Friday, August 1, 2014

Nashville - Music and More

Standing on a downtown Nashville street corner waiting for the “walk” signal, my toes began to tap.  I heard music. It wasn’t coming from a restaurant, bar or nightclub, of which there are many—it was playing from the metal box controlling the traffic light. Music is everywhere in this city. From the moment you arrive, you’re immersed in melody. Treble clefs decorate the airport restaurant and a guitarist provides the entertainment at the terminal’s coffee shop. Even the year ends on a musical note, as at midnight on New Year’s Eve it’s not a ball that drops but a musical note (the world’s only).

Known as Music City, Nashville is where the world of music meets southern comfort. This is a land where the tunes are country along with jazz, blues, and rock and where the food can be grits and gravy as well as a grilled lobster and where “Yes ma’am” and “Yes sir” are only a two of the niceties you repeatedly hear. Though it’s home to such high-profile artists as Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Keith Urban, and Nicole Kidman, it’s a downhome kind of place—one where you’re just as apt to see these celebs on the street as on the stage.

The best place to begin is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Located on the west bank of the Cumberland River, it’s a short walk from the historic Ryman Auditorium of Grand Ole Opry repute , Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks, and Music City’s Walk of Fame, which resembles Hollywood’s similar sidewalk tribute. At the museum you’ll pass beneath a doorway that reads “Honor Thy Music” and you’ll hear music as you walk the length of the exhibits. Culled from a rotating collection of two million items, the Hall of Fame’s collection has historic video clips, musical instruments (from Eddy Arnold’s customized guitar to Taylor Swift’s Swarovski-covered six strings), Elvis’ solid gold Cadillac, and celebrity performance outfits, including the Dixie Chicks’ black nylon dresses accented with safety pins and an ebony outfit from Johnny Cash, aka “the man in black.”

A perk of the museum is the off-site tour of RCA Studio B on Music Row, one of the world’s most important recording studios. So renowned is this area (16th and 17th Avenues South) that locals say that it’s to music what Wall Street is to finance. Called the “Home of a Thousand Hits,” Studio B’s recording stats are impressive:  more than 35,000 songs produced (including over 1,000 U.S. hits), 40 “million-seller” singles and more than 200 of Elvis’ recordings (far greater than any other studio). It opened in 1957 and closed its doors the day after Elvis died in 1977, an unintended tribute that was a mere coincidence.

“Hello! I’m Johnny Cash,” reads the wall at the entrance of his namesake museum. With more than 1,500 songs recorded in his career, visitors can observe videos of some of his performances from the 1950’s through 2000 and clips of his T.V. appearances which show his attempts at an acting career. But it was the personal items that caught my attention—Johnny Cash and June Carter’s marriage certificate, the tux that Cash wore for his White House appearance, and a handwritten manuscript of his last song which was written shortly before his death.

The museums provide a complete picture of Nashville’s musical history, but the real deal is found on Lower Broadway amid four blocks of restaurants, retail stores and innumerable honky-tonks. Open every day from 10 to 3 a.m., this music scene is live, legendary and varied. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is where big name performers like Waylon Jennings and Patsy Cline honed their skills. Even today such luminaries as Kid Rock and Vince Gill are known to pop into Legends Corner. And every day you’re treated to the talent of countless hopefuls who play these venues to fine tune their repertoire and showcase their skills.

If you’re a fan of the television series, “Nashville,” you’ve heard of the Bluebird Cafe. But viewer or not, this music outlet should be at the top of your itinerary. Located away from downtown in a strip mall, at first glance it’s not impressive, but don’t let its nondescript appearance fool you.  This 90-seat music club is steeped in history for singers and songwriters alike.  The Bluebird is where Vince Gill and Kathy Mattea perfected their craft, where 15 year-old Taylor Swift was discovered and where an unknown artist named Garth Brooks first heard his future hit, “The Dance.”

For many, though, the Grand Ole Opry is Nashville. A noted American icon, it’s the city’s number one attraction. Dedicated to country music’s past and present, the Opry showcases a mix of celebrated country stars and the contemporary crooners who have followed in their footsteps. Among its members are such notables as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood; and among its memories are over-the-top moments like the night 4’11” Little Jimmy Dickens climbed atop a stepladder to be eye to eye with 6’6” Trace Adkins when he presented the towering songster with an official invite to become an Opry member. It was 1974 when the Opry moved from town to its current location by the Gaylord Opryland Resort, leaving its longtime (1943 – 1974) home at the Ryman Auditorium vacant.

Two decades later in 1994 the Ryman was restored to a national showplace, adding another vital venue to Nashville’s downtown scene. Known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” you sit in church pews and experience acoustics second only to the Mormon Tabernacle and surpassing even Carnegie Hall. It continues to feature the best of Nashville’s performers. Today, the Opry returns to the Ryman Auditorium every Tuesday night for a special ‘Opry at the Ryman’ performance, where a celebrity host shares great stories and songs, guests sing their own hits and a spotlight artist headlines the show; and it also comes back from November to January when the Rockettes seasonally appear at Gaylord Resort’s Grand Ole Opry home.

Nashville is music, but Nashville is also much more, its past the stuff of romance novels. Founded on Christmas Day, 1779, among its pioneers was Rachel Donelson who became the wife of President Andrew Jackson. The country’s 11th president, James Polk, was a Nashville resident, as was Oprah Winfrey, the city’s first female and first African American news anchor, who began her career at the local station WTVF-TV.

Only a block from the state capitol and Nashville’s highest point, Capitol Hill, is The Hermitage Hotel.  Named for Andrew Jackson’s nearby Hermitage estate, the 103-year-old hotel represents the city’s first million-dollar hotel and Tennessee’s only Mobil Five Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel. The decor utilizes only the finest materials, the entrance of Italian marble from Siena and the paneled walls of Russian walnut. Its noted restaurant, The Capitol Grille, was built by craftsmen from Germany. Even the men’s restroom has garnered an award. Voted America’s best restroom, it’s decorated with gleaming green and black leaded glass tiles, green fixtures, and a terrazzo floor and even has enough room for a shoeshine station.

Far from Capitol Hill and away from Lower Broadway are sloping green lawns, massive oak trees and mansions defined by shuttered windows and Greek columns—all reminders of Nashville’s southern roots. Belle Meade Plantation represents Tennessee’s most exclusive, from its 37205 zip code to it racing horse farm success. Many famous horses were bred here or can trace their lineage to the farm, including Iroquois, Seabiscuit and War Admiral. And the list of visitors to the 150 year old antebellum mansion throughout the years is equally impressive: President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, President Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Todd Lincoln, and General U.S. Grant. Underscoring its link to the Civil War, bullet holes in its columns are the result of a battle fought right on its front lawn.

Cheekwood was built on a portion of the original Belle Meade Plantation by Leslie and Mabel Cheek of Maxwell House coffee fame. A visit to the 30,000 square foot Georgian style mansion and its surrounding 55 acre botanical garden takes one back to a grander time. Opening in 1960 as a Museum of Art, its American art collection includes 5,000 prints, drawings and photographs, in addition to 600 paintings by such prestigious artists as Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol.  

Belmont Mansion was home to one of the nation’s richest women, Adelicia Acklen, who is said to have been the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara. A three-time bride, the reception following her third marriage, deemed a “modest” affair, hosted 2,000 guests; and Napoleon III sent a diamond tiara for her to wear on the occasion.

Though my visit was short, it was long enough to uncover Nashville’s mansions, museums and music … always music.

Standing in line at the airport’s departure counter reflecting upon my visit, I heard music. A nearby passenger waiting to check his guitar case hummed a familiar tune. “Going home?” I asked. “No, going on tour for a gig in Asia. I’ll be playing Singapore tomorrow night.”

As they say, the beat goes on.

#nashville #visitmusiccity #musiccity #travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #grandoleopry

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