Next stop Nashville. I’m sure those words have been uttered by many a musician, dreaming of a big break at the home of Country Music, the Grand Ole Opry, live music venues and recording studios galore. I can’t play a note, nor have I ever been particularly interested in Country Music, but the anticipation grew as we approached the city by car. We wouldn’t get there straight away though as my guide, Jay, who was driving me between cities no longer connected by train, had arranged a first visit to ‘Opryland Resort & Convention Center’ on the outskirts of town. It was an underwhelming start to discover that the Grand Ole Opry had moved from the historic Ryman Auditorium building in the centre of Nashville to a purpose-built entertainment complex on the edge of the city, complete with resort hotel and shopping mall, but as darkness began to fall I promised myself a couple of evening hours exploring the real Nashville.
And what a city! For any music lover, irrespective of genre. Okay, I’m not into Country as such, but you can’t deny that a place has a particular aura and significant history. A short walk from my hotel took me past the beautiful Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from the 1920s until the 1970s, and down Broadway, the antithesis of the usual US downtown. Most American city centres empty after workers have left for home, leaving behind an eerie atmosphere that can even be a tad foreboding, but Broadway by contrast is lined either side with lively honky tonk bars, with live music blasting out from every one. I hopped from bar to bar, listening to talented musicians playing Country Music of all types for the occasional dollar thrown into their tip buckets, imagining that for every one of those bands and musicians who had ‘made it’ onto Broadway, there must be hundreds more aspiring to tread those stages.
The next morning I met Jay for breakfast. Grits. Biscuit and gravy. You know the score by now. Before leaving Nashville on our whistle stop route by road through Tennessee to finally connect with the AMTRAK rail system, we would have one final visit to make, to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Well, I think I might have mentioned that I’m not a Country Music fan, but I am most certainly a music fan, and any music fan could spend the whole day there, tracing the music’s tracks from the rural backwaters to the Nashville charts. The Sales Director of the museum, Keith, is an instantly likeable and funny character. Surrounded by the good and the great of Country Music, from Hank Williams through to Johnny Cash and onwards to the modern era, when Keith asked me who I was into I proudly suggested my one and only Country Music choice as a lifeline. Laura Cantrell is a recording artist from Nashville who, thanks to the dedication of the late great John Peel, who played her music endlessly on his Radio 1 shows around the turn of the last century, probably has a more passionate fanbase in the UK than in Tennessee as a result. If you haven’t heard her sing, her voice has textures from which emanate emotion and power that give me goosebumps. Keith was impressed by my answer, but blew me away with his own musical taste. Yes, the boss of the Country Music Hall of Fame told me, “I like Country Music, but my all-time favourite artist is Cilla Black.” And before I could respond with, “Surprise surprise, the unexpected hits you between the eyes!” Keith had moved on with a brilliant suggestion. “Would you like to see Studio B? Your groups can visit there too. It will be great in combination with the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
Entering RCA Studio B, the corridor is lined with photographs of eminent singers and musicians famed the world over, who all clearly recorded in this outwardly unassuming building. There’s Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves too, oh and Charley Pride, my late mother’s favourite singer. Elvis looms large. So does Dolly Parton. And the Everly Brothers, whose harmonies on stage famously hid a potent sibling rivalry. This was the music that was force-fed to me by my parents at home and in their car through my childhood in the 1970s and early 80s and against which I suppose I was bound to rebel. From the corridor we entered a darkened room, Keith, Jay and I, with excerpts from the greatest Studio B recordings gently cascading from the speakers, after which the room was illuminated to reveal that we were standing in the famous recording studio itself, an impressive experience for any music fan touring Nashville’s sights. The lights revealed much more to my companions though, as I was overwhelmed and in tears. My lovely mum had passed away the previous year. At the crematorium my dad chose an Everly Brothers song that was dear to both of them to begin the service, plus her favourite song, ‘Crystal Chandeliers’ by Charley Pride, to accompany our final farewell. It had occurred to me during those couple of minutes of music in the darkness at a chance and unplanned extra visit that I was standing in the room where both of those songs were recorded. Cynics often accuse the USA of lacking culture or history, but I will treasure those moments, however sad, where Nashville culture and history collided with my own life and emotions. I’m a lucky man indeed.