It’s not that we don’t visit Nashville regularly.
Usually, though, we are in a suburb like Franklin or Brentwood and not smack downtown as we were on a recent trip. We were there to attend a fundraiser hosted by former racer Darrell Waltrip and his wife, Stevie, at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Nashville is really changing,” my friends would often say. “It’s not the same town you used to know.”
They weren’t kidding.
I’ve lived there. I’ve worked there. I’ve dreamed there. I’ve made thousands of memories there. I used to know her quite well.
When first I met her, Nashville was a booming Southern town that had been built on the insurance industry, education (there are 20 colleges and universities there), and country music. Her downtown area set quietly and sweetly along the rippling yet powerful Cumberland River — the same waters once crossed by Davy Crockett and, later, by Yankee troops chasing the Confederates.
The architectural grace of majestic, light-colored stone buildings, raised in the 1930s and ‘40s, such as the train station and post office, snuggle against the gothic red brick of the Ryman Auditorium which, in turn, winks sleepily at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
Though many of those buildings are still there, her downtown streets resemble — mighty shudder — a country cousin to Los Angeles. The town, which rode to fame on the pompadour hairstyle heads of country music stars like Porter Wagoner and Conway Twitty, now dresses in modern fashions similar to 1960s’ London. Think of the Beatles in black suit jackets and slim, peg-legged slacks with polished loafers and you have a clear picture of the young men who hurry along, down Broadway.
Where have all the cowboy hats and boots gone?
While Tink conducted business, via video calls, in our hotel room in the glass tower of an extremely modern hotel which looked out on the city’s skyline — with that awful “Batman” building which brought a tarnish when BellSouth built it in the 1990s — I took a meandering walk down Demonbreun. Amazed, I stared up at the tops of fancy, high-rise buildings.
When I caught my reflection in a mirrored window, I recognized someone — the little girl from Rural Route One, on her first wonder-inspiring visit to New York City. That young woman was wide-eyed and open mouthed, not believing what she saw.
That young girl has long retreated. But the wiser woman, who replaced her, was equally awestruck.
It wasn’t the cozy, hugging kind of town I remembered.
I looked down Demonbreun and recalled a time when Grand Ole Opry star, Faron Young, owned much of the real estate on that street. The simple old buildings of Faron’s empire have been replaced with new-fashioned ones.
Simplicity is gone. Extravagance reigns.
Though it does not look like the place that first stole my heart when I was seven, and which I loved furiously for many years, Nashville, under her layers of glitz and lipstick, is like a bottle blonde who cannot hide her roots.
Speakers, placed along the streets and in hotel lobbies, played the songs which christened Nashville as Music City, U.S.A.
The music does not sound modern or sleek. It has the twangy notes of Haggard, Cash, Tammy, and Loretta. That cowboy-boot-wearing, guitar-toting, poetic generation that kissed America with its brilliant simplicity and penned words understood by the common man.
For one hour, I sat in our hotel lobby, trying to glimpse a pair of cowboy boots, but to no avail. In the midst of the gloss and slickness, the harmonies of the Oak Ridge Boys shined brighter than the polished brass and was prettier than the modern art.
Nashville is like me. She wears fancy dresses and dangling earrings but, at heart, she remembers exactly who she is — a country girl raised up proudly in a Southern landscape of hard work privileged to offer dream-chasing.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Let Me Tell You Something.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]