Bluegrass in Nashville: A Picker's Paradise

By Jedd Ferris
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 13, 2009; 3:10 PM

It's no secret that Nashville is a hitmaker's hotbed, with commercial country music standing tall as one of the record industry's last viable outlets. But while the Tennessee city slickers are looking for the next Tim McGraw or Taylor Swift, there's another flourishing scene in Music City that shouldn't be overlooked: Americana's most underappreciated genre, bluegrass.

The high lonesome sound, characterized by ascending harmonies and the skilled string interplay of banjo, mandolin and fiddle, is part of Nashville's old soul. It's widely accepted that the country offshoot was created here in 1945, when "Father of Bluegrass" Bill Monroe brought his Kentucky mandolin to the Grand Ole Opry and gave twang a technical twist, as he traded spitfire solos with three-finger-style banjo purveyor Earl Scruggs. Today the city is still a picker's paradise: It's home to the idiom's biggest advocate, the International Bluegrass Music Association; the residence of modern masters Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs; and a breeding ground for young acts taking up the torch.

For fans like me, seeking out the best bluegrass in Nashville isn't hard if you know where to look beyond the city's neon cowboy exterior. I started at the source: the Ryman Auditorium, where seeing a concert feels like a religious experience. The spiritual vibes make sense, since the historic building was originally opened in 1892 as a house of worship, the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Eventually renamed after its builder, riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, the venue is best known in the music world as the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, which moved in for a 31-year residency in 1943. The Ryman's vast wooden stage was where Monroe and Scruggs first traded licks.

When the Opry relocated in 1974, the Ryman was almost abandoned for good, but a major renovation 20 years later gave the "Mother Church of Country Music" new life. Now it's a more inclusive concert hall and, safe to say, the only place you can catch shows while sitting in a pew, against a backdrop of ornate stained glass and with one of Johnny Cash's trademark black suits displayed on a rear wall. (Upcoming shows include those by Counting Crows, Snow Patrol and outlaw country legend Merle Haggard.)

Every Thursday through July 30, the spirit of Monroe -- who passed away just shy of 85 in 1996 -- is revived with the annual Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman. The summer series started with a show by four-decade mandolin stalwart Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, his band of fast-picking string slingers, who are known for blazing solos and choir-sharp harmonies, perfect for the Ryman's pristine acoustics.

As a National Historic Landmark, the Ryman is also open as a museum for daytime tours seven days a week. It's a way to take in its large collection of music memorabilia without a concert crowd, and you can get backstage access for a small additional fee.

When I was ready to leave the reverent atmosphere for a little more down-home grit, I headed across town to the Station Inn. In her revivalist ode "Wayside/Back in Time," Americana songstress Gillian Welch sings, "Drink a round to Nashville before they tear it down." The line came to mind as I approached the tiny, unassuming stone brick bar, which sits dwarfed in the Gulch, a revived industrial district that has recently been smothered by high-rise condos and upscale restaurants.

But it's unlikely that anybody in Nashville would let an eager developer mess with this bluegrass institution. "I've been told they want us to stay, and that's what we intend to do," said hospitable proprietor J.T. Gray, who has owned the nationally revered roots music mecca since 1981.

The Station Inn looks like a dingy, working-class watering hole where you can get cheap domestic beer and a basket of popcorn for a buck. But seven nights a week, this unsuspecting joint is graced with world-class string talent. It's a place where young pickers take the stage to cut their teeth and where established icons drop in for the relief of an informal jam session. Don't be surprised to see Welch jump onstage for a quick tune with the headliner or Emmylou Harris in the audience enjoying a set.

On my recent visit, 26-year-old upstart Chris Scruggs -- the grandson of Earl -- was joined for an impromptu gig by fiddle elder Buddy Spicher, a legendary session player who has recorded with Monroe, Hank Snow and even Bob Dylan. At tightly packed cafeteria tables, clean-cut older folks sat cheek-by-jowl with scruffy hipsters over nachos and pitchers of Bud Light. Both contingents listened attentively and then, as if on cue, clapped and howled together after each solo.

Later, I decided to follow the sounds out of town a bit and visit a place that has recently given new meaning to the label "underground music." About 80 miles southeast of Music City, below the rolling green hills of central Tennessee, is Cumberland Caverns, the second-longest cave in the state, with nearly 30 miles of rocky underground terrain. Last year, Nashville advertising executive Todd Mayo took a family trip to the caverns and hit on an idea as he toured the vast chambers. He now hosts Bluegrass Underground, a series of monthly concerts that take place 333 feet below sea level in the caverns' Volcano Room.

Reaching one of the world's most unusual natural amphitheaters required a guided 15-minute walk from the visitor's center through a deep, dark tunnel, past waterfalls and otherworldly craterlike geological formations. A few lights and a chandelier set the mood in the dank room, which stays at 56 degrees.

"It's kind of like playing on the moon," Jere Cherryholmes said from the stage during a show by his chart-topping family band, Cherryholmes.

As I huddled in the Space Mountain of concert halls with 400 other bluegrass fans, I noticed how the lyrics about lost love and highway introspection rang loud and clear through the cavernous expanse. Though most caves have extensive echoes, the angles of the Volcano Room's jagged rocks offer impeccable acoustics.

"It lends itself to the visual experience as much as it does to the ear," Mayo said. "We call it a bluegrass adventure."

That's just what I'd call any weekend in Nashville.

Jedd Ferris is managing editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine in Charlottesville.

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