Mon, Jan 28, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Travel with a twang

Country music was born in Nashville, Tennessee. Now it can be heard not just in honky-tonks across the city, but in the airport


Drummer Kelly Bamberger, bass player Gary Branchaud and saxophonist John Heinrich perform at the Nashville International Airport's food court.


Members of the audience dash off suddenly during his show. Others talk on cellphones, read novels or wolf down sandwiches.

John Bontempi takes it all in stride. He strums his guitar and sings another tune near the clanking baggage carousel at Nashville International Airport.

"It took all of history just to make you mine," he warbles from under a dark cowboy hat.

Bontempi is among the 90 or so professional musicians who perform at the airport in its push to add "local flavor," a break from the chain gift shops and restaurants in American airports from Miami, Florida, to Seattle, Washington.

"We're the best gig in town," proclaimed Cathy Holland, the airport's director of community affairs and customer service.

The musicians tend to agree, even if the audience is antsy and the overhead announcements - "The local time is 2:30pm" - get annoying.

"It's a lot of fun. You get a lot of different people coming through," says Bontempi, a singer-songwriter who plays all original material at his monthly two-hour airport shows. "I've had people on their cellphones walk by and say 'Hey, they even have music here - listen' and they hold up their cellphone." Nashville already has one of the busiest airports in the US for live music, but this month it will liven up even more with the opening of Tootsie's, an offshoot of the Tootsie's Orchid Lounge honky-tonk where Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson once swapped songs and cold beers.

No one knows for certain, but Nashville International and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas probably have more live music than any other airport in the US, according to the trade group Airports Council International.

The cities share a rich musical heritage. Nashville's reputation as the capital of country music goes back to the start of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s. Austin's thriving independent music scene grew from country roots in the 1970s and is celebrated by thousands of music industry representatives and fans who flock to the annual South By Southwest Festival.

"The airport is the gateway. It's important that it reflect the culture and character of the city," said Jim Halbrook, spokesman for Austin's airport, where a variety of musical acts do 11 shows a week.

Other North American airports have live music on a more limited basis. During the holidays, Boston Logan International and Vancouver International had professional performers and local school choirs.

Lambert-St Louis International has musicians playing a few times a week. Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International in Florida has live entertainment during the fall and winter months.

In Nashville, the airport began offering music in the early 1990s as country music was hitting a growth spurt. Today, musicians of every stripe play its five stages most days of the week.

On the same afternoon Bontempi sang his country songs in baggage claim, a four-piece pop group called the Chessmen performed near the security gate. A handful of people sat at the bar, a few worked at laptops or watched ESPN. When the band broke into Jimmy Buffett's beach anthem Margaritaville, everyone clapped.

"It's a nice touch," remarked Julie Wyte from Alabama. "My husband has been in the military for 20 years and we've been to airports all over the world, and I don't think I've ever seen that before."

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