You don’t have to be a lover of country music to fall in love with Nashville; you just need to have an appreciation for its roots in all types of music, including gospel, rock-n-roll and even pop. Energy bounces off the streets of this lively and hip city. Maybe it has something to do with the hidden speakers around downtown pumping out music. Maybe it’s the honky-tonks, doors open wide, featuring live acts night and day. Or maybe it’s the street corner songwriter, guitar case open to collect a few bills and coins, singing his heart out and hoping to be discovered. They didn’t go wrong nicknaming Nashville “Music City,” and a visit to this intimate town should be a requirement for any true Southerner and all who wishes to embrace a newfound love for the South.
Don’t let its county roots lead you to believe this is a Podunk town. Nashville has also been called “The Athens of the South” because of its focus on education — more than two dozen colleges and universities call it home, including Vanderbilt University. Nashville is still small enough to hold onto its charm, but the rise of in-town condos and rebirth of bungalow-lined neighborhoods is just an inkling of what’s to come in a city shrouded in trees amidst rolling hills.
Where to Stay
If you prefer to be close to the action, visit the Nashville Hilton or the Hermitage Hotel, each located in the heart of downtown. Save a few bucks without sacrificing location at the Hilton, just across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and a block away from Broadway. The 330 all-suite rooms start at $259, and guests enjoy an indoor pool and fitness center, as well as four restaurants.
For luxury at its finest, the Hermitage is a five-diamond, historic hotel featuring 123 elegantly appointed guest rooms and suites with oversized, marble bathrooms. (Rates start at $279 per night.) Fine dining is located at either the Capitol Grille or Oak Bar, afternoon tea service is provided in the lobby daily. Pets are not only welcomed at the Hermitage, they are pampered with a program that includes dog walking service, grooming and gourmet meals prepared by the hotel’s chefs. Babysitting services are offered for children, who can also participate in etiquette classes before afternoon tea. And the intimate Spa at the Hermitage Hotel can detox the body with massage, scrubs and wraps.
With 3,000 rooms and suites, providing everything under one roof so you don’t have to leave, the Gaylord Opryland Resort is conveniently located on the outskirts of the city near the airport, as well as near the Grand Ole Opry and Opry Mills shopping. Rooms start as low as $239 a night, while more than a dozen restaurants make dining out easy. Built in a conservatory fashion, the resort features miles of indoor botanical gardens and its own river and ever offers Delta River Flatboat Tours. The resort’s pastures give wannabe equestrians a chance to get the lay of the land on the back of a horse, ad those in need of physical fitness can find it in the 4,000-square-foot fitness center, in one of a multitude of swimming pools or on the links at the 18-hole Gaylord Springs course. Relache Spa provides a host of relaxing treats, from massages to facials to body treatments to hair and nail services.
Where to Play
Both a noun and a verb, a visit to Nashville would be remiss without a stop in a honky-tonk, one of the many dive bars that line Broadway, where live music is loud and raw, spilling out into the streets. Inside, throes of people, oft dressed in jeans, boots and cowboy hats, enjoy free nightly music. Of all the honky-tonks, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is renowned as the bar of choice for musicians playing at the Ryman Auditorium, home to the original Grand Ole Opry, who would duck out through the alley to grab a few drinks. The joke was that the second half of the Opry was much livelier than the first!
If there is ever a reason to get out of the honky-tonks, it’s to visit a little strip mall where an unimposing Bluebird Cafe awaits. This famed cafe has been featured on TV for hosting intimate concerts “in the round,” where songwriters sing songs and tell jokes, giving audiences an understanding about the songwriting process and the stories behind some of country music’s biggest hits. A line gathers early filled with patrons hoping to grab one of just 23 tables in the one-room cafe, so you’ll need to be an early bird, too.
Continue your foray into music history with a stop at Ernest Tube Record Shop and Hatch Show Print, back on Broadway. Ernest Tubb’s wasn’t just a record shop but a place for up-and-coming musicians to get a radio audience. Loretta Lynn often played in the stores makeshift stage before landing on the Opry, and so many musicians wrapped up concerts at the Opry with jam sessions here that the store had a popular radio show called the “Midnight Jamboree.” You may just get to witness an impromptu performance by today’s country legends, if not have a chance to browse thousands of titles to take home. And just down the street, the shop that printed all the concert billboards is now the oldest operating letter-press print shop, and still prints outs posters of the city’s upcoming events.
Country Music Hall of Fame. This $37-million, 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility housing country music artifacts, archives and theater spas. Watch the progression of country music from its folk-telling roots to its early radio days to the crossover artists currently topping radio charts.
Music Row. Today’s biggest country music artists still record on this block (Music Square) that also houses headquarters for big stars. Visit RCA’s Studio B, where more than 1,000 chart toppers, including 250 Elvis hits, were recorded.
Ryman Auditorium. The original home of the Grand Ole Opry and the “Mother Church of Country Music,” today the Ryman stage still welcomes acts, where it is rumored the acoustics are second only to the Salt Lake Tabernacle (home to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Guided and self-guided tours of the national historic landmark are welcome daily.
Grand Ole Opry. Although larger than the Ryman, the new Opry is still intimate enough to feel up-close and personal with the world’s longest running radio show, where Minnie Pearl president in her many hats and Dolly Parton rose to stardom.
Where to Eat
Swett’s. Oprah grew up just across the street from the historic soul food restaurant, and still makes an appearance every time she comes to town, simply walking across Clifton Avenue. Three generations of Swett’s have provided continuous service since 1954, serving up comfort food cafeteria style in what is crowded with businessmen during the lunch hour, and everyone in between at night and on weekends. Fried or baked cornbread melts in the mouth and daily servings of barbecue beef, pork and chicken are served beside rotisserie chicken, country fried steak, meat loaf and side dishes grandma only wished she could make so good — turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, okra, candied yams and fried apples. Save room for homemade peach or blackberry cobbler, or pecan, fudge or sweet potato pie.
Loveless Cafe. It’s a hike to get to the Loveless Motel & Cafe, still considered within Nashville’s city limits, but this famed restaurant/motel serves up a big country breakfast, and is renowned for its biscuits. More than 50 years young, the quaint country restaurants serves up award-winning count5ry ham and red eye gravy, Southern fried chicken and homemade preserves that melt into the fresh biscuits. Beloved by residents, you may just stumble across a celeb or two during your meal.