Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly


  1. Hey, Curly,

    First off, thanks for the shout-out!

    For what it’s worth, there is indeed bluegrass on the radio here in Nashville, but it’s not always easy to find; 650WSM, the radio home of the Opry, includes some bluegrass in its programming (and, of course, there’s the bluegrass you’ll hear there on the Opry), and Dave Higgs’ syndicated public radio show, the Bluegrass Breakdown, started at and still airs on WPLN, etc. Still, a lot of folks here, like elsewhere, wind up relying on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction channel for their on-air bluegrass listening.

    But while bluegrass may not have much of a place on the airwaves, it’s well represented on stage at venues around town. For one thing, there’s the World Famous Station Inn; for another, there’s always a bluegrass act or three at the Opry; for still another, there’s almost always a bluegrass act or two on the weekly Music City Roots show out at the Loveless Cafe. And there are semi-regular club dates, too, both on Lower Broadway (I was just down at Layla’s last night, playing a bluegrass gig) and in East Nashville. And then in the summer there’s the Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series. Aside from playing, I usually get to highlight one or two shows each week in the Nashville Scene’s Critic’s Picks. Keep your eyes open, and bluegrass isn’t that hard to find here!

    • Hey Jon–

      Thanks for stopping by, and for giving me the skinny on bluegrass in Nashville. I did go over and pick at the Station Inn during my visit. Had a really good time, too. I may do a post about it, if I can figure out how to put the video together…

      I suspect Nashville is like a lot of American cities (and in this I would include Boston, where I live): beneath a facade that’s largely shaped by tourism and commercial interests lies a distinctive local culture. Given how many pickers call the Music City home, I’m sure you’re right that bluegrass isn’t hard to find once you get below the surface.

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