Aug. 24--NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- I hit town two hours ago, and I'm already on stage at the Bluebird Cafe.
The performers aren't, though. Tonight, four singer-songwriters take turns holding forth in a circle on the floor, while the tiny stage is occupied by two tables of wine-sippers. The Bluebird likes to mix things up.
These days, it's hard to get into the Bluebird, a little 100-seat hovel in a strip mall. That's the fault of the ABC series "Nashville," the series that stole Connie Britton from Austin and just started shooting a second season here in Music City.
If Britton's departure dug some frown lines onto Austin's face, they could only deepen when the New York Times extolled Nashville as the new "it" city, proclaiming forlornly: "Austin had it once."
I figured it was time to head off to Nashville myself, in search not of fame and fortune (I don't even own a guitar) but of what all the fuss is about. The Bluebird's a great place to start an exploration of this song-centric city.
"The Bluebird is a listening room," Nashville friend and photographer Nancy Kruh warns. "If you talk, you will be shushed." The audience is expected to listen rather than yammer? Charming concept. Indeed, as Adam James launches into a done-me-wrong rocker, somebody at the next table emits a few words and is promptly met with "Shhhhhh!"
It turns out two of tonight's featured singer-songwriters are from Texas. Michael Castro -- a funky, genre-defying artist who writes engaging songs, sings soulfully and whistles enviably (you might have seen him on "American Idol" Season 8) -- and Heather Morgan, a staff songwriter for Sony ATV who throws down a lot of good hooks ("Slow Me Down," which she co-wrote with Marv Green and Jimmy Robbins, is Sara Evans' new single) are both from the Dallas area.
Castro's patter avoids Lone Star references, but Morgan mentions being from Texas twice and talks about how thrilled she was to sing with Willie Nelson, whom she claims -- fondly, I promise -- had "grandpa breath." These three and the fourth, folk-rocker Jameson Elder, rivet us for two hours as we easily top the cute little $7 food-and-beverage minimum.
From the Bluebird's home at 4104 Hillsboro Pike (which is more residential street than pike), my friend drives me to check out Music Row: two streets packed with recording studios, music company offices, music lawyers' offices and the big honkin' ASCAP building. (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers makes sure those folks get royalties every time their songs get sung, even badly.) Have no doubt: Nashville is the beating heart of the music business.
As if that weren't enough to brag about, Nashville has a Parthenon. A replica originally built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition, the Greek edifice now houses art and hosts events, and as we drive by, kids are cavorting on its lawn.
We roll past the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway; good place to stay in a 19th-century rail station) to end the evening on Lower Broadway, where music pours from neon-jeweled honky-tonks as crowds meander from joint to joint, block after block.
The next day, we pick up where we left off, heading back to Lower Broadway to pop into Ernest Tubb's Record Shop (417 Broadway; it's one of the coolest record shops in town, the other being Jack White's Third Man Records at 623 Seventh Ave. S.) and gawk at the walls of show posters at Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway).
A block away, we prayerfully enter the Mother Church of Country Music, Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Ave. N.). First opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, this hall has housed everything from Broadway shows to boxing. It was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. When the Opry moved to Opryland, there was talk of tearing Ryman down, but Nashville wouldn't let that happen, and a renovation brought it back to life in 1994. It now plays host to major names in every music genre, and the Opry returns in winter (lower crowd) months.
Whomever you go to see at the Ryman, you could well hear from other stars who aren't on the bill. The performers know their friends are in the audience and often call them up. This happens some in Austin, of course, but the local talent pool in Nashville is mega-deep.
If you go to a show at the Ryman, take a pillow. Those church pews are hard. If you can't see a show there, take a tour ($14 for a self-guided one that includes an eight-minute video). This is a major piece of Nashville history, haunted by the ghosts of talent past.
A few blocks away from the Ryman, near the new, giant convention center called Music City Center, we're awed by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (222 Fifth Ave. S.; $22 adults and $14 youths 6 to 17), a city block full of exhibits that tell the story of country music's various paths. There they are: Maybelle Carter's guitar, Earl Scruggs' banjo and Bill Monroe's mandolin, right behind a really big crowd of people looking at ... a Taylor Swift video. Well, that's all right. Swift gave $4 million to the museum.
Worth noting: Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks are trapped in the same display case. Somebody has an evil sense of humor.
The museum and its unbroken-circle Hall of Fame are testimony to how seriously Nashville takes its music history and talent, and a just-opened Songwriters Hall of Fame gallery in Music City Center adds an exclamation point.
Nashville's more than music, of course. It's also home to good food (loved my spinach and ricotta crepes at Marche and Mexican caramel artisan ice pop at Las Paletas), college (Vanderbilt, Belmont and more), hiking (Radnor Lake's a good spot), art galleries, Cumberland River cruises and Andrew Jackson's house, the Hermitage. Also, it's green -- beautifully, lushly green -- because it rains here. Yet another reason for Austin to envy Nashville.
But the music is magic in Nashville, and there's only one way to conclude this trip: with a visit to the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry, a Nashville institution, is a live, two-hour radio show, complete with voiced commercials (Boot Barn's annual Stinky Boot Sale). It's a hoot, and far more varied that we expected.
We hear (on pews with cushions, thank you) insane bluegrass from the Lonesome River Band, a touch of Cajun from Jimmy C. Newman and vintage country from Bill Anderson, the Whites, Ray Pillow and Connie Smith. Riders in the Sky cover "Rawhide" (and gently rope the announcer while he reads a commercial), Exile does "I Want to Kiss You All Over" (because how could they not?), Brandy Clark charms with a rollicking husband basher, "Stripes," and Angie Johnson, a former contestant on "The Voice," rocks her new single, "Swagger." In the evening's women-rush-the-stage moment, Charles Esten -- Deacon on "Nashville" -- belts out "I Climb the Walls." It's a grand ol' stew of country flavors.
All in all, there's a whole lot to make a fuss about in Nashville. Am I fan now? Heck. They had me at "shhhhh."
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