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My first visit to Nashville

14 January 2016 ( 25 October 2016 )

Following in the footsteps of one of his all-time music heroes, Hank Williams, writer Mike Gerrard tells us about his first visit to Nashville.

A view over the Cumberland River and inner city in Nashville, Tennessee
A view over the Cumberland River and inner city in Nashville, Tennessee

I want to tell you about something unrelated to Hank that sent shivers down my spine, it was one of those unexpected moments that make travel such a joy.

I was on a tour of Nashville’s RCA Studio B. We were looking in at the studio where, our tour guide explained, such rock and country legends as The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton had all recorded classic songs. 

Tracks like Cathy’s Clown, Only the Lonely, Running Scared and Jolene had all been recorded behind the pane of glass we were looking through, into what was a remarkably small room.

And then, of course, there was Elvis. The guide told us how he recorded many hit songs there, including Are You Lonesome Tonight? 

To set the mood for that song, with its spoken section, they turned the lights down in the studio to create an intimate, late-night, romantic feel. And then the guide turned the lights down, and Elvis’s voice came over the loudspeakers. 

It was as if you were in the recording studio with The King himself. That’s when the shivers started.

The home of modern popular music

The USA is the home of modern popular music – jazz, blues, rock – and the country is full of landmarks to thrill the music fan. 

On that first visit to Nashville I’d toured the Ryman Auditorium, which for years was the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show, and on whose stage had stood people like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. 

Afterwards I did what Hank Williams did and went round the corner from the Ryman and had a beer in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. 

Unfortunately for Hank he had a few too many drinks there, and got fired from the Opry, but it was a thrill for me to sit and have a drink at this historic bar and request a Hank Williams song from the guy playing guitar.

In the beginning...

Most of the hallowed ground of American music is in the South, where music tours are popular. Modern American music began in New Orleans, and Congo Square is a sacred spot in this story that you can still visit. 

Here black slaves would gather on Sundays and play music. In many places they weren’t allowed to own musical instruments, as music was a common language for people from different tribes who couldn’t otherwise communicate. 

A common language was dangerous, thought many slave owners, but New Orleans was always more liberal.

Congo Square is the birthplace of jazz in America, and to visit on a Sunday where people still hang out and play music, is a handshake with history. 

On a recent visit to the city I also fitted in live jazz at Preservation Hall, and at the wonderful new venue, Jazz Market, where Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra have their home.

The spirit of new orleans travelling to the big easy

The Mecca for music fans

There’s one city above all others, though, which is a mecca for music fans, and that’s Memphis. My first time there I had to keep pinching myself. I was like a kid in a candy store. I’m in Memphis! I’m listening to a live blues band on Beale Street! 

On an entertaining tour of tiny Sun Studio I saw the microphone used by Elvis himself, and the gouges in the studio floor made by Jerry Lee Lewis while pounding his piano.

At Graceland, a walk through Elvis’s home is a touching look at the real Elvis. The poor country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi was rocketed from being a teenage truck driver with musical dreams to becoming the most famous singer in the world in less than two years. 

It was an incredible journey. At the end of the Graceland tour I stood looking at the simple gravesite which Elvis shares with his mother and father and I shed tears as if I had lost a relative.

That’s the power of our connection with music, and our musical heroes. For me, places like Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans are more than just holiday destinations, they’re pilgrimages. 

And if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and listen to Are You Lonesome Tonight? one more time.

Discover Nashville for yourself on a holiday to the Deep South with Saga

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.