Not long after leaving Gatlinburg, and winding our way out of the sultry haze of the Smokey Mountains, Mother Nature decided she’d spoilt us with all the endless clear blue skies, and unleashed hell, in the form of a solid wall of rain.
Immediately, the ability to use my eyes to see things was rendered completely useless.
With astounding collective proficiency, myself and my fellow road users all slowed from 70mph to 20mph in about four seconds, and I crawled through the grey torrent for what seemed like an age, hoping fervently that I was still on the road (I say hoping, because I could see neither the end of the car bonnet, nor any evidence of road on either side).
This devilish downfall did eventually ease, but it set the scene for our visit to Nashville. We arrived at our Best Western in the rain, and admired our room’s view of the hotel pool in the rain, and overheard a conversation in the lobby that this was the most rain the city had had in approximately five billion years.
But despite the rain, we had matters to attend to: a trip to the Bluebird Café.
The Bluebird Café is a ‘listening room’: a tiny venue the size of someone’s living room, seating only about 70 guests; in the centre of the jumble of tables is a circle of four chairs where the musicians play their music to each other and the privileged audience who have managed to get through the Glastonbury-style competitive ticket process. The novelty is you don’t know who you’re going to see until you get there. We’re not talking mega stars here, although apparently Taylor Swift turned up there recently. So you never know who you’ll end up listening to.
Due to the intimate size of the Bluebird Café, it is necessary (and delightfully peculiar) to share tables with complete strangers, so Sarah and I were ushered through the tangle of fairy lights and chair legs to a table at which four 60-somethings were already sitting.
Now, we were acutely aware throughout our entire trip in the Deep South that us Londoners stuck out like a sore thumb, and that we wore our tourist-ness like giant flowing capes whether we liked it or not. However, I can tell you that two women from London do not stick out in a bar in Tennessee nearly as much as four wealthy retirees from Bel Air.
Sarah and I were immediately seduced. The twinkly-eyed gent who looked like Liberace introduced them all (which was a total waste of time, as neither of us can remember any of their names, hence they are resigned to history simply as The Bluebird Four), and collectively they quizzed us on our trip, tossing admirations like dollar bills over our ‘braveness’ to undertake such a trip as ‘two women alone’. (It turned out both couples had been together since high school. The two lady Bluebirds had, Sarah and I judged, never done a day’s work in their lives.)
We were entranced by them: their perfectly manicured neatness, their eye-watering private-members’-club politeness, their unquestioning assurance that we didn’t mind being given the Spanish Inquisition by four complete strangers (we didn’t). It was the start of a beautiful friendship, of that I was certain. We would be invited to their Bel Air mansions for Christmas, we would be presented with Rolexes in little white boxes, we would be written into their Wills….
Then 12 minutes into the music, as the musicians strummed their compositions into the respectfully silent room, Liberace fell asleep, the other male Bluebird started composing a lengthy and tut-ridden email on his phone, Liberace’s wife looked down at the carpet with an inexplicable single tear rolling down her expensively creamed face, and Mrs Tutting Bluebird hissed loudly into the centre of the table ‘We’re leaving after this song.’ Two minutes later, during the enthusiastic applause, the Bluebird Four rose en masse like bored Royalty and bustled out of the room, without so much as a ‘We’ll pay for your flights at Christmas’.
Despite our unceremonious dumping, we had a wonderful evening of country music, beer and Nachos, and if any of the BlueBird Four are reading this: we’re still available to come to Bel Air this Christmas.
The next morning we took shelter from the rain in the Country Music Museum, which was extremely interesting, but perhaps not as interesting as the astoundingly rubbish stone effigies of notable musical figures in the Country Music Hall of Fame, not least of our mate Dolly:
Then we found Broadway.
On Nashville’s Broadway a West Side Story-style musical battle plays out: on one side of the street a row of bars flashes neon signs and shouts live music at the row of bars across the street, which retaliates by doing exactly the same. The result? The coolest, oddest, let’s-get-drunk-est cacophony of music you’ve ever heard. In each bar’s open window was a band playing various sub-genres of country music, and as we sloshed through the puddles (yes, it was still raining), one song from one bar would fade, have a brief tussle with the song from the next bar, then that song would be beaten down by the song from the next. It was brilliant.
As we walked past the bars that were brimming with the sort of frenzied energy that, in a normal boring city, doesn’t bubble up until about 10pm, we were acutely aware of the serious and unspoken dilemma that we were now facing: we would have to start drinking.
There are times in one’s life when one has to make a potentially life-saving decision. Here, at 12.30pm on a rainy Sunday in Nashville, on the coolest and most lively street in the Universe, we were faced with two choices:
1) Sprint straight into the nearest bar, tell each other we would only stay for a couple of beers and then have a sensible lunch, a lunch that would never materialise, and instead we would simply descend into a long afternoon of booziness that would inevitably result in one of us being sick in a drain by 5pm; or
2) Have a very slow and very big lunch that neither of us particularly wanted, but which would at least arm us against the onslaught of an afternoon of crapulous inevitability, and hope that it would be at least 8pm before one of us was sick in a drain.
We sensibly chose the latter, and feasted on ribs, pulled-pork baps, potato salad and macaroni cheese at Martin’s BBQ. This killed a good hour, after which we almost ran back to Broadway and tucked ourselves into the dim, purple-lit Robert’s Western World bar where we did what any sane human would do on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Nashville: drink beer and listen to country music.
Which we did with gusto and aplomb.
Here is a diagram of our afternoon in Nashville:
If you’d asked us at 7.30pm on that Sunday, as we slumped over the bar at Teqila Cowboy, what Nashville is like, you would have received this reply:
Hence why we called it a day (yes, I know it was only 7.30pm, but that’s just how we roll), demolished a Nathan’s hot dog from a street corner stall, got a cab back our hotel and collapsed in front of a true crime documentary until it was an acceptable time to pass out.
If you ask us now what Nashville is like, you will receive this reply: Nashville is pure, untamed fun. If you like country music, BBQ ribs, and a down-to-earth, no-frills, shoes-are-slightly-sticking-to-the-floor sort of time, it’s the best place ever. Especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
And especially when it turns out neither of you needed to be sick into a drain.
UP NEXT: blues, ducks, and the deserted city in Memphis.