Tale of two mu­sic cities

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL -

NASHVILLE — Be­ing a lit­tle bit more rock’n’roll than coun­try, I had never con­sid­ered putting a coun­tryfried city like Nashville on my travel bucket list. Yet here I was, stand­ing in a strip mall park­ing lot in Mu­sic City on a chilly Sun­day af­ter­noon, out­side The Blue­bird Cafe.

In a half-hour pe­riod, four cars had pulled up so a pas­sen­ger could snap a photo of the trade­mark blue awning. “It’s closed? I don’t un­der­stand. I thought they filmed here,” said one young woman be­fore get­ting a pic­ture and driv­ing away. The Blue­bird is an of­ten-used set­ting in ABC’s “Nashville” drama. Al­though the show films in a replica on a sound­stage, that hasn’t stopped fans from vis­it­ing the real space.

The Blue­bird is one of sev­eral places that has got­ten a Hol­ly­wood bump from the show, which stars Con­nie Brit­ton and Hay­den Panet­tiere as coun­try mu­sic su­per­stars. As I be­came ad­dicted to the show, I be­gan to no­tice how much of a star the city was. Ac­tors would stroll along the im­pres­sive Shelby Street Pedes­trian Bridge. The Nashville sky­line seemed even more twinkly and invit­ing framed by the Cum­ber­land River. It also ap­peared that con­certs and club per­for­mances were be­ing filmed in ac­tual venues. The num­ber of th­ese venues seemed end­less.

So, I fol­lowed my in­ner fan-girl and de­cided to see Mu­sic City for my­self. A tour com­pany of­fers a “Nashville”-cen­tric bus tour. But I opted to use a list from the city’s tourism web­site to go at my own pace. While I never had any­one ac­tu­ally ut­ter the words “hey y’all” to me, I was elated to find that, like the show, there’s mu­sic all around.

The “Mother Church of Coun­try Mu­sic” was built in 1892 in what would be­come down­town Nashville by busi­ness­man Thomas G. Ry­man as a venue for evan­ge­list Sam Jones. From 1943-1974, it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the long-run­ning, weekly ra­dio show­case made up of a va­ri­ety of big-name and smaller coun­try acts.

A Na­tional His­toric Land­mark, the Ry­man is open for tours. Cos­tumes, pro­grams and other me­mora­bilia tied to per­form­ers such as Hank Wil­liams, Min­nie Pearl and Roy Acuff are promi­nently dis­played on the first and sec­ond floors. The Ry­man is also where Rayna (Brit­ton) and Juli­ette (Panet­tiere) did the duet “Wrong Song” in the first sea­son.

To­day, the Ry­man only hosts the Grand Ole Opry be­tween Novem­ber and Jan­uary. With the acous­tics and the cres­cent arc to the pew seat­ing, it’s hard to find a bad seat. De­pend­ing on who’s play­ing, tick­ets are some­times avail­able the day of the show. And you never know who will be play­ing. In a happy co­in­ci­dence, “Nashville” ac­tor Jonathan Jack­son, who plays mu­si­cian Avery Barkley, was on the line-up the day I went. In fact, most of the show’s cast has per­formed with the Opry since be­com­ing part of the Nashville scene.

Tourists and lo­cals flock to the row of bars and clubs, or “honky tonks,” on Broad­way in down­town Nashville. It’s a buf­fet of bars that con­tin­u­ously hums with live mu­sic. Side­walk mu­si­cians whose bread and but­ter is singing for tips are out there all day. The sig­nage on the en­tire row is lit up in neon at night, an of­ten-used ex­te­rior shot on the show. “Nashville” has also filmed in­side some of the bars, in­clud­ing Layla’s Blue­grass Inn and Toot­sie’s Orchid Lounge. Es­tab­lished in 1960, Toot­sie’s is the crown jewel of Honky Tonk High­way. Coun­try artists such as Kris Kristof­fer­son and Wil­lie Nel­son played there early in their ca­reers.

It’s not clear on TV’s “Nashville” that th­ese clubs are ac­tu­ally on the same block. The in­cred­i­ble ac­cess to so much live mu­sic packed into just a few blocks is not a phe­nom­e­non found in ev­ery city. You can have your pick of sev­eral club per­for­mances go­ing on all at once. It’s worth walk­ing up and down the street, which on weekend nights can be as chaotic as New Or­leans’ Bour­bon Street — but mi­nus the beads.

A cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try mu­sic in­dus­try, The Blue­bird Cafe’s lo­ca­tion close to a McDon­ald’s will prob­a­bly take “Nashville” view­ers by sur­prise. For song­writ­ers and singers, play­ing for the 100-seat room is a rite of pas­sage. It’s a tight squeeze but the feel­ing of in­ti­macy is one of the cafe’s main draws.

Nes­tled at a ta­ble in the real Blue­bird, I couldn’t help but ex­pect that some­one from the show would walk in and break into song. That feel­ing is a tes­ta­ment to how well the “Nashville” set de­sign­ers copied ev­ery de­tail — in­clud­ing the string of lights hang­ing above the bar.

Reser­va­tions for shows are only avail­able online a few days in ad­vance and sell out quickly. Some shows are free (with the pur­chase of drinks or food) on a first-come-first­serve ba­sis. Ac­cord­ing to staffers, the tele­vi­sion ex­po­sure has some­times led to as many as 300 peo­ple in line. They rec­om­mend show­ing up as early as two hours prior to en­sure en­try.

To fur­ther en­hance my “Nashville” ex­pe­ri­ence, I crossed the Cum­ber­land River to the hip­ster-haven of East Nashville. The east side is a vi­brant hodge­podge of fam­i­lies, artists and mu­si­cians. The show has also filmed around this part of town — with good rea­son. There are nu­mer­ous restau­rants, cof­fee­houses and clubs worth pa­tron­iz­ing.

The 5 Spot, a laid-back club where “Mon­day is still the new Fri­day,” draws guys in T-shirts and base­ball caps as well as guys with fe­do­ras. Jack­son’s char­ac­ter has filmed per­for­mances here dur­ing the first sea­son. Coun­try isn’t the only mu­si­cal genre that can be heard here. Some nights are oldies and soul-themed. Vis­it­ing mu­si­cians run the gamut as well. Note that The 5 Spot per­mits guests to smoke cig­a­rettes, so it’s a lot smok­ier and more dimly lit than on TV.

TV geeks such as my­self will get a kick out of stop­ping in the His­toric Edge­field neigh­bour­hood. There, you will find the crafts­man house with a stone ve­neer that serves as the home of gui­tarist Dea­con (Charles Esten). Reel-life se­cret: While Dea­con and his niece, Scar­lett (Clare Bowen), lived in dif­fer­ent parts of town in the first sea­son, their “homes” are ac­tu­ally next door to each other.

Abi­gail Humphrey, who lives on the other side of “Dea­con’s house,” calls the pe­ri­odic film­ing a “mi­nor in­con­ve­nience.” She says she also doesn’t mind when tour groups show up.

“It’s fun to get a lit­tle bit of credit to this area,” Humphrey says. She ap­plauds the show for putting down roots in Nashville. “It def­i­nitely makes the show feel more real.”

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