Coun­try & Western

Colorado, Santa Fe and Nashville – cow­boy boots op­tional

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Kim Izzo

WHEN TWO OF MY close friends and I de­cided to visit Nashville last fall, it wasn’t be­cause the city was named one of the best places to visit in 2014 by Travel + Leisure, al­though it added jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Nor was it en­tirely be­cause of our pas­sion for coun­try mu­sic – al­though that cer­tainly played a ma­jor role. Ad­mit­tedly, our de­sire to spend a few days in Mu­sic City had been spurred by the TV series, Nashville, cre­ated by Cal­lie Khouri (of Thelma & Louise fame) and, in par­tic­u­lar, by the show’s dark and brood­ing (he’s a mu­si­cian, af­ter all) male lead, Dea­con Clay­borne, played with gravely mas­cu­line finesse by ac­tor Charles Esten.

Call it wish­ful think­ing, but we hoped Nashville would prove a bea­con for Dea­con types – that all-Amer­i­can male who drives a truck, plays gui­tar and croons in a tight T-shirt and tighter jeans (I’m look­ing at you, Brad Pais­ley and Tim McGraw). If noth­ing else, it pro­vided a rom-com nar­ra­tive to our trip: find our­selves a singing cow­boy in a city known as the home of heart­break songs.

We touch down on a Satur­day and check into the newly ren­o­vated Sher­a­ton Nashville Down­town, a slick ho­tel that hints at the town’s re- newed sta­tus as a sym­bol of cool. It’s only a 10-minute walk to Nashville’s main tourist thor­ough­fare, Lower Broad­way, a loud and bois­ter­ous street lined with honky-tonks that play live mu­sic from 11 a.m. The stand­out among them has to be the fa­mous Toot­sie’s Or­chid Lounge, a two-storey dive with its ex­te­rior painted a gar­ish laven­der and upon whose stage stars rang­ing from Wil­lie Nel­son to Kris Kristof­fer­son have per­formed. It has also been a lo­ca­tion for films like Coal Miner’s Daugh­ter. We slip in past griz­zled door­men who look like they’ve heard it all be­fore. It’s a nar­row space with the stage smack up against the front win­dow. A band is play­ing a rous­ing tune and, while we don’t rec­og­nize the mu­si­cians or the song, the bar is packed tight. We squeeze past the crowd and up the steps to the sec­ond floor where a trio of young artists are tak­ing re­quests. It’s mu­si­cians like this – im­pos­si­bly young, com­plete-

ly un­known and ex­tremely tal­ented – that give Nashville its rep­u­ta­tion as the place to make it or break it in coun­try mu­sic. Walk into any bar and lis­ten to strug­gling mu­si­cians who are play­ing for tips, and you might be able to say you were there when the next Mi­randa Lam­bert or Zac Brown was dis­cov­ered. Stuffed be­tween the honky-tonks and bars are shops and bou­tiques de­signed to tempt you to dress like a “lo­cal” in cow­boy boots and hats (and yes, we went na­tive).

Once we had our fill of Broad­way, we stroll west to­ward The Gulch, an über-trendy ’hood where Tay­lor Swift used to live be­fore es­chew­ing coun­try mu­sic for Man­hat­tan pop. For fans of the show, the main fo­cal point is Two Old Hip­pies, an eclec­tic bou­tique car­ry­ing an ar­ray of lo­cal de­sign­ers. We linger in part be­cause of the cloth­ing (we each spend a chunk of change) and, in part, be­cause of the very friendly and adorable male staffer. He had us at “y’all.” He fills us in on the series, which has filmed in the store, and how it’s not un­usual to spot cast mem­bers out and about town or even come upon a shoot in progress. So, there is a chance …

Across the street is the Sta­tion Inn, the fa­mous blue­grass bar. It hadn’t opened yet, but my eyes catch a poster for an up­com­ing show. I rec­og­nize the face – it’s Charles Esten! We could see the man in the flesh – un­til we note the date. Ex­actly one week af­ter we de­part. Close but no gui­tar.

Never ones to be dis­cour­aged, we set our sights on the evening’s plan – the Grand Ole Opry, which in 2015 cel­e­brated 90 years since its first ra­dio broad­cast, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues to this day with shows broad­cast live three nights a week. The Opry has launched and re­launched count­less ca­reers and, the night we at­tended, we were hon­oured to wit­ness one of the last per­for­mances of Lit­tle Jimmy Dick­ens be­fore he passed away. The four­foot-11 coun­try dy­namo known for his rhine­stone out­fits (he is cred­ited for start­ing the trend) was 94 and as energetic as ever. The show was a blast and in­cluded a dozen acts that ran the gamut from lesser-known bands such as The Hen­ningsens to to­day’s big­gest stars like Kel­lie Pick­ler and coun­try leg­end Mel Til­lis. The au­di­ence is as age-di­verse, with fans from eight to 80 seated side by side, some with hats but all with en­thu­si­asm for be­ing part of coun­try mu­sic’s his­toric ra­dio pro­gram for a night. But be warned: the theatre is in Opry­land, a solid half-hour drive from down­town and a ver­i­ta­ble amuse­ment park and

mega-mall to boot but worth it. Turns out we had missed an­other Nashville cast mem­ber, Jonathan Jack­son who plays Avery Barkley – the bad boy with a heart of gold – the week prior. We are start­ing to see a pat­tern emerge …

Sun­day rolls around, and we find our­selves head­ing to­ward Broad­way again. This time it wasn’t honky­tonks we were af­ter but a peek in­side

the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium. Known as the “mother church of coun­try mu­sic,” it started out as the Union Gospel Taber­na­cle, re­named the Ry­man af­ter the man who built it passed away in 1904. The stage is hal­lowed ground with many in­ter­na­tional lu­mi­nar­ies of stage and screen tread­ing its boards over the years, in­clud­ing Charlie Chap­lin, Kather­ine Hep­burn, Harry Hou­dini, He­len Hayes, Mae West and, of course, coun­try le­gends like Hank Wil­liams, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, to name but three. The acous­tics are sec­ond to none, and the wooden church pews and stained glass win­dows evoke the build­ing’s ear­lier spir­i­tual con­nec­tion. We pe­ruse the glass dis­play cases that line the up­per por­tion of the bal­cony. In­side are cos­tumes and in­stru­ments and other mem­o­ra­bilia of the per­form­ers who have graced its stage. As we do, far below, stage­hands set up for a per­for­mance, a fur­ther tes­ta­ment to Nashville’s ease at co-ex­ist­ing with its past and present and its dual role as tourist des­ti­na­tion and hard-core func­tion­ing mu­sic town.

That night, we have rea­son to

be ex­cited – our des­ti­na­tion is the Blue­bird Café, made fa­mous in the series for both its song­writer nights, which take place each Sun­day, and as the spir­i­tual home for the series’ star­crossed lovers, Dea­con and Rayna James played by Con­nie Britton. Fans line up for two-plus hours to get into the 100-seat venue. My friends and I were given passes and ended up in the artists’ line where the mu­si­cians take us for one of them. I am quick to break it to the gor­geous six-foot-six cow­boy stand­ing be­hind me, com­plete with gui­tar case in hand, that I’m me­dia. “That’s al­right, ma’am,” he tells me in what I would soon dis­cover is an Alabama drawl. “We like press.” And I like mu­si­cians but I di­gress. While at the Blue­bird, you get to lis­ten to the next big “thang” – mu­si­cians au­di­tion to play – with per­form­ers bear­ing names like Colby James and BoDean Adams (who came with his mom). We are also treated to a set by Song­writ­ers Hall of Fame in­ductee Don Sch­litz, who penned Kenny Rogers’s iconic hit “The Gam­bler.” Af­ter the show, mu­si­cians min­gle with guests. It’s all very homey and in­ti­mate. While on Nashville, the Blue­bird ap­pears to be a down­town hot spot, it’s ac­tu­ally in a strip mall in Green Hills – like the Opry, a lengthy cab ride from down­town. The series has filmed here, but the pro­duc­tion built a set where most of the scenes are shot. The staff in­forms us that cast mem­bers of­ten come and hang out and even play, just not tonight.

In the morn­ing, we want snacks for the flight home and stop in at The Turnip Truck, a healthy gro­cery store. As I check out, I over­hear one of the cashiers men­tion she’d seen Charles Esten. My ears perk up. “Where?” I ask. She smiles and points. My heart in my throat I turn and see … the lat­est edi­tion of Nashville mag­a­zine with Dea­con and his sexy smile grac­ing its cover. Dam­mit. What can I say? I bought it.

Charles Esten as Dea­con Clay­borne on Nashville The lights of Nashville’sLower Broad­way

The “mother church of coun­try mu­sic,” the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium For more places to visit, go to www.ev­ery­thing nashville-trav­els.

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