NASHVILLE, TENN. — On a blustery Saturday night, crowds pour out of the neon-lit Gaylord Entertainment Center after a Nashville Predators hockey game, and spill into the honky-tonk bars that line Broadway Street.
It's a different type of fan that now visits places like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where country music legends once strummed their guitars during breaks at the Grand Ole Opry. Many of the younger generation have never before set foot in a honky-tonk. And the music certainly isn't the reason they visit downtown Nashville on weekends.
"I've never been to the Opry," says John Mitchell, a resident of nearby Franklin. "I come here for the hockey and Titans football. There's so much to do now in Nashville that you never get bored with it. It's not just country music anymore."
Indeed, Nashville is changing as rapidly as the crossover country music that gave the place its "Music City USA" nickname. In recent years, Nashville has gone from a town of sequined singers and fiddle-picking musicians to a thriving metropolis with a winning football team, high-tech corporations, and hip urban architecture.
To many residents, however, these economic gains have come at the cost of the city's country-western charm. Like a number of smaller Southern cities, such as New Orleans or Savannah, Ga., Nashville is going through a difficult balancing act: embracing lucrative new trappings such as stadiums, large hotels, and chain restaurants, while struggling to preserve its unique history. Many fear the city is on track to become another Atlanta or Dallas.
City officials say the recent changes are not a threat to the country music mecca, but rather have helped save it, by bringing in visitors and revenue to the area.
"Ten years ago, there was very little downtown except for the honky-tonks, and they weren't even popular then, because the critical mass wasn't in place for them to thrive," says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Any city needs a thriving and successful downtown, and that's where Nashville is now - developing the next stage for downtown."
But Tony Baxter, a lifelong resident, thinks Nashville is growing too fast. He says city planners will someday reflect on the sweeping changes with regret. "Downtown isn't the same as it was," he says. "You go down there, and you could be in any other downtown in America, except we have some twangy music going on."
Since the founding of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, Nashville has prided itself on its cultural heritage. From the sweet crooning of Patsy Cline to the edgy vocals of the Dixie Chicks, the city has long relied on its musical roots to lure tourists.
Historians say that Nashville's downtown entertainment dates to the 1880s, when the mother of pioneering Opry star Uncle Dave Macon ran a hotel on Lower Broadway that housed the many vaudeville troupes that visited Nashville. The Ryman - the original home of the Opry - is still known as the "Mother Church of Country Music," and hosts rock concerts and Broadway shows.
County music fans once visited museums owned by country stars on Music Row. Nearly all of those have closed, but fans keep making pilgrimages to Nashville in hopes of a glimpse of Dolly Parton or Garth Brooks.
The songwriters and musicians still move here, too, dreaming of a No. 1 record.
Mark McQuinn moved here six years ago to start his professional music career. In February, Mr. McQuinn's first album will be released. "This city has changed a lot in six years," says McQuinn. "The Titans have brought a lot to the city. Some people like the way it's changed; some don't."
Controversy bubbled last year when police enforced noise ordinances against honky-tonks that blared country songs too loudly. Some bars and local-owned merchants left the area.
But Nashville officials are quick to say that the city is not abandoning its country music roots, but rather emphasizing them in modern ways. The Gaylord Entertainment Center honors the musical heritage with a replica of the WSM radio tower - the station that launched the Opry. When the Titans play in Nashville, a country music star always sings the "The Star Spangled Banner." And hockey fans now call Saturday nights "hockey-tonkin'."
"We aren't abandoning our roots at all here," says Keith Wright of the Country Music Hall of Fame. "Nashville reflects the change in music. It's more diversified. Nashville isn't just about music anymore, but that's still a big part of it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society