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Posts Tagged ‘Ryman Auditorium’


With the arrival of our “San Francisco family”, following their excursion to Jerry’s relatives in Mount Carroll, the road trip had taken on a new turn. No longer could we do whatever we pleased – we had to consider the needs of others, especially Ely and Aiden. And that was an exciting thought! Another new city with some of our favourite people and a glorious weather forecast!

Mind you, the day started inauspiciously as both Janet and I clambered out of bed, aching in just about every part of our respective bodies. At least momentarily, we were regretting our generosity in allowing Jerry and Alicia, with Ely in a crib, to sleep in the spacious master bedroom with ensuite, while we occupied the cramped second bedroom. Aiden had no such worries, as he had been given his choice of bunk beds, unsurprisingly electing to take the top one.

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After breakfast, we piled into Jerry’s hire car, set the sat nav and headed to the city. A cool but bright Sunday morning, there was little traffic, and we were able to park just a couple of blocks from Willis Tower.

As we stepped out of the car, the glistening windows of the high rise office blocks and the brilliant blue of the sky was a thrilling sight. As one of the displays inside the tower informed us, the world’s first skyscraper had its roots in Chicago. The Home Insurance Building was 138 feet tall when it was built in 1885, incorporating a ten storey steel frame structure.

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At 1,450 feet (442 metres) and with 110 storeys, Willis Tower is the second tallest building in the country, and, after One World Trade Center, the Western Hemisphere (as are the restrooms!). Originally called the Sears Tower, it was renamed in 2009.

As we knew only too well, access to most American attractions warrants a long wait, due more to their popularity than any inefficiency on the part of the operators. But they do try to entertain the paying customers while they wait.

Firstly, there is the obligatory photoshoot where, should you be willing to buy the resulting images, it will set you back $30-40 for large and small photos and maybe an accessory like a key ring or fridge magnet.

Then there is the pre-show, which might entail a short theatre presentation, as we enjoyed in the Ryman Auditorium in Chicago, and/or a series of descriptive tableaux or wall displays. It is cleverly done, and should you genuinely be interested in what you are about to experience, does soften the blow of the lengthy wait.

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However, this does not wash with young children, and Ely and Aiden were soon asking for snacks and refreshments. Fortunately, Jerry had spotted a concession point at the beginning of the line, and was able to assuage their irritation.

Once at the top, aside from the spectacular views, there were more informative and attractively presented plaques celebrating Chicago’s contribution to the world.

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The 360 degree views of the city were spectacular. It is claimed that, on a clear day, you can see four states in one day.

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I reported in the previous post that Ely and Aiden had immediately become attached to the miniature cars found in the house. For the entirety of their stay they could not be separated from their favourite vehicles. Occasional spat aside, they grabbed every opportunity to drive/race them on a smooth service, – even on the walls of skyscrapers!

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We then drove over to Navy Pier, the former military and freight terminal on the banks of Lake Michigan. It had been extensively renovated in recent years, including the addition of attractions such as a musical carousel, wave swinger and funhouse maze, all designed to attract families. Drawing over nine million people a year, it is Chicago’s most visited attraction.

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It is also now home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, though the weather dictated we should continue to enjoy the great outdoors. Besides, admission prices were steep – adults and all children over one year of age $14.95 and seniors (me!) $13.95.

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But before we did anything else, it was time for lunch. Coffees and burgers from the food hall were order of the day. Ely was happy – and his two cars were never leaving his sight!

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The Centennial (Ferris) Wheel cost $16 each. It might have cost another $13 but Ely regressed a year for the afternoon to ensure that he gained free entry. Anyone appalled at such deceit should note that he did barely pass the height restriction test, so comfortably passed for being under three years of age.

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Ely and Aiden loved it.

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Once grounded, however, Ely at least showed signs of flagging.

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From New Orleans through Memphis and Nashville and now Chicago, streetcars and trolleys had been a prominent feature of the cityscape throughout our trip.

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On one of our previous visits to Petaluma, Alicia had prepared just about the best steaks we had ever eaten, and we were eager not to let her go without repeating the treat. This necessitated a second visit to the local supermarket where Ely and Aiden once again left terra firma to be driven round the aisles by Janet – or was that Ely who was driving?

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I am also happy to report that I managed to avoid any further altercation with a wine display stand.

It had been a lovely day with our adopted family from the City by the Bay. Tomorrow, we would even busier with a trip to Millennium Park to marvel at the extraordinary Bean, a ride on Chicago’s cool elevated rail system, dinner at a celebrated deep dish pizza restaurant with friends of Alicia and Jerry, and an eventful evening in a classic blues club.

Phew!

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Our final day in Music City USA, and we planned to visit two MORE of its most iconic institutions – Historic RCA Studio B and the “mother church” of country music, the Ryman Auditorium.

Despite checking before we left home whether there would be a concert in the Ryman while we were in town, we only discovered as we got ready this morning, that Roger McGuinn of the Byrds was performing the album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which effectively prompted the phenomenon of country rock in 1968, at the Ryman that evening.

There appeared to be mixed messages online about whether there were any tickets left, and whether those that were available had restricted views. After much discussion, we decided to take our chances and ask at the box office when we arrived in town.

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Our RCA Studio B tour was not scheduled to start until 11.30am, which enabled us to call at the Ryman beforehand. We were told that while there were no tickets left, but we might wish to call back later to establish whether there were any returns. We decided at that point that we wanted to spend our last few hours in town absorbing the atmosphere a little longer.

After coffee in Cafe Lula, we made our way back to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, from whence we boarded the shuttle bus to Historic RCA Studio B.

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Aside from Elvis, among the “1,000 Hits”, recorded at the studio were All I Have to Do is Dream and Cathy’s Clown by the Everly Brothers, He’ll Have to Go by Jim Reeves, Only the Lonely and Crying by Roy Orbison, Oh Lonesome Me and I Can’t Stop Loving You by Don Gibson, The Three Bells by The Browns and Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton.

Opened on Music Row in 1957, the studio received the RCA custom tube recording console two years later, enabling it to establish the Nashville Sound, home too to the most prestigious session musicians anywhere. It is Nashville’s oldest recording studio and continues to inspire modern artists such as Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride.

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Our enthusiastic, or rather manic, guide, George, recounted the history of the studio at great speed, leaping around while playing some of the most popular recordings made there.

Perhaps the most awe inspiring part of the tour was the opportunity to sit at the ebony finished Model B Steinway piano. Whilst, to a layman, it looked like any piano, this was a legendary artefact of musical history. Built in New York in 1942, it was sold to NBC a year later and made its way to RCA in 1957.

It had been Elvis’s favourite piano, bought for him by Priscilla. This was the piano that HE played when he wanted to record a song.

And, unlike, Graceland, we could actually TOUCH it! And, not just touch it, but SIT on it!

 

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For reasons I cannot now recall, our visit lasted twice as long as any other that day.

Continuing our tour of the live music bars on Broadway, we found ourselves next in Robert’s Western World, a far cry from the frenetic rocking establishments owned by modern country stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.

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John Shepherd, minus Lois at the time of our visit, had been playing Robert’s for more than forty years and had been a key figure in saving Broadway from the bulldozer when city officials seriously considered doing so.

Between his renditions of classic country songs, he was a gentle and engaging raconteur, an oasis of calm in the cacophony elsewhere on the street.

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The bar itself was a living museum too to country music history.

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It also served to remind us that time was running out for the most important decision to be made while we were in town.

To buy or not to buy new cowboy boots.

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But we had somewhere else to be first – the “mother church” of country music itself, the Ryman Auditorium on 5th Avenue.

Formerly home, between 1943 and 1974, to the Grand Ole Opry, and before that, the Union Gospel Tabernacle, this is hallowed ground. This is where bluegrass was born and Johnny Cash met June Carter.

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After an ingenious immersive journey through the Ryman’s history in the Soul of Nashville Theater Experience, we entered the 2,362 seat auditorium only to witness Roger McGuinn scuttling across the stage in preparation for soundcheck for this evening’s performance. At that moment, I seriously regretted not pursuing the search for tickets.

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Videos and display cases abounded around the corridors. As always, I was drawn to the Hank Williams’ exhibit.

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Porter Wagoner, lynchpin of the Grand Ole Opry, the man who introduced a young Dolly Parton to the world, and with whom he sang throughout the late sixties and early seventies, was represented by one of his notorious Nudie suits.

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The Ryman may not quite have given me the goosebumps that Sun Studio in Memphis achieved, but I can understand how venerated it is to country music enthusiasts, especially those who spent the forties and fifties sat around the family radio listening to the weekly broadcast from the Opry.

One of the locations we had promised ourselves to visit, having seen it flash by so often on the Nashville television show, was the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge over the Cumberland River.

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The bridge connects downtown to the residential suburbs of East Nashville, where we were staying. Built between 1907 and 1909, it was closed to automobile traffic in 1998 and restored for pedestrian use, providing outstanding views of the river and and downtown skyline.

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It is such a civilising thing that I only wished more cities followed suit and enhanced the pedestrian experience this way. Of course, traffic congestion renders it a difficult proposition.

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As the sun resolved to retire for the night, our thoughts turned to dinner. From the moment we saw it, we had planned to eat at Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar before we left town. Previous attempts had been rebutted due to long lines, but we had timed it perfectly this time, and were escorted to the first floor dining room where we had an excellent table overlooking the stage.

Unsurprisingly, one of Blake’s proteges on The Voice USA, was performing at the time. Zach Seabaugh had been a semi-finalist on the show at the age of 16 in 2015, and it was not difficult to understand why. With the voice of someone twice his age and an authoritative picking style, he is undoubtedly a talent.

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The food was standard bar and grill fare. My sandwich was massive but tasty, so much so that I took the unusual, but so American, course of ordering a “box” to take away. With an early start in the morning, and a three hundred mile drive to St Louis, it would double up as breakfast.

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Ever since we arrived, Janet had wanted to have a drink on one of the rooftop bars on Broadway. After a couple of failed attempts to find a seat, we settled down atop the especially lively Nudie’s Honky Tonk. Although it was Monday evening, the  street was buzzing with activity in all directions.

It gave us the perfect excuse too for one final look at the fascinating “Batman” building.

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As we contemplated calling the Uber for our return to the bungalow, there was still one issue to be resolved.

The cowboy boots!

I had spent the entire stay dipping in and out of boot (and hat) stores, agonising over whether I could justify the outlay for the pairs I took a liking too. The hand stitched (in Mexico) pair that I had been most attracted to were $329 (£253), which I felt might be too expensive.

Eventually, in Boot Country, I found another, admittedly plainer, pair that I liked, which were only $199. I felt less guilty about that.

But wait!

It was buy one pair, get two free!

A touch over £50 per pair!

I was particularly take with a grey/blue pair, intended for a special occasion, and a brown version of the same for everyday wear.

The only remaining conundrum was finding Janet a pair! After all, I couldn’t be so greedy as to have all three pairs.

After much trying on and soul searching, she eventually found a pair that suited her.

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Janet, I and three bags of boots scrambled into our Uber and headed back to East Nashville before we spent any more.

After a slow start, Nashville had completely won us over. The only disappointment had been that we hadn’t visited the Grand Ole Opry or some of the attractions and bars beyond the downtown area.

Ah well, we will just have to return for a longer trip in the future!

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After the frenzy and hubbub of last night on Broadway, we expected to encounter a calmer scene when our Uber driver deposited us downtown on a warm Sunday morning.

And it was certainly quieter (in volume terms), though surprisingly busy.

We had booked tickets for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum yesterday, so entered the imposing building where we endured a lukewarm coffee before joining the growing numbers flocking into the museum itself.

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The architecture of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with its unique design and materials, is a celebration of country music and Southern culture. Many of its features reflect this visibly, for example the front windows which reference black piano keys and the cylindrical shape recalling the railroad water towers and grain silos found in rural settings (many of which we had seen on the road).

The building is one of the world’s largest museums and research centres dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of American vernacular music, and it has amassed a huge musical collections since its chartering in 1964.

Beginning on the upper floor, the first special exhibition we came across was a celebration of the career of Emmylou Harris, whom it so happened, had been performing for us at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco a year ago to the day.

The highlight for me of an informative and colourful display  was the section recounting the period she collaborated with Dolly Parton and the lovely Linda Ronstadt. Not so sure about the hairstyles though!

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As I explained in the previous day’s blog, I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to country music, and amidst the comprehensive displays given over to the entire history of the genre, I was drawn to two of the legends in particular, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

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Any self-respecting museum showcasing country music has to put one of Elvis’s cars on display, doesn’t it? They are certainly not confined to Graceland.

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Not least because of the massive scale of the museum, we were selective in exploring what we wanted to see, avoiding the Judds and Little Big Towns exhibits.

But any reference to Willie Nelson and I’m there!

Those people who only know him from his more recent, rebellious persona, might have trouble identifying him in his younger, sharp suited, clean cut days, as this television performance framed by a mock up of the world famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway showcased.

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Of all the special exhibitions currently on display, the Willie & Waylon: Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, one was the most fascinating for me. This was the more recognisable Willie that is so universally loved nowadays.

What was particularly interesting was the close crossover with the country, even psychedelic, rock movements of the late sixties and seventies.

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The Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda is a lovely space that recognises all its members from then original inductees, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose in 1961 to Alan Jackson, Jerry Reed and Dan Schlitz in 2017.

Indeed, there was a ceremony underway at the time of our visit, where citations for all the members were being given as part of the process for inducting the 2018 performers.

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Anyone familiar with the history of country music will be familiar with the phrase “will the circle be unbroken”, a popular hymn from the early twentieth century which became the inspiration for one of the Carter Family’s most celebrated songs, “can the circle be unbroken”.

It is fitting, therefore, that the question should be at the heart of the Hall of Fame’s concept of continuous growth and relevance.

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Even though we skipped some exhibitions, we still spent three hours in the museum and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with an interest in music, not just country.

Back in the real world, we were greeted by two familiar sights – the “Batman” building and a “Honky Tonk’ party in full swing.

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But at this point, a drizzle turned into an unexpected downpour. As we had eaten little, and the rain quickly began to look as if it would persist for some time, we resolved to dive into the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch.

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Sat under a Dave Matthews guitar (which thrilled our San Franciscan friend, Alicia, whom we were scheduled to meet in Chicago later on the trip), we had a delicious lunch, washed down by two cocktails each, before the rain desisted.

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We were now ready to tackle another museum before night fell. The Johnny Cash Museum may be only a fraction in size of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but I am prepared to claim that it is one of the best I have ever visited – a magnificent tribute to not only a great singer, songwriter and performer, but a great American.

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If you want a simple but telling analysis of someone’s contribution to the world, you need rarely go further than read Bob Dylan. His eulogy to Johnny Cash is a perfect example.

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The museum covers all aspects of his life – not only his extraordinary career as a musician, but his, perhaps less successful, film and television performances, his patriotism, humanitarianism, Christian belief and influence on so many other people.

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The feature of the museum that most appealed to me was the “Cash Covered” exhibit in which you could select a Cash song and then don headphones to listen to multiple recordings of that song by other artists. Unsurprisingly, I made a beeline for the rendition below.

Both Janet and I could have spent all day on this exhibit and the “In Concert Theater” alone.

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Equally impressive is the ‘Hall of Records” which houses his gold and platinum discs.

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As you return to the store and cafe, you are haunted by his astonishing rendition of Trent Reznor’s  (of Nine Inch Nails) magnificent song.

Oh Johnny, you will never let me down or make me hurt.

By the time we dragged ourselves out of this moving salute to a true icon, dusk was falling, and time to listen to some live music.

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We returned to AJ’s Good Time Bar on Broadway where a large crowd was already enjoying a band playing a more modern version of country than we had experienced the night before. Screens on the walls in the ground floor bar depict performances on floors on the upper levels.

I resisted the temptation to inflict my version of Crazy Arms or I Fall to Pieces on the audience and we left after one drink.

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We had been invited by our current landlords to come along to the acoustic concert on their backyard that was scheduled to run until 9pm. Without staying out later, there was no way we could avoid attending as our bungalow was in the backyard!

We sat outside the bungalow to the side of the main garden which housed a sizeable crowd. We witnessed two acts – a duo who were engaging and a woman from San Diego, whose greatest quality was that as he sung and played so quietly that she couldn’t really be heard!

And Janet got bitten!

Despite this slightly surreal experience, we were warming to Nashville by now and looking forward to visiting another two historic places – RCA Studio B and the Ryman Auditorium.

Tomorrow would also be decision day on the most important aspect of our trip to Nashville.

Cowboy boots!

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