The horse-hair strands of Charlie Daniels’s bow fly in all directions, as if possessed by an electric current. He furiously pumps the bow back and forth, playing his iconic violin riff from ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ so comfortably that he could well be just cleaning his teeth. The music slows momentarily as he gathers himself and blows gently across the bridge of his instrument, conjuring a cloud of resin dust that swirls dramatically in the spotlight. The man sure knows how to put on a show, and he’s brought his best to the stage of the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’ – the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. I’ve just arrived in Nashville this afternoon, so it’s a rousing welcome.
As the crowds spill out of the doors of the Ryman – a gospel tabernacle before it became the Opry – music drifts on the evening breeze. It’s emanating from the stretch of honky tonks that runs along Broadway in the heart of the city’s downtown. Packed in side by side, their neon signs jostling for the eye’s attention, sit some of Nashville’s most infamous musical establishments: Legends Corner, Tootsie’s, The Stage, Layla’s, Robert’s Western World. It’s hard to know where to start, though the doormen in front of each – sensing that I’m new in town – all beckon me inside enthusiastically.
I work my way down the row, stopping in for a few songs at each. The sonic offerings range from bluegrass, to rock, to classic country, and glorified karaoke, but just as varied as the music are the characters who line the bar stools of each place. Some are clearly tourists, like me, but others look like they’ve been occupying these stools for years, now almost part of the decor themselves.
On the pavement outside, buskers play their hearts out, yearning for the day that they’ll finally get their time on stage. These honky-tonks have been the breeding ground for many legends of country, rock and blues who toiled away in front of meagre, inebriated audiences before making it to the spotlight. My heart swells at the big dreams that radiate in the young musicians’ eyes, but it also sinks at the thought of just how many of them are battling it out in this town, born to do nothing but the one thing they love.
After a late night of honky-tonking, I rise late the next morning with a rumbling stomach, so I head to another Nashville institution – this time of the gourmet kind. For the past 30 years, Arnold’s Country Kitchen has been known for having the best ‘meat and three’ in town. Still run by the Arnold family (at least one of them is usually behind the counter), this no-frills diner is frequented by locals of all kinds, from the blue-collared to the rhinestone-clad. I pile up my tray with far more than I can possibly eat – mac and cheese, fried green tomatoes, corn bread, fried chicken – washed down with a cool glass of sweet tea. It’s definitely worth the hype, but I could certainly use a nap afterwards.
I’ve got another evening of live music ahead of me, this time at another two of Music City’s most esteemed locales – The Bluebird Cafe and The Station Inn. But first, there’s another stop on my itinerary. Though the original iteration of the Gruhn Guitars store once sat amongst the visual onslaught of Broadway, in recent years it has found a more peaceful home about ten minutes south of downtown. For a guitar lover, this is hallowed ground. Surrounded by wall upon wall of all manner of vintage six strings, people sit plucking away at instruments, some with the intention of buying, others simply revelling in the opportunity to caress an instrument that they can only dream of one day owning.
A longhaired, shaggy-bearded gent sees me eyeing off a burgundy Fender Stratocaster. “Try her out,” he says, gently lifting it down from its perch. I shake my head shyly and tell him I’m just browsing. He ignores my polite refusal, leading me to a small room with a stool and an amp inside, where he plugs in the guitar. “I’ll just leave you two together,” he grins as he slides the door shut. I figure a few minutes of trying it out can’t hurt (although, intimidated by the expert guitar shredding I hear coming from other parts of the store, I turn the volume knob down low). I begin with every intention of handing it back to him on my way out, but after ten minutes of playing, I’ve fallen in love. And soon after, I’m walking out the door with the best kind of Nashville souvenir.