The radio pickings are mighty slim in the southern USA, unless y’all are a fan of hell and damnation sermons, country music or the bigoted stylings of right wing radio gods like Rush Limbaugh.
We opt for country music, –‘broke-down-pickup-truck, girlfriend-troubles, dog-done-left-me’—over the ravings of Rush, whose hatred for Obama is superseded only by his love of money. The right wing windbag interrupts his diatribes to shill for everything from home security systems to bathroom cleaning products. Mistakenly tuning into Limbaugh is like hitting an old tel-evangelist show while flipping TV channels: you listen with morbid fascination as bile rises. Limbaugh rants about the media elite, ignoring the fact that his multi-million-dollar national radio contract puts him at the top of the media pack. It’s hilarious but horrifying when you realize how many listeners believe his every word. Canada’s recent election was a Kumbaya love-fest compared to political commentary down here.
Nashville is music industry mecca, a town where guitar pickers and songwriters of every stripe come to ply their trade, hoping for the big hit that will transport them to a fenced estate in Belle Meade or Brentwood, beside Dolly Parton or Keith Urban and Nicole.
Apparently going country in Nashville involves buying a mansion along a leafy country lane, if not for yourself than for a close relative. City girl Taylor Swift, who has a downtown penthouse that takes up an entire floor, bought her ailing mom a home in the suburbs where her white SUV can frequently be seen parked at the house, a football field of grassy expanse away from the country lane. Steve Tyler keeps a luxury condo in town, not far from Taylor’s place. No word on whether the Aerosmith mouthpiece gets together with country’s ‘Angst’ girl for beer and shop talk.
We know all this after taking a tour with Charmin’ Tommy Garmon, a Nashville native with a face like a blood hound and a mouth-full-of-marbles Tennessee drawl. Tommy, who bills himself as a tour guide/comedian, wisecracks his way around town in a small white bus, attending to his driving just enough to keep the bus from veering into a curb or ditch.
He knows Nashville like the backs of his meaty hands, one of which drapes from the wheel while the other performs an assortment of tour guide tasks, pointing out the sights, fiddling with CDs and DVDs, gesticulating for emphasis, singling out a passenger for the punch line of a joke. He has taken enough tourists over the years to fill Nissan Stadium, where the Tennessee Titans struggle to be taken seriously as a professional football team.
Tommy takes us to the home store of American Pickers, where television-entranced tourists line up for a look at the show’s set. He deadpans that the building is a false front and the inside is no bigger than his bus. He cruises past the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum, dishing insider dirt on the nasty inheritance fight among far-flung Cash family factions after the Man in Black’s death. We drive along studio row, where promising songwriters are paid set wages to turn out ditty after ditty in eight hour shifts in the corporate quest for money-making hits.
“I slave away the days at this old computer screen,
Just a waitin’ for the weekend to come,
So I can hose down my pricey pickup sparklin’ clean
And then go shoot my brand new Bass Pro Shop gun.”
Too commercial? How about something with a little more southern twang?
My woman works nights on the barbecue down at Porky’s Place
Slappin’ down-home southern sauce on great big slabs of meat.
She don’t wear no fancy perfurme, not for her that frilly lace
Cause she comes home from work smellin’ good enough to eat.
While many of the Waylon and Willie wannabes have the musical chops, few will make it to Belle Meade, except perhaps on one of Tommy’s tours. Music lovers who descend on Nashville’s Music Row are the ones who benefit from the influx of talent. The best of the bunch play the saloons and honky tonks for tips in the hope they’ll be discovered. The price of a beer and a couple of bucks in the tip jar buys passersby an afternoon of more than passable guitar pickin’.
You’ll need a bit more dough if you want an authentic pair of Tennessee cowboy boots, despite all the signs along the strip advertising Buy One Pair, Get Two Pairs Free. Bargain hunters browsing through thousands of boots on floor-to-ceiling racks can be seen to swoon, not from the heady aroma of hand-tooled leather, but instead from price tags on that first pair, which start at about four hundred bucks and go upwards from there, depending on how fancy you want your feet to look walking through cow-pies in the pasture.
America’s deep south is one of the civilized world’s last bastions for nicotine addicts. Enticed by a sign proclaiming two buck shots, we slide into a hole-in-the-wall bar on a side street steps from Music Row. It’s two in the afternoon but the inside of the bar says it’s two in the morning. A lone guitar picker wailing about love lost from a make-shift stage sets the tone. The place is dark and dank, its air so permeated with stale tobacco that breathing feels hazardous.
In concession to the years of paint-peeling smoke and boot-scootin’ boogies, the worn and torn linoleum floor peels back in spots to reveal grimy black concrete beneath. The sticky wooden tabletop wobbles at first touch, as does the bar stool, its twirling seat lowering first one cheek, then the other, as if acclimatizing our butts to the sordid surroundings. The only concession to the 21st Century is a big screen TV playing college football. A no-nonsense waitress appears out of the smoke to demand our order.
“Two cheap shots,” the Meanderers wheeze in unison with exaggerated bonhomie. “Like it says on the sign.”
“What kind,” she says, wasting no words on small talk. “We got lots.”
“Tequila,” replies the Dude with a manly gasp for air.
“No tequila,” says the waitress, continuing her remarkable efficiency with the language.
“How about bourbon or vodka?”
“We got bourbon and vodka.”
“We’ll have bourbon and vodka.”
A quick toast of shot glasses and its down the hatch, the Dude pulling deeply on his Vape, adding a cloud of vapour to the air, the Dame, a former long-time smoker, sucking in the acrid haze like a junkie to her fix. The waitress is summoned through the blue air for a short conversation and another round. And then another.
And so it goes on Honky Tonk row. At our next stop at a cavernous cowboy bar, two ZZ top pretenders cry out for hillbilly cred with brillo brush beards that hang below their chins. A guitar duo of virtuoso abilities, they run through crowd favourites sprinkled with presentable original tunes. The saloon, which doubles as a restaurant until 9 p.m., when kids are verboten, is mercifully smoke-free. Even in early afternoon, the place is packed. Nashville Predators fans, clad in the team’s Halloween colour jerseys, are psyching themselves for the coming conflict at the Bridgestone Arena, a weak wrist shot away from Honky Tonk row.
We quaff beer and devour plates of deep-fried meat and even deeper-fried vegetables in another saloon down the street, while a country band revs up a full house liberally sprinkled with Preds fans. The country look—black stetsons, Wrangler jeans, expensive boots—clashes violently with the Halloween jerseys. Where’s Carrie Underwood when you need her? The revved-up Dude takes to shouting “Go Canucks Go” between songs.
Changing it up, we make our way to the BB Kings Blues club, the only place charging a cover. We pay the nominal $5 and plant ourselves at the thirty-foot bar. The club is more gentile than the honky tonk saloons. Wine glasses outnumber beer mugs and there are more glitter tops than torn jeans. But the players on stage are every bit as good, with horns, gravelly voices and plenty of blues guitar. Best of all, the bartender happily serves tequila shots.
Next up Memphis, where Elvis is in the house, and on street signs, billboards and Made-in-China coffee cups, key chains and salt and pepper shakers, in Beale Street shops, corner stores and run-down gas stations.