“Country music made Nashville what it is today... Music City USA,” explains Brenda Warren, visitor service representative at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “It’s the stories behind the songs, the stories that pull at your heart strings, that make country music.”
Our adventures in Nashville, Tenn. began with a tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame, or CMHOF. It was here that we first noticed a reoccurring tune – like any good country song, Music City is chock full of stories. And like any good story, it’s the compelling characters that bring it to life.
Born and raised in Nashville, Warren’s fondest memories revolve around country music. Her face became a few shades lighter and her voice a few octaves higher as she recounted her lifelong love affair with the city's signature genre.
Warren took us on a tour of the two main areas at the CMHOF: the Rotunda and the Wall of Records. The Rotunda, considered the most honored room in museum, houses a plaque for each of the 128 hall-of-fame inductees. Three more from this year's class will be added in October.
Next stop was the Wall of Records, which displays approximately 850 hit country records. Personally, I love me some country music. So hearing all about its history was, well, music to my ears. But it wasn’t learning about the gleaming wall of platinum albums, taking an obligatory photo inside the giant guitar, or gawking at blinged-out rhinestone outfits on display that made the tour. It was hearing the role country music played in Warren’s life.
“Most people back then had no professional background as an instrumentalist or singer,” says Warren. “It started in church or your mother’s back porch on a Sunday afternoon, just jammin’. That’s what I remember.”
She looked forward to Saturday nights as a young child when her family sat around the radio to sing together. They sang the classics. Songs that told stories about everything from the honky tonks on Broadway to hometown church sessions. Even though Nashville is country music mecca, it’s not the only place it comes from. "Country music derives from sounds all across the world – England, Ireland, Wales, Africa – it’s a tremendous soup pot full of good things that influences the music we have today,” Warren said.
Country music artist Clayton Anderson hails from Bedford, Ind. – a small town not too far from the birthplace of the Coca-Cola bottle in Terre Haute (instant Coke connection!). Calling Nashville home for the past five years, Anderson continues to chase his dream. Sounds like a pretty common country artist’s saga: learn to play guitar because chicks dig it; start to sing because chicks dig that even more; realize this could be a career; pack up big dreams in a suitcase; move to Nashville; sleep in your car for a little bit to make ends meet; play shows; record songs; play more shows; gain fans; go on tour... and work for that big break.
That’s kind of Anderson's story. The bones of it at least. But his personality is the meat of his story. We were lucky enough to spend most of our time in Nashville with Andderson, meeting him at a local recording studio for an interview and private performance, joining his crew for lunch, boot scoot ‘n booging on Broadway, then mustering the courage to all try Prince’s Hot Chicken. From the moment he strolled in, it felt like we were all old friends. I’m not sure what we expected our interaction with a country star to be like, but we pretty much had the ultimate Nashville experience with one of the nicest hosts we could ask for. Hospitality isn’t just a Southern thing.
As Ms. Warren from CMHOF had foretold, Anderson was far more than a musician; he was a storyteller. He “writes about what he knows”… small-town living where everyone knows your business, relationships and blue-collar living. After our interview, he played us his new song “In the Dark.” We sat next to him, nodding our heads and tapping our boots to the beat. We were already beyond excited to be in Nashville on a road trip, but then to be sitting on a couch in a recording studio sitting next to a country singer belting out his new tune? And to top it off, he was just about as die-hard of a Coca-Cola ambassador as they come. His fondest memories growing up are of drinking an ice-cold glass bottle Coca-Cola after working in the yard with this grandpa. Maybe that’ll make it into a song one day…? No pressure, of course.
If you’re in Nashville, one thing you gotta do is try hot chicken, and if you wanna do hot chicken right, you have to go back to where it all started – Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
When we arrived, it was clear that people came to Prince’s for much more than hot chicken. They came for the people – or really one person in particular, Ms. Andre. Ms. Andre is the queen of hot chicken. She has run the family restaurant for 40 years, growing the business and recently expanding to a second location. She's clearly a visionary when it comes to business and the best hot chicken you’ll ever taste (if you can handle it). But if you ask us, she has a second career in storytelling.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Andre over some of her famous hot chicken. Except her recommendation was to eat the mild. That threw us for a loop. Turns out there are several levels of hotness you can enjoy or challenge yourself to eat, ranging from mild to XXX Hot. My mouth catches on fire eating mild salsa, so this was a bit intimidating. We took a walk on the wild side and ordered the hot. It had to be done.
“Now, it’s a 24-hour chicken, it stays with you a while. It’s a cleanser, if you know what I mean,” warns Ms. Andre after we dig our forks in to take the much anticipated first bite.
“I wouldn’t eat ‘hot’ on a date. That’s all.”
Panic ensued, but it was too late. All we could do was laugh at this point. Nervously. While the chicken was very hot, it was very very good! Per Ms. Andre’s second recommendation, we of course had an ice-cold Coca-Cola on hand to wash it down.
“The fizz is good for something spicy,” says Ms. Andrea. “I have to have the fizz…”
As we continued to chow down, taking fizz breaks between scorching bites, Ms. Andre told us her life story. It was a very surreal moment to sit together and hear 80 years of history about a recipe that not only means so much to her, but also so much to the Nashville community. As legend has it, the recipe originated from a lady who was furious with Ms. Andre’s great uncle Thorton Prince.
“There’s nothing like a mad woman who wants you to know she’s angry,” says Ms. Andre. “Evidently she grabbed some ingredients out of the garden and put it on his food to let him know… she – was – MAD!” The meal jarred him awake. However it didn’t do the trick. Turns out he liked it. (Once it got settled.)
Her great uncle Thorton Prince liked it so much, in fact, the he turned it into a restaurant 80 years ago. No matter what the real story is behind the chicken, one thing is certain, Prince’s is a Nashville staple for more than just what is on the menu.
If a good country song tells a good story and a good story is brought to life by memorable characters – there’s a clear reason Nashville is known as Music City USA, and it's music to a storyteller’s ears. Given the movin’ and groovin’ nature of a road trip, we were in and out of town in less than 24 hours. (So many stories, so little time!) But the Nashville story doesn’t end here. I’ll be back.
In the meantime… I’ll continue to sing your praises, Music City.
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