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A street singer serenades passersby on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

In Music City

“Taylor Swift ate 650 cupcakes?” I asked, incredulous.

“No!” laughed the woman at the bakery, “She bought 650 cupcakes and then sent them around to all the radio stations that played her music.”

“That’s a whole lotta cupcakes.”

“It was. But I think it was a nice way for her to say, ‘Thank You.’ They were margarita-flavored cupcakes—so they had tequila in ‘em!”

Just a little bit naughty, I thought, and not the first tick on my unwitting Taylor Swift scavenger hunt. The young blonde country singer was never a line on my agenda, but since arriving in Nashville, people were dropping her name like sprinkles on a doughnut:

Taylor has a condo in the Gulch. Fido is Taylor’s favorite coffee shop. Taylor plays there, goes there, was just seen there. If this girl wasn’t the mayor of Nashville, then Nashville was nothing more than a high school and Taylor the most popular girl running these hallways.

Sadly, I can’t even name a single Taylor Swift song, nor would I recognize her voice if it was played to me in a line-up, though with the unforgiving onslaught of repetitive radio play these days, I am sure that Miss Swift has already occupied a bit of real estate in my brain without my knowing it. We don’t have a choice about these things anymore—we live in a world of relentless sound and we have very little control over the things that our ears hear (which is why, despite all my best efforts, I still know every lyric to Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’).

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Sparkly T-shirts off tourists some of that Nashville bling. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Radio—and especially Nashville Radio—is what turned country music into a countrywide phenomenon. Before the airwaves played Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, music spread from church to church, from one juke joint to another, and with the wonderful traveling tent shows across the South.

Country music is really the slow-cooked sauce of the South—the scaling fiddles of Scottish and Irish folk music washed down from the Appalachians, the down-and-out Delta blues that crept up from the Mississippi, mixed with the smooth yodeling traces back to Swiss Alps, all stitched together with the rhythms of West Africa, beat out by generations of slaves.

Like everything great about America, country music represents an unorthodox blend of disparate cultures living side by side. That is the real song of the South, and I heard its humble history at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Underneath all the grandiosity and pomp of the industry temple, several thoughtful exhibits paid tribute to the men, women and children who leant something to the genre.

I was most enchanted by the loop of old black-and-white films that flickered on a static square screen, showing country dances from long ago. One clip was simply haunting—a ragged African-American man who emerged from a weather-beaten wood shack, followed by a tired woman and about eight children. As he plucked on his banjo and sang the blues, the children hopped barefoot in the mud—in rhythm to the music. This was country, long before there was any hall of fame or country music radio stations or even the Grand Old Opry, and what I remember most of all was how tired and stoic that poor woman looked as she sat like a statue in a chair, too thin and too tired, listening to the man play the banjo.

In its earliest days, country music was the brief comfort from the hardness of a working life. In Tennessee, in Georgia and Alabama and Louisiana—people worked their bodies all week long, and when the weekend came, they played and sang their hearts out.

But then America happened—the best singers made records, the records got played on the radio, and the stars were born. Because Nashville’s radio stations reached the widest audiences, the capital of Tennessee became the capital of country music, too.

Nowadays, Nashville is a musical mecca, from the neighborhood or songwriting studios on Music Row, to the neon parade of saloons and honky tonks on Broadway. In the wake of the Country Music Awards, the streets were still filled with tourists in cowboy boots, starry-eyed by the big lights and big acts all around.

At the Ryman Auditorium I met a family from Galway, in western Ireland, who had traveled all the way to Tennessee, “For the music of course!” they said. With solemnity and whispering voices, they crossed the most famous stage in country music as if heaven with God and his angels were waiting on the other side. Nashville meant something to them—they had spent a lifetime hearing this music, and now they were right here in the place where it all happened.

But the bright lights of Broadway end after just a few blocks, while Nashville goes on and on, with its world of small clubs and songwriting circles and living room jam sessions.

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Bright lights on Nashville’s Broadway. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

My friend William was adamant that I know the truth, “The best music is in all the little no-name places—those backdoor dives that fit no more than 30 people. That’s what makes Nashville, Nashville.”

Though we’ve known each other online for years, we only first met over dinner in East Nashville, a neighborhood that, “You didn’t wanna visit ten years ago.” Nowadays, East Nashville is alive with raw sound any night of the week.

“Try the 5 Spot,” counseled William. “And if you wanna hear good music downtown, go to 12th & Porter12th & Porter12th & Porter. They’ve got the best sound system in town. And the Cannery Ballroom, definitely.”

But just like you can’t sum up Nashville in an hour of radio play, you can’t sum up Nashville in a list of groovy venues. When I asked, William denied that he was that musical, then went on to explain he played fiddle, he did music at church, and he sang in a choir—at dinner we discovered that our waiter sang in the same choir.

Nashville is a small town—you keep running into folks, and a lot of those folks do music.

William bemoaned that something so pure and down-home has turned so industrial. “Country music is all so corporate nowadays,” he sighed. “They’re all the same to me—I wouldn’t recognize any of them in a club or on the streets. There are so many cookie cutter white guys who sing about their girl and their truck and their dog—I can’t tell ‘em apart.”

Out of all the things William and I share in common—a love of travel, good music, and good food—we also share a history of odd jobs. Not so long ago, William drove and parked the cars of America’s biggest country stars, and like most people I’ve met in Nashville, he’s got a few stories.

Toby Keith—now that guy’s real country. He drives a beat-up truck and you can tell that for him, it’s not an act. He really lives that way.”

‘Country’ is currency in Nashville—so much so that if you hang around here long enough, you might start talking like they do. Some folks are too country, others not enough. The whole city seems to be at odds with how much country is too much.

Tim McGraw was a perfect mess when they found him,” said one lady (who works at the Country Music Hall of Fame). “He had a ponytail and everything. But after his first record, they came in and fixed him up—cut his hair, got him some new clothes, toned down his accent a couple notches.”

Like any business, image matters. Though Nashville is not geographically situated in the west, nor does it incorporate any large cattle ranches, the number of cowboy and western wear stores is staggering—on par with Austin, Texas.

“Is Taylor Swift ‘country’?” I asked, bemused and the lady exhaled sarcastically.

“Well her parents bankrolled her career until it got started. And she was an Abercrombie & Fitch model before she ever started singing.” I sensed a little bit of resentment from this receptionist who was about the same age as Taylor Swift, but after the sneer came the shout out for Nashville’s most popular girl.

“You know, she’s pretty nice. She comes in here sometime, and she’s always really nice to everybody.”

Nice is country, good Christian values is country, music for the sake of music is country—but not everyone who’s country gets to be Taylor Swift with her world tours and magazine covers and hair tips in fashion magazines.

Some singers end up living under a bridge on the wrong side of Nashville. At least that’s the story I got from the group I met walking over the Cumberland River. There were five or six of them, occupying the best view of downtown Nashville, laughing and hanging out on the balcony of the bridge while passing around a guitar.

Evening was on its way and the light was golden, shining behind the Batman Building like in a music video.

Cyclists, joggers and families with kids made a wide berth while passing the bunch on the bridge, but I went and sat next to them on the bench. We talked about where they were all from, and how each of them had washed up in Nashville.

“It’s a good town—people are real nice here,” said one. Another cupped his hand over his mouth and confessed to me that they were in fact, homeless, “But we’re not bad people—we’ve just had some bad times.”

“Hard times is how country music began,” I said like a chump, but nobody paid any attention. “Captain Thorn” was strumming his guitar and singing Neil Young, the others were tapping their feet and chatting, while a wild blonde woman flapped her arms in the air.

“She’s as loony as a bird, but the girl can play!” said another.

Her name was Marcy Marie Grant, and on a hot Tennessee night she wore an American-flag print bikini top and cut-off jean shorts. Her bottle blonde hair fell like straw in the breeze and her eyes hid behind a pair of glossy shades.

When it was her turn, she lifted the guitar into her arms and began piecing together a song so desperate and beautiful, we all sat back in silence. With every stroke of her arm, the guitar shook and sent a melodic boom out across the city.

Marcy wasn’t busking—she wasn’t playing for money, even though she probably needed cash more than any of the other musicians playing in Nashville that night. She wasn’t promoting an album or even shopping some demo tape—she was simply singing her heart out, playing her song to our audience of six.

Her voice was as golden as the falling sun and her song led to an earnest plea, begging all of us to, “Leave my heart alone.” Hers was the painful call of country music, another sad song sung by a singer that never made it big.

Marcy would never be Taylor Swift—she would never have downloads on iTunes or sell T-shirts at the Country Music Hall of Fame—but this city belonged to the both of them.

Nashville isn’t just for the famous stars. Their secret limousines may ride down Broadway, they may be recording at the best studio around, but in this town, the music flows freely and the real music is free. It’s all around, in the cars and houses and churches—and out on the bridges.

In Music City, the first song never stops, no matter how many try to rewrite the words or repackage it with some hip, new personality. The power of a good song lives on, and anyone walking these streets can hear it. It’s the song of lost love and tough work. It’s the song of high hopes over hard times, the song of choirs and fiddles and Sunday afternoon radio—and it’s the song of Marcy, way up on the walking bridge at sunset, playing her guitar because she wants to.

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Nashville Pride in 12South. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)