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Maverick 49

It is the Buckle of the American Bible Belt. People call it Gnashville, Nashvegas and Music City USA. It is known as the Athens of the South (due to its many seats of learning) and the Third Coast (neither East nor West but a centre of creativity). It is home to more than 250 health care companies. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, it has a total population of just over a million (of whom, according to Steve Earle, 999,999 are songwriters).

It is amazing that we did not go to Nashville once during my time with ‘Whistle Test’, particularly as the theme tune for the programme was by a group of Nashville session musicians known as Area Code 615. Somehow, projected visits never worked out. Whatever the reasons, I have since been making up for lost time (and Margaritas!).

My (then) ‘Bob Harris Country’ producer Dave Shannon took me to Nashville for the first time in the Spring of 1999 to compile sessions and interviews for the programme and I immediately fell in love with the place. Well, who wouldn’t…when you find yourself, a couple of hours after stepping off the plane, in the audience at the Station Inn, arguably the worlds greatest Bluegrass venue, waiting for the first ever appearance of Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, with Ray Kennedy’s gleaming silver microphone suspended in a single spotlight over the middle of the stage and no other visible amplification of any kind.

Steve and the McCoury family had formed an unexpected partnership, but each was grateful to the other…Steve for getting the chance to play authentic Bluegrass music, a great personal love, the McCoury’s for the mainstream commercial attention that Steve had brought in with him. They played ‘Pilgrim’, ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ and a further selection of songs from the album ‘The Mountain’, performed with that miraculous Bluegrass choreography that features the soloist stepping forward to the one microphone, while the others make way on either side, then the next one forward, back and around again, all at high speed and all while playing really fast, complex stuff across a whole range of acoustic instrumentation. How no one gets an accidental banjo fret in their ear or a stray violin bow up their nose is an issue for Pythagoras.

Our base camp for that first trip and for subsequent visits to Nashville has been the studios of Audio Sound Productions on Music Row, where we record all our Nashville sessions and from where I do my Saturday night programme live. I remember Nicky Horne’s comment when I handed over to him at the end of my first programme there. ‘A man in his element’ he said. And he was right. Nashville is home to some of the greatest songwriters and players on the Planet and I have been privileged, these past seven years, to have recorded sessions with some of the very best. The massive bonus has been to discover that so many of the Country and Americana musicians are so great to be with…warm, friendly and professional.

Steve Earle has been a constant during my times in Nashville. I have visited the dynamic chaos that was the E-Squared record label office and spent time with the TwangTrust at Ray Kennedy’s Room and Board studio, the control room filled with exciting Beatle memorabilia, the desk a 16-track from Abbey Road. We recorded a massive interview with Steve for the 50th birthday special we broadcast last year and I saw him play one of the best gigs I have ever seen…an electric gig with Eric Amble chunking riffs on guitar, at the Exit/In, a dark, smoky warehouse of a place, with those multi-coloured neon beer signs illuminating the bar. It was stunning…a power set. And he and his new wife Allison Moorer were also part of my most recent Nashville experience…the coverage of the Americana Music Association Awards at the Ryman Auditorium in September last year.

The Ryman has a particular acoustic presence. Everyone who has ever played there has talked about the magic of the place…the resonance of the sound. There was a danger, at one point, that the building would fall into disrepair. When Emmylou Harris recorded her live ‘At The Ryman’ album in the early nineties, only a section of the auditorium was still fit for use. The recording triggered a comprehensive renovation process that has restored much of the atmosphere and charisma that made the Ryman so revered.

My (now) producer Al Booth and I covered the AMA awards for Radio 2 and it was a magic experience to be in that building. We watched Buddy Miller performing the song of the year ‘Worry Too Much’, Arlo Guthrie giving a moving tribute to ‘The City Of New Orleans’, Emmylou Harris introducing Guy Clark as the ‘poet laureate’ of Nashville and we listened to Judy Collins beautiful and emotional solo performance of ‘Amazing Grace’, the notes filling the building like the sound of bells.

We will be at the Awards again this year, with a preview of the event on ‘Bob Harris Country’ on 21st September and comprehensive coverage on the 28th. And I will be broadcasting my Saturday show from Audio Productions, with loads of live music, on the 23rd. Following that, Al and I will be back for Nashville’s Hollywood night in November and the heavily fortified experience of the CMA Awards at the Grand Ole Opry, to see, talk with (if any of them will) and report on, the mainstream acts that pump over 6 billion dollars a year into the local economy, making Nashville the second biggest music city in America. Only New York generates more.

Nashville…or is it Cashville? Whatever else it may be called, Nashville is proud to be known as the Country Music Capitol of the World. It’s awesome. They are blessed. And to me, it’s bliss.

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