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Hitting High Note in Nashville

- By Mardy Fones   

You don't have to love the twang of steel guitars to enjoy this sophisticated southern city that has plenty to offer in the way of history, culture, and just plain fun. But if country music is your thing, you're going to be in heaven.

Say your old man was a no-account drifter named Sue who got run over by a train. You've just spent your last dime in a honky tonk and now your baby's gone off with your best friend. Well, good buddy, Nashville, the site of this year's annual conference, is your kind of place. In fact, it's a great city to visit, even if the achy-breaky lyrics of country entertainers like Vince Gill and Faith Hill don't exactly thrill you. Though best known for its billion-dollar music industry, Nashville is a cosmopolitan city with world-renowned art museums, great historic places like the Parthenon and the Hermitage, a wealth of colleges and universities, and wonderfully eclectic neighborhoods where you're likely to stumble upon funky shops and fine restaurants. And for Civil War buffs, the battleground of one of the war's bloodiest battles is a must-see in nearby Murfreesboro.

Downtown Nashville is a lush city where large trees and pocket parks dot the busy landscape that coasts gently to the banks of the Cumberland River. Here, modern buildings such as BellSouth's so-called "Batman" building (nicknamed for its spotlighted, twin spiral towers) rub shoulders with historic structures. Restored mid-19th century, block-deep Victorian warehouses on Second Avenue overlook the river and now house restaurants, art galleries, offices, and downtown shops.

The 1990s saw the city's acquisition of professional football—the Tennessee Titans—and hockey—the Predators—and the construction of their arenas, bringing with them a re-energized growth and interest in the city's historic downtown. And most downtown historic sites are visitor accessible either by foot or via the trolleys that circulate throughout the business district during the day and early evening.

 

TAKE A WALK WITH THE STARS

Remember singer Eddie Arnold? Best known for his classic hit, "Make the World Go Away," this yodeling great, now 84, just donated his papers, recordings, and even his Liberace-esque costumes to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. For those who want to the inside scoop on country stars like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, or Dolly Parton, this place is a gold mine. The museum includes interactive exhibits that retell the story of country music's birth and the people and songs that made it famous. It also houses the largest research center in the world dedicated to a single form of American music. A charming café makes an ideal spot for a sandwich and coffee.

To complete your country music experience, just walk two blocks to the Ryman Auditorium. Revered as the "Mother Church of Country Music," this red-brick former house of worship was the Grand Ole Opry's home from 1943-1974. The building's excellent acoustics and intimate seating continue to make it a popular venue.

Today, the Ryman is equal parts museum and performance site. Check out the exhibit cases at the back of the hall containing programs and memorabilia from the Ryman's heyday. Then have your picture taken on the Ryman's historic stage. Don't miss its wonderfully cluttered gift shop. The shop features everything from re-recordings by greats like Patsy Cline and Porter Waggoner to buttons, postcards, and even guitar-shaped nail clippers.

Broadway and Second Avenue are good starting points for visitors. In the market for an excellent guitar? Visit Gruhn Guitar at Broadway and Fourth Avenue. Gruhn is the vendor of choice for musicians across the spectrum for excellent stringed instruments. You never know whom you might see test-driving a guitar there. On the performance side, a favorite of country music aficionados is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. It's another Broadway country music landmark and one you're not likely to miss. This brightly painted bar (in orchid, of course) was a second home in their salad days for country music legends such as Kris Kristofferson, Faron Young, and Willie Nelson. Be sure to stop in and check out the memorabilia-lined walls dubbed "Tootsie's Wall of Fame."

Hatch Show Print, also on Broadway, is one of America's oldest surviving show-poster printers, and it opens its doors to visitors who want an intimate view of printing's historical past. Founded in 1870, this still-working letterpress shop is credited with transforming simple posters into an art form. In addition to viewing old posters and watching as type for new posters is hand-set and printed using 19th-century technology, visitors can buy reproduction posters of their favorite stars.

Just off Broadway between First Avenue and the river is Fort Nashborough. A replica of the original settlement of Nashville, its self-guided tour can give you a sense of the life of the pioneers who established the city in the late 1700s. Once you've had your taste of Nashville's early roots, take a ride on the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel. Also located on the riverfront, this beauty is a fully functioning carousel/tribute by artist and Nashville native Red Grooms. Open daily during good weather, kids and grown-ups alike can climb aboard its 37 riding figures and make their choice of mounts from the state's history, from Andrew Jackson to country music great Kitty Wells.

Located in a former post office on Broadway, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a feast for the senses. It's worth a tour, not only to experience the ambiance of this renovated 1934 classic modern-style building with art deco ornamentation but also to check out the books and artware in the glitzy, well-stocked gift shop.

Featuring works on loan from other institutions, currently on exhibit at the Frist are Medieval and Byzantine art from Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, Women Beyond Borders—a collaboration featuring the work of 500 artists from 36 countries—masks and figures by Alicia Henry, and Empire of the Sultans: Ottoman Art from the Khalili Collection.

After you've soaked up the art, stop in at the museum's café located in the rear of the building. It's a deli-style eatery that serves up tasty soups, sandwiches, and salads (don't turn down the potato chips, they're homemade). Or just have a cappuccino and fruit tart outdoors in the courtyard, where you can bask in the sun or relax under the postmodern gazebo.

North of downtown and under the watchful eye of the state's 1859 capital is the Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park. Check out the 200-foot granite map of the state and a walkway of the state's 95 counties. Its 31 fountains, representing Tennessee major rivers, are popular for those brave enough to splash away a hot Middle Tennessee afternoon in full view of visitors. There's also a carillon and a World War II memorial, plus gardens containing many native plant species and flowers.

 

AT VANDERBILT, CENTENNIAL PARK AND BEYOND

Ten minutes south of downtown is the bustling campus of Vanderbilt University. In addition to Vanderbilt's park-like campus and Victorian-era buildings, points of interest include the Jeffersonian-style lawn of Peabody College. Scarritt Bennett College, where church missionaries were once trained, is a peaceful island of silence and solitude. Be sure to visit Wightman Chapel. Its arching ceilings and gothic presence have made it a favorite for weddings as well as concerts. Adjacent to the Scarritt Bennett campus is the Upper Room Chapel and Museum. It's home to a 8-by-17-foot carving of the Last Supper, an 8-by-20-foot stained-glass window with a Pentecost theme, and galleries of religious subjects painted from 1300 to 1990.

Next, journey back to classical Greece with a stop at the Parthenon. Nestled at the center of vast, shady Centennial Park, the original was built for the 1897 Centennial Exposition. The only full-scale copy of the original Parthenon, plaster replicas of the Elgin marbles adorn the building's pediments. In addition to the rotating and permanent exhibits in its galleries on the lower level, the Parthenon houses a 42-foot statue of the Greek goddess Athena Parthenos. It is the tallest indoor sculpture in the world.

About 10 minutes from Centennial Park and 20 minutes from downtown is the campus of Fisk University, a private, historically African-American liberal arts college. On its campus are two world-renowned art galleries: The Aaron Douglas Gallery is home to more than 200 drawings by Cyrus Baldridge as well as masks, musical instruments, games, figures, and ceremonial objects. Then commune with works by Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, and O'Keefe along with the more than 100 works from the Alfred Steiglitz collection in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery.

Other sites beyond the city center: The Hermitage, the home of the seventh U.S. President, Andrew Jackson, and his wife, Rachel, is located about 25 minutes from downtown. Originally a working farm on 1,150 acres, today, it's a 600-plus-acre historical site featuring original furnishings and renovated and reconstructed buildings.

If the weather's good, plan to walk in Rachel's garden. It's alive with roses, iris (the state flower), herbs, and other flora. Had enough history? Head over to the Hermitage Museum Store. That's where you can pick up a little Tennessee to snack on later. Good choices include the ever popular Goo Goo Cluster candy (plain, peanut butter, or pecan) as well as Tennessee Tea and products liberally laced with Jack Daniel's whiskey, including cakes and barbecue sauces. The gift shop also has antique jewelry and books on history and gardening.

The Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg is about 45 minutes south of Nashville and is the oldest registered distillery in the U.S. Although it is located in a dry county, visitors can watch the whiskey-making process. In Murfreesboro, also about 45 minutes from Nashville, is the Stones River National Battlefield. During the fierce winter of 1862-63, it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. While in Murfreesboro visit Cannonsburgh, a pioneer village including restored buildings, plus antique farm equipment and cars.

 

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

Downtown Nashville's shopping is focused along Second Avenue and Broadway. That's where visitors can check out both the Wildhorse Saloon and Nashville's Hard Rock Café to pick up the requisite commemorative T-shirts and other souvenirs. For country music fans, the Charlie Daniels Store and Museum on Second Avenue is the perfect place for gifts as well as to see artifacts and displays about Daniels. Farther up Second Avenue is a small, enclosed shopping mall called Butler's Run. Anchored streetside by Agora International, this store offers one-of-a-kind sterling silver jewelry, plus collectibles. Inside the mall is Pralines by Leon, which serves up toothsome sweets in the New Orleans style.

The picturesque Arcade is a shopping stop with historic overtones. Connecting Fourth and Fifth avenues, the arcade was built in 1903 and was inspired by a similar structure in Milan, Italy. Throughout the week, stop in for freshly baked cookies, popcorn, and roasted nuts or a quick lunch.

Beyond downtown is a wealth of shopping. About 20 minutes by car from downtown and near the Gaylord Opryland Resort is Opry Mills. This megamall is a complete retail, dining, and entertainment complex. Stores include the usual megamall fare—Off Broadway, Perry Ellis, Hilo Hattie, Fossil, Samsonite Travel Expo, Stride Rite, and the Bass ProShop. In the evening, especially on the weekends, live music in the mall's public areas give the shopping center some local flavor.

South of downtown and all around the Vanderbilt University area is a plethora of unique shopping. Hillsboro Village is one short block that includes two art galleries, several restaurants and coffeehouses, a South American import store, an antique store, a fine jewelry store, and one of the area' s biggest and best used bookstores.

On the opposite side of the Vandy campus—off West End Avenue across from Centennial Park—are import stores, estate jewelry stores, a day spa, plus lots more. About 15 minutes from West End Avenue is the Jefferson Street Shopping District, an historic African-American business area, it includes galleries, souvenir shops, clubs, and restaurants.

For antique lovers, Middle Tennessee is ideal for serious searching and exploring. Possibilities include stores along Eighth Avenue as well as those north of the city in the Goodlettsville area. Thirty minutes south of Nashville in the historic community of Franklin are numerous antique stores and malls that attract shoppers from across the Southeast.

 

Mardy Fones is a freelance travel writer based in Nashville.
She can be reached at mfones@asee.org.


Nightlife in Nashville

Nashville is a city overflowing with clubs and bars where live music is always center stage. Call ahead to find out who's playing and when. Or just check the entertainment section of the Tennessean, the city's main newspaper, or the Scene, an alternative free paper available at most newsstands.

With country music as the region's claim to fame, it stands to reason that fans will find the city is the place to hear this genre played by the masters. And speaking of country's masters, three little words say it all—Grand Ole Opry.

Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evening, live performances of the world's longest-running radio show are center stage at the Opry House near the Opry Mills Mall (2802 Opryland Drive, 615-871-OPRY). Drawing on a mix of veteran talent and emerging performers, every Opry show is unique and, in the parlance of the industry, the real musical deal.

It's a Grand Ole Opry tradition to keep the names of headliners hush-hush until just a week or two before the show, so check the Web site at www.opry.com to see who's working when you're in town. The Opry House seats more than 4,000, and the seats are padded benches, reminiscent of the church pews at the Ryman Auditorium, one of the Opry's original homes. To get the best seats, plan to buy tickets as early as possible. Of course, you can usually walk up to the ticket booth outside the Opry House and buy tickets just before the show. Chances are you'll end up in the peanut gallery, but that's not a problem at the Opry. All country music fans are friends.

Once you've listened to good country music, it's time to dance to it. Stop in at the Wildhorse Saloon near Second Avenue and Broadway (120 Second Ave. N., 615-256-WILD). There you'll see locals and visitors rubbing shoulders and having a boot-scootin' good time. This is a family venue where even those under 18 who are accompanied by an adult can and hear live music performed by well-known artists as well as up-and-comers.

It's the right place to have dinner, listen to the latest country tunes, plus pick up on the newest dances and try them out on the club's 3,300 square foot dance floor. Is your two-step a little rusty? Dance lessons are free. When a headliner hits the Wildhorse, tickets move fast, so hop on their Web site at www. wildhorsesaloon.com, and reserve your spot online.

The Bluebird Café (4104 Hillsboro Pike, 615-383-1461) is an unassuming little storefront in a strip mall in the posh Green Hills area that has been the launching pad for many a country career. Featured in the movie, The Thing Called Love, Kathy Mattea is one major star who is identified with the Bluebird, and she's still a friend and a regular guest today. Garth Brooks often played the Bluebird's Monday night open-mic shows and Sunday songwriters' shows before he was discovered.

With just 21 tables plus some seating at the bar and on benches around the wall, the Bluebird is an intimate house, so you're likely to be seated with other fans. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday; the late shows start at 9 p.m. Reservations are accepted.

Locals know that the early shows have no cover, so they come in for a casual dinner (appetizers, hot and cold sandwiches, salads, and desserts) and listen to the newest artists on the scene. If you arrive a little late and end up standing in line, you'll likely be treated to sidewalk one-person shows by new-in-town artists trying to break into the music business.

Located on the periphery of downtown, the Station Inn (402 12th Ave. S, 615-255-3307) is a homely stone building on the business end of Twelfth Avenue where the high, lonesome sound of live bluegrass comes to life Tuesday-Sunday. This traditional venue includes only a dozen tables or so, plus some vinyl seats that rumor has it came from Lester Scruggs' tour bus. The décor is pure music, with the paneled walls plastered with tour posters advertising shows by the venerable Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman.

The atmosphere is down home and the crowd is always a mixed one of people who crave this uniquely American musical form. Just so you know, admission is first-come-first-served and they don't take reservations. Locals know if a name act like the Dale McCrory Band or Allison Krause is on the schedule, to arrive at 5 p.m. for a 7 p.m. doors open and 9 p.m. performance.


Nashville - What's for Dinner?

So many good places to eat, so little time to sample all of them—a walk through downtown Nashville reveals a vast assortment of eateries from chains and local spots to upscale restaurants and quiet cafes.

Just off Broadway is the charming bistro, Sole Mio ($$$, 94 Peabody St., 615-256-4013). Homemade pasta and rich sauces are Sole Mio's claim to fame. Enjoy your favorite Italian fare at dinner or lunch. Better yet, start off by enjoying a glass of the house red on the outdoor deck where you can watch the sun go down over downtown.

Located just across the street from the Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville's Palm ($$$$ 140 Fifth Ave. S., 615-742-7256) lives up to the reputation of its New York namesake with delicious steaks and seafood served in an old club atmosphere. Looking for something more casual and definitely more hip? Step next door to Eddie George's Sports Grill (141 4th Ave. S., 615-273-3343). Named for Tennessee Titan running back Eddie George, this sports-bar-cum-casual-eatery heats up after dark and is the place to see and be seen in Nashville.

If a quiet dinner is more to your liking, Merchants ($$$$, 401 Broadway, 615-254-1892) delivers delicious grilled seafood, steaks, pasta, and poultry in a classic, renovated historic building. The upstairs dining rooms are as serene and private as the downstairs bar is busy. There's also Arthur's ($$$$, 1001 Broadway, 615-255-1494) in the historic Union Station Hotel. A recipient of Mobil Travel Guide's four stars, this is one of the city's top-rated restaurants. Offerings range from appetizers to desserts and get rave reviews. Situated on the edge of busy Broadway, it's a great place for diners to indulge their penchant for people watching.

Another favored spot for dinner, but one with a distinctly southern flair, is Café One -TwoThree ($$$, 123 12th Ave. N., 615-255-2233). Tucked away on a downtown side street, the ambiance is neoclassical casual and the menu an enticing mixing of old-style favorites and culinary creativity.

Just across the street is 12th & Porter ($$, 114 12th Avenue N., 615-254-7236). A funky mixture of post-modern and youthful exuberance, the fare here lends itself to pastas, pizzas, and seafood, plus vegetarian, all served in an eclectic, sometimes boisterous atmosphere. Be sure to check out the original art (it's for sale) on the walls.

The renovated Victorian-style warehouses along Second Avenue are home to a whole host of dining establishments. Located in the grotto-like lower reaches of these historic buildings, The Prime Cut's ($$$, 170 Second Ave. N., 615-242-3083) classic steakhouse fare is a good value. The menu includes tasty side items, oversized baked potatoes, as well as chicken and elegantly prepared steaks. Reservations are a good idea here. Market Street Brewery and Public House ($$, 134 2nd Ave. N., 615-259-9611) is Nashville's original microbrewery and a Second Avenue landmark. Its signature is award-winning beer in traditional handcrafted styles and flavors, plus pub-style food. Be sure to check out the daily beer specials.

Other eateries and restaurants along the two blocks of Second Avenue include El Rey Mexican Restaurant ($$, 615-726-8862), The Old Spaghetti Factory (615-254-9010), Ichiban Sushi Bar (726-0390), Schlotzky's Deli ($, 615-259-3777), and Mulligan's Pub ($$, 615-242-8010). Just up from Second Avenue on Commerce Street are the San Antonio Taco Company ($, 208 Commerce St., 615-259-4413)—a great place for a quick lunch or a little spicy, late night pick-me-up—and locally-owned Demo's ($$, 200 Commerce St., 615-256-4655). Demo's is packed at lunch but the perfect place for an early dinner. It specializes in pastas, steaks, and some of the best soups and hot bread in town.

At the foot of Second where the avenue meets busy Broadway is the Big River Grille and Brewing Company ($$, 111 Broadway, 615-251-4677). This a microbrewery serves up burgers and Smokey Mountain pasta in a noisy, pub-like atmosphere. Check out the designer pizzas and be sure to sample the daily beer specials.

Further north, adjacent to the Bicentennial Mall is the Stock-Yard Restaurant, 901 Second Avenue ($$$$ 615-255-6464). Recognized as one of the top 10 steakhouses in the United States, the Stock-Yard and Coach Room Event Center specialize in USDA prime steak and old-world-style service. Check out the walls of the Stock-Yard and Coach Room, which are lined with tributes from country music celebrities.

South of downtown in the Vanderbilt area, the Bound'ry Restaurant, 911 20th Avenue South ($$$ 615-321-3043) features upscale global cuisine in a relaxed and contemporary atmosphere. Visit them for dinner or stop by with friends for drinks.

 
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