Fly me to the Full Moon Saloon in Country and Western's home
Posted on the 20th Mar 2016 in the category travel

Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.

But hearing Crazy sung by a sozzled female singer in her twilight years with a voice so bittersweet it sounded she’d gargled with burnt butterscotch all her life meant I was smitten with The Full Moon Saloon in Nashville.

It was only 2pm on a Tuesday and seeing old men’s eyes moisten as they looked into the middle distance thinking of a long gone love as the doddering diva belted out the Patsy Cline classic means it will be a while before the Full Moon is eclipsed in my beer-goggle-eyes.

I’ve fell in and out of so many bars on Music City’s strip during my two visits it is hard to remember their names but my inner-brain-fun-rememberer-GPS-system always had me staggering back to The Full Moon Saloon. 

Perhaps it was the raven haired beauty behind the bar who had a tale to tell, made her own clothes and must have made many a man tell her he’d fell, or maybe it was the peach Old Smokey Moonshine.

Maybe it might have been the singer in the ten gazillion gallon hat playing Aston Villa’s anthem Ghostriders in the Sky, or how many times I howled with laughter in there, who knows but it encapsulated the city for me.

Nashville, Tennessee, is where Country and Western makes sense, even if you are not a fan of the white man’s blues seeing and hearing where it started will momentarily make you take leave of your musical senses.

There are more musicians in Nashville per head than almost anywhere in the world. The pizza man was a part time horn-whizz, the barman played the harmonica and the taxi driver was trying to get a gig with a band. I loved hearing all the stories people had about music, from “that fella playing pool was who Loretta Lynn was singing about” or “that woman passed out sang with Taylor Swift once”.

I got bewitched by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s piano player’s daughter and met Johnny Cash’s relative’s ex in one day. They were different people but in Nashville until you are only one conversation from hitting gold in a game of “shake the hand that shook rock royalty”.

And tourists even turn up to try and make it big, I met a German who was self-taught blue grass guitarist hoping to be snapped up by a label before his flight back to the Fatherland, I don’t think he was, but he seemed happy enough.

The famous Grand Ole Opry is now at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel outside of town, it is like how the NEC is to Birmingham, if NEC pretended it actually was Birmingham under a roof, perish the thought. The giant hotel complex is the biggest outside Las Vegas and is so big it even has its own micro-climate, it is a safe, sanitised version of Nashville. There are bars, restaurants and all you can eat buffets which could inspire your cholesterol to sing a weepy epic. Many guests don’t even make it to downtown Nashville – I once stayed there and asked how to get to the strip and was told “why would you want to go there, we have the Nashville experience here, there really is no need” and needless to say didn’t get a number for a taxi.

But if you want to watch the longest running radio show in the world – then you have to go to Opryland. Where the original show was staged is downtown – The Ryman Auditorium and it is well worth a visit for a tour or for a concert. It has the feel of a church and has perfect acoustics, which some think was fluke but none the less is one of the greatest places in the world to listen to live music.

On the tour you can stand on the stage where all the greats played including Cash, Presley, Parton, Jennings, and see the staircase where Hank Williams tumbled down during one of the many times he was banned for hell-raising. And Nashville is a place to raise hell, musicians have been drinking the place dry for over 100 years.

Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack had a reputation for partying but even he said they couldn’t lace the sozzled boots of the country and western boys like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the rest of the firm – several of the greats, sick of the slick country Nashville was producing proclaimed themselves The Outlaws and were loved for it.

The strip is one of the best places to get sozzled in the world. A mile or so of bars, big, small, cheap and expensive, all playing live music. There are hundreds of live music venues in Nashville. There is even live music at the airport.

But downtown the dive bars open early and close late and all have singers and bands on the bill. Some start at 11am and it is fun to watch the early starters as they are either at the bottom of the ladder coming down or going up and then seeing the quality increase as the hours pass. Some of the gnarled faces on stage tell million stories before they have opened their mouth.

As well as their musical prowess the musicians have a sixth sense to get punters to put cash in their bucket. They obviously play for tips and it really isn’t the done thing to enjoy their talent and not stump up. So take a stack of $1 bills, and keep them in a designated “music pocket” because all notes look the same in America so you can pull out a note on demand.

I shouted out for Ghostriders in the Sky – and the singer Mike Oldham, consulted with his band, and demanded from stage “that’ll be a $10 song buddy” – I paid up and it was worth it. The multi-storey Rock Bottom has the roof top drinking phenomenon covered on Broadway and the nearby giant ACME is also worth visiting if dozens of craft beers and big portions of good food is your thing.

If you are a music lover then Nashville has a story around every corner, Studio B, which has Elvis’ original piano and the Country Hall of Fame are incredible, too good to mention in passing so see my previous Nashville post about its brilliance.

Nashville’s economy has rocketed in recent years and has become a powerhouse of the South. The population is rising with more than just musicians as business people are flocking to the city to take advantage of tax breaks and a booming economy.

The cavernous Music City Convention Centre which opened a couple of years ago has been a roaring success, making the city a new addition to the money-spinning conference circuit. So successful that there are not enough hotel rooms in the city to cope with it, hence prices for a hotel rooms are higher than most cities, but the two year lag is almost up and a host of giant new hotels are almost completed so supply can meet demand.

Our  demand was met on several nights at the Downtown Hostel, never one to enjoy a hostel situation I was dreading an onslaught of backpackers snoring and foreign feet but the place was pukka. Every room is named after a musician and we had The Small Faces, and Everley Brothers to ourselves.

The communal atmosphere downstairs was good fun but not having to share smells with a stranger made the stay enjoyable. Nashville has become a destination for sports fans to in recent years thanks to its NFL and NHL teams. Both the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators are not that good, but they are top of most American sports fans lists for an away game.

The Titans stadium is across the river in Downtown and tickets are reasonable and available. The atmosphere is incredible, in the first half anyway, when I went the team got beaten up badly but if there is a game on when you are there it really is a perfect piece of Americana that shouldn’t be missed.

The hotdogs are fine and the constant playing of songs, and commentary through the game keeps the entertainment coming. The Predators play downtown too and the strip is full of fans who can’t get tickets to their own teams but snap up tickets to see their team in Nashville. Again the none-stop off-court entertainment make ice-hockey a great night out.

The zeitgeist is certainly with Nashville as it has what every city on the up gets – a hit TV show. Following Dallas and Miami Vice in the 1980s Nashville is a smash hit drama which has reminded millions of viewers the city is more than just an over-sized jukebox. It ensured the city has reputation for sexy inhabitants, and there are plenty of beautiful people strutting around in cowboy boots and hats.

There are frontier style shops which stock everything a cowboy or girl can want, some with walls of cowboy boots made of every animal which can be skinned from alligator to snake and cow to dog, well maybe not the last one, but I’m sure there is a man who knows a man who can get his hands on some for the right price.

The  Cumberland River snakes through the city and, like every American city with some water, there are plans for a riverside entertainment development, you can get General Jackson steam boat down to Opryland if you desire and get that feel of Huckleberry Finn whilst drinking a gin. Though the strip is brilliant it is by no means the only place in Nashville, there are some plenty of neighbourhoods which all have their own feel and no sign of annoying groups of tourists pedalling mobile bars.

And the further you get from the strip the more likely you can smoke at the bar, it was a sad in hell when tobacco (one of Tennessee’s biggest exports along with JD) was banned in Music City, God knows what Tex Williams would have made of it.

Five Points in East Nashville has a host of bars including Red Door, 3 Crow and 5 Spot and the bands which play live are a welcome alternative to the traditional stuff downtown. This is where Nashvillians come out to play and you see an ice and slice of US bar life in all its glory.

However, beware, taxis in this part of time are rarer than vegetarian country singer, sign up to Uber before you venture there. Nashville is said to have the friendliest hipsters in the USA and the beard level in the city is approaching tipping point – but the upside is a host of craft beer breweries, coffee shops and niche food outlets staffed by tattooed types aching to be ironic on a chalkboard.

The Gulch is another neighbourhood on the up. Home to the old railway depot and warehouses the place looks like it has had a lot of money thrown at it for no particular reason. There are gleaming entertainment complexes with chain restaurants and theme pubs, it could be anywhere in America but if it is safe sanatized fun then this is the place.

However, when night falls there are several clubs and even a lonely strip club doing business. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites which nicely provided ear plugs as it is next to the railroad depot. Why you would not want to hear one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – the lonesome whistle is beyond me. Hearing that unmistakable sound which you’ve heard in a million movies helps the brain know exactly where you are in the world.

Near the Gulch is one of Nashville’s hidden gems. The owner didn’t want his studio and shop to be the centre of a new up and coming area, or for the rents to rise because it was “becoming a thing” but it did anyway because of how cool he, and his one man empire is. Jack White opened Third Man Records near where the unemployed collect their food stamps and drug addicts picked up their prescriptions but still the area is now “on the up.” Jack’s shop is a reflection of him – unique and brilliant.

There are records, of course, there are his gold disks but there is also a telephone box where you can record a 45 and a juke box with dancing monkey puppets which is mesmerising. There is an argument the return of vinyl started at Third Man Records, Jack’s insistence at releasing new releases in vinyl meant it became cool again, the coolest way to listen to music and to see the special releases his label put on the market is a history lesson in itself.

The fact he bought the back catalogues of legendary bands helped too. I could have spent every penny I had in the shop if I had not been dragged out, a silicone Iphone speaker, bought, and I didn’t even have an Iphone, and the pin badges alone deserved feature written about them.

Such access to the mind and passions of the 20th Century’s last proper rock star was akin to wandering around Graceland (which is only three hours away by the way).

Third Man Records is one of those places that you need a debrief afterwards to take it all in – and the perfect place is Peg Leg Porker’s BBQ – where locals get their meat fix. Ribs, fried chicken, steaks which look they’ve only had the horns cut off are served simply – all whilst surrounded by pictures of the owner Peg Leg amid his war exploits staring back at you.

There is a good chance you will bring a part of Tennessee back with you, I did, about half a stone, but Nashville is hard to forget, especially when I look up to the night sky and remember I’m hungry like the wolf to howl again at The Full Moon.


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