June 12th, 2013
I arrive in Nashville to what seems to be the hottest day of the year. As I taxi through Nashville International Airport I’m told by the pilot of my flight that it is. Just my luck. It’s two days after my 25th birthday and I am officially on vacation. After checking in to my hotel on 4th and Church, I walk down to Broadway to take in the infamous street of Honky Tonks. It’s an awesome spectacle of historical America – old, three to four story brick buildings, almost every one of them projecting the rootsy sounds of string instruments. A nice refresher from the commercialized pop sounds of computer music surrounding me in Los Angeles only hours ago.
After an initial lap around the downtown scene I take a one-hour trolley tour of the city in 100 degree heat. While the sites and history of the city are fascinating, I personally am ready to shower, regroup, get a cold beer and engage in what I came to do – listen to the music. After said regrouping I walk down to Second Street, seemingly a continuation of Broadway’s lively music scene after Broadway tees with the Cumberland River.
On Second Street I stumble into B.B. King’s Blues Club for some impressively tasty St. Louis pork ribs and get a taste for the B.B. King All-Stars – an eight-plus piece band tearing up the stage and grasping the full attention of the primarily tourist audience. The inside is rustic and tastefully ornamented with paintings of every blues legend known to man, from Skip James to Eric Clapton. The band takes a break, then returns and segways the show from marketable covers to a rocked out set of original tunes and lesser known blues covers. After an hour or so of enjoying this (and a few whiskey cocktails) I continue on.
Just a little further down Second Street I make a left onto Commerce St and begin walking uphill. I then make a right into what’s known as Printer’s Alley, an alleyway that stretches no more than 50 yards. I instantly feel that I’ve stumbled on a hidden gem, unexposed to the mobs of tourists flooding Broadway. A few dive bars, an uninviting Karaoke bar, and last but certainly not least, Bourbon Street Boogie and Blues Bar – a gritty blues club modeled to mimic the music club scene of New Orleans.
Ironic that I come to the Country Music capitol of the world on an active search for incredible live music and find serenity in one of the only blues clubs in Nashville. Then again, I am a blues man first and foremost. The honky tonks are alive and packed and yet I know I’ve just found exactly where I want to be for the night. How am I so certain? The raw and driving blues-rock guitar sounds pulsating out of the front entrance. Not your average blues bar-band sounds, but rather an original, well-rehearsed performance. The culprit? Stacy Mitchhart and his blues band, proclaimed to be the best blues act in Nashville (or so I’m told by a handful of Honky Tonkers).
At the door I approach a curly-haired woman in her 40’s with a pretty face and kind smile. I hold out a five-dollar bill for the cover and smile genuinely before holding out my wrist. She takes my money, playfully slaps my wrist, then stamps it. I ask her, “What was that for?” She humbly responds, “For being so damn cute. Now go have fun”. I wink at her inviting charm and enter the club.
The inside is a complete ode to the Big Easy, with a gritty dark twist. On the ground floor is the stage, in front of it a small dance floor, followed by a small row of a tables and a bar. Upstairs is not only another bar but a three-sided balcony rich with seating that looks down on the stage. I immediately go upstairs for the better vantage point and likely better sound. As I get there my assumptions are correct.
Upstairs, the only thing more impressive than the kick-ass blues band is the radiantly beautiful female bar staff, led by Heather – a busty, tattooed brunette with glasses and a firecracker tongue. I approach the bar and order an ice cold Bud in the bottle, as well as a glass of water. She tells me with a straight face that the water costs $75 dollars and doesn’t break character until my deer-in-headlights expression finally processes the joke. She gives me the beer and the water free of charge and walks away with a tray full of drinks. After a few more cold Buds and another rockin’ set, I stumble the 100 or so yards back to my conveniently close hotel.
I awake to a minor hangover, but nothing to stop me from getting up and soaking in my first full day in Music City. I make my way to the lobby of the Downtown Double Tree hotel and enjoy a surprisingly delicious complimentary breakfast. After caffeinating my brain back into functionality, I hail a cab and head straight for one of the few destinations on my itinerary that I traveled across the country for – Jack White’s independent record label, Third Man Records. As a guitarist and lover of old blues records, I feel right at home in the mellow sanctuary that the modern blues-rock entrepreneur has created for himself some twelve years ago.
The recording studio itself is off limits to the public, but I take my time mingling in the tourist destination gift shop where I purchase a copy of my favorite White Stripes record, DeStijl, on vinyl. I scan the many framed concert posters that line the walls and relish in the Victorian décor of this cult, little money-maker. Before leaving I pay 50 cents into a kiosk to watch a row of monkey stuffed animals clash cymbals together as lights flare behind them. Then I pay three dollars in quarters to have a different kiosk machine mold me a miniature replica of Jack White’s signature Airline guitar out of a pinkish-red solution that is 50% wax and 50% plastic. It’s fascinating and fun.
From there I navigate my way back downtown to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The self-guided tour is rich with informative history and amazing antique instruments (as well as one of Elvis’ Cadillacs with an ice-maker in the back seat that would produce fresh ice for cocktails in just seven minutes). Here I learn of the Bakersfield, California country music scene that was pivotal to the genre’s continued development, and which I honestly knew nothing about. Probably because throughout the many road trips I’ve taken from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Highway 5, I’ve never seen Bakersfield as anything more than a desolate town good for a roadside pit stop to refuel. Boy was I wrong.
After the museum I find lunch in an upscale restaurant right on Broadway called Merchants. Here I am greeted by the manager Monty, a nice man from San Diego in his early 50’s, who gives me a long, thorough breakdown of the Nashville live music scene and some invaluable tips from a knowledgeable local. As he presents me with this incredible intel I write it down on my napkin while consuming the best chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes I’ve ever had.
After lunch I enjoy some down time in my hotel room’s air conditioning before showering and regrouping for a 25 minute cab ride to the infamous Blue Bird Café, recently made more well-known by the hit ABC television show Nashville. After waiting in a long line for two hours in the afternoon heat as the sun sets, I’m invited in and seated at a tall pub table against the wall. For the next almost three hours I am silent and content as I listen to five songwriters sit in a circle and take turns playing their original music to the packed house of gracious, silent listeners. This is what I came for. Real, raw talent, playing music for sake of music, and not trying to appeal to anyone but themselves. It’s art for art’s sake and it’s beautiful.
After the show I return to the city and head right back to my now familiar stomping grounds of Printer’s Alley for more Stacy Mitchhart blues. After literally hours of explosive, live blues-rock, Mitchhart sets up a slide guitar table and proceeds to solo with a customer’s Miller Light beer bottle as a slide. The house is packed and loving it. He then takes one of two cigar box resonator guitars hanging on the wall behind him and plugs it in. The song that follows is raw, unique and downright bad ass. He repeatedly sings the chorus, “I’m Gonna Live My Life The Way I Want To Now” as he plays a three chord progression (that I think is B to D to F), with a glass slide.
At the end of the second to last set (some time around midnight), I make my way next door to the Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar – a divey but large bar with a large stage. Through the clouds of cigarette smoke my eyes immediately dart to the large stage, which is occupied only by a seemingly shy girl who plays an acoustic guitar and sings with the best voice I’ve heard so far in Nashville. Apparently it’s songwriter night. The cowboys that follow her all embody the stereotypical country music vocal twang and major chord progressions. However not this girl. There is something impressively special about her. I then witness a group of local boys get into a drunken confrontation, and the drunker one is thrown out seconds before punches are thrown. It’s good ‘ol country boy drunken drama, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.
I make friends with a good-looking couple in their 40’s who recognize me from the Blue Bird and we segway the girl into our conversation. In no time I feel it’s just her and I talking as I buy her a beer and bum a cigarette off of her. She is Sara Ashley, a British girl who loves Country music ending her three-month visa in Nashville in only a few days. I tell her that I too am a songwriter and the conversation really takes off. Almost and hour later I feel I’ve known her for longer than I have and I am excited to have made a unique new friend.
The bar is now closed and the lingering patrons are all friends of the owner and his wife, and are therefore expected to stay and hang. Since I’m a paying customer talking to one of their performers they gladly let me stick around to watch these country boys share original songs in a circle of bar stools at the end of the bar, much like the Bluebird song circle. For the next hour I get an intimate inside look at the real, local Nashville scene of struggling songwriters brought together by their sheer love of the music. It’s extraordinary.
By the time I’m about to leave I’m enjoying a hot dog from the bar owner (I can’t seem to recall his name) who is simultaneously migrating between the bar and his late night drunchie hot dog window where hungry drunk people in Printer’s Alley are lined up outside. Meanwhile his wife continues to serve Sara and I who are the last patrons in the bar. We make small talk with the kind owner couple before leaving. I then walk Sara back down to Broadway where the honky tonks are clearing out. It’s close to two in the morning. During our walk she tells me how she has always loved country music but has been deprived of it in England. She then tells me this is her first time in the United States, that she’s been in Nashville for three months, and that she’s sad to leave in a few days.
I can see the spark in her ambitious eyes which tells me that she has recently found herself here; that this is where she’s supposed to be and she knows it. It’s a touching moment and I tell her that I’m happy for her. We share some shop-talk over a goodnight cigarette, one songwriter to another, and I admire her persistence and ambition as she eagerly picks my brain about life in the current Los Angeles music scene. We then say goodnight after agreeing to meet up again before I depart.
The energy of the approaching weekend is in full force when I awake on Friday, and everyone on the streets of Nashville seems to have a smile on their face. Soaking in the positive vibes, I walk back down to the Country Music Hall of Fame to board a shuttle to the historic RCA Studio B tour. A five minute drive later we are parking outside the famous recording studio and being shown the exterior wall where a nervous Dolly Parton crashed her car upon arriving at her very first recording session.
Our tour guide is Rachel, a sweet local Southern girl in her mid-late 20’s who knows literally everything about Nashville. The tour is so informative and well executed that I can’t help but pick her brain with endless questions throughout. After seeing the famous studio lobby, lined with great black and white photos of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings, we are shown the actual studio. It feels timeless on the inside, knowing that it is where the King himself recorded endless hit records. I laugh aloud at a cool story Rachel shares about how Elvis requested the light grid in the studio be turned to only red and green lights so he could get in the Christmas mood to record a holiday album during the heat of summer.
The tour ends and I then head over to the Johnny Cash Museum for the self-guided tour, rich with photographs, memorabilia and installations that tell the life story of the man in black – a must see for any fan. It is now the peak of the afternoon heat and I am shot, so I make my way back to the hotel for a much-needed nap. After some quality recharging I get dressed up for an old school Southern experience: dinner at an expensive chop house called The Stockyard. The historic old building – which used to be an actual cattle trade stockyard – is an elegant dining experience that’s likely not been remodeled for almost a century; enclosed in endless, dark brown mahogany and lined with black and white photographs documenting the many faces it has seen over the years. It instantly has an eerie vibe to it that reminds me of the hotel from the Stanley Kubrick horror flick The Shining.
After an incredible filet minon steak dinner to celebrate my bittersweet birthday of turning a quarter of a century old, I return to B.B. King’s blues for another awesome set from the house band, The Allstars. Only tonight it’s quite more lively, as it is Friday and more tourists have arrived to enjoy Music City. I post up at the bar and take in the welcoming environment of people laughing, dancing and singing to the energetic band. A dance-off then ensues between a teenager and a stylish man in his 50’s. The entire club is into it, laughing in hysterics and amazement at the impressive moves being thrown down. As if this wasn’t enough to get the crowd going, two short guys with shaggy gray hair and mustaches take over the dance floor. They are dressed identically in matching sideways cowboy hats, sunglasses, and neon yellow t-shirts that say, “Bang This”. They execute a perfectly rehearsed dance number that has even the band in tears. It’s awkward, random, and straight up hilarious all at once.
Once the twins finish their number, the band resumes, led by a younger white guy on lead guitar and vocals who is easily identified as an exceptional talent. He goes on to lead the band through a great set, blues’n up hit covers like Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, Hendrix’s “Red House”, and a lesser known Allman Brothers tune from their infamous Live at Fillmore East record, “You Don’t Love Me”. I make friends with a jolly, heavy-set engaged couple from Kentucky who generously buy me a birthday cocktail. I recurrently check my Facebook with hopes to have heard from Sara, who doesn’t own a cell phone, just an iPad, leaving the immediacy of our communication to be based solely on when she connects to a wi-fi network and checks her Facebook. Needless to say, it’s hard to cross paths to meet up.
The night becomes late and after noticing no messages from Sara, I then make my way to my now routine nightcap at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. On stage tonight is husky, big-voiced Kenneth Wright and the Hostile Witnesses. It’s a different sound than Stacey Mitchhart but equally as enjoyable, and easily pleasing the blues-eager crowd. I let myself get a bit sauced on cold Bud in the bottle being brought to me at a constant rate by my now friend, Heather.
I end up meeting two attractive women in their 40’s who drove down to Nashville from Indiana just for the night. We have fun, drinking and dancing on the second floor balcony to Wright’s closing number, a fantastic cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me”. The band finishes, the bar closes, and again I stumble the short distance home.
I awake late Saturday morning hankering for a good ol’ fashioned cheeseburger and find an incredibly delicious one for lunch at the Downtown Nashville Hard Rock Café. As I exit the Hard Rock at the lower end of Broadway I notice that the LGBT Pride parade is being set up. I do some tourist shopping in the many little souvenir stores scattered in-between Honky Tonks on Broadway, then regroup at the hotel and take a cab outside the city to the quaint little town of Franklin, Tennessee.
Downtown Franklin is like a Hollywood movie studio backlot – a traditional American “small town”. Restaurants and boutiques line the streets, which are clearly rich with history. I enjoy a quality steak dinner at The Red Pony, then make my way across the street to the historic Franklin Theatre to see a once in a lifetime live show by one of the most important blues legends: Booker T. Jones. I saw that he was playing in an ad from a local paper a few days earlier and purchased tickets over the phone. It’s an understatement to say that it is a rare treat. Without a doubt one of the best shows I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been to a lot of shows in my life. I purchase a Stella Artois on tap and am ushered to a seating area in front of the stage made up of small cocktail tables. Behind this seating area are rows of seats, followed by a balcony above. The environment of this restored vintage theatre is intimate, elegant and timeless.
Booker T. takes the stage to warm applause and sits behind an organ stage left, joined by an incredibly talented and rehearsed band consisting of drums, bass and electric guitar. He then introduces each song with great detail and amazing stories behind how he wrote them and recorded them, consistently referencing his roots on the infamous Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Some of his legendary originals that he goes on to play include, “Born Under A Bad Sign”, “Green Onions”, and “She Breaks”. Near the end of the second set he begins to tell the story of living in Malibu, CA as a young man, right next to a ranch owned by Bob Dylan. He goes on to explain that he was awoken one night at two in the morning by Dylan, telling him that he must come down to a recording studio in Burbank immediately to lay down bass on a new song he had just written that he was clearly excited about. Booker T. then explains that the song was Dylan’s famous, “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”.
I leave the show mesmerized and inevitably inspired. It truly was a magical and unique experience that could never be replicated. I then return to Nashville to soak up my final night in Music City, making my way directly to B.B. King’s Blues Club for a finale set of blues by the All-Stars. I stop by Bourbon Street Boogie and Blues for a nightcap and then call it a night.
When I awake Sunday I am instantly a bit blue to know that I have to leave this incredible place later in the day. After sleeping in a bit I proceed to checkout of the hotel and walk down to Broadway to soak up my last few hours in town. I respond to a message from Sara about meeting up for a drink before 4pm when I need to hail a taxi to the airport. It’s now noon and I find myself drawn into the Bootlegger’s Inn on Broadway by the sounds of a soulful Country-Blues band made up of drums, stand-up bass, slide dobro guitar, and led by a soulful singer/rhythm guitar player. The band is Triple Time, a local Nashville act with a residency at the Bootlegger’s Inn.
I walk through the dimly lit and rustic establishment, past the stage that sits in the front window, and take a seat at the bar towards the back. Instead of coffee I decide to sit and have a beer for breakfast, still relishing in the fading excitement of being on vacation. The sweet, smiling bartender doesn’t ID me – the first time in the past five days that I am not required to prove my legal drinking age to the state of Tennessee. My intrigue for the band must be written all over my face because in no time she goes on to tell me all about them without me inquiring. She explains that their name Triple Time comes from the three-piece lineup, though now they have added a drummer to even out the band, yet offset their name.
We make small talk and she goes on to tell me that she is from East Texas, right on the Texas/Louisiana border, and shows me a picture on her cell phone of the river in her backyard that separates the two states. It’s an interesting anecdote within my trip that I can’t help but make note of. I take out my cell phone and use the iPhone voice memo application to bootleg the band’s set. I then ask the bartender about their moonshine – the house beverage that makes them so famous in Nashville. She gives me the lowdown on the two best flavors, Apple Pie and Jalapeno Bomb, and I’m quickly sold on Apple Pie moonshine to round out my booze breakfast. I buy a shot and she asks, “you want another beer to wash it down with?” I say yes, and within fifteen minutes of walking through the door I’m healthfully surly.
I continue to get lost in the soothing sounds of string instruments. The band has a soulful sound that stands out over the average Honky Tonk country music on Broadway as they play songs like The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. They ask the minimal audience of mid-day drinkers for any requests so I shout out a personal favorite that I know is well-respected in Music City: The Marshall Tucker Band. They then break into their signature tune, my father’s favorite song and one of my top five – “Can’t You See”.
I enjoy a few more quality cover songs before leaving the Bootlegger’s Inn, more than satisfied.
With only an hour left in town I walk up Broadway to a Honky Tonk called Crossroads where I catch a few songs from a good Country-Rock band. Here I’m fortunate to finally meet up with Sara for a couple goodbye drinks and some quality conversation. The two of us then take our time making a final lap around Honky Tonk row, chatting about our mutual sadness to both have to soon leave this unique and magical place. We walk back to the same corner of 4th and Broadway where we last said goodbye a few nights prior. Though we barely know one another I feel like I’m leaving an old friend as we share another cigarette and hug goodbye, but only after agreeing to keep in touch and wishing one another luck. I walk up 4th street and return to my hotel to hail a cab to the airport, but only after a life-changing cultural and musical experience in unique Nashville, Tennessee that I can’t help but feel deserves the definitive title of Music City USA.