The Songwriting Tradition of Nashville, Tennessee
by Lee Foster
A traveler who wishes to understand modern American culture will find one window allowing a glimpse in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville offers something special–an unusually vigorous songwriter culture, which the public can experience any day of the year.
In Nashville, it seems, every waiter is an aspiring songwriter. It is said that there are about 50,000 actual songwriters in the immediate metro region. The Nashville Songwriters Association International has 16,000 professional members who are collecting royalties on their songs.
Moreover, it isn’t just “country music.” When a major performing artist, such as Celine Dion, puts out a new CD, chances are a number of the songs will have come from the Nashville scene.
Or course, country music was the cornerstone of the Nashville song-writing tradition. Nashville is the cultural capital of country music, a music whose themes have a universal reach, but whose style is especially evocative of the South.
Every Nashville music success story starts with a song, some aching record of loving and leaving. The sadness and loneliness of the human condition are constant themes. The search for love and the occasional redeeming human connection are the repeated subjects. Overall, there is often a foreboding sense of inevitable tragedy in country music lyrics, just as there is on a Civil War battlefield in the South.
When asked “What is country music?” the famous songwriter Harlan Howard once replied, “It’s three chords and the truth.”
One major recent development in Nashville music was the opening in 2001 of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This entity has been around since 1967, but now resides with its collections in a major, new architectural space with state-of-the-art presentations. The new building itself has musical motifs in its architecture. The front windows look like piano keys. A tower recalls the radio transmitters that first beamed the music around, creating the audience.
Inside there is a treasure trove of artifacts on display, from a guitar owned by Mother Maybelle of one of the earliest country music groups, the Carter family, to the stage costumes of the greats, such as Hank Williams. There is Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac, and even a nod to such parallel music figures as Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. As you stroll through the facility, you can listen to music, hear documentaries by people like Garth Brooks on what music means to them, and even cut your own souvenir CD of songs from the earliest recordings to the most recent Lee Ann Rimes. On display is the poignant painting by Thomas Hart Benton titled “The Sources of Country Music.”
Any time of the year is a good time to experience Nashville’s music scene, but a particularly choice time is each April when the songwriters gather for their Tin Pan South annual celebration. The historic Nashville downtown performance location, the Ryman Auditorium, is the venue for a reflective live performance by some of the legends of song writing. In 2002, for example, the show featured Johnnie Wright and Kitty Wells, John Bettis, Graham Gouldman and Andrew Gold, Bill Anderson, and the America group duo, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley. Successive nights gather further major song writers in various venues. In 2002 there was a singer-songwriter-pianist evening featuring Randy Goodrum, Mike Reid, and Ronnie Milsap. It’s a thrill to hear songs you may be familiar with, as popularized by major performing artists, but sung here by their actual creators, who describe also the song-writing process.
On any day of the year, and possibly at any hour of the day, you can wander the honky tonks of Broadway in Nashville between Third and Fifth Avenues and listen to music. On a given night there might be five bands playing simultaneously in this two-block stretch. You might start at Tootsie’s, the watering hole near the historic Ryman Auditorium, where performers hung out between shows. This music “District,” as it is called, has some interesting places to explore. Stop in at Jack’s for downhome barbecue. Visit Ernest Tubb’s Records for every vinyl, tape, and CD collectible you might want. Hatch Show Print is the poster printing facility whose art works announcing shows is a visual record of the music scene. Hatch posters are appreciated by many graphic arts collectors. They still print the posters in the traditional manner. Gruhn Guitars has a large selection of contemporary and high-end collectible guitars.
Each Friday and Saturday there is also a performance known as the Grand Ole Opry, a music phenomenon that has flourished since 1925. In that year radio station WSM beamed its powerful transmitter into Southern homes. Eventually, the 50,000-watt transmitter carried music to 38 states. A new technology, the radio transmitter, created the culture. The original program followed Grand Opera on the radio, so the bucolic announcer called this country songfest Grand Ole Opry, and the name stuck. Today you can hear this performance in person or listen to it on the Internet at www.wsmonline.com, where they also have archived past shows.
As you watch this evening performance at the Grand Ole Opry House, one aspect of the experience is striking. The fans have an especially close and personal relationship with the stars. Fans run up with their cameras to take photos during the performance, something that would be gauche at other music venues, but which is an encouraged part of the scene here.
Modern American culture is a complex phenomenon to understand. Music is one window affording some understanding. And when it comes to music, Nashville is a good place to start.
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE: IF YOU GO
Nashville’s tourism information source is the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 211 Commerce Street, Suite 100, Nashville, TN 37201, 615/259-4700, 800/657-6910.
Copyright © 2016 Lee Foster, Foster Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
This article was written by Lee Foster of Foster Travel Publishing. Contact Lee at .
Lee has 250 worldwide travel writing/photography coverages, plus articles on publishing and literary subjects, for consumers to enjoy and for content buyers to license at www.fostertravel.com.
Lee’s latest books/ebooks include one on self-publishing, titled An Author’s Perspective on Independent Publishing: Why Self-Publishing May Be Your Best Option, and a literary memoir about growing up in Minnesota, titled Minnesota Boy: Growing Up in Mid-America, Mid-20th Century. Lee’s travel literary book/ebook, Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time, now exists also as an audiobook.
Lee’s travel books/ebooks, focused mainly on California, include Northern California Travel: The Best Options, now available also as an ebook in Chinese. Lee co-wrote and co-photographed a major book for publisher Dorling Kindersley (DK) in their Eyewitness Guide series, titled Back Roads California. Lee’s further current California titles are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and Northern California History Weekends. All of Lee’s books can be seen on his website at www.fostertravel.com/book.html and on his Amazon Author Page.
Lee's photo-selling website on PhotoShelter has 7,000 digital images for photo buyers to license. Buyers may be individuals looking for photos for their blogs, publications, and décor. Lee’s traditional markets have been travel magazines and travel PR entities looking for travel images. See the photos at http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com and some licensing detail there at About.
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