Nashville charts as a surefire Honky Tonk Hit
There's much more to Nashville than just country music and Stetsons, writes Nicola Brady. This is a city pulsing with rich history, tastes and sounds
The stage was ablaze with sequins and Stetsons as musicians stomped, whooped and jigged along to bluegrass beats. In years gone by, the very same spot had been occupied by the legends – Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, even Elvis himself. But this time, an enthusiastic collection of musicians was chomping at the bit, and I was sat in the audience, bombarded with more country music than I had ever experienced.
'The Grand Ole Opry' is something of a treasure in Nashville, and close to the hearts of many country music fans. On the airwaves every week since 1925, it's the longest running radio show in the world, and the live show is quite the experience.
It was my fourth day in Nashville. I had expected country music to reign supreme in the city, but instead was met with a vibrant fusion of musical styles. There were dusky jazz bars, buskers singing the blues, rockers in the boroughs and gospel in the churches. Though home to modern country stars such as Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, Nashville is also the birthplace of Kings of Leon, and where Jack White is based.
After all, this is the fabled Music City, where everyone you meet is trying to make it in the business. The girl who waits tables by day strums a guitar at night, and the man sitting next to you at the bar wrote the latest number one hit. This isn't just where stars are born, but where music is made, where the classics are written.
Even when you walk the streets, music is in the air. As well as the notes wafting from bars and rooftops, the city is dotted with traffic music boxes. Designed to blend seamlessly into the cityscape, each one blasts out music fitting its location.
Approaching Music Row, you'll hear country legend Vince Gill, but by the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, you'll be treated to some classical compositions.
If you want to get to the grass roots of the song-writing community, then a night at the Bluebird Cafe (bluebirdcafe.com) throws you right into the thick of it.
Harried waitresses shuttle between the crowded tables, all circled around a few simple chairs, occupied by some of the world's leading songwriters. There's only room for 90 people, but all of them are hushed in silence as legendary songs are belted out by the people who wrote them, rather than those who made them famous.
The music doesn't stop at dinnertime. Home-style Southern food is doled up at Puckett's Grocery (puckettsgrocery.com) on tables surrounding a small stage where you'll find musicians performing every night but Sunday.
I took one of those tables on my first night in Nashville, and when I saw 'chicken-fried chicken' on the menu, I saw no point in resisting. When it arrived, succulent and moist in a white pepper gravy, I made the mistake of asking a native Tennessean what the familiar hit in the sauce was. "Bacon grease! Oh, we cook everything in it."
It's best then to approach the city's cuisine with gusto, and without thinking of the calories (or cholesterol). Because while most of the food in Nashville isn't going to win any health prizes, there's no denying that it's sinfully good.
In a city where macaroni cheese is considered a side vegetable, the food is rich, hearty and robust. 'Meat and three' is the cornerstone of the kitchen – try pork or brisket with a side of grits, coleslaw and proper baked beans.
Tavern Midtown (mstreetnashville. com/restaurants/tavern) is another great spot, serving up a stylish hybrid of classic Southern food with quirky touches such as balsamic martinis and campfire s'mores.
Barbecue is taken seriously in the South, and no more so than in Nashville. Peg Leg Porker (peglegporker.com) has only been open for nine months, but has already won critical acclaim, as well as a legion of fans. From its location in the Gulch neighbourhood, the sweet tang of hickory smoke wafts through the streets, drawing patrons in with the tantalising promise of slow-cooked pork.
Outside, diners gather on the patio around the open fire, waiting for their name to be boomed out across the tannoy when their order is ready. Inside, they congregate around dark tables and dig in to perfectly cooked classics. The meat is smoked for at least 14 hours, smothered in a concoction of spices and served only when it's tender enough to fall off the fork.
Carey Bringle is the man behind the brand, and often the man behind the grill. After losing his leg to cancer as a teenager, Bringle emerged from his battle with a zest for life and a wicked sense of humour, hence the retaurant's name and logo – a pig with a wooden leg).
Luckily for their diners, Peg Leg Porker is in the kind of neighbourhood best explored while strolling slowly, rubbing an overstuffed belly. Home to Jack White's uber-hip music store, Third Man Records, and the Yazoo brewery, the Gulch has the air of a funky reclaimed wasteland, where you're as likely to find an antique warehouse as you are a jeweller for rock stars.
There are several hipster enclaves around the city. In East Nashville, you'll find a unique combination of picket fences and food trucks, with vintage stores set up in traditional wooden houses. You can be browsing in an upmarket art gallery, yet seconds away from a yard sale where a bearded man lines up his old records and T-shirts for a few bucks a pop.
Hillsboro Village is a little bit more upmarket, with organic coffee shops and boutiques frequented by Taylor Swift, who lives nearby. You can also join the long weekend brunch queue at the Pancake Pantry, where the pancakes and syrup are made to a closely-guarded family recipe.
But for the bright lights of Music City, you'll need to head to Broadway. This is the home of the Honky Tonks that come to life each evening. And, despite the neon lights and cowboy hats, the strip isn't just a playground for the many tourists. The bars are also filled with locals shooting back Fireballs, a lethal cinnamon whiskey favoured by Nashvillians.
And you never know who will stop by to play a song or two, especially around awards season. While I was there, Sheryl Crow took to the stage in one of the bars, after which Steve Tyler, of Aerosmith, popped up a few weeks later.
Just steps away from Broadway is the Johnny Cash Museum, a small and cosy monument to one of America's most influential musicians. The majority of the collection is sourced from an old fan and friend of Cash, Bill Miller, who began to gather memorabilia after catching his harmonica at an early gig.
Beginning with a collection of Cash's childhood marbles and high school yearbooks, the museum tells an intimate story of the man in black. Letters, pictures, clothing and lyrics are exhibited along with interactive displays and a video loop with some of his on-screen highlights.
The musical nostalgia continues at Studio B, the birthplace of some of the most iconic songs of all time. It's here, tucked into the seemingly suburban houses of Music Row, that Elvis recorded more than 200 songs. As well as the original 1943 Steinway grand piano on display, you can see the cabinet he broke with a swift kick of frustration.
As the tour rounds up, some of the hits are played in the studio, including one by Dolly Parton. It's a surprisingly emotional moment, hearing the opening lines of 'I Will Always Love You' as you stand in the exact spot where she sang 40 years ago. There's something inescapable in the non-descript walls of the building, a feeling that you're in the very spot where history was made. It's a feeling that I experienced often in Nashville; that wherever you go, something is happening.
It's a city that feels alive with passion, life and music. And that's a nice feeling to take home.
For more information, see visitmusiccity.com
You never know who will play a song or two – while I was there, Sheryl Crow sang in one bar. So did Steve Tyler (Aerosmith), a few weeks later