"What kind of song would you like next?" asks Trey Bruce. "Happy? Sad? Weird?"
"Happy!" cries out a lady in the row behind me. Bruce pauses for a moment, mentally flicking through his playlist, then launches into a heartfelt rendition of How Your Love Makes Me Feel, a No. 1 song he wrote for Nashville band Diamond Rio.
Only someone with serious songwriting chops can pull off a trick like that. Over a 32-year career, Bruce has penned more than a thousand songs, including top 10 hits for Randy Travis, Lee Roy Parnell and Faith Hill. He's also been a drummer, a producer and a vice-president of A&R (artists and repertoire) for a music label. Now he can add another skill to his CV – creative director of a live music bus tour.
In 2017, Bruce and his mother Patsy (who's also an acclaimed songwriter) decided to combine two of Nashville's most popular tourist offerings – a guided bus tour of Music Row, the epicentre of America's country music industry, and an intimate performance by local songwriters.
They bought an old New York transit bus, converted the luggage compartment into a stage and reversed all the seats to face it. They christened the venture Songbird Tours because they wanted to showcase the people who write the songs rather than the artists who play them.
On today's tour, Bruce is joined by Taylor Goyette, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter who moved to Nashville from Florida five years ago. He's already had a song featured on a TV show and is working on his first solo EP. Our host for the two-hour outing is Jenna Renae, a 26-year-old who recently relocated here from upstate New York.
As we trundle around Music Row, Renae points out historic landmarks such as RCA Studio B, where Dolly Parton recorded Jolene, and the house where Roy Orbison penned Pretty Woman. We also pass Garth Brooks' personal recording studio, the building where Taylor Swift wrote You Belong With Me and the former multi-million-dollar home of country legend Tammy Wynette. Despite the area's historic significance, Nashville's rampant building boom means many of these sites are being eyed off by developers. It's a cause close to Bruce's heart and a percentage of the company's profits goes to Historic Nashville, a non-profit devoted to preserving the city's cultural heritage.
In between the sights, we're treated to intimate, acoustic performances by both artists. Bruce plays hits he penned for Faith Hill and Randy Travis while Goyette performs some of his original tunes, including Mermaids and Pirates, a jaunty reggae-style number, and Rich Kids, a poignant song about growing up. Halfway through a rendition of the Rebecca Lynn Howard 2002 hit Forgive, Ranae suddenly joins in to belt out the chorus. It turns out she's also a promising singer/songwriter who has appeared on American Idol and America's Got Talent.
After a quick stop for a drink at Bobby's Idle Hour, a popular songwriters' hangout, we head back towards the city. En route there are more sights, songs and a Q&A session during which we quiz Bruce and Goyette about the industry. Predictably, there are concerns around plummeting royalties and the impact of music streaming services. But then they pick up their guitars and start playing and you realise there's nothing else in the world they'd rather do.
Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines fly daily to Nashville via Los Angeles. See virginaustralia.com
Tours, which cost $US45, run twice daily at 11am and 2pm and last around two hours. See songbirdtours.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, Virgin Australia and Brand USA.