Almost a decade ago, I was a nervous 15-year-old boy, faced with a life-changing overseas trip. I was to trade my home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (and my high school) with Nashville, Tennessee, and embark on a three-month academic exchange at an all-boys private school there.

It wasn’t the first time that I had travelled overseas, but it was definitely the first time that I had undergone that sort of trip alone. From September to December 2004, I lived with two host families, and had the honour of attending Montgomery Bell Academy, whom my school had partnered with the previous year. During your mid-teens, you’re already going through so many physical, emotional and hormonal changes, so why not undergo a massive locational one?

Needless to say, my time at MBA was a watershed moment in my life, and aided in an emotional, and also musical, maturity that I am deeply grateful for. Nashville bears the nickname of ‘Music City’, as it is a major recording and performance centre. Although the country music industry is strongly associated with the city and makes its home there, Nashville’s music scene appreciates a variety of genres (such as classic rock, blues, jazz, and hip hop), and that can be seen in the people living there. When I first visited the city as a relatively undereducated teenager, I was taken aback by my hosts’ eclectic tastes in music, spanning decades and genres that my adolescent mind was barely even aware of. And it wasn’t just the people I was living with; other friends and classmates showed a marked maturity in their musical palette that surely could not just be chalked up to having musically-minded parents or siblings with a large collection of old records.

With that in mind, returning to Nashville in the position I’m in now as a music journalist was particularly poignant. It was a place that had shaped my appreciation of music, steering me towards artists I had not necessarily grown up with, and encouraging me to think outside of what was being presented to me as an angsty teen via MTV. I had had limited interaction with my two hosts in the intervening years, but thanks to the wonders of social media, I found out that the first family that I had stayed with would be in town during my recent trip, and as well as my host. Back in our teens, we had struggled to relate to each other, our cultures clashing at a very turbulent time in our lives. Now, with us both having finished high school and university, we had matured and developed into assured young men, discovering that we actually have a lot in common. That reconciliation gave a heartwarming tone to the few days I was there, akin to visiting your childhood home or neighbourhood as an adult.

Three months back in 2004 allowed for a significant amount of sightseeing in and around the city, and I was fortunate back then to tick off many of the major attractions in Nashville. These included attending three American football games at the Tennessee Titans homeground (The Coliseum), two visits to my one host’s lake house just out of town, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt University, and the Parthenon. My host was aware of this, and specially tailored an itinerary that would help show me the parts of Nashville that I might not have seen before, or appreciated a decade ago.

After a joyful reunion with his parents (“My South African son!”, “My American mother!”), my host and I headed off to Downtown Nashville to spend the afternoon walking the streets. Visiting the USA as an adult means that we could now legally share a beer together, and he took me to one of the city’s finest microbreweries, Yazoo, for a liquid lunch. We took the chance to catch up on all the news in our lives, and of those that I knew in Nashville.  Although he is a local, he had yet to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I was open to visiting the museum again with a fresh perspective.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is a unparalleled monument to the institution that is country music, and even if you’re not a fan of the genre, the experience is very enlightening and informative. Upon my first visit to the museum, I barely had a working knowledge of rock ‘n roll history, so it was all rather perplexing, and the significance was lost on me. Armed with a better understanding of popular music history, I was more receptive to the place, and the museum revealed the carefully interwoven relationship between country, blues, folk and rock. However, despite its popularity and illustrious history, country music is still seen as a quintessentially American phenomenon, and I think that that is a sticking point to the appreciation of the genre world-wide. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, crossover success has mostly been the way country has achieved a level of prominence outside of the USA, right from Elvis Presley in the 50’s, to Johnny Cash’s swan-song ‘American’ albums in the 90’s, to the current crop of country-pop perpetuated by Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum. This is frequently acknowledged in the museum, as an increasingly globalised world grows smaller and smaller, meshing influences together and facilitating the spread of information.



But all in all, I enjoyed the passion showed in preserving the history of an art form, and honouring those who have represented it best. Within the exhibits, there were famous personal items, such as Carl Perkins’ original ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, Elvis Presley’s beautifully-maintained ‘Solid Gold’ Cadillac’, and a dapper black suit worn by the ‘Man In Black’, Johnny Cash. The most interesting thing I learnt from my second visit to the CMHF was that there was a branch of country that found roots in Bakersfield, California in 1950’s, known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound’. This style came into being as a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden ‘Nashville Sound’, proving that not all country music came from ‘The South’! 

My host did a great job of being a tour guide, pointing us towards other music sanctuaries, such as a newly-opened Johnny Cash museum (where video screens projected a variety of performances and documentaries of the man and his work), the Music City Walk of Fame Park (opened in 2006, drawing inspiration from the one in Hollywood), and the massive new Nashvile Convention Center (whose architecture evokes the look of a guitar). Lower Broadway in Downtown is the city’s entertainment district, packed with numerous music clubs and honky-tonk bars, which, despite it being mid-afternoon, had people up onstage performing.



I’m quite a big Jack White fan, and one of our scheduled stops whilst in Downtown was Third Man Records, the Grammy-Award-winning independent record label, studio and store owned by the man himself. Unfortunately Mr White was not there to greet us in person, but his output of music in vinyl form was an appropriate compromise. The store only sells music produced by artists on the record label, such as his solo work, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather (to name a few). It has a basic, yet chic feel to it (probably because the store itself was built in 2009), and with me having never grown up with vinyl records, I was intrigued by the steadfast commitment by the label to keep the format alive, issuing limited-edition live LP’s and tiny 7-inch singles. Although I didn’t get a chance to use it, the in-store personal recording booth, a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, is a novel concept, allowing you to record up to two minutes of audio and receive a one-of-a-kind vinyl pressing right there and then. Apparently the concept has fallen out of fashion, and this booth is now the only machine of its kind in the world that is both operational and open to the public.



You can’t visit the Music City without going to a gig, and on my second night in Nashville, my host took me to The Stone Fox, a small restaurant/bar that also has a bandstand for live music. The headliners that night were a New York-based punk band called The Men, but the main reason that we were there was to see a local punk band by the name of Diarrhea Planet. Yes, Diarrhea Planet. He had played me a few songs of theirs in the car, and the wall of noise was rather overpowering. But it didn’t prepare me for what was to appear onstage. There was not one, not two, not three, but FOUR GUITARISTS, along with a bassist and drummer. The band, barely able to all fit on the stage, roared into life, rationing out sub-2-minute riff-fests to a crowd the size of a small house party. It was one of the most fascinating and thrilling gigs I’ve ever been to, and I was so close to the action that the one guitarist almost whacked me on the head with his aural axe of awesomeness. Their sound, as described by the band themselves, is “The Ramones holding Van Halen hostage with an arsenal of fireworks and explosives”, and they brought a huge amount of energy to the proceedings. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to have a chat with the lead singer Hodan and the enigmatic drummer Casey after the show, the latter of whom received the compliment “John Bonham from Led Zeppelin called. He asked you to stop hitting the drums so hard”.

On my final day in Nashville, we paid a visit to my alma mater (even if it was only for a few months), and got to see how little and how much had changed in the interim years. As always, there would be new buildings, such as a grand dining hall that replaced the old cafeteria, an English block, and a soccer field on top of a parking garage. But stepping into the admin block, and seeing the face of Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services, took me right back to my awkward teenage years. She was the lady responsible for making sure that I got over to the States in 2004, and helping me settle into the MBA way of life. She has continued to do that for many others since then, and the school receives dozens of exchange students from all over the world every year, and sends many young MBA men overseas in return. We posed for a photo outside her office, and only afterwards did I realise how similar it was to a photo I’d taken the last time I was there.


Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot

Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot


In a city that breathes music, there are just so many places to see, but my host had one last stop for me before I left: Nashville’s premier independent record store, Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. Nowadays we consume music through different mediums compared to how our parents and grandparents did in the past, be it via CD’s or more likely, digital downloads onto MP3 players. Holding an actual vinyl record in your hands, admiring the original large album artwork, reading the liner notes; those tangible moments interacting with the music and the artist’s vision have now gradually become an online experience, as we stream an album through Spotify, or purchase a song through the iTunes Store. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young man in the 60’s or 70’s, standing in an old face-brick building like this one, with wooden racks of records set out before him, holding the latest LP from The Who in his hands. It’s from a bygone era, but thankfully we have the choice to keep the spirit alive, and a move towards purity and authenticity has made the purchase of vinyl records a niche market amongst audiophiles and DJ’s.



Grimey’s doesn’t just sell new records, but also preserves the love of vinyl by selling and trading ‘preloved’ (second-hand) items. One of the rooms is a listening booth, consisting of two turntables and sets of headphones, and stocked with obscure, lesser-known records that are available to listen to at your leisure. I picked an old blues record from one of the racks, pulled out a foreign-looking black disc, and placed it gently on the turntable. To be honest, I can count the number of times I’ve used one of those things on my left hand, but the ritual was oddly satisfying. A few crackles and pops preceded the opening chords from an acoustic guitar, and then I was immediately transported into a timeless place where all music listeners have been before. A place where it’s just you and the music, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Nashville or Naples, or whether it’s from a record player or your iPod: music is a universal experience that can be enjoyed whichever way you choose.



One Response to ““Music City USA” – Nashville (29th April to 1st May 2013)”

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