Over the years I’ve learned that how I experience a place or activity is greatly influenced by what I bring to it. This was certainly the case on a recent trip my wife, Debbie, and I took to Nashville after dropping off our only child, Sara, at the University of Puget Sound to start her freshman college year. We were deeply mourning the end of an excellent 18-year run, celebrating our collective successes, and anxious about the future.
Our chick had flown the nest, prompting us to temporarily flee south in search of distractions. Too restless to stay in one place, we vowed to keep moving, remaining no more than a day or two at a given hotel.
Nashville is one of those cities people from Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco talk about moving to, alongside Asheville, Austin, Charleston, and Portland. It’s main, really only, claim to tourism fame is its music scene, which is cheap, abundant, and dominated by what’s known as “country” but which more aptly might be called “Mostly White people singing about a deep yearning for meaning in the context of occasional bar fights and a long list of cover songs.”
We began our stay at Field House Jones, a brand new allegedly hip hotel located near a neighborhood a friend recommended as “the most walkable area in a city that’s not made for walking.” It was indeed stylish, in that it had complimentary gourmet donuts on offer 24/7, a candy bar, and groovy music-themed lobby décor. But none of the main amenities, such as a rooftop bar, were yet open, giving the place a bit of a half-constructed in Baja California feel; I lost-my-last-dollar in a midnight poker game and now I can’t finish constructing my hotel. The nearby “best pedestrian experience” consisted of a gigantic liquor store, sad looking vape shop, and two-block handful of semi-festive bars and restaurants. The Field House highlight, as Debbie kept exclaiming, was that we were probably the first people to sleep in our room’s bed, a rare triumph for any traveler.
We made our way to the Grand ol’ Opry, which to our mild surprise is located in the midst of what looks like a big box shopping mall, except the giant boxes are various entertainment and lodging venues, including the Opry itself. The singers were largely Top 40 country meh, both in terms of their performances and lyrics; one recommended spending life “killing time” drinking beer and driving around aimlessly until it was time to go to heaven. Words to live by. The highlights were the blue grass masters, Michael Cleveland and the Flamethrowers, and comedian Gary Mule, who’s snappily delivered corny jokes, many of which were set in a retirement home, were laugh out loud funny. It helped that the average age of the audience was maybe 10 years shy of becoming eligible for the gags.
About halfway through the show I whispered to my wife, “All the men here look gay.” “You’re right!” she exclaimed. Once seen we couldn’t un-see: the short cropped or well-coiffed hair, tucked-in plaid shirts, fitted t-shirts worn by guys in their 50s and up were sharply reminiscent of what you might see in the Castro of the same demographic. Which group copied which, we wondered. Was the country music scene rife with down-lows, escorting their cowboy-booted “beards” on bent elbows to the nearest Kiwanis Club?
We moved to the Bobby Hotel, located several blocks from Nashville’s honkytonk strip. The place was more confidently hip than Field House, with a lobby in which actual musicians might hang. Our room was huge, but dark, with a single sliding glass window leading to a small balcony tucked in a corner. The kind of place in which you either heavily drink, commit suicide – for extra fun first imagining the various ways self-murder could be done, and the potentially flamboyant consequences to the room – or just don’t stay too long during the day. Debbie loved the rooftop pool, which held a careful balance of chaise chairs, lazy cabanas, a renovated 1950s-era Winnebago turned lounge, and intermittently lively crowd, including on one afternoon a swarm of photographers-in-training clicking at a single voguing female model.
We strolled several blocks to the Listening Room, which offers a nightly rotating set of three to five musicians who chat briefly about their lives and careers between performances. All the players were more compelling than almost anyone we saw at the Opry. Zack Green, who fronts for Birdtalker, sang with a beautiful intimacy that drew us in and held us tight. Debbie burst into tears after two stanzas of singer-songwriter Shawn Bryne’s first tune, about his toddler son making his life complete. We rushed the stage afterwards to see if it was available to purchase, but he’d yet to record it. Any town with a credible Listening Room is worth visiting at least once.
We moved to the Union Station Hotel, a magnificently converted 19th century train station. The building itself merits a gander, with its immense lobby that features a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling and 100-year-old Tiffany-style stained-glass windows. I visited the Frist Art Museum next store, where a well-curated Frida Kahlo show was on offer. Though I find Kahlo’s work ranges from pleasant to momentarily engaging, the exhibit revealed her importance as a distinct female artistic personality, a mid-century last breakthrough character along the lines of Madonna, a stepping-stone to Kim Kardashian, if the latter had artistic talent and a steelier inner strength.
At this point, after enjoying a handful of entertaining honkytonks, including one with a joyful house party vibe that attracted a mixed crowd of tattooed African- and European-Americans, we should’ve departed Nashville. But, trapped by premade plans that involved further travels to the East Coast and beyond, we stayed.
Two hours west of the city we found ourselves at a Christian Gospel festival held at Loretta Lynn’s “ranch,” she of Coalminer’s Daughter fame. Stars and strips decorated “United We Stand” stickers, along with bible study materials, were disturbed at the entrance. We mumbled our way through the Lord’s Prayer alongside an audience of ghostly white true believers and listened to a half-day of praise songs which most of the performers lip-, and even guitar-, synched. Our spirit moved us to abandon the roadside Holiday Inn we’d booked – which had a rapey vibe reinforced by a strong chemical odor – and flee back to Nashville, landing at the quite nice, if business conventional, Omni Hotel. Praise the Lord!
The next day we drove two hours east of Nashville to the Muddy Roots music festival, which consisted of a dirt block long set of vendors’ tents that sold nothing anyone would want to buy or eat, with stages on either end. The bands shouted out their original punk rock meets country tunes, sounding mostly like they were trapped inside a shrieking cat that was having sex with some sort of other unidentifiable animal. Just don’t look at it directly in the eyes. I found it strangely compelling, but Debbie – who I’ve dragged to such places as Niger and Southern India – demurred.
It was a lovely drive back to Nashville. We’d semi-succeeded in walling off our worst anxieties about Sara, and the end of a family era. It was time to move to the next adventure, one perhaps not unlike the country songs we’d heard,
Daughter’s gone to college, all we can do is holler, and pay the resulting bill,
Mama’s feeling awful, wishin life was different, baby’s gone and broke her heart,
Daddy’s rendered speechless, feeling darn right peek-ed, in for lonesome time,
Then the fightin started, barstools all a’ clobbered, life is just one big wheel…
We might return to Nashville someday, back to the Listening Room and a honkytonk or two. And if we do, no doubt we’ll be in a different mood, hopefully less bluesy, more country, ready to dance.