Nashville: A Renaissance in Music City
And though the honky-tonks are a bit too subdued for 'putting up your dudes', Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and The Bluebird Café offer plenty of pungent humor and risky behavior. A renaissance of sorts is taking place in downtown Nashville and with new architecture comes new music comes tourism on a scale unseen in years.
Class of Cultures
For thousands of early Hank Williams fans, it goes against the grain to imagine a world-class repertoire only a block away from their beloved Country Music Hall of Fame (222 Fifth Avenue South, 615-416-2001). While the latter caters to wrangler-wearing roughnecks with southern drawls and heartland pride the former will inevitably attract high society in expensive suits with a discerning ear. An obvious clash of cultures and paradox of placement but in Nashville, it's music to everyone's ears.
A Place of Greatness
The Schermerhorn Symphony Center (One Symphony Place, 615-687-6500) is the most anticipated performance structure in the world, inspired by the best of seven European venues including Berlin's Konzerthaus and Barcelona's Palau de la Música Catalana.
Whether at the "founders' level" against the back wall or the upper balcony, all vantage points are unimpeded and the room is enveloped with unparalleled tonal quality. You can hear the quietest note because of a state-of-the-art technology explained to me called 'acoustic isolation joints'.
Convenience for the Commuter
Once parked, the MTA bus connections and Grayline Trolley offer long rides for a small fare. The city is also building a new transit hub called 'Music City Central' opening in the summer of 2007 with green spaces for noon concerts during lunch breaks. The Schermerhorn has truly thought of everything to embrace tourists' sense of safety and convenience.
Music Row Milestones
In 1943 the place opened up and attracted upstarts like Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins and Ernest Tubb until it closed its doors in 1974. Photos and private recording are encouraged but don't even think of sneaking in a shot backstage of the Carter Cash dressing room. For whatever reason these rooms are off limits to anything but the naked eye.
Yes, it's kitchy but what flying pink pig neon sign isn't? Don't let it discourage you from enjoying a quick cafeteria-style lunch at Jack's Bar-B-Que (416 Broadway, 615-254-5715). No troughs here, just sturdy paper plates full of their smoked Tennessee Pork Shoulder, greens, coleslaw and baked beans. Dripping with original Jack sauce the portions are perfect and the third floor dining room has plenty of room for large groups.
Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway, 615-256-2805) has been letter pressing music posters since 1879 with no end in sight. It's a show for the eye rather than the ear watching several young apprentices reproduce posters the old fashioned way. Hands are smudgy with ink and the smell of oil and dust fill the air, yet it's a wonderful place to soak up a part of printing history not dependent on fast computers.
Most posters or window cards (named from placing them in storefront windows) are 11x14 inches and blanket the walls. Treasures like ''Dolly Parton and Her Family Traveling Band'' from the 1960s as well as original work by the co-owner himself, Jim Shenader, crowd the back room. If Jim has the time he'll gladly offer you a tour of his pride and joy.
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (422 Broadway, 615-726-0463) knows how to market great music. They insist on leaving their doors open, even when it rains so the flow of the music from the small stage set against the front window is within earshot of the sidewalk. That's how I found myself humming along to some modern melodies before setting foot inside.
I have absolutely zero musical talent, so when I see someone plucking an acoustic instrument I often gawk with envy and amazement. Gruhn Guitars (400 Broadway, 615-256-2033) has thousands of priceless vintage instruments and it's the place to do just that. Salesman Billy Jackson offered to play me a little 'Nash-Vegas' as he strapped on a Packard hubcab guitar and played a few licks. Not bad for a hubcap: a little twangy but better sounding than you'd think.
Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Guilds and Ovations -- Gruhn hires some of the best independent guitar makers in the country. They've sold their goods to big names like Vince Gill, Hank Williams Jr., Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons. When you stop by, ask to see a priceless gem built from extra pews out of the Ryman Auditorium. The spirit of the Ryman is still resonates in the wood.
Record producers like Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins are synonymous with crafting the "Nashville Sound" but if not for Elvis Presley I would have skipped seeing RCA Studio B (1611 Roy Acuff Place, 615-416-2001) and that would have been a mighty shame. The "King of Rock and Roll" recorded more than 200 popular hits here and it survives along with an original Hammond organ and Steinway piano he played.
Songwriting is a thankless, underpaid and an extremely competitive job but artists at the BlueBird Cafe (4104 Hillbsboro Road, 615-383-1461) like Don Schlitz make it look so easy. For only a dollar, Don and his beat-up acoustic will perform chart-topping hits like 'The Gambler', 'When You Say Nothing At All', 'Oscar the Angel', 'Give Me Wings' and 'The Greatest'. These are tunes Randy Travis, Alison Krause and Kenny Rogers made popular but hearing the song's source sing them is so much more special.
Sentimental lyrics like 'Aunt Jenny's Blue Dress' are based on the Hall-of-Famer's real life experience and nobody sings them with more depth and impact. In between songs, Schlitz pokes fun at customers caught coming in late or leaving early. It's an unwritten rule but The Bluebird demands respect for on-stage performers and will "Shhhh" anyone caught conversing during an act. Be mindful of this - even the flash on a camera can disgruntle patrons.
The profound lyrics of "Oscar The Angel" drove chills up my spine and I nearly lost feeling in both hands clapping violently for an encore. Instead, Donn offers up conversation, levity and autographs to break up the silence of his grateful crowds.
Loving the Loveless
A quick history of the place begins 55 years ago with owners Lon and Annie Loveless opening their home to travelers seeking nourishment. As it was then and still is today the menu included signature favorites like biscuits and gravy, homemade jam, country ham and fried chicken.
The 'Biscuit Lady' herself, Carol Fay, was cooking up a storm in the restaurant's renovated modern kitchen but tossed aside her apron to introduce herself to us. She's cooked for Al Roker, Katie Couric and Willard Scott of NBC's Today Show so you can trust you're in good hands while you wait. Besides bisquits, Carol Fay labors over slow-cooking marmalades and jellies, a tradition that few big jam companies have time for and all are available for purchase in a well-stocked market shop next door.
I found myself loving The Loveless and wanting to return for noon time lunch and possibly an evening dinner to boot. They're also not shy about offering up the secrets to their success. I had to take a copy of their recipe for the fried chicken (see below).
All rooms have two living spaces, one with a couch that turns into a sofa bed, tv, phone, work station with high speed internet access and lounge chair. The bedroom carries yet another phone, tv, complimentary HBO, ample closet space and plush down duvets.
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