Nashville runs on rhythm and hums with harmony
Whether you're a country obsessive yearning for your musical mecca or you just want to have a good time somewhere hip and lively, Nashville, America's 'Music City' has a lot to offer – and next year might just be the best time to go, writes Ralph McLean
2017 is the perfect time to hit Nashville, Tennessee. There are major musical anniversaries galore to celebrate and to say the city is booming barely covers it.
In the three years since my last visit that famous Nashville skyline has expanded almost beyond recognition. There are plush new hotels (like the stunning Westin on Clark Place, where I based myself for the week) and hip exotic eateries aplenty (like the seriously cool Pinewood Social on Peabody Street where you can enjoy a little 1950s style 10-pin bowling with your breakfast).
Add that new to the tourist gold of the traditional attractions that have long made Music City USA a real sweet spot of the South and it's easy to see why Nashville is one of the coolest stateside destinations right now.
There are endless entertainment options available to divert the first time and returning visitor alike but it's the music that pulses at the core of this city that keeps me coming back for more. This is a place that runs on rhythm and hums with harmony. It seeps from the very pores of the people here and you can feel the beat almost surging up from the sidewalks below your feet.
It's not just country music either. Jack White's ultra cool bastion of indie rock credibility Third Man Records sits side by side with the stunning Schermerhorn Symphony Centre where the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, celebrating their 70th birthday in 2017, provide 140 performances every year. It's that kind of city.
Think Nashville, though, and it's impossible not to think country music in all its many forms. The Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum on 5th Avenue is about to turn 50 and is the perfect starting point for those looking for a little historical perspective on the city's long term love affair with all things C&W.
The so-called Smithsonian of Country Music is 350,000 square feet of pure heaven for fan boys like me and there's always something fresh and fascinating to discover amid the state-of-the-art exhibits, photographs and superstar artefacts. If you fancy poring over Dolly Parton's stage wear or running your eye over Elvis Presley's solid gold Cadillac, it's all there.
Fans of The King are also advised to take in the legendary RCA Studio B, off Music Row, that provided a home for what became known as the Nashville Sound in the 1950's and 60's. About to celebrate it's 60th birthday, it's one of the great studios in rock history and the kind of place that could make even non believers see the light by the time their short tour of the facilities is over.
Everyone from The Everlys to Roy Orbison recorded in this simple and unassuming cinder block studio but it's the fact The King himself laid down more than 200 of his finest sides within these padded walls that draws most music lovers to its doors. When the lights dimmed and the tour guide led me to the spot where Elvis stood to record Are You Lonesome Tonight the hairs stood to attention on the back of my neck. It was my third visit to the place and it's happened every single time. It's a spooky but seriously unforgettable experience.
The Ryman Auditorium, back on 5th Avenue, is just as unmissable. As it celebrates 125 years on the planet the 'Mother Church of Country Music' remains the hippest venue in Nashville bar none. You're as likely to see Snow Patrol as Willie Nelson play it these days but the Grand Ole Opry, the world's longest running radio show, still broadcasts in the winter from its famous stage and their live weekend broadcasts remain the perfect way to enjoy the best of country music old and new. If you can get a ticket that is!
The world famous Bluebird Cafe, situated in a nondescript strip mall on Hillsboro Pike, has been drawing acoustic music lovers in like a magnet for 35 years and given everyone from Garth Brooks to to Taylor Swift their big break along the way. The quality of the artistry on show most nights is world class but since the TV show Nashville started using the place its popularity has rocketed even higher and seats are at a premium on the 'In the round' nights when three songwriters swap stories and songs in the centre of the 90-seat venue. Get there early and soak up the atmosphere of one Nashville's most revered night spots.
If you fancy cutting loose and shaking a tail feather or two the Honky Tonk Highway on Lower Broadway remains an essential stopping off point. The street has grown to become Nashville's party central in the past 10 years so expect a busy and boozy crowd right down the strip. Be warned, though, the quality of the taverns and the constant live music that roars from every one of them varies wildly.
Tootsie's has the history – everyone from Hank Williams down would saunter in there from the Ryman for a post performance beer back in the day – but the best sounds and most authentic atmosphere can usually be found in Roberts Western World, a few doors down. From roof-ripping bluegrass to good time Americana the playing has always been top class when I've popped my head round the door. You won't pay into these venues but the bands all play for tips so remember to bring some spare dollars with you for the old tip jar when it does the rounds.
Those seeking a little more leisurely libation should take the hour-and-a-half trip out of town to Lynchberg for a tasting session at the legendary Jack Daniels distillery. For a century and a half now every drop of JD in the world has been born in that humble, old school brewery and the even if whiskey isn't your tipple there's lots to learn and enjoy in a trip around those grounds where Gentleman Jack first brewed up a storm.
For a little sustenance on your trip call into Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Restaurant where the food is as down home as it comes and the hospitality as Southern as fried chicken and green beans. Be warned you may leave Nashville with your waistline considerably bigger than it was when you arrived.
To finish my week of musical madness I paid a visit to the Johnny Cash Museum on Third Avenue. Open seven days a week it's the ultimate tribute to the legendary country star and his musical legacy. Play your card right and you might, through the wonders of technology, get to have an audience with The Man In Black himself. Now what other city would you get that in?
:: For more information on Nashville check out www.visitmusiccity.com