It is the holy grail, the mecca, the all-mighty of Country Music. It is the motherland. I inevitably, on some small level, had to be let down since there's no way that the Nashville I was about to see would be the same of that in The Thing Called Love; the country music movie of my childhood laced with that kind of chasing fame hunger that leads so many to The Bluebird Cafe.
And at some points, I was a bit let down because my hopes were so high. Nothing could match my fantasy. Nashville isn't the kind of place you go for a gorgeous landscape, but it is the place you'll return to, to fill your soul with music, hope, and history. It's a place I was just getting the hang of, when I had to leave three days later. It was during that last night, the night at the Opry, that the mirage of love and yearning to be a part of country poured out, and I felt connected to a time and place of honor that matched my childhood dreams. Yes, that love is still kickin' and alive as ever.
Nashville is spread out and divided into areas, and the locals version of Nashville can throw you off. I run into some very nice local hipster gals (you know what I'm talking about -- slightly sulky shoulders, open plaid button downs, half-smiles, sweet, polite, confused) working at Grimey's, an old school record store, and ask them for the lowdown. Now when people ask, Well what are you into? I kind of sound... lame. I don't really like shopping, nor do thrift shops excite me that much. I love food, but on most occasions when traveling would rather have local inexpensive fare than fine dining. I love music, any kind, but nowhere too touristy. They tell me to go to Jack White's Third Man Records, where the heart of the current music scene is pulsing.
I hop in an uber, which is the main way I get around town, as everything is almost a little too spread out to walk in the humid 90 degree heat. The store is two rooms, and after a quick browse, I end up at a local brewery. A husband and wife duo sing sweet bluegrass while playing multiple instruments to a crowd of patrons chatting away; my first glimpse into Music City's never ending soundtrack.
That night I head about fifteen minutes out of town to The Bluebird Cafe. If I was going to one place besides the Opry, it was here. This is where Faith was discovered. This is where Taylor was discovered. Not to mention Garth, and the many renowned songwriters to take the tiny stage. This was my thing. To my dismay, my little gem's been made famous by the tv show Nashville. In a small stripmall, a line of sweaty tourists wrap around the block. They let about half of us in, and as I sip a Corona (no Light offered here), I picture Faith on the stage, and then transport to watching her at the Staples Center arena some 20 years later.
The next day I have a somewhat good gameplan. After surveying more uber drivers, I think that it's best to hit East Nashville (trendy/artsy), then make my way to downtown (NashVegas), then midtown (Vanderbilt/locals). Done and done.
East Nashville is peppered with restaurants and homes. After browsing one of the many lists on my phone for must-see places, I decide to eat at local favorite Marche. There's just one problem -- it's closed on Mondays. So the driver and I head down further to the next place on my list, Mitchell's Deli. It's 10a.m, and I force feed myself the homemade reuben, a little too thin on the meat, but still delicious and fresh nonetheless.
I get dropped off downtown, and at 11a.m, musicians and singers begin to fill the bars, their voices streaming out into the streets. I wander into Tootsie's and hear a charismatic guy by the name of Scott Collier sing and banter with the crowd of tourists sipping Bud Lights on this random afternoon.
Later on that evening I ask a doorman on the strip if people actually get discovered playing here. I mean, there's just tons of them, doing mostly covers, sounding really good, but really similar. He tells me that in this day and age of social media, no one is really getting discovered at Tootsie's or any of the other places. He says they come and try, but really, labels want a following. That reminds me of the process of selling my book, and how the world has changed, but dreamers like me hold onto that romantic version of being discovered and appointed to fame.
After a local at the cowboy boot store says the Country Music Hall of Fame is worth seeing at least once, I sucker up the $25 and go in. I was hoping for a rich history, but instead was greeted with an exhibit about Bakersfield. I guess that was interesting in retrospect, but the overall museum was mediocre as an experience in and of itself. The most fascinating thing to me was seeing the handwritten lyrics by some of the greats, especially Dolly Parton's Jolene chicken scratch. Oh, how I love that woman.
I hop into a golf cart ride and head to Hattie B's. This place is known for their hot chicken, as in spicy, and boy, does it deliver. Every single thing was good. Every single side had interesting flavor. I'm not a huge mac-and-cheese person, but thinking back on that pimiento specked cheesy delight makes my mouth water. The cole slaw, the greens, the hot chicken-- seriously it is so flavorful. I know I'm doomed to crave it until I get back there.
It's Whisky Jam night at Winners bar in Midtown (you know the part "We've Got Winners, We've Got Losers" in Toby Keith's I Love This Bar -- that's the Winners he's talking about!). The gal I'm staying with warns me about this bar, showing me a picture of a tip jar that says "Just the tip, Just for a second, Just to see how it feels". Well it's open-mic night and if someone's getting discovered in this town the old-fashioned way, then it's here. The lineup is pretty good, with an array of artists, and the bar does fill quickly with local Vanderbilt co-eds done up in Monday night clubbing attire. Man I feel old. But in the way that feeling old feels good, as in, I'm so glad to not feel the need to wear spandex and liquid liner. It's been a long day, and after the last act I head back.
On my last night, I head to Opryland, getting there a couple hours early to check out the sprawling hotel. It's nice, but I can't imagine going there if it weren't for the show. The Opry is housed in a big building, about a ten minute walk from the hotel. I pass a Dave and Buster's and IMAX, secretly cursing those commercial buildings that interfere with my sacred walk.
An L.A. friend gives me the heads up that each night at the Opry, Hatch Show Print creates a handmade poster for that given night. For $9 I get my very special souvenir and head in. It's all that and more, really. The "On AIr" sign lit up, the m.c. pumping up the crowd, the seven acts that go on, playing three songs each. This is the perfect line-up for someone with a short attention span like myself.
It turns out Tuesday is the good night to go, and I'm lucky enough to see Montgomery Gentry, Charlie Daniels Band, and Riders in the Sky, who leave with this sound advice: "Don't take a laxative and sleeping pill at the same time".
What moves me the most, what gave me chills, was the opener Terri Clark, who with such raw emotion and gratitude recalled her early days singing at Tootsie's, saying that playing at the Opry never gets old. She did it. She made it. And I think back to all those singers on the neon row, singing their hearts out, giving it their all, and knowing that one of them may just end up on that circular disk taken from the Ryman, recalling their days singing for tips in front of awestruck tourists like myself.
The next day, I squeeze in a walk to Hillsboro Village, a quaint intersection of cafes and stores, picking up breakfast at Fido's before getting picked up by the same uber driver that took me to the Opry! The odds, we laugh together! We get my bags and then head off to the airport, chatting about Nashville, and I'm already yearning to come back even though I haven't even left yet. There's something magical about Music City that did live up to the love in my heart and hype in my mind. I'll be back sometime soon, and expect to hear the next wave of singers breaking their way into this tight knit city.