Guitar Plays Second Fiddle As Nashville Symbol

The guitar, an iconic symbol of Nashville’s music scene, is beginning to play second fiddle as a visual icon for the city.

Musical notes and symbols are emerging in Nashville’s logo as city promoters seek to illustrate the variety of sounds here.

The Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Grand Ole Opry and the local musicians union are in tune with the trend.

The acoustic guitar, as the primary instrument in country music, became the unofficial symbol of the city years ago. Performers from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks have played one.

But in recent years, the guitar hit a sour note with Nashville’s business promoters.

The city rolled out a “Music City” branding campaign about seven years ago, and the music note subsequently evolved as a favorite. Chances are that Nashville’s 11 million annual visitors may see as many music notes around town as guitars.

Photo: AP Photo
A sign bearing music notes in Nashville, Tenn.

The amicable divorce signals Nashville’s enhanced ambition to be considered a world center of music and not just the epicenter of blazing fiddles and country music weepers with themes about falling off barstools.

Brent Cunningham, a Nashville street musician since 1999 who plays his guitar downtown, notes the trend.

“This is Music City, not guitar city,” he said, pausing after singing the Cajun song “Fais Do Do” outside one of Nashville’s ubiquitous boot stores. “Really it’s ‘music world’ because the best musicians in the world are here. Not just guitar players, but mandolin pickers, fiddle players, sax players.”

The convention and visitors bureau has been using a music note on banners beside the stage at city-sponsored events on July 4 and New Year’s Eve. It’s used on city wrapping paper, set designs and apparel. During the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight, television viewers across the country watched a brightly-lit red eighth note drop down a scaffolding track in the Nashville entertainment district.

The note also is used on some of the bureau’s branding and promotional materials and amenities sold at Nashville’s visitor center and given to clients. The website displays an eighth note.

Even the Music City Center, Nashville’s new convention center now under construction, has music notes on signs hanging on outside fencing.

For city tourism officials, making the change was as easy as playing an E chord.

“The music note is more representative of the breadth of music we have,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the convention and visitors bureau. “We wanted something to distinguish Nashville. Some other cities are using a guitar.”

Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians uses a treble clef on its website.

Dave Pomeroy, president of the local, said music notes “underscore Nashville’s continuing evolution as a diverse center for all kinds of music.”

Pomeroy does say, however, that the guitar “is obviously an iconic symbol of country music and Nashville.”

At Nashville International Airport, railings at the food court have various designs of instruments and music symbols. Display cases for local industries are topped with a lyrical music motif.

Downtown, colorful blue signs have just been erected in the entertainment district signaling “Musician Loading Area.” They are decorated with two eighth notes, sharing sign space with existing loading zones designated for commercial beer trucks and other vendors.

Guitars are even disappearing from some CD covers unlike past years when they were common. Icon: George Strait had no guitar though he’s rarely on stage without one. 34 Number Ones by Alan Jackson also showed no guitar.

The instrument has been associated with Nashville for decades as the city gained exposure across the country and even the world.

Nashville’s cornpone TV show “Hee Haw” featured co-host Buck Owens with a memorable red, white and blue guitar. The old Nashville Network cable channel used a guitar neck in its logo. NASCAR presented a guitar to the winner of its Nashville races.

But these days, drivers along busy Interstate 65 north of downtown see a sign for the Music City Shopping Center with a treble clef replacing the “s’’ in “music.”

Nashville travel officials are quick to point out that the city is more than earthy country music. Nashville hosts the annual Stellar awards for black gospel music and the yearly bluegrass music awards. The city is home to the Gospel Music Association and the Barbershop Harmony Society.

In the 1960s, Nashville was a vibrant center of rhythm & blues with Jimi Hendrix and others performing in the city. The National Folk Festival, presenting various styles of music, is held in Nashville every September. It features the sound of mariachi, zydeco, polka and others.

Lionel Richie just recorded most of his new CD Tuskegee in Nashville.

The guitar, of course, still has a persistent presence despite the upstart challenger.

Nashville’s Hard Rock Cafe has a red rotating guitar out front, nearly as tall as the one-story restaurant.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop, established in 1947, has a huge cream-colored guitar hanging out front with the neck pointed upward. An American flag hangs below it.

Gibson guitars are manufactured here. And some Nashvillians still call the city “guitar town.”

Photo: AP Photo
A sign bearing a music note in front of the Music CIty Center convention complex being built in Nashville, Tenn.

Nevertheless, the Opry, the most famous country music show in the world, uses an eighth note on its Facebook page and on

Says Steve Buchanan, senior vice president of media and entertainment for the Gaylord Entertainment Co., which owns the Opry: “Nashville has become such an important center of music for all genres, all types, but it is truly the home of country music, and it’s the home of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Country music is what Nashville is known for around the world.”