Nashville: A Renaissance in Music City

By Sonja Stark

The new Schermerhorn Symphony Center under construction - photos by Sony Stark
The new Schermerhorn Symphony Center under construction – photos by Sony Stark

Many reminisce fondly of their first trip to the world’s country music mecca known simply as “Music City”. Incorrigible vets like my own Dad wax poetically about dancing with Miss Kitty at Ryman Auditorium and raucous bar brawls in Printers’ Alley.

“I bet you’re a honky-tonk-loving country music convert now!” Dad insists, picking me up from the Albany airport on my return from Nashville.

On the contrary, Sarge, Nashville, Tennessee is breaking ground on a lyrical scene that refuses to be defined by genre, stereotype or demographics, including country. A case in point is the opening of the new $120-million Schermerhorn Symphony Center this September in the downtown area.

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

Some venues are stymied by big musical sterotypes and find it challenging breaking away from the mold. Not in Nashville. Besides blues, bluegrass and country, this city turns up the volume on jazz, rock, hip-hop, alternative and come this Fall, classical.

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.

The Center is named for the late Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn who led the Nashville Symphony for more than 20 years. An acoustic design team working closely with engineers and architects masterfully created a space called the Laura Turner Concert Hall where the depth of the human experience touches the soul. There are no bad seats inside the Concert Hall.

The Laura Turner Concert Hall
The Laura Turner Concert Hall

The Laura Turner Concert Hall

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’.

Happily, I scored a personal tour of the inside with video to share of its work-in-progress. Nothing is amiss here. There is barrier-free access to handicapped patrons, a 35-hundred pipe organ and a main floor that magically turns into a cabaret-style seating configuration for Pops concerts.

I’ve shot television shows in dozens of concert halls around the world and I can attest that all 1,872 intimate seats are bound to sell out nightly. Unique exterior elements like the sweeping colonnade and the neoclassical pillars are defining Tennessee iconography.

Convenience for the Commuter

Enjoying classical music should be a transcendent experience unencumbered by the parking process but try achieving that goal at Carnegie Hall in NYC and it’s nearly impossible. For tourist folk it’s mighty important that we’re able to drive straight into the heart of all the hubbub. More than 2,350 parking spaces exist within two blocks of the Schermerhorn making commuter’s dream a reality.

The famous Nashville skyline
The famous Nashville skyline

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

Of course, nobody would think much of my visit if I missed the thrill of a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry (2802 Opryland Drive, 615-871-OPRY), the world’s longest running radio program. But before the curtains go up I head down to where the music found it’s roots on Music Row. The Opry’s original location, the Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Avenue North, 615-254-1445) was built in 1892 as a Union Gospel Tabernacle for religious revivals.

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.

Nashville's hot new star
Nashville’s hot new star

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 11×14 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.

Hatch's Show Print Shop
Hatch’s Show Print Shop

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.

Every square inch of wall is covered with autographed photographs from legends like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. In a place with so much history it would make sense that they’d serve one of Nashville’s finest homebrews. I asked for Yazoo and/or a local wine but was slapped with an unoriginal Michelob Light instead. Stay for the music but save your swilling for a place called the Sunset Grill (2001 Belcourt Ave, 615-386-3663) later in the evening.

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.

The Washburn Gruhn Ryman guitar
The Washburn Gruhn Ryman guitar

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.

Our guide tipped us off to some cute Elvis anecdotes including how he enjoyed recording in the dark, eating burgers after midnight and singing gospel tunes to relax him. You’ll learn that if you listen closely you can even hear Elvis accidentally knock his head against the microphone in a recording of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

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.

Sony meets songwriter Don Schlitz
Sony meets songwriter Don Schlitz

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

I strongly recommend a visit to the legendary Loveless Cafe (8400 Highway 100, 615-646-9700) where they treat all their customers with the same Southern hospitality and fabulous feasts as their celebrity guests.

The Loveless Cafe has gained popular notoriety through an endless succession of stories in the media, including USA Today, Life Magazine, The Ellen Degeneres Show, QVC and the Food Channel.

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).
Pillow Talk

Nashville’s Downtown Hilton Hotel (121 Fourth Ave South, 615-620-1000) stands only twelve stories but the natural light streaming into the open atrium far below gives it an illusion of dizzying heights. Save the vertigo for the glass elevator ride that whisks you past honeycomb-like floors and drops you off at a suite fit for six.

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.

I loved being able to program pillow talk on NPR to wake me in the morning rather than a jolting phone call. And for those with longer stays you can save your Loveless leftovers in the small refrigerator and microwave they supply in every room, along with a coffee maker.

The Hilton location couldn’t be more ideal for walking to a show at the new Schermerhorn or touring the Country Music Hall of Fame. Both sit kitty corner to the Hilton parking lot.

Lastly, especially important to restless sleepers, is that you can doze throughout the night not waking to room noise from next door or street construction far below. For a chain hotel you’ll be surprised by the friendly accommodations and sturdy design of this magnificent hotel. But then again, you shouldn’t be. This is, after all, Music City, a place that refuses to be typecast into one genre, music or otherwise.

The Loveless Cafe's famous fried chicken
The Loveless Cafe’s famous fried chicken

The Loveless Cafe’s Famous Fried Chicken

Yield: 6 servings
Preparation: 40 minutes
Cook: 30 to 35 minutes
4 teaspoons salt
1 quart cold water
1 fryer chicken (3 pounds or less), cut into 8 pieces
1 cup self-rising flour
1 tablespoon Loveless Seasoned Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
11/4 teaspoons garlic powder
Vegetable oil (for frying)

-Dissolve salt in cold water. Soak chicken in salt water for at least 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
-In a small bowl, combine flour, seasoned salt, pepper, and garlic powder; mix thoroughly.
-In large skillet, heat 1 inch vegetable oil over medium-high heat on stovetop (375 degrees in an electric skillet).
-Dredge chicken in flour mixture, coating well on both sides. Place chicken in hot oil, making sure chicken pieces don’t touch each other. When chicken is browned (approximately 5 minutes), turn pieces over and reduce heat to medium (300 degrees). Cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, bring heat back to medium-high and turn chicken, cooking for an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

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