Just follow the people carrying guitars and you’ll end up in Nashville, Tennessee. There’s a lot more to listen to in this southern U.S. town than old country songs. We pay a visit to Music City
The parking lot is large and sparsely lit, but still about a hundred people have gathered here, in front of a row of unremarkable store fronts, waiting to get in. The atmosphere is charged. Everyone knows there’s a fantastic evening ahead because right here, between the hairdresser, the laundromat and the children’s clothing store, the legendary Bluebird Cafe will soon reverberate to the authentic Nashville sound. A small club with 1980s bistro charm, the Bluebird is famous as a venue for songwriters; many write songs that make others famous and some have even composed for Jerry Lee Lewis and Fleetwood Mac or jammed with the likes of Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin.
Almost everyone here in Nashville, Tennessee, is involved with music in one way or another. The city is small ( pop. roughly 660 000), but the music scene is huge, with more than twice as many jobs per capita in the industry here than in Los Angeles or New York. Between 1970 and 2006, Nashville was the only U.S. city where the music business kept expanding and attracting stars: Jack White, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Justin Timberlake and Sheryl Crow have all made Nashville their home. Add to that the hundreds of musicians only insiders know, the ones who provide live music at breakfast time in many bars and cafés. They drive for Uber to make ends meet and stand in line, guitar in hand, for open-mic and songwriter events in the hopes of getting their big break. They are the reason Nashville is known as the “Songwriting Capital of the World.”
The atmosphere at the Bluebird is intimate, like a jam session. Every newcomer dreams of playing a set here, but the standard is high. The manager, Erika Wollam Nichols, allows each candidate just one minute. Is she too tough? Wollam Nichols, with bangs and the imperturbability of the seasoned roadie, shakes her head. “That’s the average time people listen to a song on the radio before deciding to keep listening or switch to another station.” Taylor Swift and Keith Urban were both discovered here. Tonight, though, the performers are not young hopefuls but old hands. A guitarist in a hat takes the dimly lit stage. You don’t have to be from Nashville to recognize him: Colin Linden, a band member in the TV series “Nashville” and also a musical consultant to the show. Now in its sixth season, the internationally successful series regularly features the Bluebird Cafe. “So, do y’all feel like you’re in an episode of ‘Nashville’?” Linden asks the audience. “That woman over there invented us all.” The platinum-blond scriptwriter Callie Khouri, seated at a neighboring table, nods at the crowd. In 1992, Khouri won an Academy Award for her screenplay for Thelma & Louise and she’s the creative force behind “Nashville.” Since the show started, as many as 300 people have waited outside some nights, hoping to snag one of the Bluebird’s 100 seats. And thanks in large part to the series’ success, the city has become something of a tourist magnet, too.
“Nashville” is a show about country music, and it’s country music that has made the city famous. Downtown, you’ll find the Country Music Hall of Fame with a museum attached. As you walk down Lower Broadway, you will always hear country music issuing from the honky-tonks, which are often crowded by midday. But Nashville’s music is more complex: It’s a mix of punk rock, Americana, indie, pop and blues that has its own scene – off Honky Tonk Highway – in Melrose, 12 South and trendy East Nashville across the Cumberland River.
It’s not yet noon in East Nashville’s hippy-esque Graze bistro. The door opens and redhead Tanya Montana Coe walks in sporting cowboy boots and a blouse that glitters differently with every movement. Born and raised in Nashville, the singer with the smooth, husky voice is one of those people who attracts attention even when they’re going for brunch. Her father, musician David Allan Coe, wrote “Tanya Montana” for his daughter when she was a teenager. Later, she didn’t want to have anything to do with the music business. “Show business loses its appeal when you spend most of your childhood somewhere backstage,” she explains, sipping a smoothie.
She didn’t start learning to play the guitar until she was in her twenties. She was working as an accountant then, but the office job was too constricting. “My friends were all doing something creative, and that was infectious.” She and a friend opened Goodbuy Girls, a vintage boutique selling stylish cowgirl boots and Western clothing. Once a week, they invited different musicians to play during their shop-and-sip happy hour. One night, one of them said: “Tanya, why don’t you play something.” The response surprised her completely: “The applause blew me away,” she recalls. When the husband of a friend offered to produce her debut album, she agreed and then spent three years honing her sound to make it as different from her father’s as possible. “I wanted it to be my own style, not what people expected.” Coe’s first album, Silver Bullet, came out in 2015, a true product born of talent and friendship. It sounds best right here in Nashville. Even as a child, she disliked touring on a grand scale. Coe, who recently released the single “Electric Blue,” still feels most at home in Nashville clubs.
I spent most of my childhood somewhere backstage
The city has just the right infrastructure for a newcomer like Coe: legendary studios, the historic letterpress printer Hatch Show Print and United Record Pressing, the largest operation of its kind in North America. There are countless outstanding musicians waiting to be booked for a studio recording here. Chances are that the guy making sandwiches at the café is a better drummer than the one who was just on the radio. Nashville’s location within the U.S. helps, too. They say that if you go on tour from Nashville, you’ll reach nearly half of the U.S. population within just one day. Some artists do so well, their success spills over onto everyone else. Jack White, founder of the White Stripes rock duo, influenced much more than the city’s indie scene when he established the physical headquarters of his label, Third Man Records (along with a performance venue and a record store) in Nashville. In addition to producing country legend Loretta Lynn and Nashville discovery Margo Price, his label releases blues, jazz, gospel and folk. Every set played in his The Blue Room club is pressed straight onto vinyl.
“When Father John Misty played there, they recorded the gig and gave guests a freshly pressed record to take home,” Heather Lose enthuses over a beer at the Vinyl Tap record store and bar. Lose – red curly hair and a hearty laugh – cofounded WXNA, a radio station run by enthusiasts that’s open to all genres. Musicians love it and it’s considered the city’s best station. An art director and photographer, Lose is also a typical Nashvillian. As the daughter of a bass player (and married to one, too), she’s crazy about music and works in the business. Before college, she spent some time with a record label in Los Angeles. What brought her back? “In a city like LA, the buildings are so much taller than you, you automatically feel small.” In Nashville, everyone finds their own creative niche and artists tend to work together rather than competing.
On Saturday night, the house band at Santa’s Pub demonstrates the art of jamming. Santa is a tall man with a white beard and a trailer with Christmassy graffiti. The week-night karaoke events he holds there are wildly popular, perhaps because a can of beer costs just two dollars there, but also because he and his wife, Angelina, treat everyone like a favorite grandchild come for the weekend. Inside it’s like a scene from Urban Cowboy, the air thick with cigarette smoke and so full you can’t even get to the bar. There’s no dance floor, but the bearded gents in plaid shirts whirl their cowboy-hatted ladies around the tables in a spirited two-step without upsetting a single beer. The eight musicians just fit on the tiny stage. The double bass played by Carter Brallier, the band’s founder, nearly scrapes the low ceiling. The Ice Cold Pickers, Nashville’s best and youngest, talented and charming, play here every Sunday night. Admission is free but tips are welcome.
They get together at Santa’s to pay tribute to their musical heroes. After playing the first song themselves, they invite people from the audience onto the stage – singers, songwriters, guitarists, passers-
by. We tear up. Is it the smoke or the soft voice of Ben Haggard, son of the legendary Merle? It hardly matters. In the end, it’s the music that matters, the sound that endures from generation to generation and the lyrics that hang in the air after all the beer cans have been collected and the floors have been swept. Songs that were written right here in Nashville.
The 21c has rooms designed by artists and changing exhibitions.
The Idea Hatchery is a small retail development for local designers.
Designer Manuel has created outfits for stars from Elvis to Johnny Cash.
hits the spot
The 5 Spot club has it all: live music, good drinks and nachos.
Lufthansa flies up to twice daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and once daily from Munich to Chicago (ORD); United Airlines flies from there to Nashville (BNA). Use the app to calculate your miles. Download here: miles-and-more.com/app