America’s country music heartland
The music here is predominantly bluegrass, first given mainstream attention by Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, around the time of World War II. With Celtic roots and African-American influences, it is defined by the way one or more instruments take turn playing a melody as others provide accompaniment. ‘Bluegrass is the history of ’round here,’ says 20-year-old banjo player Tyler Smith. He is dressed in dungarees, plaid shirt and brown felt hat, and his accent is molassesthick. ‘It binds people together and pulls us back to our roots. Older fellas pass on their tradition. I’m playing the same stuff my great grandpa did. It’s who we are.’
From Townsend, the road crawls in a scenic loop through local beauty spot Cade’s Cove. At one point the modest traffic is brought to a standstill by a black bear ambling nonchalantly out of a copse. Further along our route is an old whiteboard Baptist church, its welltended graveyard full of English-surnamed headstones – Brown, Abbott, Lawson. Inside is another reminder of early settlers; when they built the church, the sweat on their hands reacted with tree sap in the wood, leaving handprints on the ceiling.
If the Smokies are where country music bubbles up, then Nashville, 200 miles to the west along highway I-40, is where it comes roaring down the valley and thunders over the cliff. Tennessee’s state capital, ‘Music City USA’ is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where it is possible to organise a tour of celebrated recording studio RCA Studio B. Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves all made music here.
The Grand Ole Opry House is another place of pilgrimage for country fans. Every week, thousands of people fill this huge hall for concerts highlighting old-time performers, up-and-coming acts and big-name stars. As they have been since 1925, shows are broadcast live on WSM Radio, a station heard all over America.
Originally, the Opry was held downtown in the Ryman Auditorium, built in the 1890s as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Still a concert venue today, the auditorium is close to the neon strip of Broadway, where honky-tonk bars and stores selling cowboy boots compete for space. There are pairs made from stingray, ostrich and alligator; $1,000 (£600) buys beaver or buffalo boots.
At night, Broadway comes alive. In Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, just past Jack’s BAR-B-Q, the raucous crowd is pressed together as the band rocks the stage. ‘Raise your glass and say “Hell yeah!”’ the lead singer commands. Everyone obeys as the musicians morph from a twanging country ballad into Kid Rock’s All Summer Long. Down the street at Layla’s Bluegrass, Hillbilly and Country Inn, the Blackfoot Gypsies are belting out a performance that would wake the dead. Lead singer Matthew Paige, a Jarvis Cocker doppelganger in a gaudy polyester suit, roars about the ‘Cocaine… all around my brain’ before he collapses in a drunken heap on a barstool.
Intoxication – usually drunkenness – has long been a theme of country music. Dealing with poverty, love, work, prison and family, these were candid songs about real life and all its hardships. Yet equally present in the music is the American landscape itself. ‘When the sun came shining, And I was strolling, and the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling. A voice was chanting, as the fog was lifting. This land was made for you and me,’ sang country hero Woody Guthrie in 1944’s This Land Is Your Land.