Nashville Post-Flood: Honky Tonkin' on Lower Broad
Flooded Downtown Nashville
Jim's Flooded Studio
One year ago this weekend, it started raining in Nashville, and it didn't stop for two whole days. During that time, almost 14 inches of rain fell. The city's rivers, creeks and streams overflowed their banks, submerging many neighborhoods in as much as ten feet of water. This is a post I have been working on for a long time, but I decided that the one year anniversary of the Great Flood of 2010 would be a good time to finish it and share it here on Open Salon.
Living in Nashville for the past twenty-two years, spending most of my time working and just going about my day-to-day business, I guess I can sometimes forget about the quirky and unique aspects of my adopted hometown. But every now and then, I realize how cool this place can be. It was a recent trip downtown to the honky tonk section of lower Broadway that brought home to me once again the impact that Nashville has had, and continues to have, on our musical culture. And it is the anniversary of the devastating Great Flood and its aftermath last May that made me realize how lucky we are not to have lost this iconic place.
I know that it has become somewhat fashionable to claim a dislike for country music, and I agree that much of what passes for country these days has strayed far from its origins. But we shouldn't forget that traditional country music comes from the same roots as those other venerable American musical forms: blues, jazz, and rock 'n roll. It's the real deal.
In other words, country music (as well as close cousins bluegrass, gospel, and western swing) was borne out of faith, poverty, adversity, and the experiences of Americans who came here as immigrants and who exist on the fringes. It is associated mainly with white, rural people (who are often derisively referred to as hillbillies, trailer trash or rednecks). But that's America too, isn't it? And let's face it, hard times, lost love, cheatin' and drinkin' are pretty universal experiences that almost anyone can identify with. If you can listen to George Jones sing He Stopped Loving Her Today and remain unmoved, or hear Buck Owens and Don Rich without gettin' happy, then I don't know if there's any hope for you, and perhaps you should stop reading right here!
Packed into a small stretch of Broadway, from the Cumberland River to 5th Avenue, is the very heart and soul of the "honky tonk district", a place that is simultaneously past and present, tacky and inspiring, full of dreams lost and found. It is quintessentially American and uniquely Nashville.
Walking along "Lower Broad", especially on a Friday or Saturday night, mesmerized by the gaudy, flashing neon signs, at each doorway you'll hear snatches of pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and guitar filtering out of places like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (probably the most famouse honky tonk, where Opry performers used to exit Ryman Hall and cross the alley to hang out between shows), The Stage, The Bluegrass Inn, Legends Corner and Robert's Western World. (At Robert's, you can hear live music, buy a pair of cowboy boots, and attend Sunday morning services. I kind of like the idea that you can repent of your sins in the very place where you may have committed them!)
The layout of each of these places is pretty much the same. There's a big storefront window on the street, which is where the stage is set up. As you walk by outside, the musicians have their backs to you, facing the patrons inside, and you usually get a nice eye-level view of the drummer's behind. (A note to all you drummers out there: keep in shape if you want the ladies to admire the scenery.)
Once you step inside (there's never a cover charge), the musicians will often smile and nod to welcome you in. There's a small dance floor right in front of the stage, tables and chairs, and a bar. Nothing fancy here. You can get a burger or a hot dog, and have a beer or a shot of Jack to wash it down. The walls are covered with posters, record covers, autographed 8 x 10 headshots of the famous and the forgotten, and years of accumulated smoke, dust and grease. I'm not sure I would want to see any of these places with all the lights on!
Every now and then, if the band is playing the right song, a couple might step out onto the floor to do a little Texas two-stepping. I love seeing people dance like this. It's somehow both formal and old-fashioned, yet intimate and tender at the same time.
The honky tonks are open seven days a week, from about noon (or even earlier) until about two in the morning. "Shifts" change every few hours, and, as you might imagine, the bars provide work for lots of musicians, who arrive in Nashville every day with big dreams packed into their guitar cases. One's chances of being "discovered" on Lower Broad are probably pretty slim these days (although BR 549 did get their start at Robert's in the 90's), but I think people do this simply because they love playing, as well as keeping this decades-old tradition alive. And because Music Row is but a shadow of its former self, it's Lower Broad that helps keep the music in Music City U.S.A.
Here are some favorite photographs by my husband, Jim, from past trips downtown. I think they really capture the essence of Nashville's honky tonk district.
A couple of other places of note on Lower Broad:
Hatch Show Print - (316 Broadway)
One of the oldest (if not the oldest) continuously-operating woodblock letterpress print shops in the United States, Hatch is more than worthy of a blog post all its own. Founded in 1879, Hatch has designed and printed posters for events all over the country. With a distinctive, immediately recognizable style, you've probably seen a poster designed and printed by Hatch advertisting an upcoming event in your town. Here are but a few examples:
You can stop in during business hours, chat with the folks running the presses, and buy a print of one of their designs. "Preservation through production" is the motto at Hatch. Below is a very informative short documentary film about the shop:
Ryman Auditorium - (116 5th Avenue North)
If you go see the Grand Ole Opry - and if you come to Nashville, I recommend that you do - you have to remember that, in addition to being a live show for the audience in the theater, it is simultaneously being broadcast on radio station WSM (we're talking about the first evening show on Saturday). It is a tightly-paced affair, with each segment "hosted" by a particular performer, who does a song at the beginning and end of his or her segment, with two or three other acts in between. Sometimes a dance group will perform, which I guess is lost on the radio audience! Commercial breaks in between the segments allow the stage crew to set up for the next group of performers.
At any rate, when we moved here in 1989, the building had basically been vacant for the 15 years since the Grand Ole Opry moved out to Opryland, on the northern edge of town. Opryland, with its gargantuan hotel complex and larger theater, has been good for Nashville tourism and conventions, but taking the Grand Ole Opry out of Lower Broad was kind of like removing a person's heart and expecting the blood to keep pumping, and the area suffered a significant decline. (As you may have heard, though, the flooding last May closed both Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry House for months. But during that time the Opry continued in various venues around town, thanks to the tireless dedication of its performers and crew.)
In the 1980's, it was obvious that the Ryman was falling into disrepair and in danger of being neglected to death. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and realized that this was a gem that needed saving, and in the early 90's a preservation movement gained momentum. The Ryman Auditorium has now been restored to its former beauty and rightful place as a music venue. The Grand Ole Opry itself even returns there for several performances each year.
And so here I am, surprisingly proud of this place I now call home. I never thought I would end up living in the very bosom of country music, but you never know where life is going to take you!
I hope you've enjoyed this brief tour of Nashville's Lower Broad. Thankfully, it's all still here, so I'll leave you with this classic from Hank Williams.