Although I had never been to Nashville, my heart knew Nashville. I must have walked up Music Row hundreds of times during “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” with Alan Jackson, and Trisha Yearwood took me to that I-40 Nashville sign with every radio spin of “Wrong Side of Memphis.” The dreamy landscape of the country music culture finally become a reality when I was 14 and made my first visit to Music City, seventeen years ago this week in 2003.
Setting the scene in country music 2003: A wave of inspirational-themed messages graced radio. Diamond Rio crested the top of the charts with “I Believe” that week, with former #1 “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis sitting at #2. Buddy Jewell just won the first-ever country-themed reality competition, “Nashville Star.” There were dynamic rising female artists, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Jennifer Hanson, and Kellie Coffey, all showcasing their individuality and stellar songwriting. Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith reigned as top ticket sellers.
The morning of my trip arrived. I packed my best Old Navy attire, 35 mm film camera, and portable CD Walkman with my favorite discs in tow: Trisha Yearwood’s “Thinkin’ About You,” “Did I Shave My Legs For This” by Deana Carter, “Wish You Were Here” from Mark Wills, and Tim McGraw’s “A Place in the Sun.” I always adored the fan-submitted stories in “Country Weekly” magazine about run-ins with their favorite singer, so I anticipated seeing country stars everywhere and kept a Sharpie with me just in case. Later in life, I learned that Kroger is the best place to catch a country music singer out and about.
Racks and shelves at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Tower Records, our first stops along our trip, were brimmed with all the latest releases, plus the entire catalogs of country music’s heritage. I picked up a CD single (remember those?) from an artist scheduled to play the Opry that weekend. I had no idea if I was pronouncing his name correctly. I recall sending an email to a local radio station asking them to play the artist’s debut single entitled, “What Was I Thinkin’.” Die-irks? Derek? Whoever Dierks Bentley was, I was excited to see him perform.
I counted down the days of my initial Nashville trip by continually checking the Grand Ole Opry’s online schedule, the world-famous stage slated on our Saturday itinerary. I waited impatiently as my dial-up internet loaded, hoping to see the name of a favorite artist appear. During a routine after-school check, I saw it: Montgomery Gentry. They were one of the hottest acts on radio, with their recent single “Speed” making its way into the top ten on the Billboard airplay charts. The absolute highlight of the trip! Show goers know that the Opry tends to be reserved, but when MG took the stage, they insisted that the crowd get up off the pews during “Hillbilly Shoes.”
Looking back, Music City has changed dramatically, becoming a prime destination for music, sports, upscale dining, arts, and more. Brick and mortar shops selling compact discs closed due to the rise of digital downloads. The boys from Kentucky – Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry – they scored their first #1 single less than a year after I saw them. Troy’s passing in September of 2017 is a loss that shook the entire country music community. The young act from Arizona making his national TV debut on the Opry that night, Dierks Bentley, has become one of the most beloved superstars. And the young girl who traveled 300 miles to experience Nashville for the first time? She returned to the Opry, working alongside a country music trailblazer.
But you know what stayed the same? The way I feel when listening to all those songs I loved years before. Amid the changes, the heartfelt songs formed in Nashville still shape country music and honor the longstanding traditions. Current songs like “Die From a Broken Heart” from Maddie & Tae, Jon Pardi’s “It Ain’t Always the Cowboy,” and “Her World or Mine” by Michael Ray get me excited about the future of country music. I can’t wait to share my takes on the songs, stories, and Music City moments with you!