Tuesday, January 22, 2013

See Music City

I came to Nashville as kitchen help, the chief cook and bottle washer for a group of writers on a blitzkrieg assignment covering all that made the mid South vibrant, various, and enterprising. Blake was part of the group, and while we were often in awe of the intellectual pedigrees of our companions, we felt less like impostors when the subject of music came around.  Not a twang in the bunch; not a soul who could quote lyrics chapter and verse like our daughter at home.  No one possessed a basement of eight track tapes of Charlie Rich or Charlie Pride, Tompall Glaser or Tom T Hall.

I know Nashville is more than music, but for me, the city will always have a sound track. That first visit found us pulling our journalistic trench coats against the chilly wind as we sought the heart of honky tonk on a nearly deserted Broadway. Tootsie's was steamy and raucous, but the Buddy Holly hair, driving snare and vintage silver mikes of the band in the chilly bar down the street kept us nursing our beers and wishing we knew their names. They played their set with grit and gravel in their voices and disregard for the audience or lack thereof.  I could have boogied out the door on a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Deep in the labyrinth of warehouses, potholes and unfinished construction where the soul despairs the accuracy of its Google map,  there is jazz in Nashville.  Midway between the city sewage treatment and the Bicentennial Mall, Music City shows its talent is more than sequin deep when seasoned performers and composers fill the intimate space with waves of rhythm and chord as the eclectic listeners (for jazz, is there any other kind) sip beverages, mingle and keep the beat.

There is reserved parking downtown for bands to unload; there is good natured hollering and ribbing as equipment emerges from vehicles I can only describe as beat on all four corners. At 10:30 in the morning, the quartet at Tootsie's is not a headliner; three vets going through the motions and a young lady on vocals making the mistake of playing songs folks know like the back of their hand.  A couple sets down their beers (bottle, no tap) and takes a twirl alongside the bar; they tell the barkeep how much quieter it is than the night previous.  There's no coffee at Tootsie's either...keep it simple.  In the daylight its possible to appreciate the old publicity shots and group photos peeling like mica behind yellowed Plexiglass. Does Tootsie's actually work at being a dive, or does it just come natural?  When I learn there are at least two other establishments nearby owned by the Tootsie's conglomerate, I lean toward calculating...

But  somehow that's not the prevailing atmosphere in downtown Nashville.  Of course, all that neon is meant to attract tourists, but I also feel I could walk right into a time warp, hear the air crackle like celluloid, and look around at a landscape out of a Hatch Show Print.  Maybe its a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame; maybe its plaster Elvis swiveling for neon Betty; maybe its the Ryman itself,  a mother hen of music hovering over it nest of honky tonks.  I've heard music in both the Opry venues; one has all the personality of a theater show in Branson, but the Ryman is a church and the folks on stage are preachin' to the choir.

What I'm sayin' is that I love a good cliche'. And Nashville parades its cliches' with aplomb.  Biscuits and gravy, jam and pie?  See the Loveless Cafe complex on the Natchez Trace where the merchandising balances precariously on the foundation of the 1950s motel.   Shrimp with grits, homemade pimento spread and hummingbird cake? Presented tea room style at the Chef's Market with recipes to go and the implication that they taste the very best if one wears an apron.

Alas, its time to head west, leave the cultured past and return to the frontier.  Goodbye Cumberland, goodbye chandeliers, farewell to fountains and literary gardens.  No more nightly serenades....til next time.

 I guess it's the process 
Of learning to excess  
All of those things 
That you already know...
......Lyle Lovett 'Good Intentions' 

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