It was a cold but sunny morning in Nashville today. We took our sweet time getting ready and left at around 11 o’clock, headed straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum! It’s quite a mouthful, and also the best possible first contact with Music City!
The museum is in the heart of downtown, just two blocks south of Broadway (or Lower Broad; Nashville’s Beale Street, in short), occupying a beautiful and dashing building. The windows look like the keys of a piano, and I believe the structure looks like a sol clef when seen from above! As many other museums around these parts, it’s quite pricey, but at least you get a lot of bang for your buck.
The visit starts on the third floor with an extensive exhibit on the history of country music, with ancient films and recordings, and bios on all the stars of the time. They also have plenty of historical objects that belonged to those artists. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton… All of them!
The visit continued on the second floor, but we took a break in the auditorium to listen to a harmonica recital by Charlie McCoy, a musician who has played for the albums of pretty much every country star in the last fifty years and himself a member of the Hall of Fame. He is truly a virtuoso of the harmonica: he could play a tune and its own accompaniment at the same time, and switch harmonicas on the fly without stopping the tune. Pretty amazing!
The museum’s ticket is good all day through, so we left for lunch at Robert’s Western World, self-described as one of the last venues on Broadway that still books actual country bands. Only hamburgers and sausages on the menu, but the band was excellent. The guy who played guitar for McCoy at the museum was there as well playing the fiddle for his daughter, who was the lead singer. (I love saying “fiddle”. I especially love saying “He played you like a fiddle”)
The second half of the museum was less about history and more about gawking at memorabilia: lots of ostentatious costumes, suits and gowns worn by famous country stars, a collection of famous instruments, a couple of flashy cars (including a Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird just like the one Elle Driver uh, drives on Kill Bill) and, of course, an entire wall with gold and platinum records of dozens of different artists. Also beautiful is the actual Hall of Fame, surrounded by the engraving “Will the Circle be unbroken”.
For the afternoon, we walked up and down Lower Broad, marvelling at all the cowboy boot stores. I expected cowboy paraphernalia here, but I thought there’d be a bit of everything -not just boot store after boot store! There’s also an Opry store, just in case anybody forgot to buy souvenirs back at the Grand Ole Opry, and of course all the honky tonks in the world. It’s true that most looked neither authentic nor appealing, but to their credit, even at 4PM on a Sunday most venues had live bands playing. It’s an amazing experience to walk down a street and be able to see so many musicians playing or singing inside restaurants, bars and dives all around you.
Walking around the city centre, Nashville feels more like a city than Memphis does, if that makes sense -there are sidewalks and stores and cafés and buildings. Memphis felt more like a series of individual locations only tenuously connected by roads, but of course I was only there for two days…
Our last mission for the day was to try to get into the Writers Night at the Bluebird Café, a tiny venue on the outskirts of Nashville. Sitting between a furniture store and maybe a dry cleaner’s on a small strip mall next to a highway, it is the least glamourous setting ever, but the place is legendary for booking extremely talented songwriters who are responsible for some of the most successful songs on the scene. It’s also heavily featured on Nashville (the TV show -the songs Gunnar and Scarlett sing there are my favourite from the whole series), which has only increased its fame.
It’s tiny, it’s super famous, and it doesn’t sell tickets for Writers Night = massive queues at the door to get in. We arrived an hour and a half before doors open, shortly after six for the eight o’clock show, and already there was a huge queue at the door. We joined and were promptly informed that we were on the “grey area”, i.e. there may or may not be room for us depending on how many people the songwriters brought along. They told us the capacity was for 75-100 people from the public, and we were on that latter 25.
Well, to cut an hour and a half of standing around short, we couldn’t get in. In fact, we weren’t even close: when they told us they were full, there were waaaaaay more than just 25 people ahead of us, so I don’t know how they had done their calculations. All I could do was walk up to the window and take a sad picture from the outside looking in.
After having read up on it for so long and planned everything so meticulously, it broke my heart to be left out of this experience so completely, knowing that this was probably my one chance for this place. It was always a long shot, but we hope against hope! Still, although this was a disappointment, I took solace on the knowledge that even if I don’t hear another note again this trip has already been a phenomenal musical experience; indeed, just today I listened to two different live acts by artists of undeniable skill. We continue to be The Only Europeans Lef Alive in the great state of Tennessee, and I’m so happy to get to live these experiences so far removed from my natural habitat!
Also!! I forgot to mention this yesterday, one of the bands last night at the Opry had a singer that totally looked like Cousin It from the Addams Family with a cowboy hat. There, I said it.