You Broke My Heart and My ’58 Chevy


 If you're a country-music fan, there's nothing quite like the Grand Ole Opry.

When the fiddlers start to play and the square dancers come out on stage, believe me, you just want to stand up and shout.

It's all classic Nashville, often called the "Buckle of the Bible Belt," where music and religion have long gone hand in hand.

I experienced the religion part of the equation myself as I got behind a big tour bus with Kentucky license plates and saw the Ten Commandments emblazoned on the rear.

On the music side, Nashville has been the official home to country music since 1925, when WSM Radio launched a weekly show called "WSM Barn Dance," which eventually morphed into the Grand Ole Opry.

The show was first housed in the Ryman Auditorium, where pew seating was a reminder of the auditorium's origins as a church, and no doubt for many audience members the Grand Ole Opry was their own "church."

Audience members in those early days felt so "down home" at the Opry that they often showed up with picnic baskets full of fried chicken to munch on during the performances.

I toured country music's rich legacy at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

From gaily decorated guitars to Elvis Presley's gold-plated Cadillac, the museum houses more than 1 million historical items.

There, I was struck by singer Hank Williams' thoughts about the special role played by country songwriters — the real key to a singer's success: "A song ain't nothin' in the world," he said, "but a story just wrote with music to it."

The best place to really begin to appreciate the role of country songwriters is at Nashville's legendary Bluebird Cafe.

And if you're lucky, you might even hear a hit song waiting to be born. The crowded, little, no-frills cafe — in a strip mall in Nashville's Green Hills suburb — frequently has a line to get in, but it's worth the wait.

The cafe calls itself a "listening room," where audiences can hear the best of original country and acoustic sounds seven nights a week. Sometimes, a performer identified with a famous song will show up in the audience, but only the songwriters themselves are allowed to perform.

Bluebird of Happiness?

The Bluebird has another house rule, best summed up by the slogan "Shhh" — meaning that if you take a seat at a table, in the pew or at the bar, you must agree to keep chatter to a bare minimum. Two popular performances are Open Mic Night, on Mondays at 6 p.m., and Writer's Night, on Sundays at 8 p.m.

For Open Mic, songwriters put their names in a hat, and whoever is selected gets to perform two songs.

On my night at the Bluebird, I heard a 20-something guy who worked at a nearby Starbucks get his chance.

Writer's Night is a bit different, with around 90 aspiring songwriters participating in a semi-quarterly audition. About 30 percent are selected to perform three original songs in rotation every six months to a year.

Over the years, the Bluebird has featured many top songwriters, like Faith Hill, Kris Kristofferson and Art Garfunkel. Sometimes, a songwriter turns up with a surprising background, like ex-New York jazz musician Billy Kirsch, who calls himself "Nashville's Jewish cowboy."

Kirsch has written hit songs for some of America's top country singers and groups — including Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd and Alabama — but ironically, he says that it was the synagogue melodies he heard growing up in New York that fed the roots of his musical background.

"My son had his Bar Mitzvah in Nashville last August," relayed Kirsch, "and one of the guests was a friend of mine who is a very successful country songwriter.

"At the reception, he came up to me and said, 'Now I know where you got all those deep emotional melodies for the country songs.'

"I hadn't thought of it consciously, but when he said that, I thought, there's something there as far as the melodic value of … the traditional prayers … "

One of Kirsch's biggest hits, which he wrote with singer Steve Wariner, was "Holes in the Floor of Heaven," which won a Country Music Association Song of the Year Award and was nominated for a Grammy.

The power of country music storytelling is everywhere to be seen in Nashville, especially in RCA Studio B on Music Row, where Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton recorded so many of their hits. On my own tour of the studio Keith Wright, national sales manager for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Studio B, said that Elvis would only record on Sundays "and never before midnight."

At the end of the tour, the seven people in my group had a chance to record one of Elvis' famous songs ("Can't Help Falling in Love") against a background of recorded music. When it was over, we each received a CD of our group effort and joked: So, when do we sign our contract?

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