Wednesday 11 December 2019

Nashville: All country roads lead to Music City

Eugene Masterson is on song in this trip to the home of country music for The Sunday World

General Jackson, Downtown Nashville
General Jackson, Downtown Nashville

Eugene Masterson

All country roads eventually lead to Music City — Nashville.

This quaint town in the heart of Tennessee is world famous as the home of country music and attracts millions of visitors who love the genre.

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It was naturally a liking for country music which first drew me to Nashville, but while the city boasts numerous attractions which celebrate its style and variance, there is much more to the area, as we will soon discover.

The initial best way to see the city is to take a Grayline hop-on hop-off bus, which, if you stay on it continuously, takes just over an hour.

The starting point is by the bank of the Cumberland river, which flows through the city. You will get a good view of the huge Nissan football stadium across the water, which not only hosts the Tennessee Titans, but also the annual four-day Country Music Association (CMA) festival.

Our trip goes through Broadway, which is the primary location of the various honky tonk bars and saloons, from which you’ll hear live country, bluegrass, jazz and rock music at all times of the day.

We get to explore Nashville’s legacy of country music at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

This huge 350,000-square-foot facility in the heart of downtown Nashville’s arts and entertainment district boasts a plethora of galleries, archival storage, education classrooms, retail stores, and special event space dedicated to country music.

Tootsies, Nashville. See visitmusiccity.com
Tootsies, Nashville. See visitmusiccity.com

In the museum’s core exhibition, Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music, visitors are immersed in the history and sounds of country music, its origins and traditions, and the stories and voices of many of its architects.

The story is revealed through artefacts, photographs and text panels, recorded sound, vintage video, and interactive touchscreens. There is a section which includes Glen Campbell narrating the history of country music.

There are also hundreds of historic musical instruments, featuring Mother Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5, Earl Scruggs’s banjo, Bob Wills’s fiddle, and Bill Monroe’s mandolin.

It also houses thousands of items of clothing worn by country artists, including Jim Reeves’s tuxedo jacket, Gram Parsons’s Nudie suit, Patsy Cline’s cocktail dress, Hank Williams’s Nudie suit, Johnny Cash’s black suit from The Johnny Cash Show, and the famous “red dress” Reba McEntire wore during her performance on the 1993 CMA Awards (I was surprised though that there was very little on show from the ‘Queen of country music’, Dolly Parton — she has her own museum though at Dollywood, which is a three-hour drive away to the east of the state).

Iconic vehicles on show include Elvis Presley’s 1960 “Solid Gold” Cadillac limousine and Jerry Reed’s 1980 Pontiac Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit II.

Elsewhere on the trip you get to pass the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry for over three decades.

We also get to see the Tennessee State Capitol and the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, and we then see theBicentennial Park and Farmers Market, where farmers and artisans from around the state display fresh food, vegetables and crafts.

One unusual building is the Parthenon. It was built in 1897 and is a full-scale replica of the famous Greek building and stand out in the city’s biggest green area, Centennial Park.

Eugene Masterson at the Grand Ol' Opry
Eugene Masterson at the Grand Ol' Opry

You can stop off at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken — Nashville is famous for its hot chicken (one restaurant which gave us a chuckle is called ‘Shut the cluck up’).

Also worth a visit for brunch is 5th and Taylor, which is located in the funky Germantown area and an eatery which is inspired by chef Daniel Lindley’s memories of Sunday dinners from his childhood.

Next up is a visit to the Frist Art Museum, which is located in Nashville’s former US Post Office art deco building and is home to a mesmerising array of work, including an amazing Salvador Dali painting.

We rounded off our sightseeing day with a must-see visit to the Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline museums, which are located just off Broadway.

The Johnny Cash museum houses the world’s largest collection of memorabilia and artefacts dedicated to the legendary ‘Man in black’. Opened in 2013, it also includes a stone wall taken from his lake house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. His life is documented from the likes to school report cards to his service in the US Air Force. There is a vast amount of clothing and guitars, as well as playback videos of some of his greatest performances and songs.

Upstairs in the same building nestles the Patsy Cline museum, which has lots of memorabilia as well as real-life artefacts once owned by the ‘Crazy’ singer, who died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30.

The Grand Ole Opry. Photo: Chris Hollo. See visitmusiccity.com
The Grand Ole Opry. Photo: Chris Hollo. See visitmusiccity.com

Dinner that night was in Husk, where regional ingredients are cooked on an ember-fired grill to create inventive meals in the historic mansion.

Then it was back for some much needed rest at the 23-room Russell boutique hotel, which remarkably is housed in a 115-year-old historic church and contains original stained glass windows, old brick walls and reuses the pews as headboards.

The next morning was a trip to the Jack Daniel’s distillery. It is located at Lynchburg, which is a 90-minute drive from Nashville (we organised it through Mint Julep Tours, which provides a guided driver).

At the distillery there you will get to see an enormous cave which encompasses a huge spring from which the whiskey gets its water from.

The tour also takes you through the distilling process as well as the bottling and packaging facilities — we also get to sample five different varieties of the famous liquor.

It’s quite funny to find out that Lynchburg is located in one of three ‘dry’ counties in Tennessee — which means that there are no bars and alcohol is not permitted to be sold in stores (it was only in recent years that the distillery could give samples, for ‘educational’ purposes).

The small town is worth checking out for its variety of little souvenir shops, while another worthy visit is that to Jack’s family grave. Jack got his first distillery licence either in 1866 or 1875 (depending on what historian you believe) and died at the age of 62 in 1911 (he was physically diminutive and stood at only 5’2”).

After the day out it’s time to check into the Germantown Inn, a cosy boutique hotel in a converted 19th-century home in the quaint Germantown neighbourhood (its rooms are named after and features portraits of various American presidents).

Given the theme of the hotel we were staying in it was apt that the next morning we took off for the Hermitage mansion and estate that was once home to Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president.

This 1,120-acre estate features sprawling grounds and gardens and over 30 historic buildings, including the actual mansion itself, which is considered to most accurately preserved early presidential home in the county. A museum and visitor centre also houses a large array of artefacts and clothing.

Lunch was then at Party Fowl — which as noted earlier serves up spicy chicken (there is a vegetarian option on the menu).

We also took a trip to the town of Franklin, which has some interesting locations associated with the American Civil War and has quaint shops and restaurants.

There are several large shopping malls dotted on the outskirts of Nashville, including the huge Opry Mills, which has hundreds of stores. It’s located right next to there the finale of our trip ends — the Grand Ole Opry building.

Legendary country artists have performed at this three times a week event since it began as a simple radio show in 1925 — it is still broadcast live to the nation. Unlike a typical concert, the Grand Ole Opry presents eight or more artists at each show, giving the audience a variety of musical styles to enjoy at one event.

It’s pot luck what you will get to see when you visit, but the music is top-class and you’re guaranteed a lovely evening at country music’s most famous stage.

Numerous rounds of applause and standing ovations mark the night — and that’s what Nashville itself also more than deserves.

Get there

* Eugene was a guest of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation. For further information and things to do in the city, see visitmusiccity.com.

* Return flights from Dublin via various American cities to Nashville work out at around €500.

* If you don’t drive it’s worth opening up and downloading an Uber account to get around the city, as regular taxis are pretty sparse on the ground, while public transport is limited.

* Rooms at the Russell Hotel (russellnashville. com) start at €110 a night. Prices at the Germantown Inn (germantowninn.com) start from around €220 a night.

* Concert tickets for the Grand Ole Opry cost from €40 (opry.com). Entrance to the Johnny Cash museum (johnnycashmuseum. com) is €18, while the same price gets you up to the Patsy Cline Museum.

* Admission to the Country Museum Hall Of Fame (countrymuseumhalloffame. org) is €23.

* The Grayline city tour of Nashville costs €17 (grayline.com)

* The Jack Daniels tour and trip there costs E107 (mintjuleptours.com)

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday World.

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