From Sea To Shining Sea - "Music City USA" (Nashville, USA)

  • Dates of travel: 29 April 2013 to 1 May 2013

  • Location of travel: Nashville, United States of America

  • Original publication date: 18 July 2013

Over the course of April and May 2013, I took a month-long meander across the USA. The main reason was to attend and report on the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. The road to and from there was just as memorable. This is Part 2 in a series of 5 articles.

A Sort Of Homecoming

Almost a decade ago, I was a nervous 15-year-old boy, faced with another significant overseas trip. I was to trade my home and high school in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa with Nashville, Tennessee, and embark on a three-month academic exchange at an all-boys private school there.

It wasn't the first time that I had travelled overseas, but it was definitely the first time that I had undergone that sort of trip alone. From September to December 2004, I lived with two host families, and had the honour of attending Montgomery Bell Academy, whom my school had partnered with the previous year. During your mid-teens, you're already going through so many physical, emotional and hormonal changes - so why not undergo a massive locational one?

Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee

Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee

The time I had at MBA was a watershed moment in my life. It aided in an emotional and musical maturity that I became deeply grateful for in the years since. Nashville bears the nickname of 'Music City', as it is a major recording and performance centre. Although the country music industry is strongly associated with the city and makes its home there, Nashville's music scene appreciates a variety of genres (such as classic rock, blues, jazz, and hip hop), and that can be seen in the people living there.

When I first visited the city as a relatively undereducated teenager, I was taken aback by my hosts' eclectic tastes in music, spanning decades and genres that my adolescent mind was barely even aware of. And it wasn't just the people I was living with; other friends and classmates showed a marked maturity in their musical palette that surely could not just be chalked up to having musically-minded parents or siblings with a large collection of old records. In three short months, I was steered towards artists I had not necessarily grown up with, and encouraged to think outside of what was being presented to me as an angsty teen via MTV or radio.

Returning to Nashville a decade onwards was not unlike returning to a childhood home. The place still remains, but how much of you does too?

Old Haunts, Fresh Starts

I had had limited interaction with my two hosts from 2004 in the intervening years. The timing of my recent trip proved to sync up with the first family being in town, and as well as my host himself: a military man now training to be a United States Marine - just like his father before him.

Back in our teens, we had struggled to relate to each other; our cultures clashing at a very turbulent time in our lives. But moving through high school and university levels the playing field somewhat. We had each emerged as assured young men, now discovering that we actually have a lot in common. The reconciliation was an unexpected personal triumph.

Three months in 2004 allowed for a significant amount of sightseeing in and around the city. So I was fortunate back then to tick off many of the major attractions in and around Nashville. Some of these included:

  • attending three American football games at the Tennessee Titans homeground (The Coliseum);

  • two visits to my one host's lake house just out of town (the name still eludes me to this day);

  • the Country Music Hall of Fame;

  • Vanderbilt University;

  • the Parthenon.

My host was aware of this, and specially tailored an itinerary that would help show me the parts of Nashville that I might not have seen before, or appreciated a decade ago. Also: we're adults now.

Catching up over a liquid lunch was first on the agenda, and he took me to one of the city's finest microbreweries, Yazoo, for a few craft beers. Although he is a local, he had yet to ever visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. I was open to seeing the museum again with a fresh perspective.

The Country Music Hall of Fall In Nashville, Tennessee

The Country Music Hall of Fall In Nashville, Tennessee

Elvis, Johnny, And Some Blue Suede Shoes

Even if you're not a fan of the country music genre, The Country Music Hall of Fame is an institution and experience that is informative in surprisingly-interesting ways; pulling in many strands of influences from early blues and rock 'n roll that developed alongside country.

This was not something I had picked up in my first visit to the museum. Barely having working knowledge of rock 'n roll history meant that it was all rather perplexing at the time; any overlap between genres or significant figures across both fields was lost on me. Now armed with a better understanding of popular music history, I was more receptive to the place, and the museum revealed the carefully-interwoven relationship between country, blues, folk and rock.

However, despite its popularity and illustrious history, country music is still seen as a quintessentially American phenomenon, with cowboy/'redneck' tropes and stereotypes, and the twang of Southern American accents unashamed in the mix. I believe that this is a sticking point to the appreciation of the genre world-wide.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, crossover success has mostly been the way country has achieved a level of prominence outside of the USA - right from Elvis Presley in the 50's, to Johnny Cash's swan-song 'American' albums in the 90's, to the current crop of country-pop perpetuated by Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum. This is frequently acknowledged in the museum, as an increasingly globalised world grows smaller and smaller, meshing influences together and facilitating the spread of information.

Johnny Cash - Country Music Hall of Fame Plaque.JPG

But if you're a sentimental history buff, you'll appreciate the passion with which they have preserved the history of the genre, honouring those who have represented it best. Within the exhibits, there were famous personal items, such as Carl Perkins' original 'Blue Suede Shoes', Elvis Presley's beautifully-maintained 'Solid Gold' Cadillac', and a dapper black suit worn by the 'Man In Black', Johnny Cash.

The most interesting thing I learnt from my second visit to the CMHF was that there was a branch of country that found roots in Bakersfield, California in 1950's, known as the 'Bakersfield Sound'. This style came into being as a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden 'Nashville Sound', proving that not all country music came from 'The South'! 

More Than Just Country (Jack's Place)

The musical tourism had just begun. My host directed us towards other music sanctuaries nearby, including:

  • a newly-opened Johnny Cash museum (where video screens projected a variety of performances and documentaries of the man and his work);

  • the Music City Walk of Fame Park (opened in 2006, drawing inspiration from the one in Hollywood);

  • the massive new Nashville Convention Center (whose architecture evokes the look of a guitar).

  • Lower Broadway in Downtown, known as the city's entertainment district (the place was packed with music clubs and honky-tonk bars, which - despite it being a midweek afternoon - had people up onstage performing).

Third Man Records, Nashville, Tennessee

Third Man Records, Nashville, Tennessee

Although not a Nashville native, Jack White of The White Stripes fame has set up shop in Downtown with Third Man Records: the Grammy-Award-winning independent record label, studio and store. Unfortunately Mr White was not there to greet us in person, but his output of music in vinyl form was an appropriate compromise.

The store only sells music produced by artists on the record label, such as his solo work, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather (to name a few). With me having never grown up with vinyl records, I was intrigued by the steadfast commitment by the label to keep the format alive, issuing limited-edition live LP's and tiny 7-inch singles. Although I didn't get a chance to use it, the in-store personal recording booth, a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, is a novel concept, allowing you to record up to two minutes of audio and receive a one-of-a-kind vinyl pressing right there and then. Apparently the concept has fallen out of fashion, and this booth is now the only machine of its kind in the world that is both operational and open to the public.

The Best Band Name In The World

Visiting the Music City without attending a gig would be criminal. I toed the line and headed to The Stone Fox on my second night in Nashville; a small restaurant/bar which also has a bandstand for live music.

Sometimes you go for the opening acts (sorry headliners). As great as the New York-based punk band The Men were, we came ready to witness the joy and chaos of a local punk band with quite possibly the best band name in the world: Diarrhea Planet. Disgusting name, yes - but even filthier at their game.

One of the first thoughts one has when listening to a Diarrhea Planet song is "That's a lot of noise - I wonder where it's coming from?. There must be a lot of overdubs or something". When I looked onstage, I saw not one, not two, not three, but FOUR GUITARISTS, along with a bassist and drummer. The band - barely able to all fit on one stage - roared into life, rationing out sub-2-minute riff-fests to a crowd the size of a small house party. So close was I to the action (remember that the bandstand was just above floor level) that one of the guitarists almost whacked me on the head with his axe as he quite literally leapt into a face-melting solo.

Their sound, as described by the band themselves, is "Ramones holding Van Halen hostage with an arsenal of fireworks and explosives". Which is as succinct a description as you can get for their flammable, layered sound. In the charred aftermath, we got to see the bonus of a gig as tiny as this, which was drinks with the band as they moved amongst the crowd. I recall two chats with long-haired lead singer Jordan and the big-bearded drummer Casey, whose enigmatic playing was as booming as John Bonham and as manic as Keith Moon.

Alma Materdom And The Vinyl Frontier

Given that I actually went to school there, a return to my alma mater - even if it was only for a few months - was definitely on the cards. On my final day in Nashville, I got to run through the halls of my high school (but thankfully didn't scream at the top of my lungs).

As one could expect, there would be new buildings, such as a grand dining hall that replaced the old cafeteria, an English block, and a soccer field on top of a parking garage. But stepping into the administration block was a right nostalgia trip, taking me back to my first day as an awkward teen, trying to make sense of this new school and how I would fit into it as an exchange student.

2004 to 2013. Same spot, and what must be the same people.

2004 to 2013. Same spot, and what must be the same people.

The Director of Counseling Services from back then still held the same position. She was the lady responsible for making sure that I even got over to the States in 2004, as there was a shift in visa requirements around that time that necessitated a lot more paperwork and delays than we were expecting. She also helps exchange students settle into the MBA way of life, and with the school receiving dozens of exchange students from all over the world every year, it's a mammoth task - in addition to sending out many young MBA men overseas in return. Only after we had posed for a photo did I realise how much and how little had changed in the interim.

Grimey's New & Preloved Music, Nashville, Tennessee

Grimey's New & Preloved Music, Nashville, Tennessee

The link we have to our pasts loomed over our visit to my final stop at Nashville's premier independent record store, Grimey's New & Preloved Music. Nowadays we consume music through different mediums compared to how our parents and grandparents did in the past, be it via CD's or more likely, digital downloads onto MP3 players.

Holding an actual vinyl record in your hands, admiring the original large album artwork, reading the liner notes; those tangible moments interacting with the music and the artist's vision have now gradually become an online experience, as we stream an album through Spotify, or purchase a song through the iTunes Store.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young man in the 60's or 70's, standing in an old face-brick building like this one, with wooden racks of records set out before him, holding the latest LP from The Who or The Rolling Stones in his hands. It's from a bygone era, but thankfully we have the choice to keep the spirit alive. A move nowadays towards purity and authenticity has made the purchase of vinyl records a niche market amongst audiophiles and DJ's.

Grimey's doesn't just sell new records, but also preserves the love of vinyl by selling and trading 'preloved' (second-hand) items. One of the rooms is a listening booth, consisting of two turntables and sets of headphones. It is stocked with obscure, lesser-known records that are available to listen to at your leisure. I picked an old blues record from one of the racks, pulled out a foreign-looking black disc, and placed it gently on the turntable.

To be honest, I can count the number of times I've used one of those things on my left hand, but the ritual was oddly satisfying. A few crackles and pops preceded the opening chords from an acoustic guitar, and then I was immediately transported into a timeless place where all music listeners have been before. A place where it's just you and the music, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. It doesn't matter whether you're in Nashville or Naples, or whether it's from a record player or your iPod: once the music starts, you hear nothing else. Some people continue with this affliction.