A little bit country
Kick up your heels in honky-tonk heaven
HEART AND SOUL: Nashville, in Middle Tennessee, is also known as Music City. Delve into its DNA at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Exhibits showcase the likes of the coalminer’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, and Canadian crooner Shania Twain, whose personal life features more ups and downs than the rollercoasters at Dollywood (a 3½-hour drive away in East Tennessee). Peer at a pair of Dolly Parton’s metallic pumps and Gram Parsons’ slim-hipped stage suit embroidered with marijuana leaves on the front, a rhinestone-trimmed scarlet cross on the back and busty naked women on the lapels. Admire the rose inlaid on Emmylou Harris’s black 1955 Gibson J-200 guitar, the Nashville-made Gibson belonging to Steve Earle and the princess-like corseted gown Taylor Swift wore in the video for her 2008 hit Love Story. More: countrymusichalloffame.org.
SHOWS OF SHOWS: Billed as “the show that made country music famous”, the Grand Ole Opry live radio program is a Nashville institution. After debuting in 1925 and moving to various locations, including downtown’s Ryman Auditorium ( known as the Mother Church of Country Music), its home is now the Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland, a 15-minute drive from downtown. Shows featuring new country stars through to superstars, punctuated with old-fashioned advertisements, usually take place at the Opry House on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at the Ryman on Thursdays. Over winter, the show moves to the Ryman. The Opryland complex includes Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland, where you can take an indoor riverboat ride and dine on classic American fare (steaks, burgers, key lime pie) or Japanese at the Cascades American Cafe. If the Opry is sold out, rein in the heartbreak until you check with the resort’s concierge, as last-minute tickets may be available. Opry tickets start from $US38 ($49). More: opry.com; marriott.com.
CASHED UP: Nashville is home to its fair share of music-themed museums but fans of the Man in Black will be drawn to the red-brick Johnny Cash Museum (a museum dedicated to songstress Patsy Cline opened upstairs in April). Exhibits chronicle Cash’s career, including his 1956 Grand Ole Opry debut, as well as his arty side. On a more poignant note, the museum includes a stone wall excavated from Cash’s lakeside house, northeast of Nashville, which went up in flames in 2007 during renovations by new owner Barry Gibb. More: johnnycashmuseum.com; patsymuseum.com.
ROCK IT, MAN: Nashville’s musical credentials stretch way beyond the country genre. Rocker JackJ White — one half of the White Stripes — moved to town in 2005 after working with Loretta Lynn. His Third Man Records outpost incorporates a record store, live-music venue and a record booth where you can cut 2.5 minutes of audio on to a 15cm disc for $US20. Borrow an acoustic guitar for your recording or turn a little more creative. Outpourings in the booth have included marriage proposals, one-act plays, jokes, and last wills and testaments. More: thirdmanrecords.com.
W WELCOME TO NASHVEGAS: Point yourself (and your ID, no matter what your age) towards the neon lights of Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks to see why Nashville is nicknamed NashVegas. Sidestep the after-dark bachelor and bachelorette parties by visiting in the afternoon to catch an earful of twangy tunes while sipping on frosty brews. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is the most famous of the lot (Willie Nelson scored his first songwriting job after singing in the orchid-coloured venue). Last month, its rooftop hosted a pop-up gig from homegrown star Miley Cyrus. On the same block is Robert’s Western World, a honky-tonk where the walls are lined with cowboy boots and there’s never a cover charge. Both places sit across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium where visitors take a tour or cut a CD. More: tootsies.net; robertswesternworld.com; ryman.com.
ROOFTOP WITH A VIEW: Downtown Nashville is b booming. See the latest sky-scraping additions f from the rooftop bar LA Jackson at the Thompson Nashville, a hip hotel in The Gulch. Music City attracted 13.9 million visitors last year, up 45 per cent from a decade earlier. New properties include The Westin Nashville, opened last year, and a JW Marriott is set to open in SoBro (south of Broadway) next year. Back at the Thompson, sample the fare of James Beard awardwinning chef John Besh at the hotel’s ground-floor fine diner, the Marsh House, which serves seafood with a Southern twist. LA Jackson dishes out fun with icecream sandwiches such as the Melvis (roasted marshmallow, peanut butter, banana ice-cream and chocolate fudge). Pop across the street to Biscuit Love if you’re in the mood for biscuits (what we call scones) with fried chicken or sausage gravy. Starting out as an Airstream food truck but now with two bricks-and-mortar locations, the business does a playful riff on Southern brunch. Order the bonuts (fried biscuit dough with lemon mascarpone and blueberry compote) for a sweet finish. More: thompsonhotels.com; biscuitlove.com.
BACK TO ROOTS: Occupying the same plectrum-shaped block as the Thompson is The Station Inn, a revered bluegrass and roots venue that’s showcased the likes of John Prine and Alison Krauss over the years. Six pickers started the club in 1974 near Centennial Park (home to a full-scale replica Parthenon) before it moved, under a new owner, to The Gulch in 1981. Listen to a classic “picking circle” at the free Sunday night bluegrass jam. Fans of TV drama series Nashville might prefer the Bluebird Cafe, a cosy “listening room” in the ’ burbs where songwriters typically perform collaboratively in the round. More: stationinn.com; bluebirdcafe.com.
A ALL IN THE TIMING: Nashville delivers live music year-round but Americana fans should time their visit when AmericanaFest unfolds (September 11-16 next year). This year’s six-day extravaganza featured more than 300 performances in dozens of venues around the city. The highlight is the annual honours and awards show at the Ryman, where a who’s who strolls out onto the hallowed stage to perform or to pair up for intriguing collaborations. Those looking for value festival accommodation can park themselves at the well-positioned Best Western Plus Music Row. More: americanamusic.org; nashvillebestwestern.com.
OUT OF TOWN: A half-hour drive south of Nashv ville is Franklin, an affluent town so photogenic i it’s won accolades such as America’s Most Romantic Main Street and Best Small Town in Tennessee. The Franklin Theatre, which closed in 2007 but had its glamorous art deco lines preserved and polished through a $US8 million restoration, hosts movies, music and live theatre. Recover from reading the real-estate prices (mansions can reach eight figures) with a cocktail at Gray’s on Main, a restaurant that hosts regular gigs located within a former Victorian-era pharmacy. Franklin is also known for three key Civil War sites — Carnton Plantation and its Confederate cemetery are on the outskirts, while bullet-riddled Carter House is in town, across the road from Lotz House. The town doesn’t only attract history buffs. Last month’s hip two-day Pilgrimage Festival (on a former Tennessee walking horse stud farm, which you could paddle to along the Harpeth River) was headlined by Justin Timberlake (who bought land in nearby Leiper’s Fork), Eddie Vedder, Ryan Adams and Mavis Staples. Leiper’s Fork is blink-andyou’ll-miss-it but Puckett’s Grocery is famed for its “meat and three” lunches and Thursday open-mic night. Also worth visiting is antiques and mercantile store Serenite Maison, which features a “picking corner” supplied with vintage instruments. Keith Urban is among those who’ve made sweet music here. More: franklintheatre.com; graysonmain.com; boft.org; lotzhouse.com; pilgrimagefestival.com; puckettsofleipersfork.com; serenitemaison.com; visitfranklin.com. THERE IN SPIRIT: Don’t be unnerved by the Union Station Hotel’s Broadway address or its h haunted status. Located a decent distance from the city’s honky-tonks, the stately property, near the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts, offers respite from the city’s more raucous charms. The landmark building, a gothic railway terminal built in 1900 (pictured), was rescued from disrepair and today features 125 guestrooms with touches such as cowhide headboards, walnut feature walls and leather accents. All but one guestroom is contemporary in style. The exception is No 711, which channels a vintage vibe in honour of its resident ghost, Abigail. Even if you’re not checking in, swing through the lobby to admire its barrel-vaulted, stained-glass ceiling and the glittering cascade of chandeliers. From $US199. More: unionstationhotelnashville.com, fristcenter.org.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Travel South USA.
Music bars on Lower Broadway, above; Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, top right; rooftop bar at LA Jackson, above right; recording booth at Third Man Records, below; The Johnny Cash Museum, bottom