Dear Sir Kev,
As a man profoundly wedded to the concept of wearing – wherever in the world – the appropriate garb (a guayabera in Cuba, a safari suit in Kenya, lots of brown in Norway) you can imagine my delight at finding myself in Nashville with the right stuff. After years at the back of the wardrobe, perhaps wondering if they would ever see the light of day again, I had a bona fide reason for pulling on my old cowboy boots.
They are black, Cuban heeled Justins, bought from a long since gone western wear store on Paris’ Rue St.Denis, and in remarkably good condition for their age. I didn’t have the courage to wear them on the flight out: I would have felt a bit self conscious on the tube to Heathrow, and I was concerned that in a pressurised cabin, in which ones feet do expand, I would be unable to get them off to pass through airport security at Charlotte, the connection for the short onward leg to Music City.
Once in Nashville I have hardly taken them off, and am enjoying many favourable comments from Americans, unfamiliar with their ‘old school’ pointed toe cut; most cowboy boots now, well certainly in Nashville, have that blunt ‘chisel’ toe.
I don’t know if you have ever been here, but it is not really what I expected. Broadway, a half mile strip of honky tonk bars and western wear stores, is a big draw for tourists until the early hours. There are neon western signs, a high proportion of homeless beggars, and very loud country and western music ringing out every inch of the way. A lot of drinking is done here. The principal tipple Fireball whisky, a rather industrial, chilled and peppery spiced whisky, that comes out of tap and is served in plastic shot glasses. It isn’t a sophisticated drink, and I wasn’t impressed with my first one. But it does improve over time, and works well with the rowdy nature of the venues.
Off Broadway there are two Nashvilles. Close to Broadway is a new, shiny, glass and steel one, with very tall coroporate HQs, upscale hotels, and possibly the world’s biggest convention centre; it takes up six blocks and has a road running through it. Beyond these are the groovy gentrified suburbs of Hillsboro Village, East Nashville and Belmont 12 South, where the young men sport beards like the Founding Fathers, are often heavily tattooed, and wear designer workwear. You got it – they look and feel like Hoxton and Peckham, except the burgers are bigger and the bars regularly offer more that three dozen draught ales. Good places for vintage clothes, bikes, antiques and vinyl.
My hotel, the Omni, is one of the shiny new tower blocks and wouldn’t be exceptional were it not quite literally joined at the hip to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Shaped like a piano keyboard this is the history of country music under one roof, from the fiddle playing European settlers to the present day. It is already my favourite museum on the planet. Just standing in front of one of Gram Parson’s Nudie suits, with one of Elvis’ Cadillacs over there, and Kris Kristofferson’s original draft of Help Me Make It Through The Night was enough to bring me to tears. Dear Sir Kev, you have to get yourself out here. Around the corner is a Johnny Cash museum where they’ve got his first guitar (he bought it in a secondhand shop in Germany when he was in the army).
There is a lot of gentrification going on, especially in Belmont 12 South. On one day alone I had brunch in a former car wash, bought a gift for Kim across the road in what used to be a car workshop, and that evening had another Fireball in a former laundry.
I went to Jack White’s shop Third Man Records, in my boots. It’s in an area called The Gulch that is also undergoing something of a revival. Small apartment blocks are going up fast, much like those in London, and former warehouses and industrial workshops are being reinvented as cafes, and reclamation and antique stores. The White Stripe man’s store – decorated in black and yellow – is a bit touristy, and they probably sell more t-shirts than vinyl albums. But I did like the little portable record players on sale. If I didn’t already have two record decks I might have treated myself.
I wore my Justins for the tour of the Grand Ole Opry, just off Broadway. It’s one of the few places here you can hear fiddles and accordions . For ten bucks you can hop on stage and have your photo taken. I know.
I am here with a press trip: A mixed bag of journalists from the UK, Ireland, the US and Germany. Among them is Patrick Humphries, whom I worked with some years ago on the Evening Standard’s Ad Lib pop column. Patrick is a walking encyclopedia of music (he’s written a book about Lonnie Donegan) and the only man I know to get even more emotional than me at many of the musical mementos. I thought he was going to collapse when the effusive guide at the Musician’s Hall of Fame handed him one of Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocasters. I declined to hold it fearing a similar reaction, and being reluctant to appear minutes later on You Tube.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. When Patrick offered to buy me a Jack Daniels, perhaps to stabilise our nerves, the young waitress asked to see our photo IDs. I drew her gaze toward my Justins but she insisted all the same. The legal age from drinking alcohol in Tennessee is 21.
“There was a time when I’d be flattered by that,” said the women at the next table.
Bloody annoying if you ask me Sir Kev.