I’ve been in Nashville twice before and, on both occasions, had an absolute blast. Nashville is one of those cities which is world-renowned for one thing, (commercial Country and Western music), and in reality, much more complex and endearing than its own stereotype. It’s not an enormous city like Chicago or LA. Person for person it’s actually comparable to Belfast but it feels like a much bigger, busier and more cosmopolitan city than Belfast does. Even in the seven years since my last visit the downtown part of Nashville has become virtually unrecognisable with new hotels, businesses and stores springing up almost weekly as the city seeks to meet the demands of its brand new convention centre.
While it’s great to see Nashville expanding and it was really encouraging to hear stories of the ever-increasing tourism industry, the main street downtown- home to the Ryman Auditorium, (original venue for the Grand Ole Opry) and all the traditional Honky Tonk bars- was awash with inebriated tourists and football fans on Saturday night; the atmosphere less authentic Nashville than Hen Party gone awry and not dissimilar to the weekend night life in Temple Bar, Dublin. Nashville is a city with two faces; the hard-faced commercialism and air-brushed consumerism of the music industry and the tourism this industry generates, and the much more palleatable old Nashville which revolves around good music, good company, food and genuine Southern welcome. I’m glad to say this was the Nashville I got to sample during my brief visit.
I knew this wasn’t going to be a particularly restful stop. Belfast is twinned with Nashville and so, as well as the two wonderful readings I got to give at Barnes and Noble, Vanderbilt, (where I bumped into a fellow Ballymena-ite in exile), and at Bongo Java Coffee house with two amazing local musicians and fellow novelist, Warren Denney, there were also a host of meetings and visits to some ofNashville’s fantastic literary projects and programmers.
I got to spend a fantastic afternoon on the beautiful campus at Vanderbilt. I got to visit with the archivists at the Country Music Hall of Fame, (and drool over Gram Parson’s Nudie Suit and EmmyLou’s guitar). I got to drop in to Country Music Television and meet some of the folks at the Ryman, (where Jerry Lee Lewis was just about to take the stage- talk about coming full circle from Hibbing High where Bobby Zimmerman broke the school piano thumping on it Jerry Lee style, to the man himself). I also spent a wonderful morning with two really inspiring ladies at The Porch, a brand new Nashville non-profit specialising in literacy and writing. Every aspect of my stay was packed full of incredible experiences and great times catching up with dear friends like the Nashville-based musician and artist, Julie Lee who has played an incredibly influential role in my own artistic journey. However, it was such a full trip that I was absolutely exhausted at the end of each day and so so grateful for my incredible hosts Karen and Reggie and the enormous, all-embracing wonder that was their spare room bed.
There were so many brilliant moments on this leg of the adventure, (and I haven’t even mentioned the food: brisket to die for and deep-fried okra, chicken fried chicken and devilled eggs, pancakes on my first visit to the cracker barrel, sweet potato fries and all things Southern), but special mention must be made of last Saturday evening’s outing to the Grand Ole Opry. Thanks to the very lovely John Lassiter we were able to get backstage at the Opry, meet some of the performers, nosy round the dressing rooms and actually stand on stage behind the musicians as they played. It was incredibly surreal but most definitely the highlight of my trip to Nashville and one to boast about in front of the Ballymena folks as soon as I get home. Thanks to my visit to Tennessee i’ve rediscovered my love of bluegrass and my good Southern manners and am off to the East coast now for the last few cities on this never-ending tour.