(First published on Medium)
Nashville is internationally known for country music. It’s musical past (Grand Ol’ Opry) and its gentrifying present come together in ways I hadn’t imagined when I first moved there for work in September 2015. One year on, I thought I would write up what I have learnt.
Over the past five years the city has made a concerted effort to raise its profile locally and internationally and to bring in developers, businesses, tourists and new residents. Thanks to the eponymous tv series and to all the related promotion, Nashville has become an ‘It’ city and has been ranked by Lonely Planet in 2016 as one of its top 10 cities to visit. The only US city to make this list! Rumour has it between 50 and 100 people move to the city every day from within the United States and as in my case from around the world.
I am however confused by the Lonely Planet rating. I love Tennessee, country music, blues, rockabilly and I am happy in the city but I wouldn’t say it’s a great tourist city. There is very little to do if you’re not into country music or under 21.
Architecturally, the city is still finding its feet. Cranes dot the skyline and buildings are being renovated (a new Tennessee State museum is opening up in 2018) but apart from the old charm of the Capitol building there’s nothing here to captivate you. The Opryland hotel is nice but nothing compared to better hotels in Vegas and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Southern style residence wouldn’t compete with New Orleans estates.
If you are into country music however then this town is your oyster, it has music in its DNA. Musicians flock here like actors do to Hollywood.
The city is small and the musical community very intimate. You don’t have to make any effort to be exposed to live concerts in most restaurants and bars every week, most of which are either free or for tips. There are concert venues and museums like the Ryan Auditorium (the equivalent of the Vatican for this ol’ guitar picker) and the Country Museum Hall of Fame (a conglomeration of a number of local museums).
Walk on Broadway (a long main street) and you can visit all its honky tonks (bars with live music) lured in by the sounds and elaborate neon signs.
The quality of the musicianship and performance is so high that even though I can play and sing I would have been discouraged from picking up an instrument had I been exposed to Nashville from the start.
From a ‘retro’ perspective the city does not disappoint. There is a fabulous scene of younger musicians carrying the banner of ‘retro country’ or sometimes still called ‘Americana’. These are lifers from all over the USA and beyond who look the part and seek out the old sounds and lifestyles of their ancestors. Avoiding Broadway, they prefer to play in venues further afield which are filled with an authentic atmosphere. These include Nashville Palace, Honky Tonk Tuesdays at the American Legion and Santa’s bar on a Sunday night, just to name a few.
For those interested in the history of country music and rock’n roll it abounds in Nashville. Locals know the worth of their music history and preserve and respect it like it’s an engendered species. The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum recognizes and preserves the history of the musicians, instruments and producers behind the hits and different movements of music not just of country but across the board. Nashvillians and Tennesseans alike respect the complete process of making music and therefore all the players involved including producers, engineers and session musicians. Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline also have dedicated museums.
Recording studios were protected by locals from demolishment and development such as RCA Victor Studio B, a purpose built studio for a young Elvis Presley where Chet Atkins developed the ‘Nashville sound’.
Even though Nashville is synonymous with country music and rock’n roll the city is great for all genres of music. There is a thriving indie music scene around East Nashville driven by the proximity of recent residents: Jack White, the Black Keys, the Kings of Leon and Old Crowe Medicine Show. Further afield the likes of David Mustaine (Megadeth), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Alice Cooper and Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls) have all been drawn here and the city is so small that you spot celebrity residents often at various venues. This means that their creativity and inspiration abound and are contagious.
In short if your thing is the twang of country then there is still gold in there them hills but be warned the authenticity is under threat from developers and choreographers so you would want to visit sooner rather then later. For all others you might want to holiday elsewhere.