Honky-tonk woman 

From blues to bluegrass, if you dig American music (or food, or history), a trip combining Nashville and New Orleans will top your charts, says Katie Bowman 

 

Some friendships are fuelled by food. Others, by work. Ours runs on music. At 16, Paula and I made mix-tapes for each other, recording lyrics obsessively in our teenage bedrooms. At 21, we bought CDs for shiny new Discmans. At 30, it was lounge bars and after-shows, now we had the money for tickets and access to venues.

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Jazz musicians playing on a balcony in New Orleans’ French Quarter

So how do you celebrate a ‘big’ birthday together (I can’t even commit the number to page), when one of you now commutes around the world, and the other has a young family? Music. Obviously. And that is how we chose sound capitals Nashville and New Orleans, like so many music pilgrims before us – cramming country, jazz, soul, bluegrass, rock, hip-hop, big band, blues, folk and pop into one long weekend. We planned to fly in to one city and out of the other and, in my case, be back in time for the school run.

I knew we’d chosen the right place when Nashville airport staff member Mary sang us off the jet bridge with Goodnight Sweetheart, discreetly offering her CD to enamoured passengers. Our Uber driver to the hotel had once played drums on the same line-up as the White Stripes; even the hotel clerk tapped our names into the computer with a flourish that suggested she played a Steinway after her shift was up. Here was a city that sweated music from every pore – the songwriting centre of the world, which Queen Victoria called ‘Music City’ when she heard touring performers from Nashville more than two centuries ago.

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Street sign signalling the way to the French Quarter

Despite it being late, we made straight for the Bluebird Cafe, the legendary listening room, whose in-the-round songwriters’ shows see country greats such as Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift play alongside the even more brilliant talents of their writers, in a room as cramped as your morning elevator ride to the office. We just made the 9.30pm and sat centimetres from Kevin Kadish (he co-wrote All About That Bass, one of the best-selling singles of all time), as he and friends strummed their favourite tunes. The Bluebird’s atmosphere was thick with good feeling, every one of us in the audience just so dang happy to be there. Yet tonight was just like any other ordinary night in Nashville. We could be watching the next Faith Hill – or Faith herself might walk in the door for a quick jam.

The Bluebird’s atmosphere was thick with good feeling, every one of us in the audience just so dang happy to be there

A ‘Miss Caroline’ breakfast called us next morning at the Row pub: two fluffy buttermilk pancakes, creamy eggs and snap-in-half bacon (corn ‘grits’ porridge and gravy on the side for me, a strong coffee for Paula). The Row and its cosy red-leather booths have been an affordable musicians’ favourite for decades and seemed the best place to start our weekend of wall-to-wall music. Its name refers to Music Row, an area of Nashville centred around 16th and 17th Streets; here, record labels, publishing houses, recording studios and radio networks all have their digs. Dolly Parton’s track Down on Music Row? Yep, she means this place. We’d signed up for a little-known tour of it, called Songbird, to fill our time between breakfast and the first drink of the day. (If you’re not careful, in Nashville, where honky-tonks open at 10am, that could be before you’ve digested your toast.)

From a tiny custom-made stage in a small American bus, its seats facing backwards towards the performers, Trey and Paul led the tour, guitars in hand. Both songwriters, they riffed off each other, musically and verbally, as we cruised 16th Street hearing the good, the bad, and the ugly (‘Elvis wrote 62 tracks in that house’; ‘There used to be more than 4,000 songwriters in Nashville, now there are only about 400’; ‘Why am I here if I wrote a hit song? Divorce ain’t cheap!’). 

What was so unexpected, almost mythical, about Music Row was its modesty. The spot where Patsy Cline recorded Crazy, and Bobby Vinton Blue Velvet, was a corrugated steel hut that the then-producer tacked on to his house, while next door were simple, wooden houses – rickety swing on the veranda – as if a family dog was more likely to emerge than a Grammy winner.

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A man in a cowboy hat smiles for the camera in Nashville

The sky was beginning to brown at the edges as Trey dropped us off on Broadway, and we took the lowered light as permission to visit our first honky-tonk. Originally poor piano bars in the south (some say the cattle-driver clientele was so rowdy they made a hell of a ‘honk-a-tonk’), honky-tonks line the avenue, showcasing live music from dusk ’til dawn. Tootsies is the most notorious, where two boys in Stetsons were playing ‘three chords and the truth’ (my favourite nickname for country music) to a boisterous beer-spilling throng. Next door was Layla’s, over the road Brewhouse, and up and down Broadway there were countless more honky-tonks where Nashvilles’ storytellers played tear-jerking tracks. The only thing more heartbreaking than the music was the fact they didn’t all have record deals.

Our last night in Nashville had to mean a prayer of worship in the temple to country music: the Grand Ole Opry at Ryman Auditorium, originally a church built in 1892. And good Lord, did it deliver. Pews still provide audience seating. The wood and ceiling height make for outrageous acoustics. A mandolin player from Missouri stole our breath as she introduced further fiddles and banjos ’til they reached a crescendo; a husband and wife played violin to each other, the crowd strangled silent by their performance; then four old men in rhinestones sang lines that made us laugh ’til we cried.

African drums thumped out from one pitch, a lone gospel baritone sang from another, a jazz quartet and hip-hop dance crew pulled listeners to the others

You could drive between Nashville and New Orleans, making a musical road trip with a Memphis pit stop (just under 1,000km all told), but we flew – an easy 50-minute, low-cost hop. Yet as we stepped out into the French Quarter, it felt as if we’d crossed continents, not state lines: the tropical humidity made our hair frizz and the warm air had us unpeeling layers instantly. Wonderful.

Sunny Jackson Square was a musical extravaganza: African drums thumped out from one pitch, a lone gospel baritone sang from another, a jazz quartet and hip-hop dance crew pulled listeners to the others. As two musos low on time, but high on musical tastes, Paula and I agreed this patch of grass was heaven.

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A New Orleans’ street car on Canal Street

But it turned out to be nothing compared with Frenchmen Street that night, a beautifully breezy drag on the extreme reaches of the French Quarter, far from boisterous Bourbon Street and its drink deals. Arm in arm, like two sixth-formers leaving a nightclub in the ’90s (ahem), we tottered between music venues. At DBA we discovered Roamin’ Jasmine, a troupe of shaggy-haired young guys in black tie and braces, whose horn section had couples dancing by the second number. Then at Three Muses our evening peaked – we’d found that rare thing: a venue where the food is as good as the music. We ate and drank and cheered too loudly at Shotgun Jazz Band, and ordered Miss D’s sweet-potato pie. At some point I seem to remember a man came in off the street and played a washboard strapped to his chest…

And then we woke up.

The only thing more heartbreaking than the music
was the fact they didn’t all have record deals

Luckily, New Orleans knows carbs like President Trump knows staff dismissal, so it was only a matter of bleary minutes before we were ensconced in a stall at Ruby Slipper Café, Paula hiding beneath her big shades like a perp trying to evade the prison searchlight. Our waitress – in a T-shirt emblazoned ‘The mimosa made me do it’ – read out the specials, and the ‘St Charles’ caught my attention: crispy fried chicken pieces served on buttermilk biscuits (like savoury scones), topped with two poached eggs and a creamy sauce. After two of those, we didn’t just feel human again, we felt invincible.

We jumped on a vintage tram and rumbled into the leafy Garden District. This grid of 12 by 5 blocks packs in perhaps the best-preserved ensemble of historic mansions in the South. By sheer fluke, it turned out to be Open House Day for a half-dozen privately owned homes, so Paula and I were able to see inside one 1891 beauty, chewing the fat with New Orleans’s well-heeled beside a grand mantelpiece. For music tourists, the Garden District offers the perfect dose of sightseeing, requiring no forward planning, no early start nor timed tickets. The neighbourhood simply existed for us, as we admired neo-Grecian columns, Spanish moss-shaded squares, and sun-dappled porches.

After  Café du Monde, where we inhaled teatime ‘beignet’ doughnuts and a shot of bracing chicory coffee, it was time for more music. This evening, we had tickets to legendary trad-New Orleans jazz venue Preservation Hall. The seven-piece band didn’t disappoint as their raw, unamplified sound soaked the tiny, shabby room; unpredictable piano-noodling provoked gasps and one double-bass solo made my fingertips ache. I’d never heard of Preservation Hall Band until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when they marched musically down Royal Street to mark their first concert after the disaster. It made world news – and a dent on my memory.

Up late again, but with no intention of turning in (tomorrow we’d fly home, so every after-dark moment mattered), Paula and I taxi’d to the Warehouse District. In this ex-wasteland between the French Quarter and Garden District, a pioneering selection of boutique hotels has arrived, along with some avant-garde venues – tonight, ours would be the Howlin’ Wolf. The Hot 8 Brass Band were playing, and even now I’ve heard the act I couldn’t pinpoint the genre. It was hip-hop, it was jazz, it was funk, it was R&B, yet somehow there was a tuba involved. They even played an instrumental all-brass version of ’90s jam I Got 5 On It. Brilliance.

Twenty-four hours later, I was there by the school gates, as promised. I felt like I’d been away for weeks – when it came to live music, I’d heard more in the past four days than I had in the preceding decade. And if you’re talking about rejuvenation, well, my Nashville-New Orleans pilgrimage had taken 20 years off me – not something many big birthday weekends can claim (usually the opposite). Were my new cowboy boots on the school run a step too far? Probably. Was the hip-hop blasting from my car stereo over the top? Absolutely. Did I give a damn? As my old friend Talor Swift would say: just shake it off.

Credit: Katie Bowman / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing International