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Music City, Indeed

May 24, 2023

Nashville is called “The Music City,” and the aptness of that label was pressed upon Sharon and me two weeks back on a Saturday night. We’d driven downtown to the Nashville Symphony’s home, the Schermerhorn Center, for a performance of pieces by Elgar (best known for “Pomp and Circumstance”) and Copland (whose “Rodeo” was featured that night, including “Hoe Down,” the theme music for the 1993 ad, “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner”). We knew that a big Taylor Swift concert was scheduled that evening, so we drove down early to make sure we got a parking place. This gave us enough time to join the crowd gathering on the Shelby Street bridge (over the Cumberland River) to look over into Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL Tennessee Titans. Taylor wasn’t up yet, but we could hear an opening act performing.


As we walked up onto the bridge, we looked down to our right at the waterfront venue for another concert, this one by Whiskey Myers. I didn’t know the group, but a look at their set list suggests they weren’t into show tunes, Celtic ballads, jazz, or R&B—“Glitter Ain’t Gold,” “John Wayne,” “Die Rockin,’” “Bar, Guitar, and a Honky Tonk Crowd,” and “Deep Down in the South.” A couple of years back, we’d enjoyed an evening of music there from the cheap seats on the lawn. We baby boomers took in a program of raucous nostalgia featuring the venerable Roger Daltrey of The Who (born 1944) performing the rock opera Tommy (including “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”), accompanied by a portion of the Nashville Symphony.


As we made our way back off the bridge toward the Schermerhorn, which sits just a block from Lower Broad where a raft of clubs blare out country music from open windows and rooftops, I marveled that acoustical insulation could keep symphonic music safe. Up and down the thoroughfare, a variety of cockamamie vehicles (including pedal taverns with a dozen patrons cranking away while sucking on beers; cutaway buses with hot tubs and inebriated bachelorettes singing and hollering as they passed; converted army trucks with revelers, male and female, adding to the din). Later, when the symphony had finished, we walked half a block west on Third, where I took this shot of a performer in a little club. And then we headed home.


It could have been more musically hectic if a star had been performing in the Bridgestone Arena, bordering Broad, a block up from the Schermerhorm. In past years, we’d heard there the likes of Garth Brooks, Michael Buble, the Lumineers, and Keith Urban in that big building, home of the Nashville Predators of the NHL. But it was silent that evening.


I’ve read that Queen Victoria dubbed Nashville “The Music City” when she heard the Fisk Jubilee Singers on their European tour of 1873. Well, they’re still singing. (Sharon and I heard them on the campus in the mid-1970s, when they opened for a talk by the notorious Angela Davis.) But most think of country music when they hear “Nashville.” They’d likely be surprised to know that a lot of other musicians have either passed through or landed here, artists more associated with other genres. Bob Dylan did his Nashville Skyline taping in one of our studios (including “Lay Lady Lay” and “Country Pie”); a pedestrian bridge in nearby Radnor Lake state park was donated by nearby resident Peter Frampton, who starred in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Billy Preston; and John Kay, a member of the rock group Steppenwolf (“Born to Be Wild”) has settled here. Then there is the Christian music scene, with, for instance, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, and the Gettys having homes near Nashville. On top of this, Vanderbilt/Peabody, Belmont, and Lipscomb have strong music programs. And on and on.


I might also mention that I’ve had a modest recording career in Nashville. When I was a grad student at Vanderbilt back in the 1970s and a member of the Belmont Heights Baptist Church orchestra, the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) published a church music magazine with a flexible-plastic demo record stapled into each issue. We had a number of BSSB folks in our church, and somehow I got tapped for a trumpet trio to add a fanfare to one of their recordings. Yes, I’d played in an Arkansas All-State Band in Bill Clinton in the 1960s, he on tenor sax, I on trumpet, but my professional trajectory was yet to materialize. But that all changed when we assembled at the old Woodland Studio in East Nashville. As we warmed up in the tape library, I spied the masters from a 1971 recording session by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who’d come to Nashville to collaborate on a three-album set, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. At that point, I knew I’d arrived. So, we did our little fanfare as backups for the singers and then drove off into the night.


I’m still waiting to hear from one of the studios in our fair city. It’s been 50 years. But when they call, I have my bona fides in place.