville. These healthy economic times left the city with a legacy of grand classical-style buildings, which can still be seen around the downtown area.
It was the advent of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, combined with an already thriving publishing industry, that positioned it to become "Music City USA.”
I asked our tour guide why Nashville had become Music City USA and not Portland, Oregon, or Chicago, Illinois, or Biloxi, Mississippi? “Because the bankers knew enough to ensure that the musical artists and writers got paid for their royalties. That drew the talent, knowing they were gonna get paid for their work. It was the smart bankers that made Nashville the music center.” Indeed, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, the licensing agencies for recording artists and its writers, have huge corporate offices in Nashville. You play someone’s music and don’t pay royalties, you’ll be getting a visit from someone from one of these licensing agencies. And they don’t smile a lot.
The Ryman was home to the Opry until March 16, 1974, when the show moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located nine miles east of downtown Nashville on a new site that was part of the Opryland USA theme park. The theme park was closed in 1997 and replaced by the Opry Mills mall, but the Opry House is still front stage, center.
In many ways, the artists and repertoire of the Opry defined American country music. Hundreds of performers have entertained as cast members through the years, including new stars, superstars and legends. Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, country music's longest, most endurable "Hall of Fame" is to be identified as a member of the most elite of country music. Many linked the stripping of Hank Williams' Opry membership in 1952 to his death soon afterward. (Others point out that it was actually a combination of alcohol and cocaine that caused his death). His grandson, Hank Williams III is heavily fighting this, with his Reinstate Hank campaign.
The Opry's status as an elite fraternity of country music performers has created confusion about its lasting membership, particularly the controversy surrounding Hank Williams' untimely death. Opry membership is not only earned, but must be maintained throughout the artist's career. After artists die, they are no longer considered standing members of the Grand Ole Opry. However, their impact is often celebrated at special events, such as the 50th anniversary commemorating the death of Hank Williams in 2003, which featured performances from Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III.
In the mid-1960s management decided to more strictly enforce the requirement that members must perform on at least twenty-six shows a year in order to keep their membership active. This imposed a tremendous financial hardship on members who made much of their income from touring and could not afford to be in or near Nashville every other weekend. This was aggravated by the fact that the Opry's appearance fee paid to the artist was essentially a token ($44 at the time). This requirement has been lessened over the years, but artists offered membership are expected to show a dedication to the Opry with frequent attendance.
Another controversy that raged for years was over allowable instrumentation, especially the use of drums and electrically amplified instruments. Some purists were appalled at the prospect; traditionally a string bass provided the rhythm component in country music and percussion instruments were seldom used. Electric amplification, then new, was regarded as the province of popular music and jazz in 1940s. Though the Opry allowed electric guitars and steel guitars by World War II, the no-drums/horns restrictions continued. They caused a conflict in 1944 when Bob Wills defied the show's ban on drums. The restrictions chafed many artists, such as Waylon Jennings, who were popular with the newer and younger fans. These restrictions were largely eliminated over time, alienating many older and traditionalist fans, but probably saving the Opry long-term as a viable ongoing enterprise.
As of 2007, the Nashville population was listed as 619,626, most of whom neither chewed tobacco nor wore bib overalls, and most of whom are fond of saying ‘y’all’ a lot.
A few “y’alls’ are okay. But when folks, particularly those on stage, use almost every other word as ‘y’all’ it gets to be a bit much. “Thanks, y’all. I’d lak to thenk y’all with a song ah thank y’all will surely lak. This is for y’all. I surely do love y’all.”
Most Tennesseans have a soft, very pleasant southern flavor to their speech. Usually, it’s the country folk and/or the folks who spend a lot of time on Lower Broadway (as well as musical artists and their affectation of love and affection for ‘y’all’) that display the very broad, and sometimes irritating, Southern accent.
Tennessee is known for fine women, fine horses, fine whiskey, and fine living. Pretty much in that order. So when your ears are beset with "hillbilly talk” it is a bit disconcerting. (And, yes, Tennessee also has ‘hillbillys.’)
Since the 1970s, the city has experienced tremendous growth, particularly during the economic boom of the 1990s under the leadership of Mayor (now-Tennessee Governor) Phil Bredesen, who made urban renewal a priority, and fostered the construction or renovation of several city landmarks, including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Sommet Center.
In 1997 Nashville was awarded an NHL expansion team which was subsequently named the Nashville Predators. The Houston Oilers agreed to move to the city in 1995. The NFL debuted in Nashville in 1998 at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Oilers changed their name to the Tennessee Titans and saw a season culminate in the Music City Miracle and a close Super Bowl game.
Today the city along the Cumberland River is a crossroads of American culture, and one of the fastest-growing areas of the Upper South. Nashville has a humid subtropical climate with hot, humid summers and cool winters. Relative humidity in Nashville averages 83% in the mornings and 60% in the afternoons, which is considered moderate for the Southeastern United States. It was 108 degrees at the airport on the day we left for home in San Diego, where it was a comfortable 73 degrees!
Population is 65.6% White, 28.9% Black or African American, 0.6% American Indian and Alaska Native, 3.3%.
Because of its relatively low cost of living and large job market, Nashville has become a popular city for immigrants. Nashville’s foreign-born population more than tripled in size between 1990 and 2000, increasing from 12,662 to 39,596. Large groups of Mexicans, Kurds, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Arabs, and Bantus call Nashville home, among other groups.
Indeed, upon arrival at the airport we met a Senegalese who was acting as captain for a fleet of taxis, and a nice young man from Darfur, Sudan, who was our taxi-cab driver. He was studying for a Master’s Degree at Vanderbilt University and planned on going back home to Sudan to help his country. With an American passport, he would be safe from reprisals from the brutal govenmental forces that dominate his homeland.
Nashville is sometimes called The Protestant Vatican or The Buckle of the Bible Belt: Nashville has over 700 churches, several seminaries, a number of Christian music companies, and is the headquarters for the publishing arms of both the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church. The city hosts headquarters operations for several Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church, Southern Baptist Convention, and National Baptist Convention, USA., and the National Association of Free Will Baptists.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is probably the best museum I’ve ever seen. Fascinating. One could spend several hours alone in the Hank Williams Room. Each year, the CMA Music Festival (formerly known as Fan Fair) brings thousands of country fans to the city.
Nashville was once home of television shows like Hee Haw and Pop! Goes the Country, and to the Opryland USA theme park, which operated from 1972 to 1997 before being closed by its owners, Gaylord Entertainment, and soon after demolished to make room for the Opry Mills mega-shopping mall.
Civil War history is important to the city's tourism industry. Sites pertaining to the Battle of Nashville and the nearby Battle of Franklin and Battle of Stones River can be seen, along with several well-preserved antebellum plantation houses such as Belle Meade Plantation and Belmont Mansion.
But that, as they say, is another story. And a perfect excuse to go back to Nashville and explore Tennessee even further. It’s a grand state folks. Lots of good people, lots of things to see and do. Start packing your bags.
And, one final tip: I’ve found Gray Line Tours to be an excellent way to get to know an area. Reasonably priced and their guides know their stuff. They know the history, the legends, the anecdotes, the people who made the area run, and they’ll help you really enjoy your visit and learn a great deal in a very short period of time.
Those areas that really intrigue you, you can then go back and explore at your leisure.
Let me know. I just might go with you.