Singing City

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These days airports try to evoke some of the flavor of the communities they serve, and in Nashville the airport corridor leading from the arrival and departure gates is enlivened by walls full of linear posters, at once stark and vigorous, of country music stars. They bear the unmistakable stamp of Hatch Show Prints, one of the oldest working letterpress printshops in the country, still flourishing in the city’s downtown.

The Hermitage Hotel has been restored to Gilded Age glory.
 
the hermitage hotel2005_6_32a

These days airports try to evoke some of the flavor of the communities they serve, and in Nashville the airport corridor leading from the arrival and departure gates is enlivened by walls full of linear posters, at once stark and vigorous, of country music stars. They bear the unmistakable stamp of Hatch Show Prints, one of the oldest working letterpress printshops in the country, still flourishing in the city’s downtown. Then, just before the stairs leading down to baggage claim, come the familiar strains of “Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash’s imprint still strong on this rendition. The live performer this day is a young man named Jason Parcheel; during two sets a day he captivates travelers, allowing them to forget for a few minutes the anxieties of flying, its delays, and the specter of lost luggage.

This is a good introduction to Nashville, Tennessee’s capital, aka Music City USA, but does it mean that country music is all the place has to offer? You can, of course, spend virtually 24 hours a day in and around Nashville soaking up the music scene, but then you’ll miss out on an awful lot. Downtown itself, home to the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as countless clubs, barbecue joints, and honky-tonks, also has the world-class Hermitage Hotel, the new Frist Center for the Visual Arts, housed in a carefully restored Deco post office (where you can still mail letters), and a gorgeous Romanesque Revival railroad station, now home to a hotel and top-notch restaurant. There is a clear sense here of a city enjoying a rebirth.

For a layered look at Nashville’s history, head down to Fort Nashborough by the Cumberland River. It’s a one-quarter-scale re-creation of the fort that sheltered the settlers of 1779, built in 1930 by a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. From behind the fort’s log walls you can look up to Second Avenue North, where live music is made day and night. The brick buildings that served the prosperous commercial city of the late nineteenth century still stand, forming a fairly complete and attractive streetscape. Beyond their facades rises a modern skyline made distinctive by a signature skyscraper, the BellSouth Building, nicknamed almost as soon as it opened in 1994 the Bat Building for its double-peaked top that seems to resemble Batman’s silhouette.

Over the years Nashville has been designated the Athens of the South because of its many colleges, and the Wall Street of the South, reflecting an early boom in insurance and other financial institutions, but it is country music with which it is most closely associated. It started in 1925 with WSM Barn Dance , the world’s longestrunning radio program, sponsored by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The station’s call letters stand for the sponsor’s boast: “We Shield Millions.” By the 1950s Nashville was a center of all aspects of the recording industry, and today, says the mayor, Bill Purcell, it holds its own with Los Angeles, New York, and London.

You can spend 24 hours a day soaking up Nashville’s music scene, but then you’ll miss out on an awful lot.

At the Country Music Hall of Fame, a 130,000-square-foot space opened three years ago and designed with as much built-in symbolism as a cathedral, which in a sense it is, the point is made over and over that Nashville thrives not just on country but on pop, jazz, big band, gospel, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues. City fathers also point proudly to the soon-to-open multimillion-dollar symphony hall, rising cater-corner to the Hall of Fame.

As for the Hall of Fame’s iconography, I learn from an excellent museum publication that the structure forms a massive bass clef when viewed from the air. Furthermore, the entrance forms an arc suggesting the tailfin of a 1959 Cadillac, “the front windows resemble piano keys,” and the building is topped by a tower that “stretches skyward like a church steeple, recalling the role of religious culture in country music’s history.” None of this would I have figured out on my own, but the exhibits within certainly speak for themselves, from Elvis’s 1960 gold-plated Cadillac Fleetwood to grainy television footage of Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford, to rhinestone-studded costumes and gold-plated records. In short, everything you would ever want to know about country music and its cousins is here.