Nashville, Tennessee, June 2015:
An hour before my flight touches down in the USA I am watching a music documentary on the seat-back screen. And the first words spoken in this episode of Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways are: “Everybody now thinks that Nashville is the coolest city in America.”
Well that’s where I’m going, and the Foo Fighters frontman is absolutely right. Nashville, Tennessee, is buzzing with success.
This is my third visit, and since I was last here four years ago the neon-lit downtown area has all but doubled in size. New bars, restaurants, shops and attractions open every week. Every joint is jumping and traffic is constantly held up by “pedal taverns” full of whooping young women on bachelorette (hen) weekends. Suddenly this is America’s party town. The downside is that there are cranes and building sites everywhere. The upside is that you can feel a crackle of energy and excitement in the streets.
Never slow to spot a trend, Sir Richard Branson is building his second Virgin Hotel on Nashville’s Music Row (the first is in Chicago) and there are whispers of a direct UK flightsoon.
For decades the city relied on country music to pull in tourists. Now it’s just the backdrop to new ventures in art, fashion, dining, drinking and everything else that draws people in.
The hit US TV drama called Nashville has been a big help. It combines soap-opera glamour and exceptionally good music with high-gloss camerawork that shows the city in a great light. The show’s male lead, Charles “Chip” Esten, was headlining at the traditional Grand Ole Opry on the night we visited. He’s come a long way from 1990s London when he was one of the TV improv team on Who’s LIne Is It Anyway.
We’d booked a backstage tour and got a close-up view as 49-year-old Chip and his band rehearsed before taking the stage.
Ninety years old this year, the Opry is the world’s longest-running radio show and an on-stage announcer still reads out commercials between the acts. Tickets from £21, VIP tour £63 extra. opry.com
These days most shows are at the 4,000-seat Opry House 10 miles out of town. But until 1974 the Ryman Auditorium in the heart of old Nashville WAS the Opry. Now hailed as the Mother Church of Country Music, it was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1990s and now it’s busy with rock, blues or country gigs nearly every night.
The visitor facilities have been radically improved this year and there are two different daytime tours that tell you about the hall’s heritage. You can get up on the hallowed stage and pose with a guitar and even make a record in their tiny studio. Tours from £10, ryman.com
Another musical must-see is the Country Music Hall of Fame, where a current major exhibit tells how the Nashville Cats, a band of insanely talented session musicians, attracted folk, pop and rock stars to the city’s studios after Bob Dylan made his Blonde On Blonde album there in 1966. countrymusichalloffame.org
The tradition continues to this day. For example, Blackbird Studios looks like a suburban bungalow but conceals nine state-of-the-art studios owned and run by audio genius and Beatles obsessive John McBride, husband of country singer Martina McBride. Everyone from Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson to Ringo Starr and Cliff Richard has recorded here. blackbirdstudio.com
Run by the Hall of Fame, with a shuttle bus in between, the historic RCA Studio B was built for Elvis Presley and he recorded more than 260 songs here. Full of memories and ghosts, with its original Steinway grand piano still in place, this was the birthplace of more than 1,000 hits by legends such as Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, the Everly Brothers and Dolly Parton. studiob.org
Nashville’s newest attraction is the George Jones Museum, a loving, moving and immensely rewarding tribute to a star hailed as the greatest-ever voice in country. Waylon Jennings once said: “If we could sound the way we wanted, we’d all sound like George Jones.”
Once an unreliable alcoholic known as “No Show Jones”, George died peacefully in 2013, aged 81, and the museum is owned by his widow Nancy. Along with the usual guitars, gold discs and stage costumes it contains his driving licences, passports, watches, spectacles, even a fully working barbershop that the well-groomed star had installed at his home and a screening room where every seat is a rocking chair (in tribute to his hit song Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair). georgejonesmuseum.com
Around two corners is the super-successful Johnny Cash Museum, opened in 2013 and about to launch a big expansion. For a guitar geek like me the highlight was two Fenders once owned by Johnny’s boom-chicka-boom man Luther Perkins and the tiny battered amplifier he used on those early classics. johnnycashmuseum.com
There’s more geek heaven at the Musician’s Hall of Fame under the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Displays include the drumkit Al Jackson Jr used with Booker T & The MGs over at Stax studios in Memphis and a pedal-steel guitar owned by the late great Ben Keith, who in 1970 sat in at a Neil Young session in Nashville, defined the sound of Young’s classic Harvest album, and became his lifelong musical cohort. musicianshalloffame.com
All this musical history naturally puts you in the mood for live sounds and you’re spoilt for choice among the honky-tonk bars of Lower Broadway. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, across the back alley from the Ryman, is the most famous. It’s where Hank Williams liked to repair for a whiskey or seven between sets at the Opry.
Tootsies has live electric bands playing for tips but for more traditional country try Robert’s Western World a few doors down. tootsies.net, robertswesternworld.com
There’s a more relaxed musical style at the Bluebird Cafe, featured in almost every episode of the Nashville TV show. Its friendly Songwriter Circle nights are a music industry legend. bluebirdcafe.com
To wind down until 3am take a cab to The Patterson House. It has a dimly-lit Speakeasy ambience and a huge list of £8 cocktails including the Drunken Lullabies (based on Irish whiskey) and Isla de Muerta (Jamaican rum). thepattersonnashville.com
Staying on the spirits, explore the fascinating history of Nelson’s Green Brier whiskey distillery on a daytime tour. The business was brought back to life in 2009 by two great-great-great-grandsons of founder Charlie Nelson, who came to America in 1850 on the same boat from Germany as HJ Heinz and Henry Steinway. The firm was shut down by prohibition in 1909 and re-opened exactly 100 years later. greenbrierdistillery.com
Then take an afternoon drink on the terrace at Tennessee Brew Works, where an £8 tasting tour will gave you samples of six or more craft beers, which are now a huge growth industry across America. tnbrew.com
Finally, you need to eat. There are so many restaurants opening up in Nashville that even locals can’t keep track, but we had great meals at Party Fowl (spicy southern-fried chicken, partyfowlnashville.com), The Pharmacy (burgers and German wurst sausages, thepharmacynashville.com), The Sutler (hickory-smoked meat, thesutler.com) and my favourite, Pinewood Social, a former trolley-bus garage with an old-fashioned bowling alley, a patio with two small dipping pools and private karaoke rooms. Oh, and a menu full of gorgeous southern treats. pinewoodsocial.com
Flying back to Heathrow after four action-packed days I realised the trip could have been twice as long without running out of things to do. I feel a fourth visit coming on already…
Don’t miss: Third Man Records is a music store, label HQ and live venue owned by rock star Jack White. Try its 1940s Voice-O-Graph direct-to-disc recording booth. thirdmanrecords.com
What to buy: Vintage vinyl, rare CDs at Grimeys New & Pre- loved Music. grimeys.com. Quirky arts and crafts in East Nashville. goeastnashville.com
The deal: Five nights in Nashville from £1,250pp (two sharing, room only) with American Airlines flights from Heathrow. northamericatravelservice.co.uk 0845 122 8899
More info: visitmusiccity.com and deep-south-usa.com
An edited version of this article was first published in the Sunday Mirror’s Holidays and Getaways section on June 14, 2015.