In Nashville, it’s hard to go around the corner without bumping into a singer, songwriter, performance venue or recording studio. Music City truly lives up to it moniker.
If you want to delve into the historic roots, a good place to start is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It opened in 2001 and recently expanded with a $4 million gift from Taylor Swift. That probably explains why there is a Taylor Swift Educational Center that offers everything from banjo lessons to music camps for kids. The museum outlines the beginning of the country music genre, when it was known as “hillbilly” music up to today’s hit makers who often meld pop, rock and other styles into the classic country mold.
Featured exhibits include Outlaws & Armadillos, which runs until 2021 and covers the careers of many of the so-called bad boys from the 1970s including Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Cases upon cases of costumes boggle the mind, as do custom cars such as Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac. Signature items not to miss are Carl Perkin’s blue suede shoes and Canadian country music pioneer Hank Snow’s glittery, embroidered suits.
Downstairs, a hands-on print shop called Hatch Show Print allows visitors to try their hand at poster making. The 139-year-old company found its home here in 2013 after moving five or six times. “We have the oldest letter press in the United Stated. Preservation by production,” guide Tori Zemer told our tour group.
Started in 1879 by the Hatch brothers, the business had to move from its last location five years ago when the new AT&T building went in. The distinctive structure dominated the city scape and is affectionately known as the Batman Building because of its two pointy antenna-like ears. Hatch Show Print makes the old-time style posters made from hand-inked letter blocks and hand cranked presses. Our group even got to make our own two-colour souvenir posters. “ZZ Top, Robert Plant and Jack White have all signed the press. Sometimes musicians like to come here before a concert at the Ryman Auditorium. The tradition is to sell a limited run of posters at the Ryman before a show,” Zemer explained.
The Ryman Auditorium is also a Nashville must-see. Known as the “mother church of country music,” it is filled with curved wooden seats, much like church pews. In fact, after watching an introductory video, our group learned the building was originally constructed as a revival tabernacle by Captain Tom Ryman, king of the riverboats. A former drinker and sinner, Ryman built the hall to house meetings of the Reverend Sam James, who put him on the straight and narrow. After Ryman died it became more of an entertainment center. Opera singer Enrico Caruso and illusionist Harry Houdini were some of the early performers. The much loved Grand Ole Opry live radio show also started out there. On the stage I noticed small strips of original pine flooring. According to the video, this was where Johnny Cash and Hank Williams tapped their toes when they performed here years ago. Due to wear, the rest of the stage has been replaced with Brazilian teak.
No trip to Music City is complete without a visit to RCA Record’s Studio B. It was built in 1956 at the request of Chet Atkins to facilitate the needs of RCA Victor Records. Atkins, a masterful guitarist, worked for RCA and was responsible for the move away from twangy “hillbilly” music of the 1930s and ‘40s, to the more sophisticated, orchestral “country and western” sound. Our guide, Stephanie Layne, a country singer herself, explained that thousands of top hits had been captured here, including those of Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Floyd Cramer, Hank Snow and the Strokes. “Dolly was in a rush to get to her first session here and banged her car into the side of the building.
I guess that was her first hit at Studio B,” Layne joked. Elvis recorded 200 hits here, including Heartbreak Hotel, It’s Now or Never, Fever, and Are You Lonesome Tonight. “He’d come in at 6 p.m. with hamburgers and his own producer. He’d warm up with gospel songs at the piano. Sometimes he’d be there until 7 a.m. In June of 1958 he recorded 12 songs in 13 hours. His last recordings here were done in 1971, My Way and I’ll Be Home for Xmas.” She pointed to the Steinway piano. “Want to sit where Elvis sat? You can pretend to play, but DON’T TOUCH!
In 1982 the building was converted into office space and then in 2006 philanthropist Mike Curb bought the building and restored it. Today it’s open for tours and is a recording classroom from Belmont University.
Country isn’t the only style of music in Nashville. At the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Dave Filipe, the publicist was kind enough to let us pop our heads inside this magnificent, classic-looking edifice. “It was built in 2006 and modeled after European halls. It has some of the best acoustic in the country,” he explained. The symphony is now its 76th season, and is a Nashville institution. The 83-member orchestra has recorded with Taylor Swift, Amy Grant and many other stars.
At the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, “Smilin” Jay McDowell, the multi-media curator and former member of band BR5-49 walked us through a number of different galleries.
Highlights were exhibits about the Wrecking Crew and the Funk Brothers, superb groups of musicians who offered their services to all the big name acts in the 1960s and ‘70s. They had some intriguing historic items on display, including the Rek-O-Kut direct to disk machine that Elvis used to make his first recording, “My Happiness,” a present for his mother.
Divided into geographical regions of the United States, it was the perfect place to learn about the roots of many genres. For instance, Nashville’s musical beginnings the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk was a school where freed African American slaves were first educated and it’s still going today. An interesting fact I gleaned was that no drums were allowed on the Grand Ole Opry stage…at least that could be seen. The drummer had to play behind a curtain.
After spending a few evenings on Nashville’s Honky Tonk Highway, a neon-lit strip of live music clubs on Lower Broadway, I decided on my final night I’d go to Opryland. The complex of hotel, restaurants and entertainment venues is also where the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show is recorded. “The show is 93 years old. It’s recorded every Friday and Saturday night, no breaks for holidays,” Dan Mason, our guide explained.
Singer Kellie Pickler was doing fundraising with listeners for her home state of North Carolina devastated by Hurricane Florence, and beloved icon Connie Smith also did a few numbers. Mason Ramsey, a 12-year-old Hank Williams Sr. fanatic, was the show stopper that evening. His version of Lovesick Blues, complete with yodelling, knocked the crowd’s socks off. Looking up his story online later, I learned that after a YouTube video of him singing in a Walmart went viral, Ellen DeGeneres had him on her show. Recently, he was signed to Big Loud Records.
Music City is full of creativity, as well as history. It’s fascinating to visit a place where stars are born and celebrated every day of the year.
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