Ode to Nashville

As the first di­rect flights from the UK launch this month, Chris Moss goes in search of Nashville’s soul, and finds that de­spite ram­pant build­ing and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the home of coun­try and blue­grass has not lost touch with its roots

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For a medium-size US city, Nashville has an XXL rep­u­ta­tion. Every­body thinks they know what it’s about: coun­try mu­sic, the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash, im­prob­a­ble dreams of star­dom, cheesy bal­lads and rhine­stone shirts. But don’t be so sure, warned singer­song­writer and ris­ing star Ben Dana­her, dur­ing a gig at 3rd and Lind­s­ley, one of the city’s many su­perb mu­sic venues. “Lots of dive bars are be­com­ing karaokes,” he said, be­fore ded­i­cat­ing a song, Sil­ver Screen, to “all the hip­sters”. His tone was gen­tly ironic, the song full of feel­ing. Dana­her (who is play­ing the Black Deer fes­ti­val in Kent on 23 June) later told me he was al­lud­ing to “re­ally gritty places that the blue-col­lar crowd would go to, that all of a sud­den have a charm to hip­sters”. So gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is hap­pen­ing. Mean­while, mass tourism has turned many of the honky tonks into fun pubs for boozy bach­e­lorettes and preppy boys want­ing to show how badly they can be­have – for a week­end. Sim­i­lar forces are jolt­ing many me­trop­o­lises – but is there some­thing fun­da­men­tal at stake in “Mu­sic City”? I was here to find out, and headed first to the Gulch, a neigh­bour­hood that used to be a dank ravine by the rail­way tracks but now has back-to-back res­tau­rants and bars. Mu­sic venues The Mercy Lounge and The High Watt host nightly in­die and cover bands – “karaoke” gigs, of a sort – but at The Sta­tion Inn, the Gulch’s sur­viv­ing coun­try mu­sic spot, open since 1974, I caught the tail end of Nashville’s an­nual song­writ­ers fes­ti­val, Tin Pan South. The names on the bill meant noth­ing to me, but the gig was all-acous­tic, warm, in­tel­li­gent – trad, but cool. As a fi­nale, vet­eran per­former Rory Bourke was asked to play one of his old songs. His speak­ing voice sounded hoarse and tired, but when he be­gan to sing his big­gest hit, The Most Beau­ti­ful Girl – yes, the one that starts with “Hey!” and which our mums and grand­mas loved – he was back in his lyri­cal, lovelorn youth. We all were. That was a Nashville mo­ment, catch­ing the deeply fa­mil­iar at its source (who knew this global hit came from a Nashville­based coun­try song­writer?) and be­ing moved. The gig also had me fan­ta­sis­ing about be­com­ing a singer-song­writer. It’s one of the con­se­quences of vis­it­ing a city with gen­uine cul­tural clout: you want to be­come part of the scene, change your life. (My songs are still works in progress.) At the Blue­bird Café, the most in­ti­mate of all Nashville’s mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, I caught Dana­her again, shar­ing the bill with three women singer-song­writ­ers: Alex Kline, Erin En­der­lin and Beth Nielsen Chap­man. He has an earthy voice in the Ray LaMon­tagne mould, and had just fin­ished a UK tour. (He’s back here in June.) The per­form­ers sat in a cir­cle, backs to the au­di­ence, try­ing out untested and proven num­bers, by turns soul­ful and sarky (Kline’s White Trash Fe­male – WTF has to be a hit, for some­one). It was a mag­i­cal evening, and made me re­flect on some­thing that struck me at down­town’s Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame and mu­seum: coun­try is a genre that, for all its cow­boy pre­ten­sions, has a his­tory of strong women. From Kitty Wells, who proved women could sell records in the 1950s, to the footage of Wanda Jack­son out-Elvis­ing Pres­ley on Hard-headed Woman, to Sha­nia Twain’s es­tab­lish­mentshock­ing out­fits. A week be­fore my visit, Tay­lor Swift showed up unan­nounced at the Blue­bird: she con­tin­ues to break rules, as well as records. Coun­try mu­sic is alive and well (and liv­ing in Nashville) – it’s just

women who are lead­ing the lat­est re­vival. Another over­looked as­pect of Mu­sic City is right be­hind the hall of fame: Hatch Show Print cel­e­brates Nashville’s his­tory as a cen­tre for let­ter­press print­ing from the 1870s to the rock’n’roll era. Its walls are plas­tered with early fly­ers for Hank Wil­liams and Dolly Par­ton. I was even in­vited to roll off my own lit­tle poster – it’s not great, but it’s bet­ter than my songs. This city and its sky­line – which in­spired the ti­tle of Bob Dy­lan’s 1969 al­bum – are chang­ing fast. About $2bn of con­struc­tion projects are un­der way. The hand­some red-brick ed­i­fices along the Cum­ber­land river cower be­neath glas­sand-steel tow­ers in­clud­ing AT&T’s strik­ing “Bat­man Build­ing”, and 5,028 rooms are un­der con­struc­tion at 33 new ho­tels. The most stylish – if pricey – place to stay is The Noelle (dou­bles from $339, star­wood­ho­tels.com), a 1930s art deco beauty in pink Ten­nessee gran­ite that reopened last year with a sultry cock­tail bar and fab cof­fee shop. Cranes clut­ter the back­streets. Not even the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium – for­mer home of the Grand Ole Opry – is ex­empt. By 2020, a lux­ury apart­ment tower will block the view of the gothic fa­cade of this tem­ple of coun­try and cra­dle of blue­grass – which is still worth an hour of any­one’s time, not least to see Johnny Cash’s suit. But there are sub­tler evo­lu­tions. In Pie Town, mu­sic – in the shape of Jack White’s Third Man record com­pany, vinyl store and 1947 record­ing booth – com­bines with high-end re­tail. Cen­tral St Martins-trained Sa­van­nah Yar­bor­ough crafts be­spoke leather gar­ments at Ate­lierSavas. Any Old Iron, run by Bri­tish de­signer (and for­mer scrap dealer) An­drew Clancey makes se­quinned suits, dresses and show clothes for Bey­oncé and Ke­sha, among others. “I moved here not for the mu­sic, but for the mu­si­cians,” says Clancey. “Many of them want to look more con­tem­po­rary with­out hav­ing to go to New York or Los Angeles. With ev­ery genre recorded here, we felt we could of­fer some­thing unique. Nashville’s fash­ion week has just had its eighth year – there wasn’t a stet­son in sight.” In the sub­urbs of Ger­man­town, Five Points and the Na­tions, food is the mo­tor of a more fa­mil­iar meta­mor­pho­sis, as pi­o­neer­ing res­tau­ra­teurs – from vet­eran Mar­got Mc­Cor­mack (Mar­got Café, Marché Ar­ti­san Foods) to new­com­ers Bryan Lee Weaver (Butcher & Bee) and Ju­lia Sul­li­van

‘Nashville fash­ion week has just had its eighth year – and there wasn’t a stet­son in sight’

(Hen­ri­etta Red) – chal­lenge the hege­mony of “hot chicken” and “meat and three” (for which I per­son­ally rec­om­mend Ed­ley’s Bar-B-Que and Hat­tie B’s). Five Points, in East Nashville, has a grit­ty­but-smart feel, with dreamy clap­board houses and Queen Anne man­sions. “There was a huge fire in 1916,” lo­cal guide Karen-Lee Ryan told me (she runs ex­cel­lent Walk Eat Nashville tours). “Then the area was razed by a tor­nado in 1998 and again in the floods of 2010. The dis­as­ters were curse and cat­a­lyst. They brought the com­mu­nity to­gether.” Ryan puts the col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit down to mu­sic. “Sit­ting down with an in­stru­ment is a cre­ative act. Mu­si­cians riff off each other. So do peo­ple in Nashville’s food scene. It’s not ‘I’m in my own silo and I don’t care what other peo­ple are do­ing.’” So, will the sky­scrapers wipe out that denim-blue sky? Prob­a­bly. And will it also lose its vibe? That I doubt. As Ryan put it: “There can be many co-ex­ist­ing Nashvilles, whether that’s through art, mu­sic or food.” And there can be many kinds of Nashville sound too, from Kacey Mus­graves’ re­cent fem­i­nist alt-pop on Golden Hour to the rock­ing and rol­lick­ing in the honky tonks on the city’s Broad­way, to “Hey! Did you hap­pen to see …?”. And, even, to karaoke nights at the (surely not very hip) hip­ster bars. “The mu­sic scene in the city is still very strong,” says Dana­her. “De­spite the changes, some of the dive bars are still home to the great­est gui­tarists do­ing res­i­den­cies. There are way too many amaz­ingly tal­ented, driven peo­ple here for Nashville to risk los­ing its soul.”

Tune in Open mic night at the in­ti­mate Blue­bird Café

For the record Third Man, Jack White’s vinyl store

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