We Were Country, When Country Wasn’t Cool
The secret is out. Nashville is hip now. I know that because my television told me so. But to me, Nashville has always been cool. It’s where I was born and raised. Where I spent my days and nights listening to music.
As a teenager we’d snag tickets and drive to Antioch to see the big names that rolled through Starwood Amphitheater and then sneak in a few nights later at The Bluebird for songwriter’s night. Now, The Bluebird is hidden in the shadow of an Anthropologie and Fresh Market and Starwood was demolished in 2007. They claimed it was a 1st generation music venue. It was too old school, I guess. Nashville was where I’d spend many nights as a child with my family hearing bluegrass at The Station Inn, listening with leisure to Del McCoury or Alison Krauss and Union Station. Now, I’m not sure if I could even find its seedy brick building in the ramble of The Gulch, a colony of overpriced condos and country chic boutiques.
I remember a different Nashville. A place where, in high school, we would all flock to the riverfront to see the free summer concerts at Dancing in the District. We’d hardly give any mention that most of the bands and musicians serving backdrop for our typical Saturday night had sold out high price tickets in arenas and on tours in any other city. For us it was just another night listening to music. It was expected. It was Nashville. No band or singer intimidated any of us. They were our neighbors, our musical comrades. I mean, this isn’t California, a true Nashvillian would never ask someone for an autograph (they’d just send their four year old daughter over for it). We were of a different breed, the personification of music snobbery. It wasn’t on purpose but that’s what happens when your friends after school garage band lands a record deal, or when you grow up spending summers swimming in a legendary guitar shaped pool. We could spot a fake country accent just about as quick as we could a Vince Gill harmony. Our music was better and we were in on the secret.
It seems now that Nashville is everywhere, in every magazine or as the new mailing address for a load of movie stars. Everyone is jumping on the Nashville tour bus so to speak, but those that were lucky enough to grow up here have always been Music City groupies. We’ve been there watching and listening. Just as we’ve watched waves of new residents come and go making the great music migration only to return home again heartbroken, we’ve watched our city’s reputation grow from being just a corny place where country music is made, Nashvegas to Nashville and we’ve nodded and said “told you so!”
Our city has always been everywhere, just not the network television version. At least, it’s always been everywhere for me. Its music would sneak up and surprise me from sea to shining sea. Even when I studied abroad in Florence, Italy my junior year of college, it was there with me. I’d walk the streets wearing my headphones and listen to my sister’s latest mixed tape. A casserole, she’d call it, the classics mixed in with some fabulous undiscovered local band. When I’d cross the Ponte Vecchio, the familiar twangy intro of a Diamond Rio song would ring through my ears. I’d pause for a moment in the middle of the jewelry merchants and tourists, close my eyes and feel it. Nashville. Home.
As an 18 year old about to leave and run off to college out of state, I took a quick look below at the round bit of floor cut out from The Ryman, the mother church, as I walked across the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to receive my high school diploma. I glanced down and felt for just a moment the songs that reverberated the floorboards. No big deal, I’d be back soon, I thought. No need to be sad, Nashville would be here in four years when I returned. Not knowing that within three months I’d meet the man I would eventually marry, a Mississippi boy, and he’d somehow convince me to move further and further south. Not knowing that twenty-dollar covers would become normal downtown and that the meat and three boardrooms dotting its streets would be replaced with Walgreens and Starbucks. If I had know that twelve years later I’d still be waiting for that magical bus to take me some four hundred miles back home, I would have gotten on my hands and knees and kissed the floor of that Opry stage.
Growing up, the Batman building was our compass. We were never lost with its giant spires guiding us north and south. Now I can hardly see it over the mass of the new Music City Center. Maybe that’s why I don’t rejoice in Nashville finally getting the recognition that it deserves. I’m like Starwood; at the age of thirty I’m too old school. Mostly it’s because I don’t want my hometown polished and shined, I want it worn in and scuffed up. I don’t want its authenticity to be strangled by some ugly hipster bow tie with a matching cardigan or its soul to be squashed by a $5,000 pair of cowboy boots bought in New York. It was amazing before Rolling Stone or Nicole Kidman, or GQ said it was. And when all the wannabees who can’t even tune a D or pick a string move on to some other place in America, I know Nashville will still be here, cranking out dreams and heartbreak quicker than songs, just like it always has.
Until then, I’m a little comforted knowing that when I hear music, even the crappy kind, I can close my eyes and feel Starwood’s steep grassy hill at my back, or smell popcorn and beer from a back table at The Station Inn, or feel the wind whipping off the Cumberland River downtown. I’ll smile and thank my fairy godmothers Tammy and Patsy for filling every turn and corner of my life with music. And when I’m homesick, I won’t turn on the TV or grab the latest issue of Rolling Stone. I’ll listen to some Loretta or Merle and smile, knowing that I’m still in on the secret and feel it again. Home. Nashville.
by Sarah Stanton Smith @Copyright 2012
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