Living That Honky-Tonk Dream

I made it up to Music Row

Lordy, don’t the wheels turn slow

Still, I wouldn’t trade a minute

I wouldn’t have it any other way

Just show me to the stage 

– Alan Jackson, “Chasing That Neon Rainbow” 

It’s a Sunday night and the party is in full-tilt on the rooftop of Tootsie’s. It’s early June, the humidity has broken for a brief spell and what feels like a Caribbean breeze blows through the streets. Two Australians come over and introduce themselves, country music enthusiasts from down under who are clearly enjoying their time in Mecca. A girl from Alabama is yelling “Roll Tide” and later reveals that her mom was a cheerleader at Bear Bryant’s funeral. This is still the Dirty South indeed. 

The band inside is belting out a few covers of ‘90s country. Songs like Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer,” Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile,” and John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night” hold sentimental charm as they dominated radio for this Gen Xer’s middle-school years, back when peace and prosperity reigned and Reba still had a perm. 

Like many locals, I tend to avoid the crowds of lower Broadway, with the exception of trips to Robert’s Western World, the crown jewel of the strip that shines like the star of Bethlehem for vintage country enthusiasts. But this night at Tootsie’s has turned into an unexpected celebration. It was never part of the night’s agenda, but here we are, giddy as thieves, somewhere over the neon rainbow. 

My partner-in-crime, a Nashville native, has a sudden revelation amid the din. “Even though it’s country music, it’s cool that Nashville’s identity is about art,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of places you can say that about. Yeah, it’s pretty cheesy sometimes but it makes people happy.” 

It’s certainly making us happy at the moment, and there is even talk of catching a redeye to Rio de Janeiro on the credit card later that night. 

“Twenty years from now do you think you’ll regret going to Rio tonight?” she asks. We have clearly been seduced by the devil’s music, and all its attendant fanfare. 

****

Of course, Nashville has always been about more than twin fiddles and steel guitar. But country is the fulcrum of the town’s wider music scene. It created the infrastructure that made it possible for the rock, Americana and bluegrass scenes to flourish in recent years, and it is country music that still draws people the world over to this city.

These days it’s exceedingly difficult to make a living as a songwriter or musician. Yet the dreamers keep showing up to town, and reaching for the brass ring, despite a rising cost of living due in large part to the orgy of publicity Nashville has received in the national media. You have to be willing to waitress and work at coffee shops, or get a more traditional 9-to-5 office job in a cubicle. That is what it often takes.

In our Nashville songwriter’s guide, writer and musician Andrew Leahey navigates the nooks and crannies of the city’s songwriter scene. He takes us to The 5 Spot in East Nashville which hosts $2 Tuesdays as well as a monthly Country & Western series, where young musicians cover the greats of traditional country. He also checks in with Mike Grimes, owner and operator of The Basement, one of the town’s bestclubs, whichhosts New Faces night, a great launching pad for songwriters fresh off the boat. Wealso pays a visit Welcome To 1979, an all-analog recording studio that won’t break the bank and offers vinyl cutting services. Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage Guitars, which are almost like museums, have all your needs covered for vintage guitars. And lastly we take a long look at the history of the Ryman Auditorium, the old church that serves as the scene’s spiritual home. The venue is the Wailing Wall of traditional country and bluegrass, but it also holds a special place in the hearts of all who play there, regardless of genre.

Our cover subject Conor Oberst, whofinished his new album at Blackbird Studios here in Nashville, just graced the stage of the Ryman, where hometown heroesGillian Welch and David Rawlings join him onstage for an encore. Gil and Dave,who own Acony Records in East Nashville, then hopped down to Robert’s later that night and played with the house band. Just another night on lower Broadway.

Years ago, a friend from New Hampshire was in town visiting me and we ended up at Robert’s. “How can you ever be in a bad mood living here?” they asked.

“Well, I don’t do this every night,” I responded.

But, then again, we Nashvillians sort of do.

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