May 3-9, 2022
Before we set off for Nashville, we did our chores (hitting the laundromat and the car wash) and then spent an hour wandering around Paducah (Kentucky) and learning a bit about its history, mainly since European settlement in the 1820’s, through the flood wall murals which give a (heavily sponsored) potted history of the city. Set on the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, Paducah was an important port for steamboats and subsequently an important railway hub for the north-south Illinois Central Railroad. During the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to take a neutral position but was occupied by the Union forces (‘the North’) under General Ulysses S. Grant in retaliation for the Confederacy (‘the South’) forces occupying Columbus. We would learn more about the Civil War and its impact on the history of the US and its people as we travelled through the southern states. Much later in the 1950’s Paducah became an ‘Atomic City’, the energy plant being closed in 2013.
And so to Nashville, taking the long and scenic route down the Land Between the Lakes, where we were looking forward to a week exploring and experiencing the city known as the Country Music Capital of the World. Not knowing much about country music and, to be honest, not being particularly fond of what we had heard, we were very interested to find out why people love it so much and why it has been growing in popularity recently. We had a comfortable base for the week in an AirBnB flat in a traditional house.
Being in the home of country music it seemed serendipitous that the great Willie Nelson would be playing a gig just south of Nashville during our stay. We booked tickets but were disappointed that on the day of the gig one of the band contracted Covid and the gig was postponed indefinitely. Given Willie Nelson is in his late 80’s, we fear we may not get another chance to see him play live.
The first thing we did in Nashville was to do some exploring to get our bearings and what better way to explore a city than via Segway. The tour took in the Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park which includes the World War II Memorial in a beautiful setting along with the State Capital and all the sights of downtown Nashville. We followed this up with a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame, finding out about the history of country music and its influences and how it came to be a multi-million pound business and also a very good civil rights exhibition at the public library which gave us a deep dive into how that played out in Nashville and the sit ins at lunch counters, organised by the Nashville Student Movement and Nashville Christian Leadership Council, which were a key part of the protest to end racial segregation in the city during early 1960.
We also found a hidden gem in the Jefferson Street Sound Museum – a tiny place run by Lorenzo Washington documenting what used to be the area for black music in Nashville. He’s documented all the clubs, and who played there. Other visitors were musicians and we had an impromptu jam with Henry Perry on harmonica (taught by DeFord Bailey!) and Mike, a local music student/teacher, on guitar.
And so to the music…
During our week in Nashville we tried to experience a range of country music in a range of settings and we did pretty well:
Broadway – right in the heart of Nashville, this thoroughfare is chock full of honky tonk and live music venues pumping out loud country music which pervades into the street. A good place to start but by no means the best music we heard. The music here was generally cover bands and on the rockier side – it was all about turning it up to 11, drinking and having fun. Tourist hell or a great night out? We enjoyed it for what it was.
The Grand Ole Opry – the ‘home of country music’ – originally founded in 1925 as a one-hour radio ‘barn dance’, it is now the longest-running radio broadcast in US history. A must when visiting Nashville, we saw nine acts which showcased the diversity of country music including elements of bluegrass, Americana and folk with some traditional famous singers alongside some contemporary groups and new upcoming acts. An impressive venue and show.
The Station Inn – a small listening room where we saw the most fantastic band, The Kody Norris Show, and realised that perhaps we did like country music after all – particularly if there is a banjo, double bass and a fiddle involved! This band had the look – coordinating tailored and tassled outfits with rhinestones, hats and boots and they raced through a toe tapping energetic fusion of hillbilly/bluegrass with a rockabilly slant and expert picking. Yee Haw!
The Listening Room Cafe – in this venue we saw the Song Suffragettes a collective of female singer songwriters who perform individually but on the same bill as female singers find it more difficult to get work than male singers. There were six singers playing acoustic sets that evening: Belles (All Hat No Cowboy), Abby Cates (Roadtripsong), Hannah May Allison, Mary Mauld, Michele Pereira and Mia Morris (Fucket Bucket).
An epic snow crab bucket dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack for Jo (whilst Richard ate his steak and then waited patiently for Jo to finish..) and then onto see more live music. Not completely unpredictably, the planned early night went out the window when a good rock band was found (Fall Hollow). We also saw Brendan Stevens and the Undertones who did a rousing version of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline but had no idea that there was already a band called the Undertones…
Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie – Though we experienced a lot of country music and, surprisingly, found we liked some (such as Bluegrass), we couldn’t resist an evening of blues music and found some straightforward blues courtesy of the Stacy Mitchhart Band at this dedicated venue.
And so, having done lots of research into country music and had an introduction to the history of this area it was time to leave Nashville and start our journey south on the Natchez Trace Parkway.