Story and photos by Dorothea S. Michelman
With a twenty-year interlude since my last visit, planning a return trip to Nashville inspired a flurry of enthusiasm, even for the less popular items on my pre-travel checklist. Yes, even packing. Some people enjoy packing. Suffice it to say that I do not. Yet on this occasion my usual last-minute negotiations with the suitcase were a breeze, buoyed up by exciting visions of the sounds and sights just a day away. And I was not disappointed.
As luck would have it, my stay coincided with “Music City U.S.A.’s” annual Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival. Sponsored by Nashville Songwriters Association International and named in honor of New York’s storied Tin Pan Alley. This music festival is the nations largest dedicated to songs and to those who write them. With over 70 club shows to choose from, starring legends and legends-to-be, each night of Tin Pan South has a flavor of its own. No wonder this week-long festival attracts songwriters from such far-flung locales as Los Angeles and London – as well as those of us who couldn’t possibly carry a tune, much less write one.
My first evening brought us to several of the longtime “hot spots” of the musical scene, starting at the renowned Bluebird Cafe. This highly sought-after proving ground for aspiring songwriters is an intimate setting with 2,500 performers passing through its doors each year. Many already legends. Many more come to “open mic” night with dreams of becoming so, encouraged by walls of photographs of writers and artists who have appeared at the Bluebird. From there, I caught Kenny Loggins in concert at 12th & Porter and strolled down famous “Honky Tonk Row.” Here, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Robert’s Western World and Legend’s Corner are in full swing from 11 p. m. to 3 a. m. – with so much talent coming together in one town, Nashville would be hard pressed to keep shorter hours.
The next day followed a more leisurely pace. At 130,000 square feet, the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened in May 2001 offers a spacious setting for the sweeping scope of its subject: the ongoing history of country music. Indeed, the idea of both country music and the collection “as works in progress” is an integral facet of the museum’s conceptual and physical structure. With gallery space designed around a glassed-in central core, one can marvel at Elvis’s 1960 gold Cadillac (complete with television and record player) while following the day-to-day work of the museum. Observing curatorial staff cataloguing newly acquired instruments for exhibit or reproducing moving images in a high-tech studio provides a fascinating glimpse into the preservation and study so essential to the life of a museum, but rarely seen.
Through December 2005, the museum is also looking beyond country music to explore another Nashville musical legacy, now a fading memory. “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970” is a special exhibit focusing on a time, not so very long ago, when the capital of country music was a magnet for R & B musicians and fans as well. A time, too, when the two styles of music met and influenced one another. It is a story rarely told, and one which – as is true throughout the museum – is conveyed as much as possible by the music itself.
Crossing a bridge to the final stop on the tour, I then entered the Hall of Fame rotunda to join others in silently walking past plaques honoring the 90 individuals, duos or groups whose names represent a century of creativity and outstanding contributions to country music. Lefty Frizzell. Loretta Lynn. The Louvin Brothers. For the country music fan, it is a hallowed spot, and deservedly so.
For diehard fans, tracing the roots of country music to creating their own custom CDs, visitors are faced with the delightful dilemma of how best to enjoy the museum’s vast array of recorded music, video clips, and memorabilia within the confines of one day, or even two. It is easy to think about a return trip.
Country music also set the stage for Nashville’s rise as a recording capital. And the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum recognizes this natural tie-in by offering a free shuttle to the historic RCA Studio B, which dates back to 1957, now the city’s oldest surviving studio. It was the cradle of the “Nashville Sound” and fueled the popularity of country music with stars from Elvis Presley (who recorded more than 300 songs here) to Dolly Parton, and a host of others in between.
Elvis is still ever-present in Nashville – at least in the shape of look- and sing-a-likes. One of them. John Beardsley, presents a compelling musical biography of Elvis Presley’s career in “A Tribute to the King Through the Years 1953-1977,” complete with enough songs and costume changes to captivate the most demanding fan. His show, which has delighted audiences in venues as far as Russia, can be enjoyed a bit closer in on Mondays and Thursdays at Nashville’s Texas Troubadour Theatre.
From Moscow to Myrtle Beach, the Grand Old Opry has become an alternate spelling for country music, and is a highlight not to be missed on your grand tour of the Music City. Now the world’s longest-running live radio show, it began in 1925 as “The WSM Barn Dance.” As announcer George D. Hay recalled it, that all changed one memorable Saturday night in 1928. His show followed an NBC network radio program called the “Music Appreciation Hour.” Hay opened his show by joking, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but now we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” Over the course of its long and illustrious career, the show has moved several times – in part the result of its ever-increasing popularity, but the name has certainly stuck.
Nashville is also a city of other treasures, some hidden, some hard to miss. The Parthenon is one of them. I can’t think of a more perfect contrast to Nashville’s contemporary architectural scene than a visit to the world’s only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon. Located in Centennial Park, this structure was originally built as a temporary edifice for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, and was intended to reflect Nashville’s image as the “Athens of the South.” Rebuilt from 1921 to 1931 with permanent materials, it now serves as an art museum and houses a permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings as well as providing a setting for temporary exhibitions.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which does not itself collect art but rather features traveling exhibits. Each visit offers new opportunities for discovery, and sometimes rediscovery, as was my own experience. It was here that I met familiar friends in new surroundings: a selection of some of the Phillips Collection’s finest works, including its centerpiece by Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Fisk University welcomes visitors to its two galleries, the Carl Van Vechten Gallery where the renowned Alfred Stieglitz Collection resides (a gift from Georgia O’Keeffe) and the Aaron Douglas Gallery, whose gems include one of the earliest collections of African art in this country.
Dinner at Miss Bobo’s
And finally, a side trip to Lynchburg offers treats for some of the other senses: a free tour through the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and a mouthwatering midday meal at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boardinghouse, where Mr. Jack Daniel once took his daily noontime meal and where you can, too. Just be sure to call early (except between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. so as not to disturb dinner preparations and hosting!)
For further information, please contact:
* The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 211 Commerce Street, Suite 100, Nashville, TN 37201. Tel. toll-free 1-800-657-6910 (consumer information) or direct: 615-259-4700; www.nashvillecvb.com
* The Hermitage Hotel, 231 Sixth Avenue, North, Nashville, TN 37219. Tel. toll-free 1-888-888-9414 (reservations), or, direct: 615-244-3121
* Best Suites, 2521 Elm Pike, TN 37214, Tel. toll-free: 1-800-8466, or 615-391-3919.
* Best Western – Music City Inn, 13010 Old Hickory Blvd. TN 37013. Tel. toll-free: 1-800-237-8124, or 615-641-7721
* Capitol Grille (at the Hermitage Hotel), 231 Sixth Avenue, North, Nashville, TN 37219. Tel. 615-345-7116.
* Merchants Restaurant, 401 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203-3930. Tel. 615-254-1892; www.merchantsrestaurant.com
* Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, Lynchburg, TN 37352. Tel. 931-759-7344