If you love the old songs that made Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, it's difficult to stand on the Opry Corner downtown and not long for the time when the sounds of the Grand Old Opry filled the Ryman Auditorium every Saturday night, Tootsie poured the beer at the Orchid Lounge, and the Midnight Jamboree at the Earnest Tubb Record Shop on Broadway pointed the way to Sunday morning. Today that corner is marked by the glassy facades of the Gaylord Entertainment Center and the Nashville Convention Center. Just to the south on Fifth Avanue are a Hilton Hotel and the Country Music Hall of Fame. This new city introduces a sense of scale that dwarfs the old structures and crowds out memory. The past, which in one moment feels so close, in another feels small, fleeting, fighting for its life.
Broadway has been a street of longing since the 1940's, when the Grand Old Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium. That longing stares out of the old photographs of Opry crowds waiting for the show to begin, fills the stories that Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, and others have told about the hopeful songwriters who gathered at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and drives the vivid protrayals of Broadway by the wave of writers who chronicled the Nashville Sound after Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves moved that music closer to the mainstream.
The Opry left the Ryman for the suburbs in 1974, but tourists still came to Broadway, where the music played on in a string of bars. Here was the world that country music songs evoke, and in these honky-tonks the songs had come to life. If you were trying to launch a music career, however, Lower Broadway became the last place you wanted on your resume. Broadway had becone a street where, in the words of the street poet Jule Tabor, "anything can happen and usually does, " and polite society avoided it. The street became known for lawlessness, and every violent act was amplified to fit the theme. By the 1980's the Nashville Scene's Best of Nashville awards annually named Lower Broad "the place you most don't want to be alone after dark. . . ."
I started going to Lower Broadway in the mid-nineties. The street was getting a makeover with the Ryman Auditorium reopening after twenty years, a new arena going up, and a string of theme restaurants working their way up the street from the river, but it was BR549, Greg Garing, and Paul Burch and their hot, youthful country sounds that drew me to Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World. Bill Rouda became familiar to me in the way you get with people you stand beside in small clubs night after night without ever being introduced. I finally met him one night at a Lucinda Williams show and learned he was a photographer who had been documenting life on Lower Broadway for a couple of years. When I had the opportunity to see his photographs, I was much taken by their rawness and romance. Bill had captured the street starkly but with the affection of an insider. He had been on Lower Broadway at a time when a new order was showing itself and making the old one visible in a new way. His photographs captured both those worlds, and, sometimes, in ways I really couldn’t explain, the mythic world that hung over Broadway too. . . .
(For the full text of David Eason's essay, see
Nashville's Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made, pp. 1-17.)