Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nashville Music: Cumberland Caverns to The Station Inn

Robert's Western World
Music reins supreme in Nashville, from the live music stages at the airport's arrival terminal to the towering country music hall of fame building downtown. It seems to run through the veins of the city, and its people as naturally as sunshine runs through Southern California. So, I wasn't surprised that Melissa planned some musical events planned for my trip. But, I was surprised that Nashville had such unique and generally awesome music venues.

The first weekend day of my trip we headed out to Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, TN, which was about an hour and a half away from Melissa's place in Nashville. Each time I visit Nashville I force Melissa to take long drives, I particularly encourage her car to veer off the freeway onto what I call "long country roads," because the word "highway" simply can not summarize how romantic these roads are. The rolling hills of green grass, long rows of corn and old barn houses, surrounded by antique farming equipment and half broken fences make me feel like I'm stepping into a romantic southern novel. So, the drive to McMinnville was a treat itself.

The national park surrounding the Caves is heavily wooded and rugged. We walked down to the cave opening and headed into the darkness towards the Volcano Room concert venue, more commonly known as Bluegrass Underground. The half-mile walk on a wide dirt path snaked past turquoise pools, thousands of stalactites and stalagmites and emerald colored walls. The path finally opened up into a massive, beautiful cavern. The space it's self is 333 feet below ground and could easily fit 1,000 people for a concert, although I think they sell out events at 400 people. As the path dropped down into a level stage area, the limestone ceiling jutted up to a perfect concave semi circle. The space is well known for supplying one of the only naturally acoustically pure sounds available. Something to do with the jagged rocks overhead and size of the space.

Anyway we decided to take in the view from the top of the path, which included a 3/4-ton crystal chandelier, folding chair seating, broad wooden stage, and simple food, drink area. We found seats on the rocks and perched through the opening musician who had one of the sweetest voices I've ever heard. Sadly, I can't recall her name but her dad played in her band and she wore an adorable dress so I loved her. Of course, her musical talents far outweighed her fashion skills and we got clapping along 10 minutes into the show.

The main act, Ralph Stanley is a legend in County music (check out a video of the performance). His voice was smooth and comforting, like something out of an old country western movie. His southern accent, which includes just a hint of a twang, stayed with him throughout every song. And his Clinch Mountain Boys band seemed to be the best in the business. My personal favorites of the afternoon were, "I'll Fly Away," and, "How Mountain Girls Can Love."  And, from what I heard and read there is no one else in the world like Ralph Stanley, including the hundreds of imitators he's spawned.  All the had to do was pick up a mic and his banjo to prove that.  He also seemed to be pretty amazed to be performing in a cave, which made it all the more fun. 
The following Monday night Melissa and her friend Glenn took me to The Station Inn, which doesn't look like more than a one level brick building from the outside. The neighborhood surrounding the Station Inn is a mix of new developments, trendy stores and restaurants and classic buildings. It makes the Station Inn and it's surrounding lot stick out in a way that only a historic venue can stick out.
Once inside, it's easy to tell why the venue is so well know: there's not a bad seat in the house. To ensure we had the best seats we scooted right up front and sat to the right of the bad. We were treated Country Swing Music by Vince Gill and his band. We could feel the vibrations of the instruments and hear the clarity in the singer’s voices before they entered the mic. Each instrument rang out clear during their solos and played together so well it sounded like they'd all attended music school together. I could not stop clapping, laughing or smiling throughout the entire hour and a half set we watched. It's been a long time since I was that close to such amazing musicians.
Mel and me with one damn good banjo player
at The Station Inn

Of course my favorite downtown bar, Robert's Western World played a big role in my musical trip to TN.  Everything from the cowboy boots lining the walls, eclectic crowd, long bar with cheap drinks, stage and dance floor that never seems to settle down and the regular Brazilbilly band that plays there makes me smile.  

Ahhhh, Nashville, how you love your country music and how I love you.

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