It is a unique experience, the first few tentative steps you take down Nashville’s “Honky Tonk Highway”. A wealth of Neon signs battle for your distraction amongst reams of street performers, and you pick your way through crowds of drunken cowboys, businessmen and hen parties, all to the electric soundscape of live, raw country music being pumped from every drinkin’ hole along the strip. It is testament to the amount of fun I had in Nashville that I regretfully have almost no photos of my entire time there.
During the course of our three day visit, we did our very best to sample every tavern, beer and band on the whole strip, and beyond to 3rd and 2nd Ave and the quieter, perhaps more ‘real’ country music venues that abound there.
While we thoroughly enjoyed almost all of the venues we experienced in Nashville, I have decided to centre my experience on my favourite. It is my favourite, perhaps not as the music, beer or vibe was the best, but it is my favourite as it did by far the best job of playing to my very removed English image of what country music, and Nashville itself should be all about.
Welcome to The Stage.
Wooden Floors. Purple Lights. Sawdust. Cheap Beer. Awesome Music. Palpable Energy.
When you enter the stage, you know that you are in Nashville. You know that Country music is alive and well.
It feels a little like being in Roadhouse, with all of the classic Americana and none of the threat of being roundhouse kicked by Patrick Swayze. The house band drives out another chorus, the house erupts and I am right there with them, forgetting my drink order on the bar.
The first thing that struck me is how incredible this band is. Polished, tight, skilled, yet somehow still raw, energetic, real and unlike anything I have ever seen. The crowd is a sea of cowboy hatted regulars, baseball capped out-of-towners*, and the regular, un-hatted first timers like myself, all of us now forgetting any sense of being out of place and joining the fray. Apparently vying for a regular spot in the capital of country is about as competitive as making it in the industry as a whole. It is certainly a first step, with many previous performers (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Gretchen Wilson, Dierks Bentley) now being household names. This knowledge, coupled with the iconic country music posters draped around and the stellar reaction that the band is receiving, really cements the idea that you are seeing the next big thing. That you were here, in the good old days, and one day may be able to tell your grandkids that you were there, you saw insert successful band name here, back when they were playing as a saturday night session band in Nashville.
When I finally need a break, I head up the back stairs to the roof top terrace. I had seldom imagined that it would be able to beat the experience I have just had on the main dancefloor, but opening up the doors, I’m hit by another wave of live music. Another band, slightly more chilled, but every bit as good, plays from the back of the room, with a long bar down the other side and the large fronting opening up to a roof terrace, overlooking the whole strip.
I sit back with a hearty local IPA, look over the strip and take a moment to consider how this is, in its all, the antithesis to British nightlife. It has so much character, so much energy, so much uniqueness. To all intents, a night out in Manchester is a night out in Newcastle, Edinburgh or Bristol. They may have a few minor variations, but the essence is the same, chain bars, brewery pubs, imported lagers. A night out in Nashville is unlike anywhere else in the world.
I see out the night by alternating between the two different rooms, embracing the energy and pace of the main Honky Tonk, then retreating upstairs to relax on the balcony, have a beer watch the world go by and listen to the more dulcet tones of the upstairs chill band.
I loved my time in Nashville, and would recommend a visit to anyone, country fan or not. It is unique, it is fun, it is iconic and it is fiercely American.
*edit – upon further reflection, it had became apparent that it is much more likely that the out of towners and tourists were the ones wearing cowboy hats, most likely made of felt and purchased from a street vendor outside that very establishment. Anyone in a baseball cap was actually much more likely to be somewhat local or at least a regular patron of Nashville.