[box]Listen to the story from NPR:
Glamorous country music queens, tempestuous young divas, struggling up-and-comers — these are the fictional characters in the TV drama Nashville. In real life, about 20 tourists filed onto a bus in Nashville in hopes of catching a glimpse of where the characters were filmed.
Barry Balthrop, the driver, He introduces himself over the bus’s tinny speakers.
“Just so we’re all clear, everybody does watch the TV show, right?”
“Yes!” the rest of the bus responds.
“OK,” he says. “Anybody that doesn’t, let me know, so you can get off right now.”
Balthrop drives past houses and bars that are shown in the series and puts on original music featured on the show. His passengers are mostly from around the U.S. — Louisiana, California, Missouri — but one woman, 24-year-old Mira Andreeva, is from Bulgaria.
“I’m extremely fond of American culture,” she says from her window seat in the back row. “That’s not very typical for Bulgarian people, but I like country music. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash.”
The bus passes by obscure places — the café where country music upstart Juliette Barnes went on a date in season one — and sites of more dramatic moments, like the marriage proposal between two main characters at the end of season two.
“It was right up there on that field that Luke proposed to Rayna,” Balthrop points out. “Now, is everybody happy with her decision?”
“No!” the rest of the bus responds.
Many people on the bus say they’re visiting Nashville at least partly because of the TV show, including Ohio natives Herb and Jana Cassidy.
“I started talking about this because of the show about a year or so ago,” Herb says.
“It piqued my curiosity about the city because I love country music,” Jana says. “And then, you know, you start seeing the drama and everything unfold.”
There aren’t hard numbers on how much the show is boosting tourism. But Deana Ivey with the Nashville Convention and Visitors’ Corporation calls it a weekly “international commercial. About half the tourists the CVC surveyed last winter had seen the series, she says. Those who did tended to stay a little longer and spend a little more.
The Bluebird Cafe has noticed an increase in tourists. The Bluebird is a music venue where famous singers have been discovered, both on the TV show (Scarlett O’Connor) and in real life (Taylor Swift). Manager Elliott Duke says popularity has skyrocketed since the show began.
“It’s like being in a fishbowl when you’re working in here,” he says. “You know, people are tapping on the window or knocking, wanting to buy a T-shirt or just trying to peek in.”
The Inevitable End
The relationship between the city and the show isn’t always so dewy-eyed. At the end of seasons one and two, show executives reportedly threatened to take production elsewhere. For season three, the city and state ended up giving the show $8 million in cash to keep it in Nashville.
And there’s another threat: TV shows end. The show generally has average ratings. Viewership has gone down with each season premiere. If it went off the air, that would hurt, says Kate Kleinrock.
“It would dramatically impact tourism here in Nashville and in Tennessee, truly,” says Kleinrock, marketing director of Gray Line of Tennessee, which puts on the bus tours. “A lot of our tourists are drive-in tourists and so they drive across state.”
Balthrop, the bus driver gets nervous just thinking about the show ending.
“Oh, I would hate that,” he says. “I tell people on the bus they can’t do that because I can’t afford the therapy that I’d have to go through if they did that, because I got caught up in the show too.”
Ivey, with the Convention and Visitors’ Corporation, is hoping for syndications so the series continues to air even if it’s canceled.
And Disney just created a vacation package in Nashville that it says is inspired by the TV drama. Weekends in September 2015 are already almost sold out, which means that tourists will be in Nashville next fall — even if the show isn’t.