Great cities have signature streets that reflect the soul of the city. In Nashville (aka Music City), its signature street is Lower Broadway (from 1st to 5th Avenue S) where 25+ honky tonk bars offer free live music (no cover charge, no tickets) from 10 am to 3 am every day.
Lower Broadway “shouts out” Nashville is a Music City!
Music Every Day!
Yes, 365 days of the year you can stroll Lower Broadway and listen to music from the street (stages are at the street windows; and windows are almost always open).
Or, wander in and out of the bars at your leisure to have a drink and listen to music. I have not encountered anything like it in any other city including Memphis’ famous Beale Street and Austin’s 6th Street.
But for a music purist, it is not the greatest place to listen to music as the bands are playing almost on top of each other and the audiences (those inside and those strolling by outside) are talking and socializing more than listening.
But there is no denying it is an “Experience.”
Musician Sweat Shop
What was most alarming was to learn the bands (and they are generally very good experienced musicians) are playing only for tips. I was told by several local musicians that on a good night, the late night band members might make $300 each (includes tips and CD sales), while those in the late morning and afternoon might make $100 or $150 each for about 5 hours of non-stop playing. Most of the musicians are lucky if they get one or two gigs a week.
Given the heat and humidity I experienced in Nashville in the middle of October, I can only imagine what it must be like playing Lower Broadway during their long hot, humid summers.
It was disturbing to me that Nashville’s Lower Broadway is in many ways a “sweat shop,” with bar owners raking in the money from beverage and food sales, while the musicians work for minimum wage in harsh conditions.
I am told on good authority that if the musicians complained, the bar owner would simply find someone else - there being over 20,000 aspiring musicians, singers and songwriters living in Nashville waiting for an opportunity to play on Lower Broadway.
Street Photographer Heaven
In addition to the music, Lower Broadway is a fun place to people watch.
Though a grittier version of The Strip in Vegas, it is not without it own glitz and glitter. The sequined clothing, boots and hats make for some unique fashion statements.
It is a popular destination for bachelorette parties - hundreds of young ladies arrive on Thursday and leave on Sunday.
You often hear them before you see them, as they seem to love to hoot and holler as they meander the streets on “pedal taverns” i.e. bars on wheels that use pedal power to move along the street.
They are in full party mode, love to say “Hi” as hey pass by and are not camera shy.
Hallelujah at the Ryman
Just off Lower Broadway sits the Ryman Auditorium, first known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle (1892), then becoming the home of the Grande Ole Opry House (1943 to 1974). It was vacant for almost 20 years before Emmylou Harris, in 1991, performed 3 concerts in the then dilapidated building (while the auditorium’s capacity is over 2,000, her concerts were limited to 200 people). Harris’ concerts spearheaded a movement to restore the building. By 1993, renovations began, converting it into a world-class concert hall, while retaining as much of the historical architecture as possible, including all the original oak pews.
It is true to its moniker, i.e. the Ryman Auditorium is the mother church of country music.
The Ryman offers daily back stage tours, which I highly recommend.
In the evening, the auditorium hosts concerts by various headliners, which I would also highly recommend.
Many describe it as a religious experience and I can believe that.
While we were there, local Americana singer songwriter Jason Isbell was performing several nights but all were sold out. However, we decided to check just before show time to see if they might have any tickets and were lucky to get seats just 10 rows from the stage. We didn’t know who Isbell was, but the crowd sure did. The young people in front of us were singing along with him like they were gospel singers at church on Sunday. There was more than one standing ovation in the middle of the concert not just the end.
I was half expecting some Hallelujahs at the end.
Off (Off) Lower Broadway
For a better music experience, I suggest heading off Lower Broadway. The Sunday Night Bluegrass Jam at the Station Inn in The Gulch is definitely worth checking out – note the line up starts an hour before the 7 pm start. The Bourbon Street Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley and 3rd & Lindsley also have curated music programs that are highly respected.
Personally, I also enjoyed the bands at Barlines in the Omni Hotel. They played lots of cover tunes to an attentive audience and there is lots of room for dancing if that is your thing. The beer is better than Lower Broadway too…my favourite being Nashville’s own Jackalope’s Bearwalker Maple Brown Ale.
If you go even further “off, off” Lower Broadway, Douglas Corner Bar is an interesting spot. The music is a bit hit and miss, so do your research, but the space and sound is great. We happened upon a fun wedding party concert that was open to the public. The band, Yo’ Mama featured Jonell Mosser (who has done back up vocals for the likes of B.B. King, Etta James, Waylon Jennings and Bruce Cockburn to name a few) along with Cathy Stamps and Kathy Mac. Mosser has great pipes and all had great stories from their university days back in the ‘70s – well worth the $10 cover for the 2-hour concert.
Music Mile Madness
Suffice to say Calgary, we have a long, long way to go before we can legitimately call ourselves a music city. Music personifies the city of Nashville; it is infused into its everyday life. Guitar stores in Nashville are as common as bike shops are in Calgary.
What makes Nashville a “music city” is the army of music-makers, a supportive audience, a diversity of live music venues and a sense of competition to discover and be discovered.
In the same way as Calgary has an army of engineers and geologists looking to discover the next oil and gas reserve.
Studio Bell is nice, but the heart and soul of any good music city lies in its live local music venues and audience, not its museums.
While some have tried to brand 9th Avenue (between the National Music Centre and the Blues Can) as the “Music Mile”, the concept is premature and misleading in my mind.
In reality, only two venues along that stretch provide live music seven days a week – Blues Can and Ironwood Bar & Grill.
What would make more sense would be to foster Inglewood as a Music (or artist’s) Village - a place where musicians live, work and play. A place filled with private live music venues, record stores and recording studios.
Inglewood need to create affordable housing for artists in the community, not just upscale condos and infills.
Not Nashville North
In the past, Calgary has been called Nashville North, but today Calgary is nothing like Nashville - historically, culturally or economically.
Calgary has some great music festivals, but it is what happens in the non-festival periods that is critical to creating a 365-day musical buzz.
We should be determining how we make the Calgary Folk Festival’s Festival Hall in Inglewood, new King Eddy in East Village, new Big Four Roadhouse at Stampede Park and the Palace Theatre on Stephen Avenue sing every night of the week.
And, how can we capitalize on Studio Bell’s incredible collection of musical instruments as a catalyst for making Calgary a must place for musicians to record. We need to attract musicians from across Canada to come to Calgary to play and make music. It is not about building a new Saddledome for mega concerts.
If Calgary really wants to stand out in the music world, it must invite and integrate the music of Calgary’s diverse ethnic communities. We have to go beyond classical, country, blues, rock and roots. We must go beyond City Centre bars, pubs and coffee houses. We must foster what is happening in community centres, and churches in the suburbs.
One of the things we learned from Nashville’s museums is that music is a collaborative, grassroots process and the best music comes from the fusion of different genres of music. A good example of this would be Calgary's Sled Island Festival that happens every June and has become one of Calgary's signature festivals.
We also learned great music was not created by iconic public buildings, meaningless government policies and white papers, or by politicians, but by passionate individuals willing to risk everything to make music and to see and hear things in new ways.
Does Calgary’s have the music mavericks who can transform our City into a music city?