Monday, October 11, 2010

These (Country) Boots Were Made For Walkin'

Music Festivals. I think they’re the tasty icing on the travel cake. I recently got the chance to experience the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ll admit, it was different to other music festivals I’ve been to – but it was deliciously good!

Me and my Kiwi had been travelling through the southern states of the US and the plan was to road trip from Memphis to Nashville, before going on to New York City.

We hadn't planned to be in Nashville especially for the festival - it was a lucky coincidence - so most of the accommodation was already booked out. I trawled travel and hotel websites and eventually found a modest hotel, a Super 8, near Nashville Airport. It was too good to be true! And it turned out it actually was. The hotel was cheap and nasty - and that's a compliment! We were blessed with a blocked shower drain, stained towels, a bed cover peppered with cigarette burn holes, but really, they were merely first world problems. Thanks to Super 8, we saved around $200 a night on accommodation. Most of the two and three star hotels closer to the heart of CMA Festival activities in Downtown Nashville (like the Best Western) were going for no less than $300 per night. In stark contrast to our gross hotel room was the country music capital of the world, Nashville, Tennessee. An incredible city; rich with the sound of live country music floating our of every bar, populated by friendly locals and host to a pretty amazing music festival.

I have to declare at this point that while I appreciate country music and do like the odd song (and I love Lady Antebellum) it’s not my favourite music genre. But you have to admit – there’s something irresistible about a woman singing the blues because they don’t have pair of cowboys boots at the end of their bed, or a cowboy hat-clad man singing about how hard it is to make a living on the land.

As it turned out, the bad hotel wasn’t the lasting memory of our visit to Nashville. With the city in the throes of the CMA Music Festival, that we barely spent any time in the room.

The festival is a four-day event and most people typically buy a four-day pass, but we were only in Nashville for a few nights, so we bought tickets to just one of the nightly concerts. We soon discovered one of the best things about this music festival was that you didn’t have to buy a ticket everyday to enjoy it. Many of the events and concerts across the four days were free and Nashville’s Broadway (otherwise known as honky-tonk row) was closed to traffic. The streets were littered with street venders giving away food and product samples, and fenced off areas with free concerts. But perhaps the greatest thing about the festival, was the ability to walk into one of the many honky tonk bars along Broadway – and listen to some fantastic country music – for free. The first bands kicked off around 10am and every bar had a continuous line up late into the night. For the price of a beer and a tip for the band if you felt so inclined, we listened to some incredible original country music, as well as the odd amazing Johnny Cash cover. We were also taught a country custom by some hospitable locals - to holla and swalla (translation: yee-haw and then chug your beer). Tootsie's Orchid Lounge was touristy but good, but my favourite was The Stage.

Broadway by day
Our first morning in Nashville we picked up our concert tickets and then it was time to do as the Romans were doing. So I headed off to Boot Country and got myself a pair of genuine tan cowboy boots. There’s really nothing better than looking back on your time travelling when you’re back home and having something so deliciously clichéd to make you feel like you’re back there.

Next stop was a street market to pick up a $20 straw cowboy hat. This was both to keep the cliché going, but also for practical reasons. We were in Nashville in June and it was muggy and hot. A hat was definitely what the travel doctor ordered!

Cliche? Check. Life size boot? Check.
We then spent the day soaking up the CMA Fest atmosphere which included plenty of beers, free bbq brisket on the street and free concerts. I didn’t know half the songs – but the music was so great it didn’t matter one bit.

In the afternoon we headed one block across from Broadway to take a look around the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was a pretty interesting tour, complete with actual original recordings with some of the exhibits. Being the huge Elvis fan that I am, the Elvis exhibits (including his gold-plated Cadillac) were my favourite. I enjoyed the history of country music, but a lot of it went over my head and some of the artists I’d never heard of. It is still definitely worth a visit – you can appreciate the museum without being a die-hard country music fan.

As we headed out of the museum we noticed barriers lining the pavement and people were already milling around; they were mostly young girls and seemed to be lining up for something We didn’t take much notice at the time, but thought it was a bit weird that so many young girls were standing around, especially since it had started raining.

About an hour later when we walked past the same area again, we realised what was going on. The CMT Music Awards were being held in Nashville that night, and the barrier and lines were for all the fans. As previously confessed, I’m not a crazy country music fan, but there’s something so embarrassingly irresistible about a red carpet and the chance of seeing someone (anyone!) possibly famous. We knew it was great timing when a group of girls across the road started screaming. I’m still not sure who’s name they were yelling, but it was a young guy, with ridiculously shiny hair, who jumped out of the limo and signed a few autographs before bounding down the red carpet.

It wasn’t long before the BIG stars started arriving – I actually recognised Taylor Swift when she arrived – and not long after that, our Keith arrived. Yep, Mr Nicole Kidman himself – Keith Urban. A country star I actually knew! I was pretty excited, even though I’m not sure I could actually name any of his songs. And I have to say, good ol’ Keith was actually the only ‘star’ who walked around to every fan who screamed his name and waved – he walked the full length of all the barriers. I thought that was pretty nice of him really. Apparently so did the woman standing next to us in the crowd. She actually got a leg up on someone's wheelchair to get a look – apparently a love of country music can make you do crazy things.

Another great thing about the CMA Festival, for those who want to buy a four-day pass, is the fan centres. Basically, the ticket allows you to enter one of the fan halls, where the stars have set up a little booth, to meet and greet fans. I don’t know if any other music festival where the artists make themselves so available to their fans. It must be a country thing.

After the red carpet craziness, the sun began to set and we headed we headed over the Cumberland River to the LP Stadium for the opening nightly concert of the festival. The tickets were only $35 and we saw a few country music artists I actually knew – Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum and Carrie Underwood.

Fireworks at the CMA Festival opening night
The concert went for around five hours and afterwards we made our way from the concert stadium back to Downtown Nashville. Where we topped off a music festival day in the most perfect way - a greasy meal in an all-night café. After finishing the night off with some beer and grease, we jumped in a cab about 2am to head back to our hotel, another pair of happy festival goers. 

Thank you Nashville. You sure know how to host a music festival.

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