“Welcome to Nashville. You can pick up your luggage and guitar cases at carousel one,” announces the flight attendant upon landing in the Tennessean capital. This, like many, were the words welcoming me into Music City.
Nashville offers more than 125 settings that play blues, rock, jazz and country music. Finding these spots is just a matter of looking for a “Live Music Venue” sign. Music is everywhere. You’ll even hear tunes from traffic boxes at downtown intersections while waiting for the signals to change. Nashville is the world’s largest community of songwriters and it’s a place where, on New Year’s Eve, a musical note (the world’s only) drops instead of a glittering ball.
Though it is home to such high-profile artists as Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, Kings of Leon and Dolly Parton, it’s a down-home kind of place—one where you’re just as apt to see these celebs at the tailor as on the television.
“Honor Thy Music” is written above a doorway in the Country Music Hall of Fame—a monumental structure that is a short distance from Music City’s Walk of Fame, the historic Ryman Auditorium of the Grand Ole Opry repute and Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks. Within this building tribute is paid to Country through its vast collection of recorded music, video clips, celebrity costumes from Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes to Faith Hill’s Versace gown, musical instruments such as Taylor Swift’s Swarovski guitar and Elvis’ solid gold Cadillac.
Known as the “Home of a Thousand Hits,” a visit to RCA Studio B can be arranged through the Hall of Fame. Located within the heart of Music Row (16th and 17th Avenues South), its importance to the music industry is legendary. Studio B recorded 40 million-selling singles, more than 35,000 songs (including more than 1,000 American hits) and over 200 Elvis recordings (far greater than any other studio). Opening in 1957, it operated until one day after Elvis’ 1977 death—an unintended tribute and simply a coincidence.
Newest to the scene is the Johnny Cash Museum. Among its treasures are June and Johnny’s marriage certificate, a stone wall from the family's Hendersonville home that was destroyed by fire, tin cups from Folsom Prison where Cash recorded his classic album and the handwritten manuscript of the songwriter’s last tune, penned days before his death.
Lower Broadway translates to four blocks of door-to-door music joints. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m., this stretch of honky-tonks is known for its atmosphere as much as its music. This is where legends like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson began, today’s top talent pop into for impromptu performances and countless hopefuls frequent to fine-tune their repertoire. Located away from Broadway in a non-descript strip mall is the 90-seat Bluebird Cafe, a place whose first impression is less than impressive. But since its 1982 opening, it has become a Nashville treasure. Steeped in musical history and a mecca for aspiring songwriters, Faith Hill and Kathy Mattea honed their skills on its intimate stage, and it’s where singer and songwriter Taylor Swift was discovered at age 15.
The city’s number one attraction, the Grand Ole Opry, is synonymous with Nashville. Its on-stage memories are legendary, from Carrie Underwood’s show-stopping performance of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” to Vince Gill’s unscripted invite to jazz vocalist Diana Krall who then joined him on stage for a duet. In 1974 the Opry moved from its longtime Ryman home to its current location at The Opry House, adjacent to Gaylord Opryland Resort.
Though the move left the Ryman vacant for two decades, it was restored to a national showplace in 1994. With acoustics second only to the Mormon Tabernacle, it has featured such greats as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Sheryl Crow; and it hosts the Grand Ole Opry each November, December and January.
Nashville is to music what Paris is to romance; and though music is typically at the top of most tourists’ itineraries, this city is much more. Let’s start at the beginning. Nashville was founded on Christmas Day, 1779. Among its pioneers was Rachel Donelson, who later became the wife of President Andrew Jackson. And the city’s first female and first African American news anchor was Oprah Winfrey.
It is near Nashville’s highest point, Capitol Hill, where you’ll find its most luxurious digs, The Hermitage Hotel. Named after Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, it is Tennessee’s only Mobil Five Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel. Opening in 1910 as the city’s first million-dollar hotel showcasing Persian rugs throughout, Italian Sienna marble at the entrance and a stained glass ceiling in the vaulted lobby, it became the preferred gathering place for city socialites. The property is also the setting of the historic Oak Bar and Capitol Grille, Nashville’s only Mobil Four Star and AAA Four Diamond restaurant.
Away but not too distant from downtown is a flashback to Scarlett O’Hara’s Deep South mansions with grand columns and expansive lawns dotted with magnolia trees. A local saying is that millionaires live in Brentwood and billionaires live in Belle Meade. Tennessee’s most exclusive zip code, 37205, is home to Belle Meade Plantation’s 150 year-old antebellum home which claims to have had a Civil War battle fought on the lawn (evidence is found in bullet holes embedded in the columns). A noted race horse plantation, many famous horses were bred there or can trace their lineage to the farm, including Iroquois, Seabiscuit and Secretariat.
Built as the family home for Leslie and Mabel Cheek of Maxwell House Coffee affiliation, Cheekwood takes one back to a grander time. Sitting on acreage which was part of Belle Meade Plantation, the 30,000-square-foot Georgian style mansion was opened as a museum in 1960 and is known for its 55-acre botanical garden and American art collection. The mistress of Belmont Mansion, Adelicia Acklen, was one of the nation’s richest women; and her home reflects her life and the times. Standing at the foot of the mansion’s stairway, it’s easy to imagine the scene during the wedding reception of Acklen and her third husband, Dr. William Chetham. Deemed a “modest” affair of 2,000 guests, Napoleon III sent a diamond tiara for her to wear on the occasion.
Nashville’s most impressive museum structure is the Parthenon. Built for the state’s 100th anniversary and the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, it is the world’s only full-size duplicate of Greece’s Parthenon. The stately structure houses the city’s permanent art collection as well as a 42-foot-tall modern replica of the Greek Goddess Athena. Dramatically covered in gold leaves, the statue represents the largest indoor sculpture in the Western World.
For a bit of aisle action visit one of the city’s newest neighborhoods, 12South. Its distinctive residents include Katy K’s Ranch Dressing, featuring clothing from petticoats to cowboy boots; Imogene + Willie, the city' first and only custom jeans store, which is housed in an old gas station and counts Gwyneth Paltrow a client; and Las Paletas, an authentic Mexican popsicle shop.
Mansions, museums and . . . music. This is Nashville.