Nashville’s best walking tour for country music fans

Walkin’ Nashville: An Interview with Bill DeMain

Vendini Camp Vendini, Entertainment

Walkin’ Nashville isn’t just what you do when your dog dies, your wife leaves you and your truck breaks down. It’s also the name of the most popular Nashville walking tour for music lovers, and it’s hosted by American music maven Bill DeMain.

Walkin Nashville tour guide Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain
Walkin’ Nashville tour guide

Bill DeMain truly lives and breathes music. As a musician, he’s had tunes covered by Marshall Crenshaw and appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” with his band Swan Dive. He’s also had song placements on shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and commercials for Samsung.

When he’s not making music, DeMain is a celebrated music journalist, having written for magazines including MOJO and Entertainment Weekly.

Over the course of his career, he’s interviewed dozens of musical icons, among them David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Brian Wilson and Merle Haggard. Right now, DeMain is working on his next writing project (a book about the Beatles) and performing around town with his band Crackerboots.

These days, you can also find DeMain strolling the streets of his adopted hometown as the host of Walkin’ Nashville. We sat down with Bill to talk about the past, present and future of Music City, USA.

Walkin Nashville tour Bill Demain stops outside the Grand Ole Opry

Walkin’ Nashville takes a stop outside the Ryman Auditorium (aka The Grand Ole’ Opry)

Anthony Gordon: Tell me how your relationship with music began.

Bill DeMain: My father was a disc jockey, so I grew up around records. I started working at a record store by the time I was 13 years old and picked up the guitar by 17. I played in bands all through college and started to write songs in the late 1980s. Eventually, I moved to Nashville to continue that pursuit.

AG: How did you get into music journalism?

BD: I’ve been writing stories and poems and journaling since I was kid. As I became more serious about playing music, I became more interested in writing about music, too. It felt very natural that my passion for songwriting lead me to music journalism as a side pursuit. I’m very interested in storytelling, both as a musician and as a journalist.

AG: Talk to me about how you developed your specific interest in the musical history of Nashville.

BD: My interest just comes from loving the music. But my study of its history comes from years and years of working for magazines and interviewing people like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Gathering their stories gave me a sense of the narrative of country music history.

Bill DeMain with the legendary Dolly Parton

Bill DeMain with the legendary Dolly Parton

AG: So when you started doing the Walkin’ Nashville tour, you already had a lot of stories you’d heard first-hand from Nashville legends.

BD: That’s right. When I first started preparing to do these tours about four years ago, I went back to all those interviews and used them as the foundation for what I wanted to talk about. I also spent a lot of time in the library, reading old articles and interviewing local business owners who’ve been around town for 40 or 50 years. That said, once I put together the initial script for the tour, I pretty much departed from it within a month or two. A walking tour really requires a spoken narrative, as opposed to a written article. It’s important to be knowledgeable, but my goal on the tour was always to be like your friend showing you around.

AG: That sounds like it allows you some flexibility in your storytelling.

BD: Exactly. I always like to quote the great songwriter, Harlan Howard, who said that country music was just three chords and the truth. Obviously, storytelling means a lot to me, so I consider those words to live by. Knowing the history doesn’t mean much if you can’t tell the story.

The Highwaymen display the art of storytelling through entertainment

Great storytellers (like the Highwaymen here) aren’t just considered entertainers in Nashville. Here, they’re icons.

AG: What are a few of the essential places people can expect to see on a Nashville walking tour?

BD: Certainly Printer’s Alley comes to mind. Printer’s Alley was originally an area where a lot of newspapers and publishing companies were in the early 20th century, hence the name. Since the 1940s, it’s been an area where there have been a lot of nightclubs and bars featuring a lot of great performances. Especial during it’s heyday which was really from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. Skull’s Rainbow Room is one of the Printer’s Alley joints that comes to mind.

The honky tonks of Nashvilles Painters Alley

The Honky Tonks of Printer’s Alley

Photo by Denise Mattox

I also really like the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, which has been struggling, but it’s still holding on. It’s been there since the late 1940’s and it was started by a very famous country star, Ernest Tubb. They used to have their own little version of the Grand Ole Opry there that was was called the “Midnite Jamboree“.

Looking up at Nashvilles Ernest Tubb Record Shop marquee

The world famous Ernest Tubb Record Shop

Every Saturday night at midnight it was broadcast on WSM Radio. The old stage is still there in the shop. Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline all played on that stage. I’m always trying to champion that place because I’m so worried it’s going to go out of business.

The WSM stage inside the Ernest Tubb Record Shop

The WSM stage at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop

AG: What’s something people who haven’t visited Nashville would be surprised to learn?

BD: Nashville has a complicated history. The face it shows to the world is that it’s “Music City,” but the story of country music here has unfolded against a city that’s very conservative and very religious. For much of its history, people in Nashville looked down their noses at country music, almost as if they were embarrassed by it. It’s almost a miracle that the country music industry even happened here.

AG: As someone who’s very familiar with Nashville’s past, where do you see the city heading in the future?

BD: I think it’s really embracing the idea that it can be a bigger and more cosmopolitan city right now. Of course, any time a city grows, especially the way that Nashville is growing right now, there are going to be pros and cons to it.

On the plus side, it’s nice to have so much interest in Nashville and to see tourists coming here from all over the world. Also, a lot of money is being spent on refurbishing older things like recording studios, which is great. The downside is that because there’s so much money at stake with all these new hotels being built, that a lot of our history is being knocked out.

The band Roberts Western World performing country western music in the Broadway Historic District

Nashville’s Broadway Historic District is home to scores of honky tonks. Here at Robert’s Western World, they play both kinds of music: country and western.

AG: That sounds like a good reason for people who haven’t been on a Nashville walking tour to see what it’s like before it changes too much.

BD: Absolutely. Part of the reason I keep doing my tours is that I feel that sense of duty to preserve some of the history that really is endangered or has disappeared. I feel like the stuff that I talk about in my tour is really the reason why Nashville is famous.

AG: So what’s next for you?

BD: I’m going to just keep on doing my tours until people stop caring about Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. Which hopefully will never happen.

If you’re interested in learning more about the musical history of Nashville from Bill DeMain, he’ll be speaking at our 2017 Vendini Member Conference.