NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The residents pronounce it Neh-yush-ville and they proudly call it Music City, U.S.A. . . . which was, I was told, a rat fur piece (a right far piece) from California. But to the millions of country music fans from all over the world and the 7 million of them who make pilgrimages here annually, miles don't matter. It's mecca, where they can come to see, hear, applaud and pay homage to their favorite performers.
The casual devotee of country music will find the enthusiasm of the dedicated fans contagious and the performances scheduled all over the city outstanding.
How can anyone help but become slightly infatuated with a musical genre that produces such engaging song titles as: "She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft," "Your Wife's Been Cheating on Us Again," "The Opera Ain't Over Till the Fat Lady Sings" or "Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life."
Music is the big draw here, of course, and it's presented in all its forms--from traditional wailing laments and tear-your-heart-out blues to the (praise heaven) non-electronic, toe-tappin' blue grass and today's modern "cross-over" songs and country rock--to hit just a few notes on the overall country music scale. You can enjoy them all "live" here in Middle Tennessee.
On the minus side, some of the attractions built around the many superstar performers may be a bit much for the sophisticated West Coast visitor who is about 1,500 miles removed from the heart of this southland and from the zealous ardor of the fans who religiously follow the sometimes soap-operatic lives of their favorite performers.
First suggested stop should be the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Music Row. Don't let the name throw you. It's not a graveyard of stone faces and plaques, but a lively, excellently chronicled exhibit of country music and all its forms and faces, not just in displays but in film and kinescopes and recordings of all-time greats.
I found myself mentally trying on the performing costume of Dolly Parton (I'm taller than she is, but comparisons end there) and guffawing at Ferlin Husky in a Hollywood epic called "The Hillbillys in a Haunted House" while husband, Bill, finally got to see Hank Williams in his only TV performance.
There's Elvis' "solid gold" Cadillac (actually 24K gold dust, diamond and pearl dust along with special ground fish scales from the Orient), the blazing blue suits of Hank Snow, Minnie Pearl's first straw hat and 1,001 other mementoes that capture the spirit of country music from its Appalachian beginnings to today's many-faceted sounds.
There are special exhibits on the 60-year history of the Grand Ole Opry and another on Willie Nelson. It's more than worth the $6 adult admission, which also includes entry to nearby Studio B, an early RCA recording studio where such stars as Elvis, Parton, Eddy Arnold, Snow and Charlie Pride recorded their first hits. Elvis alone recorded here more than 25 times.
The museum gift shop also has significant recordings, some of which are hard to find in ordinary outlets.
The next logical stop should be the old Ryman Auditorium, shrine of country music, where for 31 years the music of the Grand Ole Opry came into living rooms across the nation through the magic of radio. From the 1920s to the 1950s, some of the stars who performed on the Ryman stage before the Opry took it over were Isadora Duncan, Will Rogers, Mae West, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, Ethel Barrymore, Jascha Heifetz.
In 1943 the Grand Ole Opry moved in and for three decades entertained packed houses of 3,000 with such performers as the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers and later, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Hank Snow, Grandpa Jones and Porter Wagoner, all of whom became Saturday-night radio favorites across the nation.
In 1974, at one of the last performances at the Ryman, I was taken backstage, where complete bedlam and chaos reigned. Hundreds of people milled around calling to one another, and in the confusion, I was pushed and shoved until, aghast, I found myself on the stage standing right behind Johnny Cash, who was belting out "Folsom Prison." There were so many people on the stage that I wasn't even noticed.
Today, for $1.25, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the dilapidated old building, explore backstage and slide into the church pews, (where hundreds of thousands of fans sat even on 100-degree evenings with no air conditioning), and then listen to a lecturer on the historic stage tell about the building and the early days of the Opry.
The tradition of the Grand Ole Opry is still being continued in a new auditorium just adjacent to Opryland, about 10 miles from downtown Nashville. The shows, even some of the music, haven't changed all that much and the audiences are among the most enthusiastic in show business. More than 60 country-music entertainers still bring the crowds to their feet in standing ovations.