January 5, 2007

By Ginny Prior

NO MAN is as sexy as a man in a cowboy hat. I’ve had this conviction since my college days at Montana State University. But when it comes to studs in Stetsons, Montana’s got nothing on Nashville — where cowboys are crooners in a city that celebrates country music.

They don’t call Nashville “Music City” for nothing. Music is to Nashville what movies are to Hollywood. There are over 180 recording studios in Nashville, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry and literally hundreds of places showcasing live talent. It seems almost everyone in Nashville is either a musician or a song writer — holding out hope they’ll hit pay dirt.

Dolly Parton got her big break in Nashville, saying she was so poor when she left home she had nothing to lose. It wasn’t long before she was singing with Porter Wagoner on the Grand Ole Opry.

A kid named Elvis made his name here. He recorded some monster hits in RCA’s famed Studio B. Songs like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Little Sister” were smash records for “The King” and you can almost picture those late night recording sessions when you tour Studio B today. The studio closed permanently for commercial recordings the day after Elvis died in 1977, but not before producing a thousand hits for legends such as Roy Orbison, Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline.

The Country Music Hall of Fame brings these artists and their music to life. One of the most innovative museums in the country, it takes you on a journey through time, from the early years of folk to the sounds of hillbilly, honky tonk and the more sophisticated strings and vocals that made up the Nashville Sound of the 1960s. The Hall of Fame houses a priceless collection of clips from radio, television and film that tells the story of America’s love affair with country.

It’s as much a timeline of our nation as it is a tribute to its music.

It’s billed as “everyman’s music.” A bottle of booze, a broken heart, an old yellow dog and a pickup truck. The key to writing a good country song is to tell a simple story — one folks can relate to. And while it wouldn’t be on every visitor’s list of attractions, you can pay a local writer to help you come up with your own country song. It’s more than just writing a couple of verses and a chorus. You need a catchy melody and a good hook.

The Bluebird Café is a favorite venue for songwriters. The night I was there, four of Nashville’s best were taking turns playing some of country music’s biggest hits. These guys, virtually unknown outside the industry, were singing the pieces they wrote that made millions for stars like Kenny Chesney and Travis Tritt. They sat in a circle and swapped stories and songs in a space that seemed more like my living room than a legendary nightclub. And their poetry touched raw emotions as they sang about relationships, motherhood, patriotism and faith.

I think I paid 15 bucks to see them that night — about a penny a tear.

It’s even cheaper to hear music in Nashville’s famed honky tonks. Sure as a dog is man’s best friend, these blue-collar bars have the music cranking, day and night. Walk into Roberts or Legends or Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and grab a stool. What you’ll hear is some of the best live country this side of the Smokies — with no cover charge, just a pass of the cowboy hat.

But the “Mother Church of Country Music” is still The Ryman Theatre, home of the Grand Ole Opry each winter. The Ryman actually started out as a church, and the stained glass windows and warn wooden pews are still part of its charm. Even more heavenly are the acoustics, which make the live broadcasts sparkle. It’s a real treat to watch WSM radio broadcast the Opry live each weekend with some of the biggest names in country music gracing that historic stage. And just like the early days of the Opry, you never know who will pop in.

One thing is certain — Nashville has style. From its imaginative downtown skyline to its stately southern plantations, the city makes a statement. You can tour dozens of historic sites, including the beautifully restored home of President Andrew Jackson. Take a picnic and enjoy the lush grounds of Vanderbilt University, a national arboretum with tree-lined paths and rolling green lawns. Or take in one of Nashville’s most surprising sites — the world’s only full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon, complete with four art galleries and a giant gilded statue of the Goddess Athena.

And while Nashville is known for its architecture, there’s something else catching the eye of folks who visit. It’s the sparkle of rhinestones on the outfits of country artists who order their clothing from Manuel. With just one name (think Cher or Prince) Manuel has been the tailor to the stars, here, for decades. He’s the guy who put Johnny Cash in black and Elvis in tight pants and Dolly Parton in her eye-popping blouses. His personality is as big as his creations, yet he still sews by hand in a modest downtown house.

And that’s the attraction of Nashville. It’s one of the most fascinating and cosmopolitan cities in America, yet it’s warm and inviting — and approachable. Like a man in a cowboy hat — it exudes charm.


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