Big City, Small Town: Stage Presents

By visiting some of Nashville's smaller venues, you may uncover a few musical surprises.

Just steps away from me at The Bluebird Cafe sit four legendary songwriters: Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, Tony Arata and Jelly Roll Johnson. Knobloch delivers "Jungle Room" in a deep, bluesy drawl, while Johnson rollicks along on his harmonica. After two lines, I'm transported, sitting under "bamboo curtains and a neon moon — they got it all at the Jungle Room."

I've been to Nashville before, to Tootsies, The Stage, and the Wildhorse Saloon. If you like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, you'll hear lots of covers in the tourist bars.

This time, my husband and I check out the local scene: songwriters trying to get their music into the hands of the stars, musicians playing original tunes for their peers for next to nothing. They're hoping to sell a few CDs, get the word out, to be discovered.

We check in to our hotel in the West End and head to The Basement. The tiny venue on the lower level of Grimey's features feisty, red-haired singer Ashley Rae, who came to Nashville 11 years ago from Kansas. Her songs are full of heartache, love and drinking. When I ask her how long she's been singing, she shrugs, smiles and says, "Ever since I can remember."

Here, the melodies lean toward rock, but the lyrics feel like country. One singer explains, "You really cain't sing anything else with this accent!"

For real rock, we hit the 5 Spot, where smoking is allowed and everyone seems to know each other. The mostly silent audience is listening intently to the Rough & Tumble.

Here's why: This two-person group is fantastic. Scott Tyler mans the guitar, harmonica and bass drum. Mallory Graham, meanwhile, sings with incredible range — Iris DeMent-meets-Alanis Morissette — while playing a toy piano, marble-filled containers and various other homemade instruments. I fall in love and buy a $5 CD.

"This is a musicians' hangout," says Alaina Thetford, a musicians' manager. "The line stretches outdoors, around the block."

The same goes for The Bluebird Cafe. It's a close-up experience: Performers sit in a circle, playing off and with each other's music. Anything can happen here, from new talent discoveries to big names, and we feel like we're in someone's living room.

Most impressive about Nashville? Accessibility. Every night, dozens of places feature good, live music. And if you have any talent, you just might find yourself in a guest spot on stage.

Me? I'm content to groove from my table ... I mean ... from the Jungle Room.

Still Life

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