Nashville's New Tune

The country-music city has made a comeback with new buildings and attractions and a renewed sense of energy.

The South

April 03, 2005|By Tom Uhlenbrock | Tom Uhlenbrock,KNIGHT RIDDER-TRIBUNE

Early in preparing for a trip to Nashville, a song settled in my brain like a deadly virus that wouldn't leave - a record stuck on replay.

Well, there's 13-hundred-and-52 guitar pickers in Nashville, and they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee ant hill ...

Now, I have nothing against the Lovin' Spoonful, but John Sebastian was from New York City, and his feel-good ditty just didn't seem like the proper soundtrack for a visit to Music City and its legendary list of country singers and songwriters.

Nashville Cats, play clean as country water. Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew ...

Now, stop that!

The only way to exorcise this demon was to spend a little time in the city along the Cumberland River. Surely, I'd find a musical antidote at the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame or Historic RCA Studio B, where Elvis, Dolly, Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers honed their craft.

Maybe I'd even nurse a few longnecks on Honky Tonk Row.

Meanwhile, there must be a better CD for the drive.

Hear the lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low, I'm so lonesome I could cry.

That's more like it. Thanks, Hank.

Like the aging cores of many American cities, downtown Nashville went through a painful period in the past few decades. When the Grand Ole Opry built a new home, it headed to the suburbs, as did many city residents. There was even talk of razing Ryman Auditorium, the "mother church of country music."

But downtown is back, with the new Gaylord Entertainment Center, Coliseum, Nashville Public Library, towering BellSouth Building and Frist Center for the Visual Arts already open, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center under construction. Shuttered buildings are being recycled into urban lofts.

The blocklong Honky Tonk Row is revived and reverberates like an overloaded speaker as performers with black hats, black boots and black guitar cases stroll Broadway between gigs.

The new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, across from the new Hilton hotel, is a cornerstone of the downtown revival, and the starting spot for a search of Nashville's musical roots.

Nashville's sounds

In 1925, record executives in New York City first referred to the unique sounds emanating from the Southern hills as "hillbilly music." After singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter chimed in, Billboard Magazine in 1949 decided to retitle its "hillbilly" music chart as "country and western."

In 1955, Nashville solidified its hold as the country-music center, when Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis sold Elvis Presley's contract for $40,000 to RCA, which had studios in Nashville.

All that history and more is told on the three floors of the Country Music Hall of Fame. You can see early black-and-white footage of Elvis gyrating and a young left-handed guitarist named Jimi Hendrix playing backup for a rhythm-and-blues group.

Listening booths play the classics, or you can burn your own CD, choosing from more than 100 songs.

Glass cases hold precious mementos: blue-and-white cowboy boots with the initials "HW"; one of Dolly Parton's platinum white wigs; Waylon Jennings' leather-covered Fender Telecaster guitar; Willie Nelson's blue low-top sneakers; Faith Hill's glittering Versace dress cut down to there.

Nearby is Elvis Presley's favorite car, a 1960 Cadillac limousine with 24-karat gold highlights and 40 painted coats of a translucent mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales called "diamond dust pearl." The interior has a television - gold-plated, of course - and a record player.

Past the rows of plastic corn from the original Hee-Haw set is a wall of gold records. Several are equipped with audio; pull open the record frame and a song plays. Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits was released in 1967, four years after she died in a plane crash. I opened the golden door.

Crazy, I'm crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue.

RCA Studio B

Bob Dunbar was at the wheel of a Gray Line shuttle bus that, for $10, picks you up at the Country Music Hall of Fame and takes you into Music Row for a tour of RCA Studio B. The tour began in the parking lot of the empty building with five rooms and tile floors.

"Elvis would park in back to avoid the girls out front," Dunbar said. "He stayed over there in that six-story gray building, Spence Manor. It has a swimming pool shaped like a guitar."

Inside, the lobby was lined with poster-sized photos of the stars. Each came with a story.

"Charley Pride got his start here," Dunbar said. "The people in New York didn't think a black man could sing country music. They didn't put his picture on his first record for that reason."

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