America at Last – Part 8
By Parson Thru
Love or loathe Country, Nashville is one of the world’s music highlights. For me, there are Country songs that shine in the firmament, such as Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and others that just fit my mood, like Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin” from “Midnight Cowboy”. On the whole, though, I'd say Natasha and I have pretty eclectic taste – Country, classical, 90s rave / dance, blues, rock, folk, African and Indian music, you name it. But when you see that your bus route passes Nashville, you just know you have to jump off and take a look.
We booked into the Music City Hostel on Patterson Street for two nights to give us a whole day in town. It was cheap, cheerful and close to both the Greyhound station and the action. It had a young feel to it, with a mix of domestic and foreign travellers drawn like moths to its open courtyard, right off the street.
The hostel was a small encampment of dormitories and a kitchen-office area that was the heart of the place. Guitars were propped up ready for impromptu jams, and a buzz of conversation hung around the picnic tables in the yard. We checked in around 10pm and said “Hi”. The manager, in his early twenties, recommended a bar a couple of blocks away where we could eat.
The dark streets were broad and quiet in the now familiar grid-pattern with medium-rise buildings set back. I was more than ready for a drink. Pretty soon we found the bar just off a junction. Music came from inside and a few people were stood around the door. We asked if the place served food. A girl told us we had just missed it and directed us to TGI Friday’s a few blocks further on. It wasn’t what we had in mind, but it was somewhere to eat.
After walking a while it felt like we were a good way from the hostel. We plodded on and turned into another long street. I thought I could see something on the corner in the distance. Natasha doesn’t like my wild goose chases and was worried we’d get lost at night in a town and neighbourhood we didn’t know. She had a point. Now, God didn’t give me much, but he did give me an internal compass and map. I promised Natasha that I would remember the way home. Of course, she knows it doesn’t always work.
The red and white glow turned out to be exactly what we hoped and we entered through a conservatory where a young singer was playing to an empty room. We considered sitting in there to give him some company, but it was cold. Hopefully, he’d get his big chance to play inside TGI’s one day. We must have looked pretty relieved when the waitress said food was still being served and we ordered ribs – sticky, sweet and filling – and beers. We looked at some kind of loose itinerary for the next day as we got our fingers all sticky with BBQ sauce.
TGI Friday’s did us proud in the end and we found our way back to the hostel with a warm comfortable glow about us. After the two day journey from New York, we were all in. We waved to the revellers in the courtyard and made our way through the dorm – where some people were already asleep – then fell into our room and into a near coma, not stirring until 9:30 the following day. Dolly Parton could have could have grabbed a guitar and climbed on a picnic table and we would have been none the wiser.
We woke slowly and smiled at the realisation that we were waking in Nashville. Together, we grabbed the shower room while it was empty, dressed quickly and went out into the Tennessee sunshine. I’m a breakfast person. I don’t function well without it and just enjoy a good breakfast. Natasha sat in the sun reading a guide book while I went into the kitchen. It was a standard morning hostel scene of folks preparing cereal, toasting bread, making coffee or catching up with emails and Facebook.
There was a relaxed queue for the sink and a curiously domestic conversation going on between two very pretty girls in their early twenties. I pulled open a couple of cupboards to find a bowl and asked what the deal was with food. There was plenty to choose from. A tall well-built fellow with a beard told me just to use whatever was there – it was all to be shared. The place had a warm, friendly and generous feel and I felt guilty that I hadn’t brought anything to contribute. I told him.
He smiled and said “I’m making buckwheat porridge. You’re welcome to join me – I’ve made far too much for one, anyways.” I looked at the gritty brown contents of the pan. It was much coarser than any porridge I’d ever seen and I like my porridge. “What’s buckwheat?” I asked. “You’ve never had it?” “Nope.” We swapped names and he espoused the virtues of buckwheat. “Want some? It’s a little sweet – I like a lot of Maple Syrup.” I grinned – “I’d love to. Thanks.” And so I breakfasted on porridge and chatted with my new friend while Natasha crammed up on Nashville outside.
Pretty soon, we were off for the day, walking out towards the city, picking up a wide, busy highway into town. We walked over a sweeping railway bridge with more tracks below us than I could count and a dozen locomotives heading long rakes of trucks. We stopped to take a look. Natasha must be bored with me asking why it is that almost every other country in the world values moving things by rail, while in the UK we’ve spent fifty years running it down, building little housing estates where the trains once ran and cramming people onto the few inadequate cattle trucks that survive. Only London seems to still invest in rail. Strange that London makes policy for the rest of us. Well, there you go.
The skyline ahead of us was dominated by a huge horned building with Batman ears. We found out later it’s the AT&T Building. We just kept heading towards that and pretty soon we were crossing one last busy junction, straight into the first souvenir shops and bars. It was a little before noon.
Broadway starts by the Nashville Arena at 5th Avenue and peters out as you reach 1st Avenue and the Cumberland River – a broad sweep of water that we ignorantly thought was the Mississippi at first. The strip is somewhere between half a mile and a mile long and boasts four blocks decorated with the trappings of Country Music and its close relations. A larger-than-life Elvis stands outside one doorway, inviting tourists to pose and then wander inside. Having shoved the urge to own a banjo to one side, I now filled that lustful void with a vision of cowboy boots. Actually, I’d been looking to buy some for a while – I’m at that age – and fully intended walking out of Heathrow Airport wearing a pair.
Temptation appeared in the shape of a large cowboy boot attached to the front of a building a block or two down, as my soul-mate and conscience issued a warning that today wasn’t going to turn into a boot-quest. Along the street, we stopped at a plaque commemorating Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass. Natasha gave me the low-down on his contribution to American popular music as I eyed the boot store. We make a pretty good team – she loves to do the research, I love to stumble into things.
We wandered down the south side of the street, gazing curiously about us, until we reached the river and the public park that extends along the bank. Here we sat in the sun by a big riverboat that was steadily rising with the water. The US had seen heavy rain before we arrived and many rivers were inundating towns, cities and farmland. Almost the whole region was on a flood warning. We rested a while before starting back up into Broadway.
On a street corner, we bumped into a young homeless man selling a paper called “The Contributor” – similar to the “Big Issue”. We stopped for a chat and bought a copy. He was really interested to hear that the UK had something similar going on – from what he told us the deal for vendors in Nashville isn’t so good. He wrote his name – “Chris, care of The Contributor, Nashville” – on the paper and we promised to send him a “Big Issue” as soon as we got home. Hope he got it.