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Nashville Rocks
All Opry'd out in the home of country music? No problem.

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003

Sure. I love Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks as much as the next natural-born southerner, but while making plans to visit Nashville for the umpteenth time recently, I got to wondering if there's any rock-and-roll to be found in the Home of Country Music.

On a long-sultry Saturday night, I set out on my quest and eventually wind up next to ultrablonde Gunnar Nelson -- son of Rick, grandson of Ozzie and Harriet, and, along with twin brother Matthew, a member of the eponymous band Nelson.

Gunnar Nelson is camped on a stool at midnight in the End, one of Nashville's many music clubs. Beside him is a dark-haired beauty in low-cut blue jeans and a high-cut red thong. She is wearing a sticker on her bumper that reads Spiral.

"I moved here from L.A. because of the rock-and-roll!" Nelson shouts. There is such a vigorous rock scene in the Tennessee capital these days, "it's like L.A. in the '80s," he says. "You'd be hard-pressed to find country music in Nashville tonight."

A bit overstated. But I get his point. On this soft night, under a half-moon, it has been difficult to avoid raucous, raunchy rock-and-roll.

In the beginning I was so naive. Before venturing out, I spoke with several folks. Everybody had a different recommendation. That should have tipped me off that the city is chockablock with rock spots.

College student/valet parker Jason Grollimund, 32, is sitting on the breezy-balmy patio of Merchants restaurant waiting for the evening to unfurl. Horses, drawing carriages of maturing country music fans, clip-clop down Broadway. The guides point to Ernest Tubbs's record store, the Second Fiddle bar and the world-famous Ryman Auditorium, once home of the Grand Ole Opry. Inside Merchants, people sup on delicious filet mignon smothered in Jack Daniel's sauce. Between parking assignments, Grollimund is reading "The Crucified God" by Jurgen Moltmann. He's got a flashy red ankle tattoo and some ear piercings. He likes the Nashville rock world, especially the Wooten Brothers, who are regulars at Third & Lindsley, which he recommends.

Blaine Music, 26, who buses tables at Sunset Grille and plays in an alt-rock band called Hoar, puts in a good word for the Exit/In on Elliston Place and, across the street, the smaller grass-roots club the End.

In a coffee shop, I pick up a couple of giveaway tip sheets -- Nashville Scene and the Rage -- and read of other rock shops: Guido's, the Outer Limit, 12th & Porter, the Sutler, the Family Wash and many more.

So much music, so little night.

The journey begins at Third & Lindsley, where aging rocker Andy Pratt gets the night off to a melodious start with his strange, upper-register ballads.

"The menus are limited," April, the waitress in an anime T-shirt, explains. "So as soon as those people at that table are finished with theirs, I'll bring it to you."

While Pratt, who looks and sounds somewhat like a neurotic Art Garfunkel, taps on his Yamaha keyboard and sings "When I dream . . . ," I order the vegetable lasagna. It's perfect food for the night ahead -- tasty, filling, cheap.

Pratt's biggest hit, "Avenging Annie," was on FM radio 30 years ago. A poster on the window quotes Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone: "By reviving the dream of rock as an art and then reinventing it, Pratt has forever changed the face of rock." Originally from Boston, Pratt moved through a European phase to a Christian period. Now, according to his Web site, Andyprattmusic.com, he's settled in Nashville.

Rockers are rolling into Nashville at the twilight and the dawn of their careening careers.

In his white collarless shirt, Pratt looks somewhat throwbackish. It's early-evening rock, so soft that April can stand near the kitchen and read the final 100 pages of the latest Harry Potter. A bartender pours drinks at the purple bar. Some people are here to hear Pratt; others want good seats for the featured act, the electric, eclectic Jimmy Church Band.

Outside, I am blasted by guitars and drums that are much louder than the music inside Third & Lindsley. With car windows down, I find the funk just a few blocks away. I park next to several Harley hogs and step into Coalfest 2003, a day-long music festival of head-banging rock on two stages -- indoor and out -- at the Muse, a listening pit behind Kung Fu Coffee.

In the shadow of Interstate 40, the cafe is like the anti-Starbucks. There are coffee machines, but also half-eaten cheeseburgers lying around. On the counter is a vending machine selling earplugs. Coalfest -- partially sponsored by Spat! Records and NashvilleRock.net -- features two dozen area bands, with names such as the Groove Krickets, Small Town Death and Devil With Cheese.

In the black backroom, Derailed is playing lobe-splitting songs. In the side yard, as another band sets up on the outdoor stage, someone offers massages. Another table advertises piercings. The night is young, and so are the festival-goers.

Not far away, at Guido's New York Pizzeria near Vanderbilt University, From Ashes Rise, a Portland, Ore., punk-thrash band originally from Nashville, has returned triumphant. Kids in black T-shirts carrying skateboards smoke cigarettes outside, waiting for the show. Nashville, says the band's drummer, Dave Atchison, 24, has "thriving music scenes for everything." Too many people, he says, think it's just a town of country music.

By 9:30 the night is throbbing. Especially at Elliston Place, a funked-out neighborhood a short drive from Guido's. Here you'll find the Exit/In, a couple of pool halls, some nightclubs and the Smack clothing shop, which sells Motley Crue belly shirts and N.Y.L.A. vampish heels.

The Exit/In is crammed to capacity with a well-behaved crowd. The intimate hall is a fine observatory for seeing already-arrived indie-rock stars. Tonight they have come to taste the fantastically talented Fountains of Wayne, a New York-based smart-melodious group with an MTV video in rotation and a scheduled guest appearance on David Letterman.

To catch a rising supernova, I step across the street to the End, a not-for-claustrophobes hole-in-the-wall. It's a comfortable music bar with a few tables and a little room to stand in. The wall of fame, with entries such as the Goo Goo Dolls, the Black Crowes, Thin White Rope, Sleater-Kinney and They Might Be Giants, reminds those on the red-velvet-draped stage that the End may just be the beginning.

Tonight five bands will play. Screaming Through December, a four-member rock ensemble from Louisville featuring David Bowie-like singer Ronny Jones, 25, opens up. Jones hops around the stage. "We're going to do some pop rock for you," he says. "I want you," he sings, and an older woman in a black dress swoons.

After their set, he says, "I'm going to be a rock star." He's on his way. A couple of months ago, his group signed on with a Nashville talent agency.

Needing some smoke-free air, I check out the action at the Exit/In through the huge front window. Cool-smooth opening act Ben Lee is singing "Running With Scissors." Besides being a popular rocker, he is also the significant other of actress Claire Danes.

Back in the End, eerie-intriguing singer-songwriter Julien Aklei is onstage with her two-man weirdo backups, the Intolerables. One Intolerable, in a black mesh hood, plays an egg shaker; the other plays drums. Aklei, originally from eastern Kentucky, stands center stage -- in a short white dress with blue ribbons and a white sun hat -- looking more like a Girl Scout leader than the wry rocker she is. She strums a pewter-colored guitar and sings songs based on Homer's "Odyssey." She has a haunting voice and a strangely tough-vulnerable stage presence.

She is followed by the competent Hot Pipes and the inspired Spiral, a high-energy local band led by Jason Pappafotis.

On the stool, Gunnar Nelson raises a fist in the air and signals encouragement. People are bouncing up and down in front of the stage. One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Screaming Through December's Jones.

After the set, Nelson congratulates Spiral. As it turns out, Nelson played guest guitar on the latest Spiral CD. Jones compliments Spiral. Jones talks to Nelson. It's all very clubby. The Nashville rock world is a competitive mosh pit of operators. But, as tonight shows, it's also full of co-operators.

As I start toward my car just past midnight, the songs of Spiral and Aklei spin through my head. Across the street, the front door to the Exit/In swings open and the rockaholic riffs of Fountains of Wayne rush into the street, cutting through the breezy Nashville night air and knocking all the other songs right out of my mind.

For a while.

Details: Nashville's Rock Scene

GETTING THERE: Round-trip rates for flights to Nashville (with one to two stops) start at around $200 from BWI, $360 from Dulles and $350 from Reagan National. United flies nonstop from Dulles, and US Airways from National, for $761. There is no direct train service from Washington to Nashville, but you can ride Amtrak's Crescent to Atlanta, then take Amtrak's "thruway service" bus (run by Greyhound) to Nashville; a sample round-trip coach fare in late September is $240.

Bus service via Greyhound takes between 15 and 23 hours and costs $99 to $153 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: Nashville has a wide variety of lodging, from chain motels to luxe hotels. I stayed at the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs (700 Cool Springs Blvd., Franklin, 615-261-6100, www.franklinmarriott.com), just south of Nashville, with rates starting at $99 double. The hotel has a nice indoor pool and is a short hop into town, but mostly I like it because it's close to my mother's apartment. If you want to bed down in the city, the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway, 615-726-1001, www.wyndham.com) is a spacious, gracious old hotel fashioned from a train station. The vast lobby, with its 65-foot ceiling, is unforgettable. Rates start at $139 double.

WHERE TO EAT: Merchants (401 Broadway), in the old Merchants Hotel that was built more than a century ago, offers haute cuisine at fairly haute prices. Entrees (like pork tenderloin) start at $21. Third & Lindsley (818 Third Ave. S.) is a rocking joint with a blues-lovers' menu of barbecue ribs, red beans and rice, and a New York strip steak for $13.95. Most entrees run $10 and under.

THE CLUBS:

Third & Lindsley, 818 Third Ave. S., 615-259-9891.

• The Muse, 835 Fourth Ave. S., 615-251-0120.

Guido's New York Pizzeria, 416 21st Ave. S., 615-329-4428.

Exit/In, 2208 Elliston Pl., 615-321-3340.

The End, 2219 Elliston Pl., 615-321-4457.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: If you need a shot of mainstream country, go straight to the beautiful Bluebird Cafe (4104 Hillsboro Rd., 615-383-1461) for songwriters' night on Sunday, or to the brash and boisterous Wildhorse Saloon (120 Second Ave. N., 615-902-8200), where you can't line-dance without stepping on the toes of a tourist.

INFORMATION: Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-657-6910, www.nashvillecvb.com.

-- Linton Weeks

© 2003 The Washington Post Company