Tuesday, May 7, 2013


When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

And when in Nashville…you gotta hear some country music.

I’m not a total stranger to the genre (which is actually a congeries of genres). My mom used to listen to Flat and Scruggs, and Webb Pierce. (I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that Pierce had more number one hits during the 1950s than any other country artist.) “Walkin the Streets..Takin Only a Few”  sticks in memory from my childhood years, perhaps because I couldn’t figure out what it meant. (Taking a few what?) My first Zen koan!

But looking at the lyrics now, I don’t see that phrase anywhere. The mysteries of childhood! 
I'm walking the streets watching the sun go down
The sun's sinking low leaving me sad and blue
Walking the streets I'm thinking only of you
 Since you went away I'm the loneliest guy in town
I don’t mind admitting that during the 1960s we watched Hee Haw fairly regularly as a family. Roy Clark, Buck Owens. That’s probably where I honed my wonderfully sophisticated sense of humor—having moved on from the joke page in Boy’s Life Magazine. We mustn’t forget The Beverly Hillbillies. (A decade later I was able to polish my comic style watching Sha Na Na.)

But Country was not something I ever paid much attention to as an adult. I own one Bill Monroe LP, one Dwight Yoakum CD, two Lucinda Williams CDs, and anthology collections of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I have a four-CD collection of Patsy Cline, mistakenly sent to me by my record club—I’d order a Maria Callas collection. I burned a CD of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" for the trip. And that’s about it.

Yet one of the great gifts of travel is to wrench you out of your routines, strip you of your prejudices and predilections, and focus your attention on what’s right in front of you. After all, that’s why you came.

We’d been hiking at Land Between the Lakes, a vast expanse of semi-wild country a hundred miles west of Nashville, for most of the day, and we were plum tuckered out by the time we got to town. But we hadn’t been there more than an hour before we were eating barbeque and drinking beer in Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant while Meghan Saletta and two of her young male friends sang and strummed a few feet behind our table. 

I’d never heard of her, nor any of the other performers we caught snatches of later, as we walked the streets downtown, past the cowboy boot outlets, the Ernest Tubbs record shop, and ten or twenty of the narrow bars and honky-tonks that line Broadway. Rockabilly, Cajun, and knee-slapping old-time fiddling reached our ears before the sun went down. 

We walked past a gigantic, two-story Hard Rock Café to watch a barge tug moving down the Cumberland River from the terrace above the park. And on our way up the hill toward our hotel we passed the historic Ryman Auditorium.

The next morning we spent four hours in the Country Music Hall of Fame, tracking the history of the genre from the earliest days of films and audio recording. It’s a marvelous presentation, with clips of Jimmy Rodgers singing “He’s in the Jailhouse Now,” Patsy Montana jiving her way through “I Want to be a Cowboy Sweetheart,” Hank Williams doing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Elvis shimmying through several hits.

Along the opposite wall were glass cases with a well-balanced array of old instruments, album covers, articles of clothing, and other historic paraphernalia including Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes. Hundreds of performers were featured, and strange to say, I’d heard of most of them. From Lefty Frizell to Loretta Lynn, from Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies to Maybelle Carter. Patsy Cline had a special exhibit at one end of the hall and there was an exhibit devoted to the Bakersfield Sound at the other.

When we finally reached the end of the hall we realized we hadn’t yet entered the 1960s. That was on the floor below.

 Well, I won’t go into all the details. By the time we’d gotten through it all we knew what we had to do next. Though we’d planned to leave town that day, after a delightful lunch at Jack’s Barbecue  we went out the Grand Ole Opry, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Nashville, to see about getting tickets for the evening performance.

It was 3 p.m. and the only thing available was standing room at $45. We snapped up two tickets, then drove to the nearest McDonald’s, hooked into their WiFi from the parking lot, and scored a room at the Best Western a half-mile down the service road  for $50 through Priceline.  

The Grand Ole Opry occupies a strange location between a freeway and a suburban mall. You park in the mall parking lot and wander haphazardly over to the auditorium, which is obscured behind a bank of trees. We returned to the mall at 6:15—it was a warm, bright evening and people with good seats were sitting on benches in the park. We hurried inside to make sure we got a good position, and spent the next three hours leaning against a wall halfway up the auditorium, listening to bands and artists most of whom I’d never heard of. They were almost uniformly good, though in very different ways.  

 Striking Matches—a young, hip, and talented duo; Jimmy C. Newman (who first appeared at the Opry in 1956) doing a Cajun set; The Del McCoury Band—blistering hot bluegrass; and on to
Hall-of-Fame country crooner Connie Smith, son-of-an-outlaw Shooter Jennings, and super-group Alabama, among others. Great acoustics, a palpable reverence for both the tradition and the venue. Schmaltzy sentiments but powerful voices, expert musicianship, and heartfelt emotion. Plus, a radio announcer, advertisements, and a Minnie Pearl impersonator to warm up the audience before the show.

Hilary remarked, and I had to agree: "It's as gripping as an opera."

The couple sitting directly in front of us was from Austria. (I’d chatted with them briefly before the show.) They got especially excited when Jimmy Newman did “Jambalaya,” but also seemed to be enthusiastically familiar with all three of the songs Alabama performed to wrap up the show.

Country. I guess its appeal is widespread, if not universal. After 36 hours in Nashville, I’m ready to go back for more.

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