I’d been in Nashville for all of 15 seconds when I heard it: the familiar pluck of acoustic guitar strings accompanying a man’s voice, crooning about pickup trucks and ex-girlfriends and apple pie. I hadn’t even made it out of the airport, and here was the Music (capital “M” in these parts), resonating in all its belt-buckled, cowboy-booted glory. I’d deplaned in Hollywood Lite: less movie-star glam, more big-haired rhinestones, a place where everyone from the valet to the tour guide is moonlighting as a musician, vying for the chance to make it as a country-music star.
The story of Nashville, now dramatized for the masses on the ABC prime-time soap of the same name, is one of people—more accurately, people with guitars—and is kept alive for new generations by the city’s twin shrines to country music: the Ryman Auditorium, the storied church-turned-live-music-space and former home of the Grand Ole Opry; and the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Smithsonian of memorabilia (boots, hats, sequined jumpsuits, fiddles, even cars) that will more than double in size by 2014, after a planned $75 million expansion.
Any student of country music will want to visit both (tip: make it a guided backstage tour of the Ryman for the richest experience), but don’t neglect less obvious stops. At the Hall of Fame, your ticket buys you a Studio B tour and a five-minute bus ride to Music Row, home to dozens of recording studios where everyone from Chet Atkins to Reba McEntire has laid down tracks.
RCA Studio B is the crescendo, a windowless two-story bunker of a building that from the outside looks about as exciting as a loaf of bread. But inside, it comes to life in hi-def surround sound, as a tour guide queues up a soundtrack of some of the hundreds of famous songs recorded here by artists like Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton and Jim Reeves. At the conclusion, you can sit at Elvis’s piano, a jet-black Steinway the King would play for hours during his middle-of-the-night recording sessions. You’ll get goosebumps.
But somehow, the real pull of Nashville lies in the stories of those still trying to make it here. And with more than 120 live-music venues, someone somewhere is always sidling up to a mic, hoping to be plucked from obscurity (see: Taylor Swift at the unassuming Bluebird Café, circa 2004). Even famous musicians like Kenny Chesney have been known to stumble into the honkytonks along neon-sign-lit Broadway for impromptu shows. (Robert’s Western World was my favorite spot.)
But it’s not all country music all the time. The gorgeous Belle Meade Plantation, a 19th-century equestrian farm where you can take leisurely tours and sample house-pressed wines, and the Hermitage Hotel, a five-star 100-year-old relic—updated with modern comforts, of course—in the heart of downtown, offer decidedly more Downton pursuits. The latter houses the Capitol Grille (no affiliation with the Capital Grille chain), a wood-paneled dining room with marble columns and a vaulted ceiling where your grass-fed hanger steak comes with rustic vegetables grown at a farm four miles down the road. But my favorite is the boutique Hutton Hotel, a trendy, impeccably designed place on the outskirts of downtown where ABC’s Nashville just finished filming. Even in the quieter corners of Nashville, it seems, the flash of stardom is never far away.
As I left Music City, I looked for my troubadour in Terminal B, to no avail. Maybe he’d booked a gig near a different gate. But part of me wondered if his number had finally come up—if he’d been discovered and was busy working on his soon-to-go-platinum album. That’s what I’m going to believe, anyway.
Also Check Out:
- Locals are buzzing about Urban Grub, the hot new restaurant in the city’s 12South neighborhood that’s earning as much notice for its Latin-inspired Southern cooking as for its architecture.
- Save room for dessert at nearby Las Paletas; the gourmet Mexican popsicles (flavors: avocado, tamarind, coconut, etc.) are incredible.
- The Grand Ole Opry House remains a must-visit; the 88-year-old radio variety show here is still performed live.
- See excessive opulence at Gaylord Opryland Hotel, which includes nine acres of botanical gardens, waterfalls and a river—all, amazingly, indoors.
- Downtown’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a massive (and fully restored) Art Deco-era post-office building that offers new art exhibits every six to eight weeks.
- Historic East Nashville’s beehive of shops, clustered together at Woodland and South 12th Street, keeps clotheshorses and vintage-seekers plenty busy.
- And be sure to stop at Marathon Village, an art/retail quarter where Antique Archeology—yes, that place from the History Channel’s American Pickers—has a storefront.