For Dolly in her teen years getting to Nashville was her primary concern, in fact she up sticks from Pigeon Forge the day she graduated by from college. When early Scottish, Irish and English immigrants settled in the isolated Appalachian mountains, their folk sounds morphed into the ‘hillbilly’ fiddle and banjo. Once the twang of steel guitar was added ‘country and western’ solidified into a music genre which would unite half the nation, with Nashville leading the way.
In 1925 the National Life and Accident Insurance company wanted to tap into the power of radio advertising, launching their own radio station named after their own motto ‘we shield millions’. It’s star programme WSM Barn Dance, soon morphed into the Grand Ole Opry, becoming the must-listen show for thousands. Tom and I started our country music pilgrimage with a visit to the Ryman Auditorium, previously the Gospel Tabernacle church which fell into disrepair, the venue became the ‘mother church of Country’. It was home to the Grand Old Opry in the 50s with stars such as Elvis, Dolly, Willie Nelson and Patsy Kline gracing its stage. Sitting in the pews for our show ‘Country classics at the Opry’ felt like a spiritual experience with headline act, The Time Jumpers, with fiddles and yodelling taking you back to the early days and preparing us for the honky tonk culture outside the Ryman’s doors.
If downtown Nashville is the heart of honky tonk and all things NashTrash – the gaudy, ritzy, rhinestone Cowboy side of Music City, East Nashville and the up and coming 12th South Ave is the very cool, hipster side. We sat in a Frothy Monkey over a bowel of oatmeal rubbing shoulders with Nash’s hip youth, wearing just the right about of fringing matched with worn in cowboy boot. 12th South used to be considered the bad boy of town, but with the emerging scene and patrons such as Gwyneth Paltrow commissioning bespoke jeans from boutiques in the area, it’s a place for the trendy and edgy. Katy K’s Ranch Dressing, former stylist to the town’s drag queens was by-far my favourite haunt, whilst I found Tom settled in at the 12 South Tap Room sampling several local brews (good nanchos by the way!)
I would also add that Nashvillians drive with a similar boot-stomping frenzy that you find in their beloved country music, we enjoyed an exciting hour in company of one of Nash’s finest traffic cops after we and several other cars got shunted in the rear at some traffic lights.
Our second day was spent exploring honky tonk row. Now the likes of Radio 2 DJ Bob Harris will tell you that if you want to really know how country music is evolving right now, then East Nashville is the scene. But Tom and I were after the yee-ha-fiiddle-boot-stomping kind of country that is famed on Honky Tonk row. Robert’s Western World, one of the row’s oldest institutions, serves the biggest basket of sweet potato fries whilst the band strums country Cash classics.
Hatch Show Print is another Music City institution, intricately linked with the country music scene in Nashville; established in 1879, it is one of America’s oldest letterpress print shops. The shop served as leading advertising medium with its signature bold and eye-catching style for not only the town’s country scene but most entertainment in the South as it blossomed under Will T Hatch, son and nephew of the founding Hatch brothers. From vaudeville, to the Grand Old Opry to Elvis, Hatch has weathered changing advertising fashions printing for wrestlers, politicians and the likes. As a working day letterpress, our tour guide explained that the process has not changed much in the last century; lining up images carved in wood or linoleum, setting up metal type, then inking and rolling the card through the press, creates an oddly personable process – every poster hand-printed.
With enough posters to literally wallpaper a house, we hunkered down in a nearby cocktail bar as the Hurricane warning sounded overhead. Eventually, we we’re able to strut down honky-tonk row in our newly minted cowboy boots into the Full Moon dive as a fiddle set in for another rip-roarin’ tune!