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Music City's best stages: the Opry and the airport

Performers dig the gigs at Nashville terminals. Other cities too give travelers a musical welcome and send-off.

January 19, 2008|John Gerome | Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Members of the audience dash off suddenly during his show. Others talk on cellphones, read novels or wolf down sandwiches.

John Bontempi takes it all in stride. He strums his guitar and sings another tune near the clanking baggage carousel at Nashville International Airport.

"It took all of history just to make you mine," he warbles from under a dark cowboy hat.

Bontempi is among the 90 or so professional musicians who perform at the airport in its push to add "local flavor," a break from the chain gift shops and restaurants in airports from Miami to Seattle.

"We're the best gig in town," proclaimed Cathy Holland, the airport's director of community affairs and customer service.

The musicians tend to agree, even if the audience is antsy and the overhead announcements -- "The local time is 2:30 p.m." -- get annoying.

"It's a lot of fun. You get a lot of different people coming through," says Bontempi, a singer-songwriter who plays all original material at his monthly two-hour airport shows. "I've had people on their cellphones walk by and say, 'Hey, they even have music here -- listen,' and they hold up their cellphone."

Nashville already has one of the busiest airports in the country for live music, but this month it will liven up even more with the opening of Tootsies, an offshoot of the Tootsies Orchid Lounge honky tonk where Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson once swapped songs and cold beers.

No one knows for certain, but Nashville International and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas probably have more live music than any other airport in the country, according to the trade group Airports Council International.

The cities share a rich musical heritage. Nashville's reputation as the capital of country music goes back to the start of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s. Austin's thriving independent music scene grew from country roots in the '70s and is celebrated by thousands of music industry representatives and fans who flock to the annual South by Southwest Festival.

"The airport is the gateway. It's important that it reflect the culture and character of the city," said Jim Halbrook, spokesman for Austin's airport, where a variety of musical acts do 11 shows a week.

Other airports have live music on a more limited basis. During the holidays, Boston Logan International and Vancouver International in Canada had professional performers and school choirs. Lambert- St. Louis International has musicians playing a few times a week. Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International in Florida has live entertainment during the fall and winter months.

In Nashville, the airport began offering music in the early '90s as country was hitting a growth spurt. Today, musicians of every stripe play its five stages most days of the week.

On the same afternoon Bontempi sang his country songs in baggage claim, a four-piece pop group called the Chessmen performed near the security gate. A handful of people sat at the bar, a few worked at laptops or watched ESPN. When the band broke into Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville," everyone clapped.

"It's a nice touch," remarked Julie Wyte of Huntsville, Ala. "My husband has been in the military for 20 years and we've been to airports all over the world, and I don't think I've ever seen that before."

Airports across the nation are trying to mirror their cities. At Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, travelers can play the slot machines. At San Francisco International, they can tour an aquarium. At Palm Beach International in Florida, they can practice their putting.

The airports, in effect, are marketing tools. "The citizens who use them feel at home, and the visitors coming in get a sense of the city without leaving the airport," said Eileen Denne, spokeswoman for Airports Council International.

Nashville's niche has long been its music. Thanks to the vintage concert posters on the walls and the guitars in glass cases, there's no mistaking the airport for another.

For singers and musicians such as Bontempi, the airport is a sweet gig. For one thing, it pays ($32.50 per hour for the side musicians, $65 per hour for the frontman), which is no gimme in a town so crammed with people trying to get discovered that they'll play for free.

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