Country music, bbq, & bar-hoppin'

Nashville has long been on our travel destination wish list, so when a colleague of Craig’s is unable to attend a legal conference and needs someone to go in his stead it takes less than a nanosecond for Craig to volunteer. It takes me slightly longer than a nanosecond to agree to tag along.

Named for Francis Nash, a general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, the city of Nashville was founded in 1779 and grew quickly due to its strategic location as a port and railroad centre. Today it is the capitol of Tennessee, with a metropolitan area of 2 million people, and is a centre for health care, education, business and, of course, music.

The conference is at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and we spend the first three days here, Craig in meetings and me poolside. The biggest challenge is choosing from the many pools. With 3,000 rooms, a dozen restaurants, a golf course, spa, several shops, glass roofed atria lush with tropical plants and waterfalls, the resort is a city in and of itself and makes the list of 30 largest hotels in the world. I get lost a few times until I realize I have to use the map to find my way around. It’s a good spot for two days, but after that it starts to feel like we are living in a biodome, sealed off from the outside world.

Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry lives up to the hype. Even though I am not a country music fan, the acts and the Opry band are highly entertaining and the acoustics nothing like GM place. The building was constructed to produce pure sweet sound.

The audience is resplendent in cowboy boots and hats, shiny belt buckles, the women sporting spaghetti straps and denim cut-offs (the Daisy Duke look is more flattering on some than on others and on quite a few it is downright unsightly!). They hoot and holler and sing along.

A few of the performers – John Conlee, Jeannie Seely & Bill Anderson in particular – are a bit geriatric and slightly past their best-before dates, but that doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Crystal Gale, with her signature long locks, has aged too, and strains to reach for some of the high notes. The last act, Charles Eston, is a well-known actor from the TV show Nashville, playing Deacon Claybourne. We have never heard of him nor heard him before, but are impressed by his good looks and booming voice.

Sunday morning we move downtown to the art-deco Holston Hotel It puts us in the middle of the action, a half block off Broadway, the Nashville party street, aka the Honkytonk Highway. Chock full of bars, music and boot shops, this is the tourist area of the city.

The Johnny Cash museum, Patsy Cline museum, Nashville Predators arena, Tennessee Titans stadium, Country Music Hall of Fame … all are within walking distance.

The hotel’s roof-top pool hosts a tail-gate party for the Titans season opener against the Houston Texans. Craig’s happy! Beer, bratwurst and a Titan’s win (on a field goal in the last 2 minutes of the game) add to the festive mood.

We’ve lucked onto tickets to a K.D. Lang concert at Ryman Auditorium, home of the original Opry, and before that the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It’s an intimate setting, the crowd mostly grey haired, largely female. K.D.’s opening  joke about the room being full of gay seniors draws a lot of laughs.

She ends the concert with Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”, Neil Young’s “Helpless” and then finally (people have been calling out for it all night) Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. We come away in awe of her singular talent. A voice for the ages.

The Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame is one of the world’s largest museums and research centers dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of country music. The building itself is a marvel of architecture, created to look like the tailfin of a 1959 Cadillac sedan. From above it is designed to look like a bass clef.

We spend an afternoon at the museum immersed in the history of music that is distinctly American in origin. It is music with its roots in the hills and hollers of the Appalachian mountains. Music that evolved into rockabilly, rock and roll, blues, blue grass, honkytonk, and a whole lot of other sub-genres.

Hank Williams Senior sang about “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, Hank Williams Junior about being “Whiskey Bound and Hell Bent” and Hank Williams III about “Whiskey, Weed & Women”. Talk about evolution! Willy Nelson started out singing “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away” and now says “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”. Sure thing, Willy. Although going by the photos we saw in museum of his 4th of July party, I can see it happening.

Out on the street and in the bars on Broadway we listen to the music with a greater appreciation. Most of the bar bands are very good, whether singing their own tunes or covering one of the greats. We hear a lot of them doing Johnny Cash. Garth Brooks too. At the Crazy Horse Saloon, where Phil Vaught is a regular, we listen to his country rock over a meal of sweet potato humus, root veggie chips and an arugula and beet salad. As he sings “if her lovin’ don’t kill me”, we nosh on artisanal greens and gourmet chips and dip. To quote Patsy Cline: Crazy!!

On Music City Row I am on the lookout for Kris Kristofferson (is he even still alive?), while Craig hopes for a glimpse of Carrie Underwood. The “row” is two long streets in a leafy downtown neighbourhood of older homes and sound studios. A few major companies, like RCA, are housed in large buildings, but a lot of the recording is done in the little bungalows.

Alas, we see no famous musicians. And the walk, in the 90 degree mid-day sun, is heat stroke inducing. By the time we drag ourselves into the Tailgate Brewing Company pub we are thirsty, sweaty and a bit cranky. Bring on the cold libations!

Mostly to get out of the heat we next stop in at the old Union Station. Built in 1900 at the crossroads of eight rail lines, it was used until 1979, when it became a hotel, bought by the Marriott, and becoming one of their Autograph Collection Hotels in 2012. The original train schedule has been retained as part of the hotel’s history. It reminds us of a bygone time with limited technology, cars & freeways, a long-gone era of gentility. Not that we would want to live at that time, but it sure is fun imagining and romanticizing it!

The Frist Art Museum is our last tourist stop. It’s located in the former U.S. Post Office, built in 1930 in the art deco style. As is often the case in smaller cities, the building is more interesting than the art. A small exhibit of newspaper photographs from the 1960s, focusing on the civil rights movement in Nashville, is pretty good. We learn that Tennessee was one of the first southern states to accept desegregation and that Nashville was one of the first cities to desegregate schools. Not that any of that happened without incident.

For our last night we have dinner at the famed Puckett’s, a restaurant that got its start in the 1950s as a grocery store specializing in fresh local fare. Little did they know at the time that 60 years later, fresh & local would be a food trend?!

Walking back to the hotel we take a few last shots of Nashville after dark. Craig wins the best artsy shot competition with his photo of the Woolworths building. No cars, no people, no traffic cones, no roadworks. What a coup!

Six days in Nashville is just about right. Just long enough not to get tired of lyrics about whiskey and horses. Not to start saying “y’all”. Not to start drinking at noon every day. Not to take up line dancing. Or spitting. Just long enough to stay our polite, mild-mannered, reserved Canadian selves. Any longer and that could easily change!

K.D. Lang, telling a joke about how cooperative Canadians are, asks: how do you get a bunch of Canadians out of a cool, refreshing swimming pool on a blistering hot day? The answer: announce over the PA system “Everybody out of the pool”. That’s us alright, and it’s time to go home. Or as Dave Dudley would say: six days on the road and I’m a gonna make it home tonight. Goodbye, y’all!!

  1. Sharon Brubacher says:

    Wow, how American-ly interesting. History and photos. ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting if “Nash” ended up a politically incorrect historical figure (maybe is already?) and they had to change the name of the city. Baha. Thanks for sharing. Really interesting.

    • It’s very different. In lots of good ways. The people are just so danged gregarious!! And uninhibited!!

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