Today is a quiet day, as I do not have to return to The Hermitage until this evening. A peek outside reveals a beautiful golden sunrise and a clear sky, promising an excellent day for perambulations.
I do have to be in my room at 8am to take a phone call from a journalist in Pennsylvania, so I make sure that I have an early breakfast so that I can be upstairs again at the appointed hour.
8 o’clock comes – no call. 8.15 – no call, In fact nothing happens until I hear a little knock on my room door, I answer it and there is a lady from the front desk who explains that they have been trying to put a call through to my room, but there is a fault with the phone system which is preventing it. She apologises and hands me a handwritten note so that I can call. This approach meets with more success and soon I am chatting to Cherie about my event at The Country Cupboard store in Lewisburg next month.
Once the interview is concluded I potter around for a while, so as to let the rush hour traffic clear, and then at 9.30 set my SatNav for the centre of downtown Nashville. I find a parking lot near to the main Broadway strip and purchase three hours of time, which should be perfectly adequate (parking is not cheap in Nashville, that’s for sure!) I arm myself with my camera and set off to explore. There is no plan, no rhyme nor reason to my wanderings, I just want to get a feel for a city that I haven’t visited for many years.
I walk along Broadway which, as Hannah told me last night, is very the tourist Nashville, with gaudy signs promoting bars and boots. Of course music, specifically country music, is the thread that holds Nashville together, so everything is linked to that: cowboy hats and cowboy boots proliferate, whilst every bar and eatery promotes their forthcoming gigs.
On a street corner a young man stands with his guitar in a travelling case slung over his shoulder, as if he has come in search of a dream. Good luck to you, and may your dream come true!
I walk down to the river, the Cumberland, which is a tributary of the Ohio, and then up a hill towards the City Hall, before searching out the State Capitol building. I stand on the steps and look down to the plaza which stretches out in front of it, and allow my memories to take over for a moment.
In 1996 I stood on this same spot, to begin my life as a touring actor in the United States. The previous Christmas I had attended the Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston Texas, and had been seen by a lady called Caroline Jackson, who published a small range of Christmas books. Caroline had a truly entrepreneurial spirit and proposed that she represented me in America, and that she would book a series of Christmas tours on my behalf.
The very first event that we worked together on was a book festival right here, and I performed Mr Dickens is Coming in the Capitol building itself.
Of course things grew from there, but many of the events that Caroline first booked for me still feature on my tours. We had our moments, and our disagreements over the years, but none of what I have achieved now could have been possible without her influence.
As I stand and wallow in nostalgia (a little rose-tinted) I become aware of a meeting, more of a service, taking place in a small park. Once again all of the flags are flying at half mast and I am keen to understand why. I walk to the park, and the event is obviously sombre and important. The area is surrounded by armed State Troopers, and the proliferation of black Suburban cars with heavily tinted windows suggest that some very important folk are here. I approach one of the troopers and ask, quietly and respectfully, what is going on. I wasn’t sure what the reaction to my query would be, and I fully expected to be brusquely told to move on, but he couldn’t have been kinder. He explained that this particular service was to honour Veterans from Tennessee, whilst yesterday the flags had been lowered to remember the 26 worshipers who had been gunned down in Texas last week.
I thank him and turn to leave, when he asks ‘Hey, man, where are you from?’ ‘England’, I reply. ‘Oh, man! When I was serving in the Marines we went to that City, what is the main port there?’ I hazarded a guess: ‘Portsmouth?’ ‘Oh YEAH! Oh what a great town! What a place, oh boy I had fun in Portsmouth! We liked Portsmouth!’
My brother Ian lived in Portsmouth for a while and he can attest as to how much Portsmouth enjoyed having the US Navy in town too!
I walk on, admiring the architecture of the various state buildings. I may as well be in Athens, there are so many marble pillars.
Walking on, taking pictures, loving the mix of old and new, loving the bustle of a City at work, loving the reality which is at odds with the glitz of Broadway. And then I find myself at the Ryman Auditorium, which Hannah had suggested I toured.
I have plenty of time, so why not? let’s be a tourist. Outside the entrance there is statue of a country singer, with an impossibly large Stetson on, and somehow I just know who it is, I am naturally drawn to him. I read the plaque set into the stone and my deductions are proved correct: Little Jimmy Dickens!
Once again my mind drifts back over the years, to the tiny town of Fayetteville, Tennessee. I was attending the Host of Christmas Past festival, and was sitting in a store to sign books. Unfortunately there were not many people coming to the table and my friend Marie Caldwell (who was the organiser of the event) and I were chatting about this and that, when at last an elderly lady approached. She didn’t look at me, and didn’t say a thing. She peered myopically at the sign which proclaimed ‘Gerald Charles Dickens, Signing Here!’ After a while the lady said ‘Are You going to sing?’ Confused, I said ‘I’m sorry?’ ‘Are you going to SING?’ she repeated. Marie took up the cause and pointed out that ‘this is Gerald Charles Dickens, he is signing books.’ The lady thinks about this for a moment, and then her face broke into a beam of comprehension ‘Oh, you are related to Little Jimmy Dickens?’ It could only have happened in Tennessee!
The tour of the Ryman Auditorium is fascinating, and I feel a real sense of the Country scene that so identifies Nashville now. Originally built as a Union Gospel Tabernacle to improve the sinful ways of a river town, the building soon became a focus for top quality theatrical and musical entertainment. Sousa and his band performed there, as did Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, Will Rogers and Harry Houdini. But the event that put the Ryman onto the wider map was the broadcast in 1943 of the popular radio show The Grand Ole Opry. The atmosphere and acoustics of the Ryman made it a perfect home for the show and in no time the auditorium became known as the Mother Church of Country Music.
Eventually the needs of modern performers outstripped the aged building and a new venue was constructed elsewhere, which I visited last year, but the soul of the Opry is right here in downtown Nashville.
Having finished my tour I have a large salad in the café attached to the theatre, and then make my way back towards my car. Broadway is alive now, and a cacophony of music comes from the many bars. There is a life and an energy to the self-proclaimed Music Town that is hard to resist.
I go back to my hotel for the afternoon, and am rather lazy. I watch the rest of the Ferrari documentary, and let the afternoon drift by until it is time to make my way back to The Hermitage. As I walk out of the hotel a nearby train is sounding its hooter – was there ever a more American sound than that?
Back in the cabin I set the stage again, makes sure that all of the cocktail tables have little stacks of my business cards which promote this blog and my various social media platforms.
I chat to the various staff and volunteers who are helping Hannah this eveningm until as last night the audience begins to arrive early and I retreat to my kitchen to change. The crowd is bigger tonight (it seemed full last night), and Hannah is organising for extra chairs to be squeezed in at the back. Many audience members come and welcome me, and ask if I would pose for a photograph, which I am happy to do.
Eventually everyone is seated, Hannah puts another log on the fire and stokes it up before welcoming the audience and announcing the show. Once again the reception is wonderful, with lots of laughter and participation, they really are such an open group here, and just come to enjoy themselves.
The show concludes with a raucous ovation, and I know that I am in for another long signing session, which is indeed the case. I am beginning to feel a little tired, but the infectious positivity of this audience keeps me smiling and chatting until the last one has left on the golf cart shuttle.
I pack up all of my costumes and props, making sure that I haven’t left anything, and climb onto the golf cart along with an armchair, a hat stand and various other paraphernalia from the set. At the visitor centre I bid good bye to Hannah and drive back to the hotel, where in my room I discover that somewhere along the way one of my new silk cravats (made by Liz, you will remember), has fallen off the hanger. I retrace my steps to the car (even making sure I use the same lift that I came up in), in case it has fallen off as I walked in, but there is nothing. I am just about to send an email to Hannah asking her to look for it, when she beats me to it: The cravat was on the golf cart and they have already delivered it to the hotel front desk!
I am in my room now, so will pick it up when I leave early tomorrow morning, heading for California.
My Tennessee adventure has come to an end and as always it has been a boisterous, fun and energising time. Thank you Nashville and Pigeon Forge for looking after me so well!