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.