Country music central

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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Nashville is about one thing and one thing only. If you don’t like country music, there’s not much point in you being here. Fortunately, we do, and the honky tonk bars that line Lower Broadway were our first port of call in Tennessee’s capital.

Although the most commercial and touristy of Nashville’s drinking dens, Broadway offers a string of boots ‘n’ beer bars with exemplary live music that ranges from old school behatted elder gents to long-haired tattooed young bucks, all, of course, with added pedal steel. Our first night here is spent imbuing all the garish decadence of the vibrant street, with Robert’s Western World standing out for their house band and cheeseburgers.

Nashville became the epicentre of what was originally dubbed hillbilly music as the popularity of the Grand Ole Opry radio show seized the reaches of its signal. The Opry debuted on WSM-AM in 1925, and was broadcast live every Saturday night from Nashville, its music and entertainment a welcome distraction to a country gripped by depression. It introduced the talents of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Bill Monroe, and would eventually play host to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and many more. The music was the sound of white country people - a derivation of the Irish, Scottish and even German folk music that was passed down through generations - was played on guitars and banjos, and echoed the agricultural life of the regions whence it came.

It was in the ’50s that Nashville developed its own distinctive brand of country music (where strings and choral voices replaced honky tonk instruments) and its subsequent popularity and success built the city it has now become.

The Opry’s longest-serving venue was the Ryman Auditorium, from 1943 to 1974. The stately building, just off Broadway, now houses an impressive museum, its stage intact and still in use.

We escaped the afternoon sun by spending a few hours in the Country Music Hall Of Fame - an incredible audio journey through the history and stars of the genre. What a thrill to see so much memorabilia and artifacts: Elvis’ car, Hank Williams’ guitar, Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit...

Included in the price of the tour is a visit to RCA Studio B. The birthplace of songs by many of country’s greatest artists, it is most commonly referred to as the “house that Elvis built”, for Presley recorded over a hundred and fifty hits here.

For all Nashville’s kitsch reputation, however, it has enjoyed a renaissance in the twenty-first century as more contemporary artists call the city home.

“The South just sort of drew me,” Detroit native Jack White told Clash. “It was only a matter of time before I was gonna end up living down south.” The former White Stripe set up his Third Man Records here, a label/studio/rehearsal/shop complex that bore his Raconteurs and Dead Weather music. Though a fan of country music, it was more the easy-going nature of Nashville’s inhabitants that appealed to him. “It’s sort of like in certain areas of LA or whatever, people are sort of used to seeing famous country stars here, so they don’t really think...they’re used to that. And also, it’s sort of the Bible Belt, so people are way more polite here; it’s just coming offside of that Christianity thing, which is nice. A bonus.”

The Followill family settled in Nashville, and it’s here that its youngest generation formed Kings Of Leon, and is where they all still live. “Nashville is a great place to chill,” drummer Nathan tells Clash. “You can get into anything you want to but it’s not forced down your throat. It’s cheap to live here, and we can actually have nice cars and nice houses and afford ’em. We’re country boys at heart.”

With bands like The Features and Mona also basing themselves there, the emergence of Nashville as an alternative rock ‘n’ roll sanctuary is ensuring that its reputation as Music City USA will continue to endure.

Robert’s Western World: 416B Broadway, Nashville 37203
Ryman Auditorium: 116 5th Avenue North, Nashville 37219
Country Music Hall Of Fame: 222 5th Avenue South, Nashville 37203
RCA Studio B: 1611 Roy Acuff Place, Nashville 37203
Third Man Records: 623 7th Avenue South, Nashville 37203

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