Sunday, May 3, 2015

Adventures in the South - Nashville, Part 3

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Well, perhaps not quite. But this last instalment about Nashville covers some different angles.
Let’s start by talking about the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  Opened in 2001 at a cost of something like $31m, it’s a damn large exhibition space.  It starts off with the kind of chronological approach you might expect, and is hugely interesting on the origins of country music, with film footage here and there of hillbilly porch scenes of fiddle playing, clog dancing, and poverty.  As the tour progresses there are exhibits that illustrate the kind of tacky accoutrements favoured by the country superstars of yesteryear – cars customised with bling, suits of the most beyond-ersatz cowboy variety.  But still unfashionably endearing.

Eccentric country music instruments!
Then there are the segments that illustrate certain periods or movements in the development of country music, and this is where things start to get interesting – and tricky.  The country music scene in the mid-50s became synonymous with the ‘Nashville Sound’ – a stickily sweet approach epitomised by the ghastly Jim Reeves. This became the mainstream to the extent that the money men from the record labels apparently resisted artists attempting anything different.  Trouble is, a norm that’s imposed will inevitably attract detractors and rebels – and hence the ‘Bakersfield Sound’.  Drawing on influences from beyond Nashville, it evidently roughened things up and produced something grittier, taking country music in a new direction.  It was also something of a precursor to the “outlaw country” movement that crystallised around the likes of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early 70s, continuing the development of country in less kitsch directions.
Trouble is, a later generation of artists and producers proved themselves adept at assimilating all these influences and dragging them back to a more commercial country mainstream.  And the later elements of the Country Music Museum experience dwell on the moneyed spectacle of ‘arena country’, á la Garth Brooks et al.  By the time you get to the end, it smells of money, not heart.
Contrast the compact Johnny Cash Museum on 3rd Avenue South.  Compact, stylish and focused,
The AT&T Tower
 - aka the Batman Building
it illustrates country’s connections to rock’n’roll through one of its most singular icons – whose start came through Sam Phillips in Memphis, let’s remember. If you’ve got to prioritise where to spend your Nashville museum time, go here and the Ryman.

Our last evening took in a visit to the Station Inn, where we’d hoped to catch some bluegrass the previous evening.  Situated away from Broadway, it’s essentially a spartan concrete block in the middle of not very much.  On this particular evening there was no bluegrass though.  Instead it played host to three singer-songwriters armed with acoustic guitars, alternating songs between them to a reasonable audience – which unfortunately included a table full of drunks who seemed to have no interest in the music.  Mind you, the music itself wasn’t that inspiring.  What we had here was a platform for writers to try out their wares, songs that they hoped to sell to major recording artists – Nashville’s Music Row being the country equivalent of Tin Pan Alley.  Sadly, the fare on offer this evening wasn’t enough to overcome the background noise of the boozers.
Still, it was another part of the Nashville experience.  Next stop – Memphis!

For earlier episodes, see:       Adventures in theSouth – Prologue
                                                Adventuresin the South – Nashville, Part 1
                                                Adventuresin the South – Nashville, Part 2


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