Nashville, Tennessee: Music Citys still got soul

As the first direct flights from the UK launch this month, we find that, despite building and gentrification, the home of country and bluegrass hasnt lost touch with its roots

For a medium-size US city, Nashville has an XXL reputation. Everybody thinks they know what its about: country music, the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash, improbable dreams of stardom, cheesy ballads and rhinestone shirts.

But dont be so sure, warned singer-songwriter and rising star Ben Danaher, during a gig at 3rd and Lindsley, one of the citys many superb music venues. Lots of dive bars are becoming karaokes, he said, before dedicating a song, Silver Screen, to all the hipsters.

His tone was gently ironic, the song full of feeling. Danaher (who is playing the Black Deer festival in Kent on 23 June) later told me he was alluding to really gritty places that the blue-collar crowd would go to, that all of a sudden have a charm to hipsters.

So gentrification is happening. Meanwhile, mass tourism has turned many of the honky tonks into fun pubs for boozy bachelorettes and preppy boys wanting to show how badly they can behave for a weekend.

Country music bars on Nashvilles Broadway. Photograph: John Greim/Getty Images

Similar forces are jolting many metropolises but is there something fundamental at stake in Music City? I was here to find out, and headed first to the Gulch, a neighbourhood that used to be a dank ravine by the railway tracks but now has back-to-back restaurants and bars. Music venues The Mercy Lounge and The High Watt host nightly indie and cover bands karaoke gigs, of a sort but at The Station Inn, the Gulchs surviving country music spot, open since 1974, I caught the tail end of Nashvilles annual songwriters festival, Tin Pan South.

The names on the bill meant nothing to me but the gig was all-acoustic, warm, intelligent trad, but cool. As a finale, veteran performer Rory Bourke was asked to play one of his old songs. His speaking voice sounded hoarse and tired, but when he began to sing his biggest hit, The Most Beautiful Girl yes, the one that starts with Hey! and which our mums and grandmas loved he was back in his lyrical, lovelorn youth. We all were.

Open mic night at the Bluebird Cafe. Photograph: Alamy

That was a Nashville moment, catching the deeply familiar at its source (who knew this global hit came from a Nashville-based country songwriter?) and being moved. The gig also had me fantasising about becoming a singer-songwriter. Its one of the consequences of visiting a city with genuine cultural clout: you want to become part of the scene, change your life. (My songs are still works in progress.)

At the Bluebird Caf, the most intimate of all Nashvilles musical experiences, I caught Danaher again, sharing the bill with three women singer-songwriters: Alex Kline, Erin Enderlin and Beth Nielsen Chapman. He has an earthy voice in the Ray LaMontagne mould, and had just finished a UK tour. (Hes back here in June.)

The performers sat in a circle, backs to the audience, trying out untested and proven numbers, by turns soulful and sarky (Klines White Trash Female WTF has to be a hit, for someone).

It was a magical evening, and made me reflect on something that struck me at downtowns Country Music Hall of Fame and museum: country is a genre that, for all its cowboy pretensions, has a history of strong women. From Kitty Wells, who proved women could sell records in the 1950s, to the footage of Wanda Jackson out-Elvising Presley on Hard-headed Woman, to Shania Twains establishment-shocking outfits. A week before my visit, Taylor Swift showed up unannounced at the Bluebird: she continues to break rules, as well as records. Country music is alive and well (and living in Nashville) its just women who are leading the latest revival.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and museum. Photograph: Alamy

Another overlooked aspect of Music City is right behind the hall of fame: Hatch Show Print celebrates Nashvilles history as a centre for letterpress printing from the 1870s to the rocknroll era. Its walls are plastered with early flyers for Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. I was even invited to roll off my own little poster its not great, but its better than my songs.

This city and its skyline which inspired the title of Bob Dylans 1969 album are changing fast. About $2bn of construction projects are under way. The handsome red-brick edifices along the Cumberland river cower beneath glass-and-steel towers including AT&Ts striking Batman Building, and 5,028 rooms are under construction at 33 new hotels.

The most stylish if pricey place to stay is The Noelle (doubles from $339), a 1930s art-deco beauty in pink Tennessee granite that reopened last year with a sultry cocktail bar and fab coffee shop. Near Printers Alley, its interior honours the design history Id seen at Hatch.

Cranes clutter the backstreets. Not even the Ryman Auditorium former home of the Grand Ole Opry is exempt. By 2020, a luxury apartment tower will block the view of the gothic facade of this temple of country and cradle of bluegrass which is still worth an hour of anyones time, not least to see Johnny Cashs suit.

Third Man Records, Jack Whites vinyl store in Nashvilles Pie Town. Photograph: Alamy

But there are subtler evolutions. In Pie Town, music in the shape of Jack Whites Third Man record company, vinyl store and 1947 recording booth combines with high-end retail. Central St Martins-trained Savannah Yarborough crafts bespoke leather garments at AtelierSavas. Any Old Iron, run by British designer (and former scrap dealer) Andrew Clancey makes sequinned suits, dresses and show clothes for Beyonc and Kesha, among others.

I moved here not for the music, but for the musicians, says Clancey. Many of them want to look more contemporary without having to go to New York or Los Angeles. With every genre recorded here, we felt we could offer something unique. Nashvilles fashion week has just had its eighth year there wasnt a stetson in sight.

Show clothes at Any Old Iron, also in Pie Town

In the suburbs of Germantown, Five Points and the Nations, food is the motor of a more familiar metamorphosis, as pioneering restaurateurs from veteran Margot McCormack (Margot Caf, March Artisan Foods) to newcomers Bryan Lee Weaver (Butcher & Bee) and Julia Sullivan (Henrietta Red) challenge the hegemony of hot chicken and meat and three (for which I personally recommend Edleys Bar-B-Que and Hattie Bs).

Five Points, in East Nashville, has a gritty-but-smart feel, with dreamy clapboard houses and Queen Anne mansions.

There was a huge fire in 1916, local guide Karen-Lee Ryan told me (she runs excellent Walk Eat Nashville tours). Then the area was razed by a tornado in 1998 and again in the floods of 2010. The disasters were curse and catalyst. They brought the community together.

Hattie Bs Hot Chicken – for a traditional taste of Nashville

Ryan puts the collaborative spirit down to music. Sitting down with an instrument is a creative act. Musicians riff off each other. So do people in Nashvilles food scene. Its not Im in my own silo and I dont care what other people are doing.

So, will the skyscrapers wipe out that denim-blue sky? Probably. And will it also lose its vibe? That I doubt. As Ryan put it: There can be many co-existing Nashvilles, whether thats through art, music or food.

And there can be many kinds of Nashville sound too, from Kacey Musgraves recent feminist alt-pop on Golden Hour to the rocking and rollicking in the honky tonks on the citys Broadway, to Hey! Did you happen to see ?. And, even, to karaoke nights at the (surely not very hip) hipster bars.

The music scene in the city is still very strong, says Danaher. Despite the changes, some of the dive bars are still home to the greatest guitarists doing residencies. There are way too many amazingly talented, driven people here for Nashville to risk losing its soul.

Getting there

Flights were provided by British Airways, which has returns from Heathrow to Nashville from 668. British Airways Holidays offers flight and hotel packages, such as four nights at The Westin Nashville from 999.

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Marissa SafontNashville, Tennessee: Music Citys still got soul

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