A pilgrimage to Nashville, an intersection of culture, education, and craziness, such as it ever has been and ever shall be, where Jim and I attended Americanafest 2022 and reacquainted ourselves with A Big City.
We left City Winery to walk the neighborhood now called The Gulch (the railroad area of town) and find the next venues and by complete chance spotted Tanya Tucker on her way home, of course, in a convertible. Jim got a wave and snapped a photo. A few minutes later, at a nearby pub, in walked one of The Indigo Girls.
One day while Jim took in music at one of the afternoon venues, I walked again downtown, including on over to the new Museum of African American Music which is near the Ryman Auditorium, and itself a unique, immersive musical experience. I’m glad I got the chance to visit it. Another day we peeked into the windows of the Woolworth Building, where the students, including John Lewis, held one of the sit-ins in the civil rights era. The location was under restoration so we could not go inside.
But back, in my tale of last week, to the Ryman Auditorium, known by many as the Mother Church, one of the highlights of our visit and this particular music festival.
In the early 1950s, my father and mother (having grown up listening to the Grand Old Opry and Louisiana Hayride and their families playing instruments in their rural homes and churches) bought tickets to see the Opry at The Ryman. They stood in line on a hot summer day, purchased their tickets and were given paper fans (no AC inside), and then took their seats. The show started and people continued to line up outside.
My mother told me this story many times in her long life. At the first intermission, the announcer informed them that the show was over and there were people lined up outside waiting for the second act. Mother was surprised by this, having paid full price for two tickets and they expected to see the full show. But, of course, they dutifully left and went on with their lives, driving on to somewhere else in the U.S. to their jobs and growing family.
Three decades later, their middle daughter (me) attended graduate school at (then) Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. I arrived in downtown Nashville on a Greyhound bus and lived in a dorm room on campus, where I made new friends, studied, survived on coffee and granola bars and grits and worked at the Education Library. My classmates worked at other campus libraries, including the Science Library, and another friend worked at the Country Music Hall of Fame Library (then located on Music Row, not far from the campus). We studied. We studied our butts off, and several of us graduated with honors and went on to our careers and lives. My closest friend worked as a librarian for a few years and then went on to get a master’s in divinity in Boston.
While I lived in Nashville, The Ryman, under restoration, was not open to the public, so no concert, no nothing there for me at least. Just drive-bys. By then, Opryland had been built with its huge new facility for The Grand Old Opry, along with an amusement park, outdoor stages and a swank hotel and restaurant. When our family members passed through town visiting, we did go to Opryland once for the fun of it all, but it was far away from campus, I did not have a car and thus walked most everywhere unless I caught a ride with a classmate who had a car or a family member stopped in for a weekend visit.
Once my mother and youngest sister were on a road trip and they visited me for an overnight. Once one of my professors took me to lunch at Opryland and another time one of our professors, a librarian at the Science Library, invited four of us to dine in the Faculty Dining Room with her, a lunch for which, of course, we all dressed up. In those days, students and faculty by and large wore skirts and ties and pantyhose and the like, no matter the weather. Now, as is true everywhere, one sees a greater array of casual dress, both among students and faculty and staff, including the current administrative staff.
But back to the Ryman. As it happens, in all the times I’ve been in Nashville, I never had the chance to actually attend at concert there. I’ve done the full tour of the building (10 years ago), which includes backstage rooms and all, but no concert. Until last week. Where I shed a few tears when I thought of Mom and Dad there in their young years and then I laughed and enjoyed the show, which included a surprise (for me, at least) appearance by Lucinda Williams and Robert Plant and more. That’s what happens in Nashville. I wonder who my parents saw at the Ryman in the 1950s. I have guesses but I don’t know for sure.
Surprise appearances, whether it be on the concert stage, on the street, or in bars and eating places, are one of the essences of Nashville. I recognized Lucinda Williams at once, having been a fan of her music for decades. Williams has survived a recent stroke, but walked to the mic and sang.
When I lived in Nashville in the ’80s, as a Vanderbilt University graduate student, each day we read The Tennessean. At that time, there was both a morning newspaper and an evening newspaper (competitors). We read both newspapers, partly because we were nerds but also because we knew that there would be something in there pertinent to our coursework.
In addition to being library science graduate students, many of us worked in campus and Nashville libraries of all types. In my case, I worked at the Peabody Education Library, both the reference desk and periodicals. My roommate worked at the Science Library, and upon her graduation, she was hired at the Education Library. Others were at the nearby Country Music Hall of Fame Library, at that time located in the basement of the original CMHoF on “Music Row.”
We also read the newspapers for the comics page, enjoying the laughter break when we were under normal graduate school pressure. One professor would come into class each day with a newspaper clipping and use that as an example of what kind of question might spark someone to call or visit a library in order to get more information than what was found in the story. Our government documents professor was herself a librarian at some government library (I forget now where but somewhere in Memphis) so this was her real-life experience for us.
Last week, I looked here and there for The Tennessean, knowing that in the ensuing decades the world of information has gone digital, but I only found a printed copy on our last night there, when, having failed to book a hotel for our last night before an early flight, we splurged and stayed at legendary Hermitage Hotel, located across the street from the capital grounds. In the lobby of the Hermitage, there are complimentary copies of the paper. Otherwise, the only sign we saw last week of that newspaper was the logo on a tall building on the edge of the downtown, near the Music Row and West End neighborhoods.
The Cumberland River riverfront area of Nashville was being revitalized when I lived there in the ’80s, the old and vacant warehouses refurbished as restaurants and office space. Much of it now looks like expensive condos, too. But they did convert one of the old bridges to a pedestrian bridge (named after the legendary Nashville newspaperman) somewhere along the way, and each day we were there, it was bustling with people, many on bikes and scooters. (Watch out or you might get run over.) We also walked through some of the areas that were destroyed by a psychopathic van bomber in recent years (along with himself, in the van).
Looking back, I remembered how hilly and wooded the Nashville area is and that while I was a busy and happy young graduate student, there were times I felt claustrophobia, longing for the open prairie of home. (Certainly I suffered in the heat and humidity and, remember, in those days, we, shall we say, dressed more formally, every single day to class and work and more.) My still-dear friend had family roots in Kansas so she understood this.
The last time we were in Nashville, 10 years ago, we did not get to visit the (then new-ish) Country Hall of Fame Museum, so this was a priority for us to squeeze in between the busy festival schedule. That time, in the night, there was a tornado nearby so we were woken by the hotel staff to move to a secure area. One summer when I was a Vanderbilt student, while I was working at the Education Library, the sky turned green and we all went to the sub-basement until the tornado passed by. Last week, while it was hot, the sky was September blue, with puffy clouds.
One day in the festival schedule we blocked out for me to make a visit to the Vanderbilt University campus. Across from the campus is Centennial Park, where Musicians Corner would be hosting the Americana Festival 2022 musicians at the end of the day.
That morning we Ubered straight to the Heard Library building, the location of the Central and Divinity libraries and Special Collections. I had prepared for this by checking ahead on hours and access to the stacks and such.
What I wanted to do last week was to see if I could find on the shelves the copy of “My Antonia” I had read in June 1983. Before we traveled, I had checked online and knew there were still four copies of the classic novel of the prairies in the Central Library collection. Up we went in the old elevator, to the seventh floor, where I walked straight to the book, the very one I picked when Dr. Michael Rothacker, Bibliography of the Humanities professor, told us in 1983 to find a book at the Central Library and read it. At that time, libraries were starting to use computers, but not yet for checkout, so it was old style. Last week, to my astonishment, I found what had to have been the date stamp on the copy that I read all those years ago before there were barcodes and digital libraries and iPads.
Jim irreverently asked me if I was going to check it out again, to which I replied, “Why would I, we have a copy of the novel at home?”
My younger brother, upon receiving a text of this snapshot of me, asked me if this was where the band The Commodores recorded their greatest hits. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but my siblings help keep me so.
Our final day of the festival included a long ride to a bowling alley venue (was an old Kmart) and to Riverside Revival, a restored church — both in what I warned Jim would be a long ways “in the country” relative to our downtown location. The night ended with jam sessions at The Station Inn, where we chatted with the McCrary Sisters, winners of an award earlier in the week at the festival, performing at the Inn with their niece and brother. They brought down the house and we called it a night, although people were still streaming in as we left. Just beer and popcorn and pizza at The Station Inn and a madhouse outside. We headed to our motel with an early wake-up call for our last full day in the city.
I saw Bill Monroe and Flat and Scruggs at a concert at Belle Meade Mansion, all those years ago. One Sunday afternoon, I think in 1983, we attended the Nashville Symphony on the lawn at Cheekwood, where everyone spread blankets and quilts on the grass and we picnicked. Somewhere south of the campus was the first Ruby Tuesdays in which I had ever dined. Somewhere in Nashville was a White Castle and more.
I recommend the band “I’m With Her”
In my graduate student days, while we were poor and thrifty, on scholarships, I don’t think we were total bores, but we surely did not have time or money to go to the downtown honky-tonk scene, let alone buy records or sparkly clothing and hats. We only drove or walked by on our way to and fro. About 10 years ago, on a road trip through Nashville, Jim and I went to Tootsies Orchid Lounge for about an hour, just to get the experience (and maybe see someone famous) and to The Bluebird Cafe and did the backstage tour of The Ryman.
When living in Nashville, in a small and inexpensive apartment with roommates, we were selective with our time and money for weekend outings. Many evenings, we would sit on our East Nashville porch and listen to Prairie Home Companion on the radio. Mostly it was walking, the free symphony concerts on the grass by the Parthenon, and if a family member was in town, a day at Opryland complete with The Grand Old Opry in the “new” auditorium. We blew off steam on the roller coaster and laughed it up with Minnie Pearl later. Once we had concert tickets for Prairie Home Companion (in town at the Performing Arts Center), where Emmylou Harris was the featured guest. Once we dined at the Sheraton Hotel rooftop restaurant — as I recall the only skyscraper in the city, but that is a vague memory — and after dinner, she and I walked across the street to see Barishnykov perform with his ballet company. When we could we drove west, but to visit my family in west Tennessee and my roommate’s family in Arkansas (her father was a professor of French and her mother a social sciences teacher).
My roommate sang in the choir of the West End United Methodist Church, near the Vanderbilt campus, and we ate lots of catfish and soul food and drank lots of sweet tea. We also visited Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields and cemeteries. Last week, I could not help but notice that many of the old buildings, (including the churches) if they haven’t been knocked down, are squeezed in by the high-rise hotels and the huge arenas. While we were there last week, a story ran in the New York Times, “In Nashville, Rolling Parties Rage At Every Stoplight, as Nashville’s popularity has grown, so has the ‘transportainment’ industry – a motel assortment of including old buses, farm tractors and a truck with a hot tub. Many think it has gotten out of hand.” I probably have to say I see their point.
Since the years I lived there, the population has more than doubled. (I looked it up.) Looking at this another way, sometime in the past year the official number for U.S. COVID-19 deaths was about the current population of Nashville. Someone asked me what the current student population was at Vanderbilt and I don’t know nor need to know. I just know that it is still a prestigious university and that Nashville still has many prestigious colleges and universities. But not the land-grant college or the state university. That’s elsewhere in Tennessee.
The War of the Yellow Roses and Tennessee’s importance to the 19th Amendment are celebrated at the Hermitage Hotel. You can look that up yourself.
Below are some of my YouTube videos from the week in Nashville:
The juxtapositions in Nashville (“The Athens of the South”) fascinate — and might make you laugh and cry, all on the same day. Such a rich brew. For nerds or otherwise.