So far this trip we’ve seen jazz, blues and rock. What’s next? Country music, of course. Nashville, Tennesse.
Here’s a quick test to determine if you’re a country music fan: how many of the artists in this mural can you identify? For our Brisbane readers, note Caboolture boy Keith Urban in the centre.
Dolly Parton sang:
Down on Music Row, down on Music Row
If you want to be a star, that’s where you got to go
But gone are the days when an aspiring country singer could open a guitar case and busk on the street in Nashville, hoping to be noticed by a passing record producer. Broadway Avenue, aka the Honky Tonk Highway is now a pumping strip of live music venues with crowds spilling out into the street.
It’s a fun vibe. No cover charges or minimum drink buys. Just bands pumping out old favourites and their own tunes. A lot of the music is country-rock crossover. Think Credence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyard and The Eagles, which suited us just fine.
We were lured into the cavernous Whisky River Bar by the sound of a live band belting out AC/DC ‘s totally not-country Highway to Hell. Nashville must surely be the only place on earth where people will line-dance to Acca Dacca.
You can try your luck on the mechanical bucking bronco. No, that’s not John.
And at random intervals a scantily clad barmaid will blow a whistle, jump up on the bar and pour shots down the throats of anyone who wants one. No, that’s not John either.
Yes, it’s sexist and demeaning, but actually there were more women than men lining up. In 2018, the New York Times declared Nashville “the hottest destination for bachelorette parties in the country”.
For more traditional country music entertainment, we ducked around to Puckett’s. It started life as a small grocery store in the 1950s and over time transformed into a bar/restaurant serving up classic Southern food with a reputation for live, local music true to its country roots. Take Me Home, Country Roads never gets old.
Nashville’s fame as America’s Country Music Capital goes back to the 1920s when radio station WSM began broadcasting Grand Ole Oprey, a weekly live country music broadcast of a ‘barn dance’ from the Oprey House in Nashville. It is now the longest running radio broadcast in US history. Until its popularity outgrew the premises, it was held at the Ryman Theatre, just around the corner from Broadway Ave.
Nashville is, of course, famous for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s one of the largest museums in the world dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of American popular music. It also has the world’s largest repository of country music artifacts.
The galleries chart the history of country music from its folk roots through the development of classic country, the influence of rock and roll and, from the 1960s onward, the twin genres of pure country and country-rock fusion.
Here’s a few of the things we thought were cool.
Five decades of country music posters.
Webb Pierce’s Cadillac Bonneville with bullhorn bumper bar, upholstery embroidered with silver dollars and lots of gun decorations.
Also, one of Elvis Presley’s custom Cadillacs. The ‘diamond dust pearl’ colour was created by applying 24 carat gold plated highlights and forty coats of a translucent mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales. Inside there’s a telephone, refrigerator, bar, record player and gold plated television.
The museum contains some 1,900 items of stage wear, clothing and accessories. Funkiest of all were the suits created by Nudie Cohn. Born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Ukraine in 1901, he was sent to the US by his parents at age 11 to avoid the pogroms of Czarist Russia. He started as a shoeshine boy, adopted the name Nudie Cohn and rose to become ‘Tailor to the Stars’. He was famous for his elaborately designed, heavily ornamented Nudie Suits which he sold from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in North Hollywood.
He created one-off suits for Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and many more. In the photo below are the suits worn by The Flying Burrito Brothers on the cover of their 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin.
The suit second from the right belonged to Gram Parsons and is decorated with marijuana leaves, poppies, pills and naked women. Seems right.
The suit on the far left was worn by bass player, Chris Etheridge but was stolen from his car shortly after the photo shoot. Somehow it was returned to Nudie’s shop. Unaware of its provenance, it was bought by Elton John who wore it for the photo on the sleeve of his hit single Rocket Man.
This next one was owned by Porter Wagoner, a country star who charted 81 singles between 1953 and 1984, had his own television show from 1960 to 1981, and recorded duets with greats like Dolly Parton. Nudie gave him a suit for free in 1962, probably as a promotional exercise. It proved a good investment. In 2006, Wagoner said he had accumulated 52 Nudie Suits costing between $US11,000 and $US18,000 each.
Tasteful? No. Memorable? Yes. Which may be why it somehow seems appropriate that a few blocks away from the museum, Nudie’s Honky Tonk Bar is famed for its Oreo cookies deep fried in cinnamon batter and smothered in powdered sugar. We’re all for trying wacky food, but those were just a step too far.
The Museum has a gobsmacking collection of gold records. Here’s just one wall of many.
And a new addition – the Taylor Swift Education Centre funded by a donation of $US4 million from the lady herself. Opened in October 2023, it includes three classrooms, a hands-on instrument room and a gallery of interactive learning stations for young music enthusiasts. There’s always a pop-up exhibition on Swift’s work. When we went, it was about her Midnights album, with videos, quotes, outfits and other exhibits like the prop guitar she smashed up in the video clip for Anti-Hero.
Attached to the Museum is the Hall of Fame Rotunda with a plaque for each of the 152 inductees. Election to the Hall of Fame is country music’s highest accolade.
After the jazz and blues immersion we’d been having, we were struck by how ‘white’ the history of country music was, or at least the history which was presented here. But Nashville played a part in advancing race relations in other ways.
Like most Southern cities, it still had Jim Crow laws disadvantaging African Americans well into the 1960s. The Nashville Christian Leadership Council was formed in Nashville to promote civil rights for African Americans through non-violent civil disobedience. A leader, who had studied Gandhi’s approach while working as a missionary in India, began training students in non-violent resistance in 1958.
Their moment came in 1960. By then, African Americans were allowed to shop in the city’s department stores but still could not eat at the stores’ lunch counters. Inspired by a small sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, Nashville students decided to act.
Representatives met with the managers of two of the city’s main department stores and requested they voluntarily de-segregate the lunch counters. Both refused. So the students began a program. They would enter a store, sit at the counter and ask for service. Inevitably, they would be refused. They would continue to sit for up to two hours, then quietly leave. They also called for ‘all persons of good conscience’ to boycott stores which refused to de-segregate.
One of the stores targeted was Woolworths. The property is now a theatre but the frontage is preserved and there’s a display about the sit-ins.
As the protests continued, things turned ugly. On several occasions, groups of white youths viciously attacked the seated protesters. The students were convicted of ‘disorderly conduct’ while police failed to arrest even one of the white youths who attacked them. The home of the lawyer representing the students was bombed. The protests became national news and therefore a thorn in the side of the city administration.
Eventually the mayor conceded in an interview that he believed lunch counters in the city should be desegregated but added “that’s a matter for the stores, of course”. Loss of business from boycotts and shoppers avoiding the area due to fears of unrest was biting into store profits. After weeks of secret negotiations between the stores and student leaders, six stores opened their lunch counters to all comers.
It was a significant victory on the road to equal rights, but it took further sit-ins, pickets and other actions over several more years, and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 before segregation in Nashville’s restaurants, public pools, theatres and other venues finally ended.
The Witness Walls monument is a carved stone installation at the site where student marchers met with the mayor, carved with pictures from various of those actions.
If you think the weather looks bleak in that last photo, you’re right. It had been growing steadily colder for days and people kept saying “bad weather is coming”. A winter storm system sweeping down from the Arctic caught us up that afternoon. By 4pm it was snowing and over the next 24 hours, Nashville had the equivalent of its usual total annual snowfall.
A city that doesn’t usually get heavy falls just isn’t equipped to deal with this. Literally everything shut down. We had intended to visit the Museum of African American Music. Closed. And the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum. Closed.
There were no bright lights or music on Broadway Avenue. Everything was shut.
Music City was in darkness.
All we could do was join the locals in hunkering down and waiting for it to pass.