It was an odd choice of meeting place for a walking tour, the Chet Atkins statue. Besides the fact that it stands just beyond the tourists’ beaten path — in the shadow of a high-rise office building, no less — the immortalized image of Atkins, who’s most often associated with late ‘50s and ‘60s recordings, seemed like a rather arbitrary starting point for telling the story of Music City, which began decades earlier. But hey, that’s where the website for Walkin’ Nashville said to meet.
The moment that tour guide Bill DeMain stepped forward and started holding court through a tiny P.A. slung over his shoulder, the whole thing began to make a whole lot more sense. “I think history is really messy,” he explained. “When we look at it from a distance, we have a tendency to tidy it up.” He also warned we were in for some bona fide music geekery. Though he’s fairly new to the Nashville tourism biz, he’s a longtime music journalist and singer-songwriter, with a polished, conversational and exceptionally knowledgeable way about him.
DeMain had us gathered around Atkins-the-statue to ponder the role of Atkins-the-producer in the untidy evolution of music-making in Nashville. The finessed, lushly-orchestrated Nashville Sound he helped pioneer in the studio caught a bit of flack in its day for being a departure from hardcore country. But without it, DeMain theorized, country music might have been permanently eclipsed by early rock ‘n’ roll and wound up frozen in time like big band music.
DeMain said when he interviewed the Country Music Hall of Famer years before, Atkins didn’t claim responsibility for changing the course of the genre or anything of the sort. To hear Atkins tell it, he’d simply responded to new realities in the cultural landscape by trying out new ideas.
Atkins was what DeMain called an “enlightened executive” — a music business mover and shaker who was also an accomplished musician — and hardly the only figure of that type to make an impact on Music City. That was exactly DeMain’s point: we were about to retrace a legacy shaped by instincts both forward-thinking and down-to-earth, both commercial and artistic.
Before strolling through downtown’s historic Arcade — an Italian-style, indoor mall, presently lined with lunch spots — DeMain pointed out the location of Civil Rights lunch counter sit-ins and the sidewalk where street musician Cortelia Clark recorded a Grammy-winning album.
At one end of Printer’s Alley, DeMain paused to give us a peak inside Skull’s Rainbow Room, a joint supposedly haunted by its slain owner and definitely under renovation. The bar once played host to performances by Andy Griffith, Roger Miller and a slew of other folks who were hungry for an audience on their way to stardom. DeMain also noted that Jimi Hendrix played his first professional gigs on this same strip and Carrie Underwood shot a music video there.
A couple of streets over, DeMain recounted the full-circle history of the Ryman Auditorium, from its church origins through its use as a venue for popular entertainers of all kinds — including Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin — its tenure as the Grand Ole Opry House and its return to glory as an all-genre music venue, after tradition-valuing musicians Emmylou Harris and John Hartford campaigned to keep the building from being razed.
Posters all over the place advertised the bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent’s Ryman appearance that night, so DeMain took the time to talk about how the template for the hot string band music we now know as bluegrass was established more than half a century ago on that very stage. Across the alley, Tootsies Orchid Lounge presented another example of how Nashville institutions get packaged and preserved.
After bringing the group into the famous establishment, DeMain described how an entire generation of songwriting misfits — Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson among them — congregated in the only bar in town painted a shade of purple. They occasionally even came up with a song idea or found a singer for one of their new tunes. In fact, Tootsies is where Patsy Cline’s husband first heard Nelson’s 45 of “Crazy” on the jukebox.
The bar’s interior still has some old headshots and signatures on the walls, but the place is twice as big now, with a rooftop bar, and the line of Tootsies merch is much-expanded, too.
Throughout the tour, DeMain drew on his own journalistic research along with the sort of nuanced knowledge you can really only absorb by sticking around long enough to collect the stories, see successive waves of change and develop a sense of how to interpret it all. He interspersed his rich retelling of history with commentary on current debates over Nashville’s development: whether or not somebody should get to put a boutique hotel in Printer’s Alley and what it would mean to preserve RCA Studio A as a working studio.
And we came away with so much more than static snapshots of Music City landmarks, though there were photo ops aplenty.