Frist art scene is sweet music for city's future
Grimsby Telegraph reporter Simon Faulkner is spending a month travelling around the US state of Tennessee sampling the food, drink, culture and hospitality of the American South with the Rotary Club. In his latest despatch from across the pond, he continues with his account of his visit to Nashville.
ALTHOUGH Nashville is dominated by music, the city is striving to build up a stronger, more varied arts scene.
One example of this, is the Frist, the city's visual arts and exhibition space. Housed within the city's former post office, a grand 1930s art deco building, the Frist was the brainchild of local billionaire Thomas Frist, and opened in April 2001.
"About 15 years ago the city's leaders were writing a plan for the future and realised that if we were going to be putting ourselves on the map, we needed a visual arts centre," explains Kim Jameson, the museum's educator for public programmes.
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Englishwoman Kim, who moved to Nashville six years ago when her husband's job brought him to the States, is relishing the greater freedom she is afforded at the privately-run Frist, compared to the local authority-run centre back in England – as well as the fact that her County Durham accent is indistinguishable to the American ear.
"The level of accountability is very different. In England they are very big on evaluation. It's much easier to be flexible over here. Because we've got rotating exhibitions we've always got something new to show the public."
Unusually, the Frist has no permanent collection, instead showcasing an ongoing series of temporary exhibitions. When we visit the gallery, the exhibition on display is entitled Fairytales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination.
This collection comprises a number of striking, disturbing and controversial pieces of work. The Mail Boat depicts a penguin raping a woman, while The Long Awaited is a model of a boy resting his head on some unrecognisable creature, and Big Mother is a human-cross-baboon cradling a baby.
As if to accentuate the variety of art displayed here, an exhibition on the English landscape painter John Constable will open in the summer.
In the evening we attend a Rotary-organised event at Brentwood High School, featuring live music and comedy.
One of the performers is an aspiring young singer/song writer called Jaclyn Hodos, whose story is no doubt typical of the hundreds of musicians who flock to Nashville to chase their dream.
The Rotarian who introduces her, describes meeting Jaclyn while she was waiting tables in a city restaurant and discovering how she had left home in Ohio to pursue a career in music.
There is an old adage that the waiter or waitress serving you in New York is most likely an acting hopeful aiming to make it big on Broadway.
In Nashville he or she will be an aspiring country music star.
The following night we enjoy live music at a restaurant in downtown Nashville. One of the performers has written songs for Martina McBride, while another is a young female vocalist and guitarist who has moved to Nashville from Ontario, Canada, and who reveals that she makes a bit of extra cash by selling dog treats.
A contrasting experience is had at the famous Bluebird Cafe, an unpretentious dimly-lit little venue where the tables are small, and the Budweiser comes served in ring pull cans with no glasses. The atmosphere is intimate and the music excellent. On the bill tonight is the Mike Henderson Band, a renowned Blues act whose piano playing leaves my mouth open in astonishment and admiration.
It is Saturday afternoon in Nashville and in contrast to the other towns we have visited in our trip so far, the sidewalks are bustling with people. Many are tourists soaking up the sights and sounds of the capital of country music.
In every bar there is a band performing their own distinctive brand of country music, while on the balconies above, people gather, clinging to their beer bottles, enjoying the heady concoction of sounds which fills the air.
Nashville's central business district is quite compact and unremarkable, with the usual nondescript high rise office buildings found in pretty much every American city.
However, the skyline is dominated by the distinctive 33-storey AT & T skyscraper, the tallest building in Tennessee, which because of the two tall spikes that protrude from each side of the building, is known colloquially as the Batman building. Locals say the building, which was completed in 1994, was designed to resemble a mobile phone, or cell phone as they would describe it in these parts (AT & T is one of America's biggest mobile phone companies).
In amongst the skyscrapers is a surprisingly large amount of old style classical stone-built architecture.
Aside from the Frist and the Greek Revival Tennessee State Capitol, there is the Victorian Gothic-style former Union railway station – now a hotel – which with its commanding clock tower, is reminiscent of the recently restored St Pancras station in London.
More modernistic buildings include the glass and silver domed Bridgestone Arena, which plays host to the Nashville Predators ice hockey team and the Country Music Association Awards.
Just down the road, a new convention centre is under construction, due to open next year. Also nearby is the Country Music Hall of Fame, the city's homage to its rich musical heritage. Inside are an exhaustive array of exhibits on the stars of country music, from its early exponents to the stars of today.
A short bus ride away we are given a tour of Studio B, the oldest surviving recording studio in Nashville. Between 1957 and 1977, 35,000 records were cut here, 11,000 of which went on to become top ten hits.
Elvis Presley, who was responsible for 262 of those, died a day before the studio closed, record label RCA having outgrown the modest premises.
Studio B is located in a part of town known as Music Row, where many record labels have their offices.
But despite Nashville's self-proclaimed title of Music City, there are other much bigger industries in the city which employ thousands of people.
Health is a huge business here, with a number of national healthcare companies based in the city.
Another is publishing, particularly religious publishing, befitting a city known as the buckle of the Bible Belt.