NASHVILLE -- Being a little bit more rock'n'roll than country, I had never considered putting a country-fried city like Nashville on my travel bucket list. Yet here I was, standing in a strip mall parking lot in Music City on a chilly Sunday afternoon, outside The Bluebird Cafe.
In a half-hour period, four cars had pulled up so a passenger could snap a photo of the trademark blue awning. "It's closed? I don't understand. I thought they filmed here," said one young woman before getting a picture and driving away. The Bluebird is an often-used setting in ABC's "Nashville" drama. Although the show films in a replica on a soundstage, that hasn't stopped fans from visiting the real space.
The Bluebird is one of several places that has gotten a Hollywood bump from the show, which stars Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as country music superstars. As I became addicted to the show, I began to notice how much of a star the city was. Actors would stroll along the impressive Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. The Nashville skyline seemed even more twinkly and inviting framed by the Cumberland River. It also appeared that concerts and club performances were being filmed in actual venues. The number of these venues seemed endless.
So, I followed my inner fan-girl and decided to see Music City for myself. A tour company offers a "Nashville"-centric bus tour. But I opted to use a list from the city's tourism website to go at my own pace. While I never had anyone actually utter the words "hey y'all" to me, I was elated to find that, like the show, there's music all around.
The "Mother Church of Country Music" was built in 1892 in what would become downtown Nashville by businessman Thomas G. Ryman as a venue for evangelist Sam Jones. From 1943-1974, it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the long-running, weekly radio showcase made up of a variety of big-name and smaller country acts.
A National Historic Landmark, the Ryman is open for tours. Costumes, programs and other memorabilia tied to performers such as Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff are prominently displayed on the first and second floors. The Ryman is also where Rayna (Britton) and Juliette (Panettiere) did the duet "Wrong Song" in the first season.
Today, the Ryman only hosts the Grand Ole Opry between November and January. With the acoustics and the crescent arc to the pew seating, it's hard to find a bad seat. Depending on who's playing, tickets are sometimes available the day of the show. And you never know who will be playing. In a happy coincidence, "Nashville" actor Jonathan Jackson, who plays musician Avery Barkley, was on the line-up the day I went. In fact, most of the show's cast has performed with the Opry since becoming part of the Nashville scene.
HONKY TONK HIGHWAY
Tourists and locals flock to the row of bars and clubs, or "honky tonks," on Broadway in downtown Nashville. It's a buffet of bars that continuously hums with live music. Sidewalk musicians whose bread and butter is singing for tips are out there all day. The signage on the entire row is lit up in neon at night, an often-used exterior shot on the show. "Nashville" has also filmed inside some of the bars, including Layla's Bluegrass Inn and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Established in 1960, Tootsie's is the crown jewel of Honky Tonk Highway. Country artists such as Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson played there early in their careers.
It's not clear on TV's "Nashville" that these clubs are actually on the same block. The incredible access to so much live music packed into just a few blocks is not a phenomenon found in every city. You can have your pick of several club performances going on all at once. It's worth walking up and down the street, which on weekend nights can be as chaotic as New Orleans' Bourbon Street -- but minus the beads.
A cultural institution in the country music industry, The Bluebird Cafe's location close to a McDonald's will probably take "Nashville" viewers by surprise. For songwriters and singers, playing for the 100-seat room is a rite of passage. It's a tight squeeze but the feeling of intimacy is one of the cafe's main draws.
Nestled at a table in the real Bluebird, I couldn't help but expect that someone from the show would walk in and break into song. That feeling is a testament to how well the "Nashville" set designers copied every detail -- including the string of lights hanging above the bar.
Reservations for shows are only available online a few days in advance and sell out quickly. Some shows are free (with the purchase of drinks or food) on a first-come-first-serve basis. According to staffers, the television exposure has sometimes led to as many as 300 people in line. They recommend showing up as early as two hours prior to ensure entry.
To further enhance my "Nashville" experience, I crossed the Cumberland River to the hipster-haven of East Nashville. The east side is a vibrant hodgepodge of families, artists and musicians. The show has also filmed around this part of town -- with good reason. There are numerous restaurants, coffeehouses and clubs worth patronizing.
The 5 Spot, a laid-back club where "Monday is still the new Friday," draws guys in T-shirts and baseball caps as well as guys with fedoras. Jackson's character has filmed performances here during the first season. Country isn't the only musical genre that can be heard here. Some nights are oldies and soul-themed. Visiting musicians run the gamut as well. Note that The 5 Spot permits guests to smoke cigarettes, so it's a lot smokier and more dimly lit than on TV.
TV geeks such as myself will get a kick out of stopping in the Historic Edgefield neighbourhood. There, you will find the craftsman house with a stone veneer that serves as the home of guitarist Deacon (Charles Esten). Reel-life secret: While Deacon and his niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen), lived in different parts of town in the first season, their "homes" are actually next door to each other.
Abigail Humphrey, who lives on the other side of "Deacon's house," calls the periodic filming a "minor inconvenience." She says she also doesn't mind when tour groups show up.
"It's fun to get a little bit of credit to this area," Humphrey says.
She applauds the show for putting down roots in Nashville.
"It definitely makes the show feel more real."