Honky Tonks are the main attraction. Men play cellos as they trill their tongue to twanging strings. Women lit in lavender strum guitars and croon lonesomely. Achy Breaky hearts howl from bars, musicians rattle their tip jars, and it’s a Sunday night.
Stage lights envelop singers in shades of deep blues, magentas, and golds, while those under them are waiting to be discovered. What Hollywood is to wannabe movie stars and Broadway is to budding thespians, Nashville is to aspiring country singers. Taylor Swift was picked up in this very town while playing at The Bluebird Cafe. So was Garth Brooks. Nashville even has its own Country Music Walk of Fame, where stars names are memorialized much like the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. Dolly Parton was inducted the same year as Kid Rock. Wat?
I visited three different Honky Tonks in one night, each with their distinct sound and style. Robert’s Western World was the initial stop, an establishment which dubs itself “The undisputed home of traditional country music”. A pretty brunette sings with a perfect southern drawl. Words like “gone” stretch out into “gawwn” as she sings the usual song of love and loss. Framed photographs of country icons line the walls and tourists cackle over drinks. After a beer and an average burger I’m off.
Boys clad in camouflage and trucker hats shout requests to two musicians. The guitarist knows the song but the singer does not. She takes a minute to look the lyrics up on her phone and is back in business, not even missing a beat as she slaps her knee to keep up with the tune. The guys go wild and stomp so enthusiastically the floor shakes under their heavy construction boots. Twirling on each others elbows, one boy proceeds to steal a boot from his friend’s foot, promptly kicking it onto the bustling Broadway street outside. Bartenders don’t bat an eyelash at these antics and the song doesn’t cease. Whoever they are, these two onstage are seasoned professionals.
There’s a moonshine menu on the bar, strawberry, blue raspberry, jalapeno, etc., but white lightning is my flavor of choice. I grew up eating a lot of snow cones with names like “silver fox” and “tigers blood” so this sounded equally mysterious. Game on. Of course I had no idea that bootleggers called moonshine white lightning back in the day, so I was the fool that ordered straight grain alcohol. Rookie mistake, but fitting, as the establishment was called Bootleggers Inn.
Cigarette smoke hazes the band at our final stop. The singer rolls his tongue perfectly while singing about rolled back slacks. He plays a standing bass and stares past the audience onto the wall behind us, his eyes fixed on a particular spot. I wondered what he was thinking and seeing there because it was certainly more than just beige paint. Behind the bar his girlfriend stares up at him with googly eyes. When ordering a drink she informed me of their relationship immediately. Me: “Can I have a Miller High Life” (the only beer I saw in patron’s hands). Her: “Sure thing. How do ya like the band? That’s my boyfriend up there. He’s good huh?” I wanted to give her the biggest hug she was so in love.
It’s easy to get caught up in all those neon lights, to get romantic about the chords emanating from each bar as they form a cacophony that roars up into the night. I’m not a singer and country isn’t my scene, but hell, after a few hours even I thought I could make it big here. My name would wind up cemented on the ground, tourists would buy tee shirts with my face on them, big shining eyes and a pearly white smile. Maybe that’s what the singer was seeing.