Welcome to Music City: An Illustrated Guide to Nashville

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Nashville and music are so historically entwined that sometimes it’s hard to discern where one begins and the other ends; the city is the music and music is the city. Before I’d even heard a single “y’all” on my first trip to the Athens of the south, a facsimile of the city’s infamous honky tonk, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, had come into view in the airport terminal—and yes, an aspiring musician was singing her heart out on a mid-afternoon weekday. After all, who knows what powerful ears might be biding time before a flight? That unrelenting hopefulness inhabits the air of the city itself, which is brimming with songwriters and artists who know they could be one clever hook away from the big time. Despite the other industries that drive Nashville’s thriving economy, the dream and glimmer of music lingers everywhere.
Even if they never make it, legions of aspiring musicians fall into rank at the original Tootsie’s in downtown Nashville or at a host of other neon-decked honky tonks, playing classic country covers for tips and making a pretty penny while they’re at it. If you’d like to croon along with any country hit from the last half a decade or so, slipping a $20 bill to the frontman will get your song thrown into rotation at any of these glittering, grungy multiple-level establishments. They’re all half-frat half-dive bars, and Tootsie’s remains the reigning champion of cheap beer, Fireball shots, and drunken sing-a-longs. It’s worth noting that even the most modest Nashville band seems to have a keen understanding of music theory, which allows them to pick up a brand new song without a whit of practice.
For those seeking out a more sacred, hushed experience, a visit to “the mother church of country music” is essential. Ryman Auditorioum, recently saved from ruin and destruction after years of sitting vacant, is a monument to the powerful sense of community embedded in Nashville’s DNA. Touring the historic space is a lesson in the city’s determination and respect for its musical past. The Ryman was the best-known home of the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running live radio show in the world, and the program responsible for first disseminating country music to the world at large nearly a century ago. Though the Opry has outgrown the venue’s modest old pews, the patina of redemption that hangs in every crevice of this storied venue ensures that touring acts of every ilk feel a certain reverence when performing here.

It’s worth noting that even the most modest Nashville band seems to have a keen understanding of music theory, which allows them to pick up a brand new song without a whit of practice.

It’s worth noting that Nashville is home and host to plenty of musicians who aren’t of the country bent, and since the mid-seventies the rock club Exit/In has built up its own reputation as the “sarcastic soul” of Nashville. While the city remains a haven for country musicians who are often exiled elsewhere, for those about to rock, the Exit/In provides a respite from the twang that permeates the rest of the city. This is a rock’n’roll club that’s established a legacy of its own in a countrified city, no easy feat.
Other outsider forces have congregated in East Nashville, where plenty of aspiring musicians are drawn by cheap rent and a grittier aesthetic than West Nashville’s polish and pomp. I happened to be in town this year for Record Store Day, where one of the stalwart record stores, Fond Object Records, hosted an indie rock bill packed with local bands such as country psych rockers Promise Land Sound. The space also includes an ample vintage clothing section and, on Record Store Day, featured a pop-up from one of the store’s owners, Poni Silver, an acclaimed local designer under the label Black by Maria Silver.
Nearby, Fanny’s House of Music similarly mixes a selection of vintage clothing (curated by two local establishments, Star Vintage and Mom and Pop Culture Shop) with new and used instruments, gear, instrument repair services, and other music-related knickknacks and accessories. Fanny’s is run completely by women, and a mural out front is a powerful visual representation of the safe space that the store and its community seek to cultivate.
Of course, for all the pull of East Nashville’s emerging scene, there’s no spot more essential to Nashville’s musical life force than the Bluebird Cafe. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but that doesn’t stop locals and tourists alike from lining up outside the door, hoping for a chance to snag one of the 90 spots in this tiny, legendary cafe. The Bluebird is so popular that reservations are all but required to ensure that you’ll get inside. If you’re lucky enough to grab one of the venue’s few seats, you’ll hear the songwriters behind the hits—and maybe even catch the stars themselves—playing, singing, and holding forth with rare candidness. Three or four songwriters sit in round in the middle of the room, taking turns playing their own or each other’s hits, and poking fun at the sometimes fickle, sometimes wonderful nature of the music industry and the city that makes it all possible. When you’re perched on a stool at the Bluebird, that’s when it really hits you—the city is the music.

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