Nashville: Music City Hits the High Notes
By Marian Betancourt
Nashville is abuzz with new and important museums and exhibitions, the just-launched Americana Music Triangle, not to mention the emergence of a sophisticated new dining scene, and more visitors than ever. A powerful exhibition about a point in time when differences—political and musical–were settled here recently opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum. “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: a New Music City,” showcases a time when North and South came together to create American music.
Until then there had been a line in the sand between country music and pop, between rednecks and hippies. In 1951, Hank Williams’ masterpiece “Cold, Cold Heart, considered country honky-tonk, was not a mega-hit until New York pop singer Tony Bennett recorded it. But something magical happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and times were indeed “a changin.’
In the introduction to the exhibition catalog—and you really want this keepsake—Roseanne Cash describes the day she, as a high school freshman, became the coolest kid in school because Bob Dylan had appeared the night before on her dad’s new network television show, filmed at the Ryman Auditorium. Cash and Dylan sat next to each other with their guitars and sang “The Girl from the North Country,” the opening track from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. (This clip is part of the exhibition.)
Dylan’s embrace of Nashville and its unmatched session musicians—the Nashville Cats—inspired many other artists to record here, among them Neil Young, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Exhibition kiosks of individual “cats,” introduce us to Bob Johnston, Charlie McCoy, Lloyd Green and many others, who had been producing great music. Nashville’s musicians and producers were capable of doing a rhythm and blues session in the morning, country in the afternoon and a rock session at night.
Honoring the Recording Process
In September the Grammy Museum of Los Angeles, will open a satellite here in the Musicians Hall of Fame, located on the ground floor of the city’s municipal auditorium. It will be an inter-active educational exhibition to explore the recording process from songwriting to production, engineering and singing. The Musicians Hall of Fame is dedicated to the magic that studio musicians create with exhibits highlighting famed studios such as Muscle Shoals in Alabama and Sun in Memphis. Instruments and equipment donated by musicians around the country, such as Gary Talent, the guitarist with the E Street Band, are on display.
Studio B, the oldest recording studio on Nashville’s Music Row, where hits from the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and others were made, is now part of the Country Music Hall of Fame Foundation and a National Landmark. Buses running regularly between the two locations carry visitors from all over the world. There is a 1942 Steinway grand piano here that Elvis liked to sit at through the night with the lights dimmed until the recording was just right. It feels magical to sit on wooden chairs in this otherwise empty room more than a half century later and listen to outtakes of Elvis laughing, as if only yesterday, during a session when he bumped his head on the mike he didn’t see in the dark.
Music History Revisited
Multi-ward-winning musician and producer Carl Jackson gave us a studio preview of “Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisted,” a DVD released by Sony in May. Emmylou Harris, Keb’ Mo,’ and others recreated the recordings that launched the careers of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and put country music on the map, an event known as the “big bang” of country music. Bristol is a mountain city that straddles Tennessee and Virginia and the DVD and a documentary film are a joint venture by both states. It was difficult to leave this studio because Jackson would offer to play “just one more” track for us, such as Dollye Parton singing “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” with such emotional force. As Jackson listened with eyes closed, fingers tapping, the grin never left his face. This Nashville Cat clearly loves his work.
Americana Music Triangle Launches
Also launched here in May, is the remarkable Americana Music Triangle dedicated to the South’s music, culture and history linking sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It is a web guide, a map to our historic music trail with Timelines, hyperlinks, and an events calendar so international visitors, can learn what’s going on in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born, or the date of the next King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. Like the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, explained the trail’s originator, Aubrey Preston, a resident of the Nashville suburb, Franklin, “this is the gold record road” of America’s music.
Franklin is also hosting a two-day Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival September 26 and 27 with a lineup that includes Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and many others. Ongoing in Franklin is Music City Roots: Live from The Factory, with weekly performances by well known and up and coming artists. It is a smaller and less expensive version of the Opry. The Factory is a complex of depression era buildings now on the National Register of Historic Places and home to shops and restaurants.
Johnny Cash Museum
The small and fascinating Johnny Cash Museum is a few blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Since opening two years ago, it has received raves and record crowds. There are plans to expand once space becomes available. Along with childhood memorabilia, photos, costumes, performance videos and furnishings from the home he shared with June Carter in nearby Hendersonville, Cash’s humanitarian aspect is showcased, not only for bringing music to those who were incarcerated, but for the plight of Native Americans. He bought a full page ad in Billboard Magazine to shame disc jockeys for refusing to play his recording of Peter LaFarge’s moving song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” made 50 years ago. Hayes, a Pima Indian, was one of the soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, but later died impoverished and drunk long before we understood post traumatic stress disorder. Never one to back down from principle, Cash told a reporter “Ira Hayes is strong medicine; so is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
Take some time to sit in the theater area and enjoy video clips from the many movies and TV shows in which Cash appeared, such as Little House on the Prairie and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. There is a hilarious clip of Cash with a pink feathered stole around his neck, introducing Elton John on Saturday Night Live. In another, he plays Homer Simpson’s spiritual guide in the form of a coyote.
Just opened in April, is the George Jones Museum, spearheaded by the late singer’s wife Nancy Sepulvado Jones. The first floor is a restaurant, bar, and souvenir shop, while the museum occupies the second floor with exhibits of Jones early life and career. An enormous rocking chair, inspired by Jones’ anti-aging song, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” is the spot where visitors like to take “selfies.” (The theatre section is furnished with very comfy normal sized-rockers.)
Grand Ole Opry
Grand Ole Opry, the longest running radio show in history, celebrates its 90th birthday this year. The Ryman Auditorium, whose stained glass windows remind you that this stately building is the mother church of country music, with acoustics on a par with Carnegie Hall, is where Opry is broadcast for three months, but for most of the year, it performs in its 4,000 seat auditorium in the Opryland complex. At any given broadcast, usually to a packed house, you can enjoy traditional and contemporary performers such as Ricky Skaggs, The Gatlin Brothers, and Pam Tillis.
Treat yourself to a backstage tour for this is a living museum with photos and memorabilia of some of the greats who performed, not to mention the chance to mingle with the current performers warming up before they go on stage. The dressing rooms, all different, are beautifully designed. For example Marty Stuart designed Dressing Room 19 calling it Wagonmaster after the late Porter Wagoner, one of his heroes.
Dining in The Gulch
A newly developing area known as The Gulch, between downtown and Music Row, is becoming the place to go for dinner. On McGavock Street, for example, international choices include Japanese, Mexican, and Moto, an Italian restaurant, which was packed on a Monday night. You will understand why when you taste dishes like Chicken Piccata with Meyer lemon and capers, and the signature side, Brussels sprouts roasted with pancetta and a tangy apple agrodolce sauce.
The entire block has a festive atmosphere after dinner as satisfied diners from several restaurants chat while waiting for the parking guys to fetch their cars. I learned that some hipster chefs from Brooklyn had recently came to cook with Nashville’s chefs, and that a Nashville chef was headed to New York to cook at Bon Appetit magazine headquarters in the World Trade Center, accompanied, of course, by some musicians.
Another terrific Italian restaurant is Ravello in the Opryland complex. Chef Nicholas Shaw prepares modern Italian classics and a sublime appetizer of octopus carpaccio, first marinated with thyme, lemons and chilies, then brushed with a whisper of orange marmalade and sprinkled with sea salt.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Nashville but there’s a new energy, a little charge in the atmosphere and a sense of pride. As I was checking out of the lovely Marriott Cool Springs in Franklin, the young man at the desk told me that when he left for college he said he was never coming back to Nashville. But when he did come back and looked around, he thought, “Wow, I’m never gonna leave. There’s just so much happening here.”
Visit Nashville for more info