At last, I have made the pilgrimage to Nashville, and I’m still basking in the barbecue-basted afterglow.
This city is teeming with talent, since this is where musicians and songwriters from all over the world come to make their fortunes. In the meantime, they have to make a living, keep their chops up and be ready for the next gig that could be the big break. So no matter where you go, music squirts out of every doorway and windowsill and pours out of bars and burger joints, and it’s almost always crazy great.
Want bonafide old-timey music with a side of sleeve tattoos? You got it outside of the Boot Country store on Broadway (see above). Want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on “Little Wing” even though he’s moved on to the Great Beyond? Order some sweet potato fries at Paradise Park Trailer Resort and give a listen to the house band at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Need to unwind after a long day of driving? Go to your hotel lobby and hear a gal do a credible acoustic version of “Angel from Montgomery” as you take in the exhibition of works by painter/musician Ray Stephenson that includes a portrait of John Prine.
Rock came up from country music of all stripes – gospel, Texas swing, hill music, blues – and that bloodline is being celebrated now at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in their current exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” The logo and other poster art was commissioned from Jon Langford, a musician with the punk band the Mekons:
Even without this terrific exhibit – showcasing the time in the 1960s and early 1970s when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash came to Nashville to record, followed by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and many others – I would have gotten a kick out of the place. I grew up in the early 1970s watching The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Plus, my brother lived the Urban Cowboy life in the early 1980s when he worked in Houston, and I spent a lot of time with that film’s soundtrack. The fiddles and banjos, the wigs and rhinestones, the Qiana and the cowboy boots: it’s part of my childhood. (Sadly, the volume on the Hee Haw video clips at the Hall of Fame was so low, my daughter could not fully appreciate the comic stylings of the Hee Haw Honeys.)
Still, I sped up once I got to the displayes featuring stars of the 1990s and beyond. I have no time for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or the other Top 40 country guys. Also, no matter how many articles I read about how Taylor Swift is a critical favorite as well as great person on and off stage, I just can’t bring myself to give her music a listen. Just considering it makes my neck stiffen.
Clearly I am one of those insufferable snobs Chuck Klosterman called out in “Toby over Moby,” a 2003 essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:
[T]hey’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know that hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner.
Klosterman goes on to call alternative country “the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular.” (I have at least half of the albums featured in the Hall of Fame’s alt-country display … ahem.)
But the sincerity of pop country gets dulled by bro country‘s formulaic songwriting and singers Auto-tuned into sameness. There is so much better stuff available. Classic material from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson hasn’t lost its luster, and 21st century musicians – the Punch Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few – are reclaiming and reinterpreting the old-time catchiness of roots music without being precious about it. Plus, musicians on the rock-and-roll side of the spectrum like Jack White and Dan Auerbach make Nashville their home, soaking up the traditions and giving a platform to lesser known yet absurdly talented locals.
And on top of all this is the Grand Ole Opry, still exemplifying the best in country and roots music after 90 years on the air. More on that to follow.
See you on the flip side …