By Jamie Gardam
It took around 4 years of persuasion and a drunken promise with my friend before she moved back home to Australia at a Ward Thomas concert but I finally made it to a little city called Nashville, Tennessee. By the time I had got out of my Uber from the airport I was already in love with the place and genuinely could not believe I didn’t make the trip sooner. Despite what anyone tells you, what you see on social media or what you think to expect you really don’t appreciate what the place is like until you finally get there.
I had never been to America let alone to Tennessee before so there are a couple of things that generically take some getting used to. They drive on the wrong side of the road meaning the passenger’s side is the opposite side of the car (made that mistake at least 3 times) and the whole crossing the road process is both confusing and terrifying. Luckily the city is designed on a grid system with a main road through the middle and straight roads going across it at regular intervals which are all numbered avenues with either N or S depending which side of Broadway you are so navigation is not too difficult.
Their money is all the same size, similar colour and feel unlike UK money (where the notes grow in size as the value increases) and also their pricing is not value added like in Europe. So the price you see has sales tax to be added on top of this so can be quite confusing in Starbucks or Wal-Mart but actually becomes quite beneficial when you eat out as it gives you roughly 10% so you can multiply this depending how much you want to leave as a gratuity.
The whole dreaded tipping process is not as daunting as most tight fisted Brits expect it to be, giving an extra dollar or two per beer just becomes natural plus the more you look after the servers, the more they look after you.
On the subject of food, it is unreal! They really do find a way to deep fry anything and everything but fried green tomato (obviously pronounced Toe May Toe) were one of the best things I tried all week. Their portion sizes are a lot bigger than ours, which personally was quite daunting so as a result I was generally only eating once a day. They do seem to have a massive obsession with gherkins (or pickles to the locals) and however much they big them up they are the same nasty little surprises you find yourself picking out of a cheeseburger at 3am after a night in Croydon.
Other regional delicacies we tried involve hot chicken where HOT is the key word as a mild over there would be the same as a hot in the wonderful chain restaurant where Brits go to be cheeky! Beer cheese is like a sauce sent down from heaven and the pretzels are divine as are the wonderful breakfast concept of biscuits and gravy (neither the same substance as we would refer to those words) which are like scones covered in a sweet meaty sauce also Tater Tots are another thing that are gorgeous beyond belief. However they do some strange things like chips are what we would call crisps and often serve them with a burger and their bacon is not like we are used to, it is not really a great hangover remedy like back home (too hard, too sweet and too thin).
Ah hangovers which as I’m sure you can imagine we may have suffered one of two whilst we were out there, come from a cocktail of light beer like Bud Light, Miller Light or Michelob Ultra (big fan of this, needs to be more available in the UK) accompanied by the most crazy thing you see at first glance: Free Pour Spirit’s! They don’t measure the liquor they just pour straight in at the same time as your mixer so if you have been tipping your bartenders well they can be really strong.
The most important liquid however very quickly becomes said in an American accent and the way they pronounce it, because asking for water (see spelt W A T E R) gets you some blank looks so you have to sell out and say it “Warda” and trust me you need to drink a lot of it. The heat is intense coming from our mild little island so you quickly see where the word redneck comes from but getting hot and sweaty on rooftop bars becomes quite normal to you! London needs to do a better effort with rooftops as I really like them but I equally really appreciated air con which everywhere has inside and the rooftops often have mist fans to help keep you cool in the sun.
The people there are a lot nicer and more sociable to stranger’s than we are in London plus they are fascinated with our accent but often seem disappointed when they find out you didn’t go to the Royal Wedding (I got asked 7 times during the week). The way they say the name of the car company that sponsor the Titans stadium is a word that always made all us Brits giggle (apparently it is pronounced Neeeeeeeeeson) as they do have a lot more emphasis on marketing/sponsorship of things than we do as everything is presented by or brought to you by someone. Smoking seems to be a bit of an inconsistency and I wasn’t always aware where I should and shouldn’t be smoking (assuming you can buy cigarettes in the first place as you really need to find a gas station #SoldOutAgain as there isn’t conveniently a Tesco express in the middle of town) as some rooftops let you where others don’t and some of the Americans seen to really frown upon it so you tend to move away from people in open spaces BUT they don’t use bins or ashtrays anywhere so all just throw their ends on the floor which is a bit messy.
Now we obviously timed our trip around CMA Fest so town was really busy and as a result of so much going on there was a lot we didn’t get to experience like heading to Midtown, going to the Ryman, seeing the museums or Centennial Park amongst other things so you really need to bear that in mind if you are only there a short time. Also the Opry is a long way out of town so we only headed over there as our friend had access to her boyfriend’s car so you need to factor in journeys if you plan to go there.
Apart from this, the actual festival activity and drinking in bars (we did a lot of this) the only other thing really of note we came across is a part of town called The Gulch which you reach around 11th Avenue South where there are some really cool shops and eateries. It is also home to some of the city’s main tourist spots which include a large Angel wings mural on the wall called the WhatLiftsYou wings painted by Kelsey Montague along with the famous I Believe in Nashville mural (we didn’t manage to get over to this unfortunately as we had brunch booked at a place called Adele’s which I seriously recommend for a break from greasy food as the food there is amazing) but despite the potential queues and distance from downtown are definitely worth the trip.
The festival itself is based around 4 nightly concerts at the stadium between Thursday and Sunday but in all honesty I think we appreciated the music and goings on of the daytime activity a lot more than in the stadium. One thing I would say about CMA compared to UK festivals like Reading or Isle of Wight for example is that stages are more spread out so it is quite hard to plan a full on itinerary of trying to go from one place to another and also places like Ole Red always had a long queue to get in. Some of the artists played on a number of stages so you had more opportunity to see them which is a real bonus compared to large UK festivals, which also allowed you to see people more than once if you really liked them. Emma and I basically decided who we were desperate to see playing a single set over the week like Runaway June (who are absolutely amazing and seemed to be justifiably the top of most Brits visiting acts they wanted to see) and then tried to fit in other things around that.
The good thing about this is you get to catch people you hadn’t heard of before when you are moving around but we tended to look to where we could find shade or air con mainly for catching people we wanted to see. We were never there for the start of the evening shows and apart from Keith Urban we left before the end of the other headline sets as getting back over the one pedestrian bridge into town becomes really busy.
With the 4 day ticket you get the flexibility to do as you please and also can enter the convention centre that has 3 indoor stages and a lot of stalls with merchandise, artist meet and greets and exhibits. With the meet and greets there are also some at stores or booths around town and the majority of them you just line up for and see if you are lucky enough to be able to say hi within their time slot.
There are a number of other official stages around downtown and a few of the bars arrange great programmes too, Old Red which is Blame Shelton’s bar in particular had a fabulous set of performers put on by Spotify that included Cassadee Pope, Cam, Midland, Jillian Jacqueline and Lindsay Ell amongst many others so it’s always worth checking artists socials regularly as there is so much that is not officially official as part of the festival stages. I could go on so much about all the performances we saw from the week but would end up writing a novel, however some of my highlights were:
• Lauren Alaina singing Road Less Travelled was obviously very special as it is a song I personally relate to so much as I am still going through the same thing she wrote the song about. Her covers medley in her set was so much fun to seeing everyone signing along and clear to see how much she was loving her performance. Somehow I had never heard What Ifs before but the duet with Kane Brown is probably the song that will always remind me of my first trip to Nashville.
• Liz Hopkins from Delta Rae stopping singing A Long and Happy Life for a girl to propose to her girlfriend in the crowd, it was a yes and great to see love winning like that! Seeing them do Bottom of the River is still one of the best arrangements of a song performed live I have ever seen.
• Seeing Chris Stapleton doing Tennessee Whiskey in Tennessee rightfully belongs on everyone’s bucket list and as always the vocal just gives you chills.
• We are now absolutely obsessed with Kassi Ashton, she is like Paloma Faith and Lana Del Rey’s love child vocally and the most sassy and energetic performer we saw all week. We were lucky enough to be stood next to her father during her set and I genuinely would say this girl needs to be a megastar! Taxidermy is an absolute banger as we would say in the UK!
• Keith was the reason I wanted to go and Mr Urban really is even better live than anyone ever tells you.
• The most amazing hair in all of music that absolutely brings a whole lot of Peace, Love and Fiddle, Natalie Stovall is one of the most charismatic performers you will come across anywhere! Her version of the Charlie Daniels classic Devil Went Down to Georgia is something I had seen clips of so many times online but amazing does not even come close to how good it is to see it live. She is one of the most fun people I got to meet, she gives out amazing hugs and she makes playing violin look like the coolest thing on earth!
• A Big & Rich show is one of the craziest and most fun things you will ever experience, it is just one big wild party and was the best way possible to spend my first night in Nashville made even better with Rodney Atkins who would be a fantastic performer to have at C2C and Miss Ashley McBryde playing before them. How much she kept saying Drink Your Water sort of became our adopted motto to each other for the week as was essential advice, the way she tells her stories is just hilarious and was amazing seeing her play with her band 3 times over there.
• The new Maddie & Tae material is phenomenal!!!!! A real treat to hear it before it comes out and definitely something everyone should be excited for.
• Sam Hunt, we spent an afternoon day drinking on the rooftop of Tootsies Orchid Lounge (also belongs on everyone’s bucket list) and during the CMT awards we saw his performance on Broadway and it was an amazing bonus followed by some fireworks as my friends really wanted to see him.
• Emma’s inner teenage self just melted when the Backstreet Boys came onstage with Florida Georgia Line and we seriously went crazy! The whole FGL set was so much fun to watch with Morgan Wallen and Bebe Rexha coming out too which probably played a big part in why I still have no voice!
• Seeing the look of joy on a young girl’s face when RaeLynn and Kalie Shorr got her on stage and gave her a guitar. We hear so much about the struggles female artists have in country music but it is really sad to properly understand it at last. The girls all bring it and are so much more varied and creative than a lot of the male artists that just fit the mould. I really wish country radio would appreciate that the fans love to see and hear the girls play so we can hopefully see more of them reach the success they rightfully deserve!
This was the craziest week that absolutely just flew by, getting to be reunited after 2 years with my best friend from Australia and having the best time with the best people has already got us planning for 2019. Like I said this review cannot do music city enough justice, you really have to just take the trip, you will fall in love with it and you will never want to leave! It is a drinking town with a music problem and beers at my local will in no way compete with nights in FGL House or Honkey Tonk Central. I only regret I didn’t visit sooner.