The Sweet Sounds of Nashville
Music City is rich in culture, song, and southern soul
There are nineteen towns and cities in the United States with the name Nashville. But only one captures our imagination, and that’s Nashville, Tennessee—otherwise known as Music City, USA.
I came to Nashville in the fall of 1967 to attend Vanderbilt University. My parents had wanted me to go to Hollins, Sweet Briar, or Agnes Scott, but I was set on Vanderbilt only because it was in Music City.
“But we don’t know anybody out there,” my mother protested.
Exactly, I thought. And that’s why I’m going.
Nashville was just a big old country town in those days, but it had a wildness about it that excited me. A wildness not limited to the music scene. For example, dueling was still on the books in 1967. I mean, if somebody looked at your girlfriend wrong in a bar, then by God, you could challenge him to a duel right there on the street and it was perfectly legal. At least that’s what I heard.
When I graduated from Vanderbilt in May 1971, my parents and grandmother Nannie drove over from Spartanburg with a U-Haul trailer to take me back to South Carolina. But they could forget about the U-Haul. I was staying. Of course, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew I wasn’t going back to South Carolina. So after commencement, I took my parents over to the Red Dog Saloon on Division Street, where I introduced them to my new employer—Red Dog. When Nannie met Red Dog, she had to go sit in the car.
“I think Red Dog scared Nannie,” Mama said.
I have lived in Nashville, more or less, ever since. Oh, I’ve spent time in London, Boston, Belize, and Ketchum, Idaho—and fancied myself living in those places—but I always came back to Nashville. There’s just something about it you can’t find anywhere else. I was recently talking with Bobby Bare (“Detroit City,” “Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)”) about this. He was telling me about the first few times he flew into Nashville.
“I’d get off that plane and immediately feel the vibe,” he said. “It was like electricity. You couldn’t help but get caught up in it. You’d get very creative and want to do something. It was magic.”
More than Country
But there’s more to Nashville than the music. Other industries that thrive here include health care, banking, transportation, publishing, and insurance. Ironically, it was through insurance that Nashville became a music center. In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company began sponsoring a radio show on WSM that soon became known as the Grand Ole Opry. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Nashville is often called the Buckle of the Bible Belt. When other Southern cities lay claim to this distinction, they’re delusional. Nashville is said to have more churches per capita than any other city and is home to one of the largest Bible publishing houses in the world. I recently heard that not one but two Bible theme parks are slated for the Nashville area.
Nashville has always had a vibrant cultural scene. Because of its moniker—Athens of the South—a full-scale replica of the Parthenon was built in what is now Centennial Park in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. More recent architectural triumphs include the neoclassical Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which opened in 2006, and the Nashville Public Library, which opened in 2001. That same year the Frist Center for the Visual Arts began hosting major exhibitions in the beautifully renovated art deco main post office building near downtown. The building alone is a work of art. Every fall, Humanities Tennessee hosts the wildly popular Southern Festival of Books at War Memorial Plaza. When the festival made its debut in 1989, it was one of the first of its kind in any city and drew over ten thousand souls.
I’ve seen this big old country town change and grow over the years. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but Nashville has at last become a city. The Houston Oilers’ relocating their NFL franchise here in 1998 certainly played a part. Nothing like the sudden influx of fifty male millionaires to change the landscape of any Southern city.
Nashville has always been a city of factions, but the lines of distinction are starting to blur. There’s Belle Meade Plantation, the upscale city-within-a-city near the western border; Vanderbilt University, one of seventeen four-year colleges in the city; East Nashville, with its own music and art scene (not to mention the Margot Café & Bar, one of Nashville’s finer dining establishments) across the Cumberland River from downtown; North Nashville, hub of Nashville’s black community, which includes the historic Fisk University and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which many believe serves the best fried chicken in the world; and, of course, Music Row, where most of the recording studios, record companies, and song-publishing houses are located.
As Nashville continues to grow, it seems to be holding on to its identity, unlike Atlanta and a few other cities. As long as Webb Pierce’s guitar-shaped swimming pool stays filled with water, and fried green tomatoes continue to be served every other Monday at Wendell Smith’s Restaurant (behind Wendell Smith’s Liquors) on Charlotte Avenue, Nashville is going to be all right.
Soul of a City
One time I met up with Lucinda Williams and some of her buddies at Tootsies Orchid Lounge to hear a talented new singer named Greg Garing. Greg and a trio of musicians were playing on a little stage in the very back, next to the alley. This was just after the big tornado of 1998. The back room at Tootsies had suffered extensive damage. The roof was completely gone and parts of the back walls were no more than crumbling bricks. It reminded me of that scene in the movie Slaughterhouse-Five—the one where Billy Pilgrim is rummaging through the destruction in Dresden and finds a child’s doll, perfectly intact. Anyway, sitting there with Lucinda, I had an epiphany. The night was clear and beautiful. The music was magic. The beer was good and cold. And as I sat there listening, I let my head drop back, better to see the stars. And there they were—framed by the stained-glass windows of the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, and the double spires of the “Batman Building” looming up into the night sky. And in that moment I knew I had found it. Oh, my God! I thought. This is it—the soul of Nashville! I found it! It’s right here, right now, in this very spot.