“Folsom Prison Blues,” the 1955 Johnny Cash classic, isn’t exactly a deep cut — anyone with even a passing familiarity with country music has heard it. So when the Don Kelley Band tore into the opening riff at the beginning of their set at Robert’s Western World — one of many honky-tonks on a brightly lit neon strip of Broadway in downtown Nashville — I nodded my head and tapped my feet along with the other hundred or so people in the joint. It was the musical equivalent of comfort food — nothing too surprising or challenging. I wasn’t quite ready for what happened next.
Luke McQueary, a skinny 17-year-old in a plaid Western-style shirt, stepped to the front of the stage and, instead of delivering the workmanlike guitar break I was expecting, set the stage aflame with a blistering solo I would have expected from someone twice his age and experience. It was no fluke — the virtuosity continued during the following song, performed with an earnest, almostHendrix-like showmanship. I half expected someone to come out from the wings, wrap a robe around him, and help him off the stage, à la James Brown.
I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. A place nicknamed “Music City” has a reputation to uphold, and Nashville was more than ready to exceed my expectations. A mecca for talented musicians, Tennessee not only has more high-quality live music than you could ever hope to enjoy, but top-notch dining — both traditional Southern cooking and contemporary twists on old standards. It’s a great location for those on a budget, too — I scarcely noticed the damage to my wallet after a four-night trip there in November.
That area of Broadway is a little like the Las Vegas Strip or Bourbon Street: crowded and touristy, but fun in small doses. I visited there with my friend Halena Kays, with whom I crashed in nearby Murfreesboro, a suburb southeast of the city. We ended up at Robert’s Western World accidentally, as our plans to have dinner at nearby Merchants Restaurant, on the corner of Broadway and Fourth Avenue South, had hit a snag — the place was booked solid. No matter: We grabbed a $4 fried bologna sandwich (imagine a BLT — now imagine it twice as salty) and a couple of $4.25 Miller Lites at the honky-tonk while we listened to the aforementioned band.
I soon received a text that a table had opened up and we walked over to Merchant’s. The place effectively operates as two restaurants, a pricier steak and seafood restaurant on the second floor, and a less expensive, modern southern bistro on the ground floor. We opted for the latter and grabbed a booth in the bright, spacious dining room. The fried green tomatoes ($11) were spot-on, and the Nashville Caesar salad with cornbread croutons ($12), and a pulled pork sandwich ($13) were satisfying. One nice thing: When they saw we were sharing everything, they were happy to split the dishes into separate portions.
That strip of Broadway is just a stone’s throw from Ryman Auditorium, an indelible piece of Nashville history that belongs on every to-do list, especially if the Grand Ole Opry happens to be in residence. The Opry, an artistic home to country musicians since it began in 1925, takes place primarily at Opryland, about 25 minutes northeast of downtown. But if you can, see the show at the Ryman, home to the show from 1943-1974, which sometimes still hosts the Opry. The building itself is a relic — opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, it earned the moniker “Mother Church of Country Music.” Near the back steps of its hallowed halls, Halena and I passed a young street performer with an amazing voice crooning a song I didn’t recognize. In Nashville, even the buskers have exceptional talent.