NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For more than a century music has flowed to this Southern town like rivers to the sea.
The evolution of the self-image of Tennessee's capital from the Athens of the West into Music Town USA began around 1900, as a blend of gospel tradition, Southern popular music and homespun showmanship was channeled by honky-tonk and commercialism, literally.
On Nov. 28, 1925, a Nashville radio station, WSM-AM (owned by National Life & Accident Insurance whose company motto, "We Shield Millions" was transformed into the station's call letters), launched a one-hour program called the Barn Dance to follow its Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the New York Opera. Featuring in-studio audiences and live performances by such groups as the Possum Hunters, Dixie Clodhoppers, Gully Jumpers and Fruit Jar Drinkers, the popularity of the Barn Dance grew steadily.
Two years later on Dec. 10, WSM program director George Hay took the mike and announced, "For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the 'Grand Ole Opry.' " Deford Bailey then played his harmonica tune "The Pan American Blues."
It's doubtful anyone imagined that those early performances would become one of world's longest, continuously running broadcast programs, spawning a major genre of American music and in the process transforming Nashville's essence and self-image.
The rollicking Opry programs became exceedingly popular. Performances were moved to Saturday night and expanded to four hours. Other nights were added, and programs were broadcast by regional networks, then across the country and eventually internationally. Starting in the 1950s, the Opry made the jump to television.
To accommodate the growing demand for tickets to its studio audience, WSM moved its broadcast operation to larger venues. In 1943 it took over the 2,300-seat Ryman Auditorium on Fifth Avenue in Nashville.
Over the next three decades, the resurrected red-brick tabernacle hall became venerated as the Mother Church of Country Music, and virtually every country and western recording star performed on its stage, along with myriad artists of other popular musical genres.
Then in 1974, broadcasts were moved to its current home, the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, built as part of a sprawling entertainment, hotel and shopping complex along the Cumberland River nine miles east of downtown. A wooden circle from the Ryman stage reset in the center of the new stage became ground zero for country music.
Another key factor in Nashville's musical ascent was the Opry's practice of signing long-term contracts with its key performers, who as cast members were required to make frequent appearances. For convenience sake, numerous artists began to move to Nashville. They were followed by songwriters, music publishers, recording studios, instrument makers and other music-related ventures.
Nashville's Music Row of recording studios, record labels, entertainment offices and other music-associated businesses took root around 16th and 17th avenues South.
The rising tide of local and touring performing talent needed places to play other than the weekly Opry shows, and music venues sprouted all over the area, from the strip of honky-tonk bars along Lower Broadway to small clubs in converted garages and cafes in suburban strip malls. Nashville's growing recording industry also made it a hub for gospel, pop, rock, bluegrass, jazz, classical, contemporary Christian, blues and soul music.
These days, like gambling in Las Vegas, music is everywhere in Nashville, and store clerks and restaurant wait staffs are often aspiring musicians and songwriters.
The city's recently unveiled logo line, "Music Calls Us Home," is entirely justified.
Here are brief looks at some of the musical interludes I enjoyed during a recent visit to Nashville:
In 1961, the Country Music Association established a Hall of Fame. Six years later, a museum was established in Music Row to preserve and present its growing collection of memorabilia.
In 2001, the hall of fame and museum was relocated into a magnificent, modern, three-story facility in the heart of downtown. Featuring dynamic, state-of-the-art exhibits packed with artifacts, recordings, videos, live programs and performances, the museum chronicles two centuries of country music, while more than 120 of its stars are honored in the Hall of Fame rotunda.
The museum, which is being expanded, is also the departure point for tours of the historic RCA Studio B on Music Row, where thousands of hit songs have been recorded over the years, including more than 200 by Elvis Presley.
Next door, the massive new Music City convention center is taking shape. Across the street is Bridgestone Arena, the modern sports venue where the NHL Predators play and larger concerts are booked.
Of course, the really big musical events take the stage across the Cumberland River, in LP Field, the Tennessee Titans football stadium.
Started by Amy Kurland in 1982 in a strip mall, this unassuming little venue has gained an international reputation as a remarkably intimate, 20-table listening room where songwriters and acoustic musicians try out their material in front of appreciative and knowledgeable audiences. The Bluebird's walls are covered with photos of the country legends who have played there, including Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Kathy Mattea. The Bluebird was the setting for the 1993 movie "The Thing Called Love," which starred Sandra Bullock and River Phoenix.
The Bluebird is open for two shows most nights, seven days a week. There's a small stage, but many performances are done "in the round," as several songwriters take turns playing their guitars, sharing stories and accompanying each other. It makes for a wonderfully interactive, up-close and personal experience.
A similar performance format is followed during the annual Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival, the 20th edition of which was in progress during my visit in late March.
Organized by the Nashville Songwriters Association International, this festival is a bonanza for anyone who enjoys acoustic music, a veritable cornucopia of performance.
During this year's five-day festival, 10 clubs hosted two shows a night, each featuring accomplished songwriters. Even better, special guests come up from the audience to join in the musical celebration.
With tickets ranging from $6 to $20 per show, the festival is a bargain for lovers of acoustic music. The 2013 Tin Pan South Festival will take stage April 2-6.
Known as the Mother Church of Country Music, the venerable 2,400-seat performance hall enjoyed an earlier reputation as the Carnegie Hall of the South for its marvelous acoustics.
Four decades after the Grand Ole Opry departed, the now splendidly refurbished Ryman is a National Historic Landmark that continues to host a full schedule of musical performances. Last year, during a live show of the Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor referred to the Ryman as "God's Own Listening Room."
The Ryman is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for self-guided tours and guide backstage visits through the dressing rooms named after the musical legends who used them during its heyday.
Another Nashville musical landmark is just around the corner from the Ryman. Celebrating its 125th anniversary, Hatch Show Print is one of America's oldest, continuously operating, letterpress poster print shops. Equal parts working print shop, historical archive and tourist attraction, Hatch operates as a unit of the Country Music Museum. It is packed with tens of thousands of individual posters made for musical performances, movies and other entertainments over the past century. Hatch artists continue the tradition of designing posters, carving wood blocks for them, and printing them on hand-operated presses.
Nashville is more than country and pop music, as made clear by the Nashville Symphony and its new, architecturally impressive Schermerhorn Center, which occupies a city block on an adjacent corner to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Built around the magnificent and acoustically impeccable, 1,844-seat Laura Turner Concert Hall, the center also houses smaller musical and meeting spaces, as well as the excellent Arpeggio restaurant.
The pantheon of performers who have graced various Opry stages over the past 86 years includes virtually every country musician of note. For the past four decades, the Opry has occupied its own, well-designed theater in a sprawling complex nine miles east of downtown, with the exception of a five-month period following the devastating flood that hit Nashville in May 2010.
Nearly a million fans a year flock from around the country to take part in what must be the world's largest, live studio audience. Each two-hour show is run on a broadcast schedule with four half-hour segments, each with a different host and two strictly timed performances separated by commercials for the show's sponsors read by long-time announcer Eddie Stubbs.
Shows are 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with a second Saturday show at 9:30 p.m. from October through March. Adult tickets prices range from $34 to $55 per seat. Backstage tours are available for $15 during the day and following the shows.
The Nashville area has many other sites of interest. The city also boasts a thriving restaurant culture that provides exciting and innovative sustenance.
But it's definitely music that makes Nashville such a happening place to visit 12 months a year.travel
David Bear, Post-Gazette travel editor emeritus, can be contacted at www.travelersjournal.com. First Published August 26, 2012 4:00 AM