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Columbia Missourian

Vanderbilt teeters between Southern charm and bright lights of Music City

By Katy Bergen
August 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Vanderbilt University remains insulated from the allure of the country music industry in Nashville. Students call it the "Vander Bubble" because the campus is so connected to all the other things they need.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.

NASHVILLE — Stand in the center of the arboretum on Vanderbilt University’s campus. It’s easy to forget you are in Nashville.

Fast facts about Nashville

Population: 545,524

Distance from Columbia: 431 miles

Vanderbilt enrollment: 11,949

Mascot: Commodores

Fight Song: "Dynamite"

Football coach: James Franklin (6-7, 1st season)

Basketball coach: Kevin Stallings (25-11, 13th season)


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But there are simple reminders that a college town doesn’t exist outside this gated community.

City sounds break through — the hammer of a construction worker or the hum of traffic. Keith Urban shows up at the movies or Taylor Swift is seen at Pancake Pantry on 21st Avenue. Students walk across the street to the Parthenon, the full-size model of the ancient Greek structure that represents Nashville’s role as “Athens of the South.”

Outside the wrought-iron gate that surrounds much of the smallest school in the Southeastern Conference is the old stomping ground of music legends, a place that helped Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline and Hank Williams build careers. It’s a tourist trap, where 50 cents gets you 20 minutes on a parking meter and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café is next to the honky tonk bars. It’s a strange celebration of the humble beginnings of American music and the giant industry that the word “country” has grown to represent.

People don’t come to Nashville for Vanderbilt University. They come for Music City.

Country music connections

Stephen Jones, of Greenock, Scotland, beams at the round wooden pews that surround the Ryman Auditorium in two levels.

In the years after World War II, a Nashville radio program called the “Grand Ole Opry” established the city as a hub for country songwriting and stardom. Today, “Grand Ole Opry” is a weekly country music show that features country legends, up-and-coming stars and tribute performances from the Grand Ole Opry House on Opryland Drive in Nashville.

But between 1943 and 1974, the radio show and live performance was hosted at the Ryman Auditorium on Fifth Avenue. Originally built as a tabernacle in 1892, the auditorium earned the name “Mother Church of Country Music.”

And there is a reverence to the expression, full of awe, which consumes Jones’ face as he takes in the stage that once propelled artists such as Hank Williams and The Carter Family to fame.

Jones and his family are touring Nashville and Memphis on a family vacation. They’ve been to the Country Music Hall of Fame and RCA Studio B, the famous recording studio that produced hits such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line."

“Did you get to Studio B?” he asks solemnly. “I had a tear in my eye.” He traces a tear down his cheek.

He waits as his son, Marion, records a song in the Ryman’s recording studio, an opportunity the auditorium offers for a mere 15 bucks. Marion comes back with his own packaged CD of his rendition of Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin.’”

“He’s a singer/songwriter,” Jones says. The pride in his voice is undeniable.

Inside the 'Vander Bubble'

Drive five minutes from downtown Nashville and Vanderbilt’s campus comes into view.

Founded in 1893, Vanderbilt University was named for Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad mogul who gave the university its first financial gift. The university boasts the highest ACT scores for incoming freshman in the Southeastern Conference and is the only private university in the league. Students here frequently make reference to the fact that everything they need is within walking distance.

“We call it the Vander Bubble,” senior Tracy Fetterly says. “Because you have to try to get off campus.”

Undergraduate enrollment is just under 7,000 and there’s a sense that people know each other on this campus. A boy dancing on a table in the yard of a fraternity house sees basketball player Steve Tchiengang, shouts his name and throws a tennis ball at him. Tchiengang misses the ball. There are shouts of disappointment.

“Butterfingers,” the man yells. Tchiengang just shakes his head with a smile. He said although Vanderbilt football has traditionally had a weak program, the school came together when the basketball team won the SEC Tournament title.

Still, Nashville isn’t consumed with enthusiasm for Vanderbilt athletics.

“It’s the smallest school in the SEC,” Fetterly says. “So support is harder to come by.”

Outside: Recording at the Ryman

Visitors to the Ryman Auditorium can record a solo or duet version of popular country hits such as Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” or Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in the recording booth located at one end of the main floor.

Inside the booth, sound technician Emmanuel Trevino, 22, turns to a potential singer and says, “This blasts through the entire auditorium.”

Trevino is kidding. The booth is soundproof. But a mix of nervousness and terror still ensues.

The singer can’t sing in key. The visitors on tour who stop, smile and point from the other side of the glass freak her out. She’s about to disgrace country music forever.

So she asks Trevino how many people who record at the Ryman are actually talented.

He pauses as if he’s about to give a diplomatic answer. Then breaks into a grin.

“I’d say about 3 to 4 percent.”

Inside: Occupy Vandy

A colony of camping tents take up a grassy island in the middle of a cul-de-sac on a Vanderbuilt drive. The area is abandoned, empty except for a single parked police car.

Donald Clark of the Vanderbilt Police is assigned to keep an eye on the Occupy Vandy movement, which he guesses has been in existence for about three weeks.

“No problems yet,” he says with a slight smirk as if mocking the kind of enthusiasm that can be found in deserted, wet tents on a Saturday morning. “They seem to come out in the evenings.”

Clark has another curious smile when asked if the Nashville community gets excited about Vanderbilt football.

He said the campus is made up of a diverse group of students, faculty and staff whose loyalties often lie with surrounding states, particularly ones with stronger programs: Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama. Clark, himself, is a Kentucky fan.

“Game day you’ll see a variety of colors,” he says, laughing.

Outside: Student tourists

Throngs of high school students pile out of buses outside the Ryman. Four choruses from a Maryland high school are on a Nashville music trip. They’ve taken in the Grand Ole Opry and performed for the Vanderbilt University voice faculty.

They watch as the set of “A Prairie Home Companion” is built. The live variety radio show will be filmed here next week. Stephen Indrisano, 15, of Walt Whitman High School in Besthesa, Md., manages to get his hands on papers that map out the light, sound, microphones and wires for the show.

For a music student, this is a jackpot. Indrianso is part of the tech crew at his high school, manning the light and sound technology for all school events. 

“I’m teching out so hard right now,” he says.

Inside: At the frat house

Fraternity brothers sit behind white foldout tables outside the front of Greek houses. They check IDs and enter names into a laptop. Men in yellow jackets with “Event Staff” stamped on the back give wristbands to those over 21.

Seth Cadan, a sophomore from Connecticut who is involved in Greek life, says every fraternity is required by the university to register parties and hire event security and a bartender.

Soon, an event staff member brings a man back outside.

“We go through this all the time,” Event Staff Man said. “I know there’s a bottle in your back pocket. (Liquor is not allowed at fraternity parties according to university rules.)

The younger man laughs: “How do you always know?”

Fetterly and senior Kate Kerbel participate in another school tradition at a fraternity party down the road: crawfish boils.

The freshwater crustaceans are poured out over a long table. Students line up on each side of table, breaking the crawfish at the tail, sucking the juices from the head and pulling the meat out.

The crawfish are kept in inflatable kiddie pools on the front porch until they can be boiled. A boy scoops one out of the tub and chases a girl, who screams.

Fetterly says attending frat parties is typical fare at Vanderbilt, particularly on game days.

“The big thing about football Saturday isn’t really the football game, it’s the fratting,” she said. “Everyone’s out on their lawns drinking. The student section is notoriously late.”

A new football coach is trying to change that. Fetterly says it’s a well-known fact that head coach James Franklin, who led the Commodores to six victories and bowl game elibility last season, visited each sorority house this year with two requests: Wear sundresses in school colors and start coming to games on time.

The women soon grow bored of "day-fratting" and decide to break for dinner before going back out later in the evening — to their own student commons for the Rites of Spring concert.

Rites of Spring is a Vanderbilt concert tradition that began in 1971 as a way for Nashville residents to interact with the university community. Today, it is an annual two-day concert that draws the likes of diverse group of musicians from the rapper Kid Cudi to bands such as Passion Pit and The Flaming Lips. Tickets are open to Vanderbilt students and the public.

The concert isn’t meant to reject country, students say.They just don’t necessarily want to hear it.

“The general population here doesn’t want that,” Kerbel said. “And if you want country, there’s obviously plenty of places to go for that.”

Outside: At the honky tonks

While the students of Vanderbilt bob to the likes of Wiz Khalifa and Sleigh Bells at Rites of Spring, across the city a million honky tonk bars come to life.

Tequila Cowboy is one kind of country.

Here, the cover band is just as likely to sing an Alan Jackson cover as a Tom Petty song; the singer thanks “the troops” for making it possible to enjoy cheap music in Nashville and the bar erupts in cheers; an ominous-looking man dressed in black carries a sign through the bar that reads “Mechanical bull open.”

A young performer takes the mic away for a song. She’s building a career, somewhere. She gets a few whoops and claps when she finishes.

“The stage is always open for those of you who are chasing you dreams, folks,” the main singer says.

If Tequila Cowboy is one kind of country, than Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is another. Located across the street and up a few blocks, the back entrance of the lavender-colored bar backs into the Ryman Auditorium.

Look for the narrow bar with the faces of the Legends plastered on the front and old photographs that cover every inch of wall. Back in the day Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and other legends frequented Tootsie’s between sets at the Ryman.

This is a bar where the bartender makes eye contact with you as soon as you walk in the door and gets you what you want immediately. She knows you’ll get lost, swallowed up in the crowd as soon as you get further than 5 feet in the door.

Tonight, every person in the bar, from the Virginia Tech music students to a pack of plump middle-aged ladies, sings along to a Garth Brooks’ cover. The songs are diverse here too, but there’s a different kind of energy. Everyone belts out “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Friends in Low Places,” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” a man says happily to an older woman who can’t help but laugh as she’s jostled by the crowd as she presses toward the door.

The woman smiles. “Oh, but it’s so much fun!”

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.