Nashville: I murder Hank's hit and admire the 'hat acts'

It may have tacky souvenir shops, but the capital of country music is more like a university campus, with classy restaurants and small-town warmth. By Richard Gilbert
Midday on Division Street in the heart of Nashville's Music Row. I am staring at a vast song list of country classics at the grandly named Recording Studios of America. Foolishly I have agreed to take back to London an appropriate souvenir of Music City, USA - my very own recording for $12. Torn between choosing songs by Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and Garth Brooks, I ask the engineer for the backing track of Hank Williams "Your Cheatin' Heart".

One rehearsal in the studio, the red light flashes and we're ready. I gargle my way through the song-sheet:

"Your cheatin' heart will make you weep, you cry and cry and try to sleep..."

Sorry about that, Hank. I promise to keep my day job.

Outside, the dry heat sends me searching for a drink. There are numerous tacky shops dedicated to country stars: the Hank Williams Jr Museum displays the slippers Hank Sr was wearing when he died in the back of a Cadillac on New Year's Day, 1953.

Wandering around squares named after Chet Atkins and Roy Acuff, I find Sammy B's restaurant and sit at the bar. There aren't many cowboy boots around: the customers seem to be ordering focaccio bread and teriyaki shrimp. My neighbour at the bar looks familiar. After a few minutes I realise it's ace songwriter, Harlan Howard ("No Charge", "Busted", "I Fall to Pieces").

I assumed that Music Row, the country music centre in the world's country capital, would be tightly packed with skyscrapers and canyon-like streets filled with stressed executives and aspiring songwriters. Instead you find a village atmosphere with neat brick townhouses where all the top singers and record companies have their offices. Trees and greenery make it look more like an eight-block university campus than the headquarters of a $2.5bn a year industry.

Nashville, not much larger than Dublin, is basking in this country boom and cleverly manages to combine its thriving entertainment industry with genuine small-town warmth and southern charm. In the last few years the downtown area has been transformed. Derelict warehouses along the banks of the Cumberland River have become chic waterside restaurants and clubs. The District, as it's known, is also packed with lively music stores and pubs. Broadway and Second Avenue are the musical arteries of the District where you can find everything from country and bluegrass to jazz and blues. Nashville has plenty of music for those who aren't country fans and one of the best club scenes in the US.

Any exploration of Broadway should begin in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a honky-tonk landmark. This is where the kings of country music used to tipple when the Grand Ole Opry was just around the corner in the Ryman Auditorium. Tootsie's has live music from 10am until the early hours, with guitar-pickers playing for dollar tips to locals and visitors in wellworn Stetsons and rodeo shirts.

I caught Zack Taylor and his Wing & A Prayer band playing a rousing set. He introduced each of his songs with a little homily: "I wrote this one about my great-grandma who raised us all. When she passed away, I didn't cry because I knew she was in a better place. The song is called 'Buried Treasure'."

Two doors away is Robert's Western Wear which has become the Cavern of Broadway since the success of the raw revivalists BR5-49. The group played there for dollar tips for two years before getting in the charts with hit albums that mixed hillbilly boogie with thunderous versions of Fifties obscurities. Robert's is a bizarre combination of a honky-tonk bar and clothes store so you can buy your python-skin boots while enjoying a Bud. In the same stretch of Broadway don't miss Gruhn Guitars, the best vintage guitar store in the world, with dazzling rows of instruments priced from $450 to $25,000.

The Ryman Auditorium is where the Grand Ole Opry - the world's longest- running radio show which hasn't missed a beat since 1925 - was broadcast from 1943 to 1974. Recently renovated, this former tabernacle with its pews and stained-glass windows, is known as the "Mother Church of Country Music". Live music and theatre have returned with shows based on the life and music of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

Today the Grand Ole Opry is broadcast from the Opryland entertainment complex in a 4,400-seat-theatre. About 70 top acts are members of the Grand Ole Opry and you can see a third of them at a single performance any Friday or Saturday evening. The Opry is wonderfully informal, with musicians and their friends sauntering around the stage during the live broadcast. Just as in the Twenties, between the acts an announcer reads out the sponsors' ads for such delights as Dickey's Workwear and Goody's Headache Powder. As one musician said to me: "If you set out to design a successful show, you'd do everything the opposite. No rehearsals, no idea who's going on until the day before the show. But it's as simple as sunshine, and it works."

The best introduction to the history and evolution of country music is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Music Row. It gives an intelligent overview of the music's history from mountain fiddlers to Alison Krauss. There are lucid exhibits on the music's folk roots, bluegrass, singing cowboys, Cajun and Western Swing. Display cases are filled with the original costumes and instruments of stars from Minnie Pearl to Merle Haggard. You wander from Les Paul's legendary "log", a 4-by-4 piece of wood with electric pickups that was probably the first electric guitar, to Elvis Presley's solid gold 1960 Cadillac.

The $8 entrance fee admits you to the most famous studio in Nashville, RCA Studio B. Forty-seven thousand songs were recorded here between 1957 and 1971 by performers such as Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton and Jim Reeves. The studio, preserved in its original condition, is once more being used and you can watch a recording session in the place where hits such as "Only the Lonely", "It's Now or Never" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" were made.

There's good news for country fans who are bored with the way today's cloned Nashville hitmakers have strayed away from the music's roots. The best sessions I heard in Nashville were run by the Western Beat Roots Revival, a line-up of groups and musicians put together by entrepreneur and drummer Billy Block. Western Beat marks a reaction against the bland music of corporate country and those singers who are proud to be described as "smooth and creamy as saddle soap".

Every Tuesday, the Western Beat takes over a comedy club called Zanies for three hours of hard-driving, authentic country, rockabilly and Western Swing. The show is recorded for a top Nashville radio station, Power Country 103 FM. In a single evening you can see high energy groups such as the Bum Steers, the Hillbilly Idols and the crazy-legged Hank Flamingo.

Riders in the Sky turned up at Zanies to play what they call "The Cowboy Way". It was their 3,568th gig in 20 years and their classic cowboy songs mixed with irony and yodelling have found a new generation of fans. The cowboy wisdom of Ranger Doug, Too Slim and Woody Paul is as fresh as ever: "Always drink upstream from the herd. Bring good beef to hungry people. When in doubt, harmonise."

In case visitors still think of Nashville in terms of snake-skin boots, stetsons and guitar-pickers, the locals proudly tell you that the city has been chosen as the site of the Leonard Bernstein Center for the Arts. And the 15,000-bottle wine cellar in the Wild Boar - the classiest restaurant in town where you can dine off 18-carat gold plates - has been voted the best in America.


Getting there

Tour operators with inclusive holidays to Nashville and Tennessee include American Connections (01494 473173), American Airlines Holidays (0181- 577 9966), North America Travel Service (0113 243 0000) and Premier Holidays (01223 516688).

Live Music

Tootsie's 422 Broadway (615-726 0463); Robert's Western Wear 416 Broadway (615-256 7937); Zanies 2025 8th Avenue South (615-269 0221); Grand Ole Opry tickets 615-889 7070.

Bluebird Cafe 4104 Hillsboro Road (615-383 1461) and Douglas Corner Cafe 2106a Eighth Ave S (615-298 1688) are the best venues to see new singer/songwriters. 3rd & Lindsley (615-259 9891) is the best for blues, the Wildhorse Saloon 120 2nd Ave is tops for line-dancers and Exit/In 2208 Elliston Place (615-321-4400) for indie rock.

Further information

Tennessee Tourism: 01462-440784.