Music, music, music everywhere! In Nashville, it’s hard to go around the corner without bumping into a songwriter, performance venue or recording studio. Music City truly lived up to its name on my recent visit.
My first stop was RCA Record’s Studio B, which was built in 1957 at the request of Chet Atkins to facilitate the needs of RCA Victor Records. Atkins, an amazing guitarist, worked for RCA and was responsible for the move away from what was thought of as twangy “hillbilly” music of the 1930s and 40s, to the more sophisticated, orchestral “country and western” sound. My 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 pm with hamburgers and his own producer. He’d warm up with gospel songs at the piano. Sometimes he’d be there until 7 am. 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. “Want to sit where Elvis sat? You can pretend to play, but DON’T TOUCH!” In 1982 it 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.
Being on Music Row, which is 16th Street and is a 20-block neighbourhood, I took a walk and passed Starstruck Studios, once owned by Reba McEntire.Apparently, she lost it in her divorce. Layne told me, “Faith Hill started out here as a secretary. Reba didn’t think she could sing.” Owen Bradley Park honoured all the town’s big names I learned this area is considered a Federal No-Fly zone, so the sound won’t be compromised. However, Nashville is booming with construction. That’s where all the noise is coming from these days.
At the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Dave Filipe, the publicist was kind enough to let me pop my head inside this magnificent, classic-looking building. “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. They do 150 concerts a year, mostly classical music, but jazz, kids and a pop series also bring out the crowds. “We do two Harry Potter concerts a year and one Star Wars. We have to adapt to new audiences,” said Filipe. A good idea when you have 1840 seats to fill. To get the music out to communities that otherwise might not hear it, they have a program for disadvantaged youth. “We take 16 kids, from grade 4 to the end of high school. They come to concerts and if they want to go to music school, a symphony member will mentor them.” The program is supported by a Mellon Foundation grant.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 2001 and expanded with a $4 million gift from Taylor Swift. There was even a Taylor Swift Educational Center there with banjo lessons and camps for kids. I took a walk through the Outlaws exhibit with all sorts of ephemera from so-called bad boys including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. They had Kristofferson’s military uniform! The costumes and cars on display were amazing.Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes! Elvis’ gold Cadillac! Embroidered suits like this one belonging to Porter Wagoner.
Downstairs, a highlight was a visit to Hatch Show Print. Our guide Tori Zemer informed us the print company was 139 years old. “It’s the oldest letter press in the United Stated. Preservation by production!” Started in 1879 by the Hatch brothers, the business moved five or six times. The last location is now home to the AT&T building, affectionately known as the Batman Building because of its two pointy antenna-like ears. They moved to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2013. What is produced here are the old-time type posters made from hand-inked letter blocks and hand cranked presses. We even got to try out hand at a two colour print. “ZZ Top, Robert Plant and Jack White have signed the press. Sometimes musicans 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.”
The Ryman Auditorium, also known as the “mother church of country music,” is filled with curved wooden seats, much like pews. In fact, after watching an introductory video, I leaned 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 Harry Houdini were some of the early performers, as well as the Grand Ol Opry live radio show. On the stage I notice a little area of the original pine flooring, where Johnny Cash and Hank Williams tapped their toes. Due to wear, the rest of the stage has been replaced with Brazilian teak.
At the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, “Smilin’” Jay McDowell, the multi-media curator and former member of bandBR5-49 walked me through a number of different galleries. In particular, I enjoyed learning 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 great 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. The museum was divided into geographical regions of the United States. Nashville’s started off with 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 learned 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. They even had the original sign and office furniture from Sun Records, Elvis’ first recording home in Memphis.
Wanting to catch a little bit of local talent, I headed to the Listening Room where Justin Ebach, Darby, Jordan Minton and Jackson Michelson were performing. The big room had great acoustics and it was a pleasure to hear these musicians tell their songwriting tales and demonstrate their talents. Darby was especially compelling since she was only 15 and sang like an old pro.
A town that pays homage to musicians and their instruments, it was no wonder there was a vintage guitar collection worth $9.5 million available to admire at Belmont University’s Gallery of Iconic Guitars. The 500-piece collection was donated by Steven Kern Shaw, the son of band leader Artie Shaw, and grandson of Jerome Kern who wrote such hits as Ol Man River and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The oldest out that day was an 1887 Martin guitar, the most intriguing was the 1927 Gibson F-5 mandolin, rarer than a Stradivarius violin. Plus, there was a gauntlet of Gibsons, Fenders and Loars.
On my final night, I visited the Grand Ole Opry, part of Opryland – an amusement complex of hotel, restaurants and entertainment venues. “The show is 93 years old. It’s recorded at Opryland every Friday and Saturday night, no breaks for holidays,” Dan Mason, my guide explained. Singer Kelly Pickler was doing fundraising with listeners for her North Carolina home so devastated by Hurricane Florence, and beloved icon Connie Smith also did a few numbers.Square dancers? You bet! Don’t know how that transmits over the radio, but what the heck! Mason Ramsey, a 12-year-old Hank Williams Snr. fanatic, was definitely the highlight that evening.His version of Lovesick Blues, complete with yodelling, knocked my socks off. He got noticed after a YouTube video of him singing in a Walmart went viral. Ellen DeGeneres had him on her show and this year he was signed to Big Loud Records.
Finally, what does everyone do in Nashville? Goes to Broadway, where the honky tonks twang like there’s no tomorrow. Tootsies, The Stage, Legends, you name it, they were all packed.
Would I recommend you go to Nashville? In a musical heartbeat!
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