Nashville – Music City USA
Nashville is booming my taxi driver tells me as we head into the downtown area from the airport. They say that one hundred people a day are arriving here to live, work and try their luck. The New York Times recently declared Nashville one of the top cities in the US to visit. I’ve arrived here with my head filled with songs by Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson and Patsy Cline. I haven’t even left the airport when I hear ‘Ring of Fire’ blaring out from a souvenir shop. After all this is Music City and music is entrenched in the culture and life of Nashville. To understand Nashville today we need to take a quick look into the past and the history of the town.
A little history……
Nashville nestles in a comfortable meander of the Cumberland River. At the end of the last ice age the Earth became warmer and the massive Laurentian Ice Sheet that had covered much of North America began to recede. This meant that small groups of hunter-gatherers could move northwards extending their hunting grounds in search of food. The vast rivers and lakes left behind by the melting ice were ideal locations for both early man and the herds of animals that thrived on these green and fertile plains. Archaeologists have found evidence of man’s presence here as early as 15000 years ago.
The Europeans arrived in Tennessee in the late 18th century. The new arrivals were heading, quite literally, for pastures new in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and further west. By 1796 the Cumberland Gap, a natural pass in the Appalachian Mountains, had become known as the Wilderness Road as more than 200,000 migrants (mostly from Europe) had passed through the mountains in search of a ‘new life’. Nashville was founded on a high bluff over-looking the Cumberland River. The original site of Fort Nashborough can still be seen on the waterfront today.
It doesn’t take long for music to enter the story of Nashville. Cumberland Gap is the title of a famous folk song, probably dating from the late 1800s. The song was recorded by Woody Guthrie in the 1940s. It was then recorded by numerous artists. In fact it even crossed the Atlantic, when it became a massive Number 1 hit for Lonnie Donegan, a British singer, in 1957. The song remained at the top of the charts in the UK for 5 weeks. Cumberland Gap, Lonnie Donegan
In 1796 Nashville and the state of Tennessee became part of the Union. Nashville was then the state capital. Effectively it was the only town in miles and miles of wilderness. It was a very important trading post. The town built a reservoir in 1806 – giving the people a safe and secure water supply (independent of river flooding, droughts etc). This water supply – and its reliability – enabled the town to grow. In the early part of the 19th century Andrew Jackson, a military man, local politician and lawyer became a big hero defeating the annoying British at the Battle of New Orleans (those pesky Brits just did not know when to leave)! As a National Hero (having repelled both the Brits and the Native American Indians) Jackson built his political base rapidly here in Tennessee. In 1828 he was elected President of the United States. Shortly afterwards a grand State Capital Building was constructed in classical Greek style in the centre of Nashville.
During the Civil War, Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy in 1861. This situation was short lived. Less than a year into the Civil War – Nashville became the first state capitol to fall to the Union. The Battle of Nashville in 1864 confirmed this – when confederacy troops were beaten by Union Forces. Nashville had a good war in terms of economic prosperity. It became an important centre for depots, warehouses, hospitals and administration. It was a river town, a pioneer town with bars and entertainment. It was at this time that the Ryman Auditorium was built – originally a Gospel Tabernacle. By the 1900s it was a popular venue for music and concerts. The Ryman quickly became known as the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’. In fact the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show was broadcast live from the Ryman from the 1940s until the 1970s.
Nashville’s prestigious Vanderbilt University dates from the same time. The Northerners (Unionists) were keen to integrate Nashville and therefore the state of Tennessee into the Union. In 1873 Vanderbilt University was founded with a gift from Cornelius Vanderbilt of New York of US $ 1—million. His gift aimed to ’develop a university in the south that would strengthen ties between all sections of our common country’. Today the university is consistently ranked in the top twenty in the USA. Vandy, as it is known locally, is a world class research university with 6500 under graduates and 5300 graduate students. The university is strong in the fields of Medicine, Public Policy and Liberal Arts. It is very proud of its diversity record. It is also the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee with 23,000 staff. World class speakers regularly visit Vanderbilt to deliver key note speeches, including Toni Morrison (author), Azar Nafisi (English Professor and Iranian exile), Julian Barnes (British novelist), Condoleeza Rice and many others.
In 1897 a full size replica of Greece’s Parthenon was built in Nashville as part of the city’s centennial celebrations. The Parthenon is a magnificent classical temple constructed to the same specifications as the original Parthenon in Athens. It is a popular and much photographed city landmark.
The start of country music……..
As we know the original settlers were mostly European, especially Irish and Scottish. They brought folk music and songs with them. The main trade routes in those days were the rivers so people, ideas and music spread through the Mississippi from the delta up to Memphis and St Louis. Country music developed in Nashville as a mixture of European Folk, Irish and Celtic tunes. The great thing about Country Music was that you only needed a guitar, a good voice and a hat!!! As long as you had TALENT you had a really good chance. In fact that is still true today. Money was not required. It started with people like Jimmie Rodgers and then Hank Williams. Hank Williams was one of the most famous country singers of the 1940s – he wrote and performed “Your Cheatin’ Heart“, “Hey, Good Lookin’“, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry“.
In the early days of radio – WSM (originally an insurance company) ‘We shield millions’ started broadcasting a weekly stage show from Nashville – this was in 1925. They built a huge aerial – a characteristic diamond-shaped mast that can still be seen from the I 65 highway in Brentwood (a suburb of Nashville). The aerial was huge, almost 900 feet in height. This meant they could broadcast over a large distance covering several states. They could also achieve a ‘Clear Air Signal’.
WSM started a full time country music station in 1925. It was also the home of the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ – a country music show that has been broadcast ever since! This was a weekly ‘Country Music Stage Concert’ billed as a one hour ‘radio’ barn dance – it was first aired on November 25, 1925. It still appears to this day – now as a TV show. The Grand Ole Opry show was enormously popular it provided light-hearted entertainment for families in their homes, at the end of a day of long, hard physical labour. Remember this is a time with no television, many rural homes did not have electricity. Life was simple and with far fewer options for amusement. The Grand Ole Opry popularised country music. In fact George Jones, a famous country star, used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasting live as he snuggled up in bed with his parents. His hero was Hank Williams. My favourite Hank Williams song is ‘Jambalaya – On the Bayou’. Jambalaya has been covered more than 40 times including by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Emmy Lou Harris, The Carpenters (in the 1970s – my personal favourite) and Garth Brooks. The Grand Ole Opry was responsible for ‘discovering’ hundreds of country stars, Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and even Elvis…
Elvis Presley appeared on the Grand Ole Opry show in his very early days as a performer, around 1952. Funnily enough he was deemed NOT suitable for Opry listeners. Instead he performed on the Louisiana Hayride Show – broadcasting from Shreveport, LA. By 1954 the Louisiana Hayride was broadcasting to 198 radio stations across more than 28 states. At this point Presley was 19 years old. He signed with RCA Victor Records in Nashville with Col. Tom Parker as his manager. Parker was a tough cookie and a legendary negotiator. Recording at the now famous RCA Studio B – Elvis made his first single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which went to Number 1 in 1956. He went on to sell more than 600 million records worldwide. He appeared on radio and TV and went on to make hugely popular films too. RCA Studio B was used by numerous artists from the late 50s onwards. It is now a tourist attraction. Elvis, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, have all recorded here at the famous Historic RCA Studio B.
Country music and the stars…….
In 1932 Loretta Lynn was born – quite literally The Coal Miner’s Daughter. One of 8 children – one of her sisters is the singer Crystal Gayle. This amazing lady has had singles in the charts for the last 5 decades. She was born in Butcher Harbor, Kentucky. She was named artist of the decade in the 1970s awarded by the ‘Academy of Country Music’. This lady is one classy and productive woman. One of my favourite songs is: ‘Don’t come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind’
Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and George Jones all sang truthful, from the heart tales. Every-day tales. Tales about real life, alcoholism, domestic abuse. Loretta sang about having no shoes and her mother scrubbing clothes on a washboard until her fingers were bleeding. This was reality, from the heart. A perfect example is her song ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’. In 2013 Loretta Lynn was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama. Incredibly in March 2016 (just a month or so ago…) Loretta Lynn released her latest album ‘Full Circle’ which includes collaborations with Willie Nelson (Lay me Down) and Elvis Costello (Everything it takes..)
The great thing about country is the power and influence it gave women. Patsy Cline was like one of the boys, an amazing singer with an incredible voice. She worked hard and played hard. Patsy Cline sang ‘Lovesick Blues’ and Honky Tonk Merry-go-round. Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette followed Loretta Lynn and stormed ‘country’ in the 1970s. Interestingly Tammy Wynette was married to George Jones (hugely popular country singer – although apparently a terrible husband). Sadly Wynette died in 1998. Their daughter Georgette Jones still lives in Nashville. My vote probably goes to Patsy Cline with her extraordinary voice. Both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are still going strong.
Of course there are many, many great male country singers too, starting with Hank Williams, George Jones, and then moving on to Johnny Cash, Elvis, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Johnny Cash was known for his amazing deep, calm bass-baritone voice. Married famously to June Carter Cash. He wrote and sang numerous hugely popular songs, including in 1957 ‘I Walk the Line’ ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and then later in 1963 ‘Ring of Fire’. Johnny Cash had his own TV show which was watched by many & further promoted ‘country music’ a bit like American Idol or the X Factor today. The Johnny Cash Show ran on TV 1969-71. Cash is also the subject of the 2005 film ‘Walk the Line’.
Then there is Willie Nelson – a personal favourite of mine. Even if he did owe the IRS US $ 32—million at one point! Nelson signed in 1964 with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ole Opry at the same time. In 1990, Nelson’s assets were seized by the Internal Revenue Service, which claimed that he owed US$32 million. The difficulty of paying his outstanding debt was aggravated by weak investments made in the 1980s. In 1992, Nelson released an album The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? And of course many familiar and wonderful songs, ‘On the Road Again’ ‘City of New Orleans’ ‘Always on my mind’ and a fantastic duet with Merle Haggard called ‘It’s all going to pot’.
There’s an amazing musical infrastructure in Nashville……..
The Grand Ole Opry popularised country music and musicians flooded into town. Recording Studios, Record Companies, Production Companies, Writers and Technicians followed. They all contributed to and created ‘The Nashville Sound’. The Honky Tonk Bars and numerous live music venues gave aspiring performers a place to sing. There’s everything from the Ryman Auditorium to the Bridgestone Arena, and many bars, basements and lofts in between. In 1966 Bob Dylan travelled to Nashville to record the album Blonde on Blonde, he came because of the quality of the session musicians. This started a trend that has continued right up to the present. In fact there is an exhibition on in Nashville right now called ‘Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats’.
Every night in Nashville there are numerous live concerts to choose from, many venues have a 6 pm, 8pm and even a 10pm slot. As a fan of live music there is plenty of choice. Even now venues like The Bluebird Café hold regular auditions for young hopefuls. The Bluebird is a small café-bar seating just 90 people – it is located in a funny little strip mall just out of town. Garth Brooks performed at Open Mic Night at The Bluebird in 1987 and was discovered there! Keith Urban auditioned here in 1993. Taylor Swift came to Nashville in 2004 aged just fourteen, performed at The Bluebird and was heard by Scott Borchetta who signed her immediately to ‘Big Machine Records’ – she then signed with Sony becoming their youngest ever singer-song writer. ‘Our Song’ made her the youngest person to write and perform a Number 1 song in the ‘Hot Country Songs Chart’.
Kris Kristofferson made his first appearance at The Bluebird in 2007. More recently The Bluebird Café has appeared in the ABC-TV series ‘Nashville’. On most nights you’ll find a discreet celebrity enjoying the music at The Bluebird.
Then there’s the collaboration that goes on – everyone working together!
Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton teamed up to become the Honky Tonk Angels back in 1993. The album featured tracks such as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” ‘Silver threads and Golden Needles’ – both well known country songs. They even managed (with some clever editing) a contribution from Patsy Cline (who sadly died in the early 1960s). The gentlemen too have co-operated with the super band ‘The Highwaymen’ featured Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. They recorded several albums from 1985-1995.
The duets are thick on the ground as well. One of my all time favourites is Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard singing ‘It’s all going to pot’. Sadly Merle Haggard died just a few weeks ago. Most recently Loretta Lynn and Elvis Costello collaborated on ‘Everything it takes’ whilst Don Henley (of The Eagles) and Dolly Parton duet on his brand-new Cass County album released in September 2015.
So what makes this city so unique, special, individual?
Nashville is an exceptional town. It’s the people, they are so welcoming. Southern hospitality at its very best. The attitude all over town is positive, welcoming and sincere. Nashville has a very pro-active Visitor and Convention Bureau. They actually sent me (as a tour guide) an e-mail asking if they could help me in any way when I was visiting town. This never happens in London or New York! The really great thing is that the story isn’t over yet ‘newcomers’ are still making it right now. Last year Chris Stapleton emerged from the song writing shadows with his debut album ‘Traveller’. Another newcomer singing in a Southern California Country Style is Sam Outlaw – it is a style I absolutely love. I have to mention a particularly wonderful song of his ‘Jesus take the wheel and drive me to the bar’ from his 2015 Angelino Album produced by the famous Ry Cooder. Country music is becoming more and more popular. The fact is that anyone can make it – as long as they have TALENT!
So this is Music City Folks – you feel welcome here and that’s more than half the battle!!!
With special thanks to:
- The Hutton Hotel, 1805 West End Avenue, Nashville – a great place to stay.
- The Hutton Hotel, Nashville
- Nashville Visitor and Convention Bureau
- Lindsey Sipe – for her friendship
- Women on Fire without whom I would not have been in Nashville
- For more on Nashville check out my other article Nashville City of Dreams
- For more on Women on Fire an inspiring community helping and supporting women
- Read more about wonderful Nashville – Music City is amazing!
This is the play list I created for my tour of Nashville:
My play list:
- Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
- I Walk the Line – Johnny Cash
- Summer Holiday – Cliff Richard
- Don’t it make my brown eyes blue – Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister)
- Travellin’ Soldier – Dixie Chicks
- Silver Threads and Golden Needles – Dolly parton
- 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton
- It wasn’t God who made Honky Tonk Angels – Parton, Wynette, Lynn
- Lovesick Blues (with Patsy Cline) – Honky Tonk Angels
- Blue Suede Shoes – Elvis Presley
- Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell
- Rhinestone Cowboy – Glen Campbell
- Jackson – Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
- Everything it takes – Loretta Lynn featuring Elvis Costello
- Lay Me Down – Loretta Lynn featuring Willie Nelson
- Don’t come home a drinkin’ – Loretta Lynn
- Coal Miner’s Daughter – Loretta Lynn
- Honky Tonk Merry Go Round – Patsy Cline
- I Got a Lot of Rhythm in my Soul – Patsy Cline
- On the Road Again – Willie Nelson
- City of New Orleans – Willie Nelson
- Always on my Mind – Willie Nelson
- It’s all going to pot – Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
- Somebody like you – Keith Urban
- Hey Good Lookin’ – Hank Williams
- He stopped loving her today – George Jones
- Culmberland Gap – Lonnie Donegan and his skiffle band
- Home – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
- Love Story – Taylor Swift
- Master Pretender – First Aid Kit
- Waitress Song – First Aid Kit
- Jambalaya (on the Bayou) – Carpenters
- Need You Now – Lady Antebellum
- Jesus take the wheel and drive me to the bar – Sam Outlaw
- Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton
Note: The influence that country music has had on modern music is HUGE! From Lonnie Donegan with his skiffle group influencing The Beatles to Elvis inspiring the teenage generation of the 1950s. Bill Haley and the Comets with their rock and roll to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and the disco divas of the 1970s. Music City is amazing and continues to influence modern music even when we don’t realise it. Enjoy!
-  Lonnie Donovan was a British musician hugely influenced by American country music. He introduced the ‘skiffle’ sound to the British Isles in the 1950s. A ‘skiffle’ band typically included wash board, tea chest bass and cheap guitar.
-  The construction of a reservoir in Nashville in the 19th century gave the town a reliable water supply. It is interesting to note that Ancient Rome could not have expanded to a city of almost one million people, in the days of the Roman Empire, without the aqueduct building programme that brought water from the hills into the city. In Rome about 8 aqueducts were built – large sections of which are still in existence today!! They were well built!
-  Broadcast – the origin of this word is to broadly – spread ie scatter typically seed, feed or other fine items. With the advent of radio transmission (and later television) it became common usage for transmitting (spreading) a signal.
-  A Clear Air Signal enabled better quality sound, with a crisp, high quality. It made radio listening much more pleasant.
-  The BBC in London achieved nationwide radio coverage of the British Isles in the same year. However they broadcast news, public information and war announcements. Meanwhile our intelligent cousins on the other side of the Atlantic were broadcasting popular music, fun and entertainment…..Clever them!
We loved Nashville the Women on Fire Tour – April 2016!
Posted: 27th April, 2016
2 thoughts on “Nashville – Music City USA”
Wow! Never knew so much about Nashville and I’ve lived in the US a long time! I love how you fully research a place then pass it along to your tour groups, and in this case, your readers. It makes the experience of being in a place so much richer. Thank you, Janet–you certainly are The Educated Traveller!
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This is an incredible article, Janet! Thanks for all your research. I love reading the “info” in your creative writing style.