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VOL. 36 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 10, 2012

The mother of all venues

Best room in town? That’s easy, Nashville’s veteran musicians say: It's the Ryman

By Tim Ghianni

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Kim Carnes’ unforgettable Bette Davis Eyes voice dances happily as she professes love for the spot she calls the best musical venue in the city.

“The first place that comes to mind is the Ryman,” she says, putting down her coffee and turning away from The New York Times for the morning conversation.

“If there is a perfect venue, a perfect 10, that is it. From the moment you walk in, whether you are seeing a show or doing a show, it is perfection. The acoustics, the vibe, the audiences that go there, the history in the walls and the seats.”

The great singer-songwriter, who chose Nashville as her home after relocating in ’94 from hometown L.A., isn’t alone in near-breathless praise for the Ryman in a series of conversations with Nashville musicians of all stripes about the city’s best places to perform and absorb the tales of love, trucks, trains, highways and heartache featured in Music City’s most noteworthy product.

Though many venues draw praise, the top choice is pretty universal.

Country-inflected rockers Bill Lloyd and Radney Foster, rising bluegrass star Lee Roy, noted blues guitarist Nick Nixon and masterful multi-instrumentalist Jen Gunderman are just a few of the musicians who second Carnes’ assessment that not only is the Ryman Nashville’s best, “it’s arguably the best venue in the country.”

“The first time I ever played there was with Matraca Berg,” Carnes says. “When we did a sound-check, we all said ‘We almost don’t need any mikes, any amplification at all.’ It’s just so perfect that you could just go on stage and not plug in. Just sing.”

In fact, Tony Bennett – arguably America’s best pop song stylist – did just that in his last stop at the Ryman: Turn off the amplification and just sing, demonstrating the acoustic purity.

“Nothing matches for me the Ryman Auditorium,” says Radney Foster, whose new Del Rio Texas, Revisited: Unplugged & Lonesome – a stripped-down reprise of his first solo record 20 years ago – would find perfect sonic complement inside the walls of “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

“You can’t help but walk out on that stage and realize the level of talent and history that has been there … You think about Elvis, Patsy Cline, Hank Sr.,” he says. “If you don’t get nervous, you’re not breathing.”

Sometimes musical partner and longtime friend Bill Lloyd agrees with Foster about the sonic treasure on Fifth Avenue North. “You always get a thrill no matter where you are because of the history of the venue … My ex-wife and I got married onstage at the Ryman, and I got to play there and also guest there with other acts.”

Foster says he’s never headlined the Ryman, but he’s played there as part of charity package shows and also “they invite me at least once a winter season to play the Grand Ole Opry when it’s down there. And to get to play a couple songs on the Opry at the Ryman, well, that’s the only place I still get nervous.

“When touring groups from out of town (play the Ryman), every single guitar player says ‘I’m nervous as hell.’ They are both excited and terrified at the same time.”

Lloyd, whose new Boy King of Tokyo one-man-band effort displays his more rock-flavored chops, has plenty of other rooms to talk about, like the Mercy Lounge, where he heads up his Long Players, a core group of performers plus a few (and sometimes many) guests who recreate classic rock albums. They revived Springsteen’s late last month.

That lounge is one of many mentioned as “among the best in Nashville” by musicians, who weigh sound and atmosphere when judging the places they like to play or go hear others.

For example, few of the musicians in this story have played the Bridgestone Arena, but several of them compare it favorably to other hockey arenas and NBA joints.

“It’s all right for a sports arena,” says Kenny Vaughan, guitar master and member of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. “I’ve played there, and you can stand on stage and get through the show and hear what the guy next to you is doing. It’s not that bad.”

“I’ve not played the actual bowl of the arena,” says Lee Roy, of bluegrass upstarts The Roys. “But I have played in some medium-sized hockey rinks. … There’s always the sound thing, ear-piercing. I’m going to assume that because it is Music City, they were able to make sure that they could go beyond hockey and car shows and know they could handle the sound of concerts. They’ve done a great job.”

Carnes agrees with that assessment. She’s taken the Arena stage, but more often she’s been there in the role of passionate consumer. “The best sound at the Arena was the Prince show,” she says, adding Fleetwood Mac and Springsteen also delivered amazing sound (and performance) at Bridgestone.

Even so, as musicians converse about favorite shows in arenas and clubs, the topic keeps returning to the Ryman.

Nicole Keiper Childrey – music journalist and drummer with hard-touring rock outfit The Mynabirds – says few musicians would debunk the Ryman’s international rep.

“When you’re there listening, if you’re a musician who’s never played that room, you can’t help but imagine what it feels like and sounds like up on that stage,” she says. “It’s so gloriously warm and enveloping in the seats, you guess it’d be a real thing of beauty, getting to hear that room envelop sounds that you’re making.

“And once you get up there, it’s every bit as wonderful as you imagined,” says Childrey, who was among the city’s most-intelligent and informed writers covering music before losing her job in one of the daily newspaper’s mass layoffs. “There’s a heft, both sonically, in how present and warm everything sounds, and just in the honor that comes with standing on that stage, getting to be even a minuscule part of its history.”

Rising bluegrass star Lee Roy (of The Roys) says “The Ryman pretty much tops the list… It’s pretty awe-inspiring.”

“It’s great, man,” says Nashville-based bluesman Nick Nixon. “The sound is just unbelievable. And it’s a pretty historic place.”

John Jorgenson – former Desert Rose Band star who has recorded with Dylan and Michael Nesmith and toured with Elton John – says “the intimacy, sound and history make it a great place …. For me the sound quality is so good in there I feel like I give a better performance as an entertainer.”

“Our best memory at the Ryman was when we played New Year’s Eve with the Del McCoury Band and got to perform Foggy Mountain Breakdown with Earl Scruggs. It has been a true privilege for us to play there,” says Woody Platt of The Steep Canyon Rangers.

Jen Gunderman, whose keyboard and squeezebox (and more) talents carry her onstage as accompanist for countless Nashville artists, glows when recalling her first time at The Ryman.

“Everyone talks about the history and the acoustics of that place, and rightly so,” says Gunderman, who also teaches about rock ’n’ roll at Vanderbilt University. “But the first time I played there I was mostly overwhelmed by what the audience looked and sounded like from the stage. People seemed closer, and louder, even in the balcony, and I think that energy coming from the audience is an important part of what inspires musicians there, too.”

Plus, she adds, current musicians partake in the age-old Ryman tradition – established by the likes of Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb – of ducking “across the alley (to) hear world-class musicians playing for tips on Lower Broad after your gig, which is enough to make anyone feel humble and grateful.”

“Next-best” honors belong to the cramped little spot in the non-descript Green Hills strip mall.

“For a songwriter, The Bluebird is a designated listening room,” says the affable Lloyd. “People go there to listen. People sort of know not to talk through your performance. The Bluebird is famous for ‘shushing’ people, but that’s OK ….

“And that’s a wonderful thing for a performer because it makes it a better show. Anybody who plays bars doing cover songs knows that you are fighting against the television or the stage is next to the ice machine and you are playing a ballad when the machine goes off. To play in a room that has the history of listening is great.”

“It was where Bill and I did the acoustic thing we did that became Foster & Lloyd,” adds Foster. “The ‘shushes’ notwithstanding, it’s dear to my heart.”

He remembers that, as a young artist, he knew he always needed to bring his “A-game,” because “you’d look back at the bar and see Vince Gill, (Dirt Band singer-guitarist) Jeff Hanna and John Prine at the bar, saying ‘OK, what’s this kid got?’

“Now I stop in sometimes and have a beer on my way home so I can terrorize some kid who is just starting out on his career.”

Carnes, also a Bluebird enthusiast, says perhaps her favorite smaller venue is a lively little joint in the Eighth Avenue antique district: “I love to play at Douglas Corner. If you do a ballad and bring it down, people will listen to it. But they are not afraid to get raucous. You want to hear people yell out if they are moved to whoop and holler.”

Bekka Bramlett, daughter of rock ’n’ roll royalty and stellar performer in her own right, says there’s only one spot in town to play: “Third & Lindsley all the way, brother. You truly feel like you are in a big old living room, playing with and for all your pals.”

After praising the “tidy and classy” bathrooms and the courteous servers, she says “the sound is impeccable, which to me overrides everything….”

Nashville’s Latino music godfather, Rafael Vasquez, echoes the words of the daughter of rock’s iconic Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. “They’ve got a new stage and sound system … It’s one of the best places I’ve played, and I was well-received.”

Vasquez’s son, Nathan – he rose to fleeting international teen-age stardom as a member of edgy Be Your Own Pet, but who now plays mostly with his own band Deluxin’ – says “I really like playing The End.”

Yes, he’s played at the iconic Exit/In across the street but “as far as playing a show and seeing a show, The End is more my speed, because I know all my friends can afford it.”

It’s got the right flavor for alternative and indie music, he says. “It’s not as squeaky clean … but as far as playing there and hearing myself in the monitors and stuff and actually having fun, it’s a pretty good venue.”

Vaughan also chimes in for The End. “I don’t really care to play there myself, but (I) have to give them a special mention for bringing in younger bands. Every now and then they’ll bring in national acts you wouldn’t see in Nashville, people who would do well in other cities. It’s hard for a touring act to come through Nashville, because they are competing with incredible musicians who play for free.”

What used to be a lonesome blockhouse down in the skid-row-shabby railroad gulch became a legendary destination, thanks to the jump-on-stage-and-pick camaraderie of acoustic supermen like Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and Vassar Clements. Nowadays, The Station Inn is aswirl in the trendy sushi and neon-martini world that has become The Gulch. But inside, the heart of that blockhouse is still beating.

“There is a million little honky-tonks, but for me, a great place for my genre is The Station Inn,” says Roy. “It’s a bluegrass venue, and it’s really cool. It blends the honky-tonk atmosphere. It’s a bar. They’ve got food and popcorn and a bunch of tables and chairs. It’s just a great place to go and listen to acoustic and bluegrass music. I look forward to not only playing there, but I love going in there and getting to hang, run into some buddies.”

“It’s world bluegrass headquarters,” says Steep Canyon Ranger Platt. “One of our first trips to Nashville, we got to open for The Sidemen: Gene Wooten, Mike Bubb, Jimmy Campbell, et al. We were so intimidated and honored to play alongside them … This place means a lot to the bluegrass world.”

Jorgenson agrees that the old blockhouse “is perfect for small, acoustic sets. They know how to handle the sound in a smaller venue like that, and it is a great pedigree for acoustic and bluegrass music.”

Gunderman, who was among the Long Players who visited E Street for their Born in the USA set recently, is a great enthusiast of Mercy Lounge, where that Bill Lloyd-fashioned group generally performs. But she also likes the associated venues. “The Mercy Lounge/The Cannery/ The Hiwatt Club. These three spaces are so important for working/touring bands, as well as local musicians,” she says. “The size and the vibe of those rooms are great, and I love the guys who run them. “

“I love a lot of the small clubs in Nashville,” says Mynabirds drummer Childrey. “We have an unusual and wonderful glut of great ones, from the Cannery compound to the 5 Spot (in East Nashville), great for different and lovable reasons.

“But I’m partial to The Basement, both because there’s an inviting coziness to the room, whether you’re playing or listening, and because it sounds way, way better than a tiny brick basement has any business sounding. It’s one of those instances where smart and talented people take a humble palette and have the know-how to make something incredible out of it. I have such great memories from that place – seeing Emmylou Harris play a gorgeous and intimate tour warm-up set, playing a pre-festival warm-up set with Brendan Benson in the dead of summer when the AC had gone out, everyone sweating together but giving off fittingly warm energy... It just feels like home to me. I love it.”

“Speaking of The Basement, Nashville’s rock scene wouldn’t be what it is without Mike Grimes and his businesses, first the Slow Bar, which was a pioneer in East Nashville’s Five Points, and then Grimey’s record store and The Basement,” says Gunderman. “His enthusiasm and encouragement toward all kinds of musicians is hard to overstate.”

And not to be forgotten is The Family Wash, a casual and intimate East Nashville neighborhood restaurant and lounge that Gunderman compares to the atmosphere in the old TV show pub Cheers. But she says it’s even “better because owner/musician Jamie Rubin is so enthusiastic about all sorts of music there, and players can use it as a kind of playground/workshop: ‘Let’s do all songs from 1971!’ ‘Let’s do a night of bossa nova and get the singers to sing in Portuguese!’ ‘Let’s recreate the soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas! ‘Let’s play Kiss songs on tuba!’ All of those things really happened.”

Foster pipes in: “I love a place on the other side of the tracks: Family Wash. The low-keyness of it. All kinds of music gets played in there. … Bill (Lloyd) plays there and does one-plus-one shows in which he calls on his friends to play an original and a cover song. I’ve done some of those with him.”

“The Family Wash is a place that a lot of people seem to like to play,” Vaughan says. “People seem friendly. It’s an East Nashville crowd.”

While this rundown shows the taste of the musicians, it’s certainly not a complete list.

For example, Rafael Vasquez recommends Ibiza Nightclub out in Antioch as a top-flight place for Latino music of all sorts. “A lot of Hispanics play there,” says this leader of the heralded San Rafael Band. “A lot of people play there. … Even Puerto Rican rap artists.”

Lee Roy likes The Listening Room in Cummins Station. “It’s a great place to go hear writers, learn the stories behind the songs,” he says.

Lloyd likes to remember his performances, with Foster, on the Grand Ole Opry.

“We played the Opry last year (when F&L put out a superb reunion album). It was 25 years between performances, we played there once during the old days. We might have been a little bit outside the mainstream back then … It is great fun and joy to get to play there.”

Gunderman offers up the eclectic Americana radio/variety show that is Music City Roots at the Loveless Barn. “I just love this gig. Jim Lauderdale is a great MC, and I think it’s cool the way they draw a diverse crowd of music fans through interesting booking.”

Nixon lets out a little secret about the small stage at the south end of the dining room in Carol Ann’s, a cozy meat-and-three/soul food joint that’s almost lost among urban scars along Murfreesboro Road. Every Sunday evening, it hosts a blues jam in which the music fashioned on Jefferson Street has a spirited, old-school showcase of the sort that Jake and Elwood shallowly feigned in The Blues Brothers.

Nixon also directs blues lovers to Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar (home of a Monday night jam) and to B.B.’s on Second Avenue, which can be truly special on the rare occasion that Lucille is in town.

And, not to be forgotten is The Schermerhorn Symphony Center. No, there’s not much chance you’ll be hearing Ramones-flavored rock giving sonic shock treatment to the walls of the stately joint down at One Symphony Place. (However, that would be quite dandy.)

But both Jorgenson and Roy bubble when talking about what it does deliver.

“What an amazing venue,” says Roy, who took the Schermerhorn stage with his hero Ricky Skaggs and The Whites during the ICM Awards. “It’s absolutely amazing and second-to-none. The time was spent to make sure the acoustics are where they need to be.”

“I’ve played in fine concert halls all over the world,” says Jorgenson. “And it is equal to the best. It has a timeless feel to it as well, It seems like it’s been around for 60-70 years and not the fairly new venue it is.”

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