NASHVILLE — In light of the recent mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, this year's Country Music Awards in Nashville will undoubtedly have an added poignancy as the nation continues to grapple with this terrible tragedy.
For many Americans, country music is synonymous with America, with its emphasis on patriotism, God and family life. It is also equally indistinguishable from Nashville, where country music has fostered new talent, celebrated it's old timers and thrived over the years.
But Nashville is more than country music, and a recent visit there proved that there is a reason why Nashville is America's City of Music.
While country is still king in Nashville — this is the home of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, after all — it also hosts the Musicians Hall of Fame, focusing on the many non-country artists who followed Bob Dylan to Nashville's recording studios after 1966. Among the many on that list are members of the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Mike Nesmith, members of the Eagles and Led Zeppelin.
The Musicians Hall of Fame museum section is divided into two parts.
First is the exploration of the mostly anonymous and little-appreciated recording session musicians, also known as sidemen. Nashville's session musicians, collectively known as the Nashville Cats, are among the best in the business. There are relics, such as the drum set of Hal Blaine of The Wrecking Crew and David Hood's handwritten number chart that he used when he played bass on Paul Simon's hit single, "Still Crazy After All These Years."
The second part is a branch of Los Angeles' Grammy Museum. A timeline with photos and text illustrates memorable moments in Grammy history, some shining, others not so much. The Milli Vanilli fiasco is here. If you don't remember, the German duo won the Grammy for best new artist in 1990, only to be exposed as frauds once it was discovered that neither member sang on their recordings. But also in the spotlight are legendary Grammy Award winners Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin.
There are also a few oddities. After disco music dominated the 1978 Grammys, a best disco recording category was created for 1979. Due to the public's notorious fickle tastes, disco quickly faded from fashion and the category lasted a mere year.
As for hands-on action, Roland, an innovator in electronic musical instruments, has teamed up with the museum to offer a music laboratory. Take a seat and play the electronic drums or grab center stage and play the electric guitar. You can also try your hand at singing, songwriting and engineering.
Country music has had its own history of trends and styles going from hot to cold and back to hot. When in Nashville, country fan or not, one should consider taking in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry. Opry shows take place Tuesday, Friday and Saturday in a modern theater northeast of downtown. Those who are not die-hard fans are often surprised to learn that the Opry is a live radio show broadcast on Clear Channel station WSM, as it has been since 1925.
The names explored in the museum run the gamut, from Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmie Rodgers in the 1920s to Darius Rucker and Taylor Swift. The museum is laid out so visitors begin on the third floor, where through a time tunnel effect punctuated with country relics and vintage videos, the story of this true American genre is told.
Country music might seem homogenous to those unfamiliar with its history, but it is truly a melting pot. Start with a base of the traditional folk music of the British Isles, add a spoonful of the music of 19th century travelling medicine, vaudeville, tent and minstrel shows, and throw in a couple pinches of gospel music and cowboy culture and you have basic country. The museum utilizes prize possessions of Roy Acuff, Moonshine Kate, Brad Paisley, Minnie Pearl, Trisha Yearwood, Taylor Swift and a myriad of cowboy hats.
Hall of fame visitors can also tour Historic RCA Studio B on the corner of 17th Avenue South and Hawkins Street. The studio opened in late 1957 and considering that music royalty including Chet Atkins, Roy Orbison and Elvis recorded here, visitors might be most impressed by the building's incredibly practical ordinariness. The piano resting on the checkerboard floor in the actual recording room was used by Elvis, and the bench is a popular prop for visitor photos.
Another much-photographed subject is the fabled Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. After sitting vacant for a couple of decades, the former-church-turned-music hall reopened in 1994. Audiences today sit in the same wrap-around pews to listen to their favorite artists. Of course, country performers take the stage, but so do the best of the rest. Concerts slated for later this year include The Moody Blues, Idina Menzel, Ben Folds and St. Vincent.
The night we were in town, we saw the indie rock band Dawes. At the show's end, two band members, brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, introduced their father who they said had played many music venues but never had a chance to sing at the Ryman. A man resembling the late Don Rickles took the stage and sang like Otis Redding in his prime. The audience heard some stirring soul, and a man who never quite made the big time got to live out a dream.
And that's Music City.
401 Gay St., Nashville, Tennessee, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $24 for adults, $20 for seniors students, AAA members, military, police and people with disabilities, $14 for youths ages 6-17, free for children ages 5 and younger (615-244-3263 or musicianshalloffame.com)
2804 Opryland Drive, Nashville, Tennessee, ticket office open Monday-Sunday starting at 9:30 a.m, show schedule and ticket prices available online (800-733-6779, 615-871-6779 or opry.com)
222 5th Ave. S., Nashville, Tennessee, daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $21.95 for adults, $12.95 for children (615-416-2001, www.countrymusichalloffame.org)
1611 Roy Acuff Place, Nashville, Tennessee, daily 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m, included with Country Music Hall of Fame tour (615-416-2001 or StudioB.org)
116 5th Ave. N., Nashville, Tennessee, tours daily, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., $15-$30, show schedule and ticket prices available online (615-889-3060 or ryman.com)