If popular music has a Holy Grail, it is safeguarded in Nashville. The city's music roots run deep, having birthed talents the likes of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. And there is no sign of this legendary country town slowing down.
The First Note
In 1953, a teenage country boy paid a few bucks to Memphis-based Sun Records to record a demo as a gift for his mother. The earth would soon tremble as that boy, Elvis Presley, introduced rock 'n' roll—his fusion of country, blues and gospel music—to an international audience.
Today, the vinyl treasure has been acquired by Nashville’s alt-country superstar Jack White, now a Nashville resident, who brought it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for preservation and reproduction—an effort which ultimately resulted in a limited release on White’s Third Man Records.
From singer-songwriters to landmark locations, Nashville’s music and recording industry is as legendary as the stars who create hits here.
Take Hank Williams, who, under the pseudonym “Luke the Drifter,” recorded “I Saw the Light,” validating a kinship between gospel and country. Williams taught Rufus Payne blues guitar, influencing classics like “Lovesick Blues.”
The Legendary Ryman Auditorium
In 1969, ABC launched the revolutionary “Johnny Cash Show,” with each of its 58 shows recorded at the Ryman. Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles and others entered the mainstream from this stage. Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” was another program conceived at the Ryman. The idea, according to the legendary host and best-selling author, was spawned in 1974 as he watched the Opry from backstage while on assignment for The New Yorker. Keillor has produced many broadcasts of “A Prairie Home Companion” from the Ryman over the years.
RCA Studio B
Across town, 35,000 songs have been recorded in RCA Studio B. The hallowed building—where maestro Chet Atkins launched the careers of Parton, Don Gibson, Roger Miller, The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and many more—is now co-operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Belmont University.
Atkins, widely respected for his mastery of diverse music forms, persuaded RCA Victor to sign Presley, earning millions for the company. Under Atkins’ direction, Presley made one hit after another, including “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” recorded with the studio lights off. Parton’s Studio B recording sessions, including “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” were under the glow of bright lights. A Steinway piano that belonged to Presley remains on-site for viewing.
Where to Hear the Tunes
Taking music outside the studio, performers and fans congregate on Lower Broadway—often dubbed “Honky Tonk Highway”—an assemblage of clubs and bars pumping live music into the streets until just before dawn.
AJ’s Goodtime Bar is Alan Jackson’s namesake venue. Nearby clubs like Honky Tonk Central, Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, Legends Corner, and Nudie’s Honky Tonk Bar are consistently packed. Robert’s Western World, the home of Brazilbilly, features live country music with Latin flair. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is part of country music’s hallowed ground.
Further afield, The Bluebird Café—recognized for its role in ABC’s and now CMT’s hit television series “Nashville”—showcases songwriters on Sunday nights; go and you may be the first to see the next Kristofferson at the microphone.
And what of “Music City” we can expect moving forward? Key players likely are Detroit transplant Jack White whose talent seems powered by a V-8 engine; Rhiannon Giddens, a North Carolina banjo picker and opera diva who casts a spell when she sings a Patsy Cline standard; Holly Williams, the singer-songwriter granddaughter of Hank Williams; and Cuban-American superstar Raúl Malo.
Bob Dylan selected young Williams to complete unfinished lyrics in her grandfather’s handwriting that was found in a discarded notebook. White, along with Jackson, Norah Jones, Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Merle Haggard, joined her in recording “The Lost Notebooks,” connecting Music City’s musical dots with future generations.