NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fans of ABC’s drama “Nashville” are getting to know not only the show’s fictional country music divas, struggling songwriters and aspiring musicians but the very real music venues they play and the neighborhoods where they live and work.
Fading country music queen Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) is having troubles with her husband who, thanks to her scheming father, is now the mayor of Nashville. And she would rather be in the arms of her former guitar player, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten).
To further complicate things, sexy pop tart Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), has been wooing Deacon away from Rayna, persuading him to join her in the recording studio and, occasionally, the bedroom.
Behind their Southern belle smiles the two women hate each other, but they are forced to tour together to save their careers.
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Love triangles and power struggles are part of everyday life on the show — situations just waiting to become country music songs, and they do in every episode.
It was on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the “Mother Church of Country Music,” that Rayna outshone her young nemesis, Juliette, proving to the world she was ripe for a comeback.
The National Historic Landmark was home to the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest running live radio program, from 1943-1974, when it moved to its current location near the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
During those 31 years, plenty of real dramas played out onstage and behind the scenes. It was here that country music legend Hank Williams was called back for a record six encores after performing “Lovesick Blues,” Patsy Cline mesmerized the audience with her chart-topping hit, “Crazy” and Johnny Cash fell in love with his future wife, June Carter.
Costumes from iconic Opry performers are on exhibit, including glamorous, floor-length gowns worn by Loretta Lynn, the First Lady of Country Music, and the gingham dress worn by the late Sarah Cannon when she played Minnie Pearl, a backward but lovable country girl who had a price tag eternally dangling from her straw hat.
A self-guided tour reveals that decades before it became famous for country music, the Ryman was a venue for classical theater and some of the world’s most renowned ballet and opera companies. Nashville’s old guard cherished the city’s reputation as the “Athens of the South” and resented the lowbrow “hillbilly” music that began broadcasting on WSM-AM (650) from the National Life Building in 1925. When the show moved to the beloved Ryman, it was the last straw.
Complaints were made, but country music was here to stay.
Today the Ryman hosts bands representing a broad spectrum of musical genres.
“Nashville” fans know sultry songwriter Scarlet O’Connor (Clare Bowen) waits tables at the Bluebird Café, an intimate music venue that seats only 100 listeners. An impromptu duet with music partner Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio) caught the ear of a record producer in the audience, giving the pair the break they needed. Now they have a songwriting gig at a publishing house on Music Row, the heart of Nashville’s vast music infrastructure. They continue to struggle as they navigate their way through the complex politics of Nashville’s music scene, but it looks like Scarlett may be able to quit her day job soon.
The characters are fictional, but the scenario is not. Many music careers have been launched at the Bluebird.
Back when Garth Brooks was just a wannabe with a dream, he sang at the Bluebird’s Monday open mic nights and tried out new songs at Sunday songwriters shows. When a representative from Capital records heard him perform, Brooks landed a record deal and went from struggling songwriter to superstar almost overnight.
Walt Aldridge has been an established songwriter for decades, penning hits for artists like Travis Tritt and Tim McGraw, but he still likes to play the Bluebird. He says he’s seen lots of new faces in the audience lately.
“It’s really interesting, the proliferation of new people drawn into the Bluebird Café because of the show, ‘Nashville,’” says Aldridge. “I usually ask for a show of hands about how many people have never been here, and there’s an increasing number of new folks.” Newcomers should know this is no rowdy honky tonk. “Shhh” is the slogan on the wall and everyone takes it seriously. When performers take the stage, patrons are so quiet you would think they were in church.
“Nashville” scenes that take place at the Bluebird are shot on a Nashville sound stage that perfectly replicates the famous listening room.
After checking out Nashville’s iconic music venues, get off the tourist track and explore a couple of neighborhoods featured on the show. Edgehill Village, just a block off of Music Row, is a trendy urban neighborhood with loft apartments, chic boutiques, and casual restaurants.
“Nashville” recently shot a scene outside Legato Gelato, an Edgehill gelato shop that serves unexpected flavors like pineapple basil. Remember a gelato-licking Gunnar breaking up with jealous girlfriend Hailey (Chloe Bennet) after she tried to persuade his songwriting partner to abandon songwriting and join a band? Next, head to East Nashville, a recently gentrified neighborhood with a fun, funky vibe. It’s home to edgy hipsters like Scarlett and her former boyfriend Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson). Among its cool clubs is The 5 Spot, where ambitious Avery used to rock out with his band mates before he threw them under the bus to go solo.
It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen next on “Nashville,” and the same could be said for the city itself. While Nashville is steeped in tradition, it’s also on the cutting edge — a fascinating paradox that gives Music City its magic.