Nashville Tennessee: American Pride and Music

The Riders in the Sky playing at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Cathie Arquilla photos.
The Riders in the Sky playing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Cathie Arquilla photos.

By Cathie Arquilla

Why Nashville? The short answer was that my mom, sisters and I are big fans of the ABC TV show Nashville and we wanted hang out with the likes of Rayna James (Connie Britton) and Deacon Claybourne (Chip Esten) and to find out if Nashville was really like “Nashville.”

Now that I’ve been to Music City, the answer to Why Nashville is this: Every American should go. It’s American heritage and culture jacked up! So steeped in our history and culture is this rhinestone city of the south, that schools, especially southern schools, should make visiting Nashville a field trip.

Nashville is known and celebrated for its music. Live music is everywhere. It’s in the airport, bars, most restaurants, shopping venues, on the streets and in the squares. In the very air! And if you’re thinking, “Oh yeah but that is just country music,” think again.

Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi recorded in Nashville. We heard rock, bluegrass and jazz. I was struck by how much American music is rooted in country music, specifically country music from Nashville.

Take the Bluebird Café, located in a typical strip mall that you might find in anywhere USA. The Bluebird, at first glance, is a disappointment. It’s featured heavily in “Nashville”the TV show. Young adult poets turned songwriters put pros to music and hard rock heartthrobs try out their sound on the Bluebird audience.

All the while love boils up, bursts into flame and turns to dust-–as best described in the country songs composed for the show.

radio ramblers
The Radio Ramblers

The reality is that the Bluebird is not so much for neophytes as it is for very well-regarded and established songwriters to perform their own work.

The night we went Jeff Cohen, Marshall Altman, Dylan Altman and Tommy Lee James performed “in the round.” They were set up in a circle in the middle of the room with the audience at tables surrounding them.

They went around the circle clockwise taking turns performing their own songs, ones that, seemingly, they decided to sing at the spur of the moment. There was often a backstory or anecdote to the story–-I mean song-–they played.

At the Bluebird Cafe, the performers sing in the middle of the room. Just like on the TV show.
At the Bluebird Cafe, the performers sing in the middle of the room. Just like on the TV show.The Bluebird Café

Thanks to my iPhone, I was able to look up the writers and find out their background as they were performing (Note: plan ahead so you don’t have to surreptitiously glance at your phone). Their creds were impressive, their talent obvious. In Nashville at this plain little strip mall, I had discovered four songwriters, new to me. Once home, I downloaded some of their songs. Very cool, very Nashville.

A recommended download list from that night at the Bluebird:

Home, recorded by Marc Brousard, writing in collaboration by Marshall Altman

In Her Eyes, recorded by Josh Groban, written in collaboration by Jeff Cohen

Country Music Hall of Fame records.
Country Music Hall of Fame records.My Eyes, recorded by Blake Shelton, written in collaboration by Tommy Lee James

Life Ain’t Always Beautiful, recorded by Gary Allan, written by Cyndi Goodman and Tommy Lee James.

The Grand Ole Opry

When you go to Nashville, go to the Opry, the Grand Ole Opry. Do not miss this radio show that has been the cradle of country music performers since 1925. It’s as American as the Fourth of July, apple pie and Chevy pick up trucks. Indeed, several of the songs we heard referenced at least one of these.

Today the Opry is in Opryland, a destination just outside of downtown Nashville. It has its own campus, complete with a hotel, museum, gift shop and shopping mall.

Lucchese boots on display in Nashville.
Lucchese boots on display in Nashville.

We were seated in the mezzanine, instead of individual seats there were benches, friendly to most any size human. The huge flat screens to our right gave us a close up of what was happening on stage. Clearly, when they built the Opry, they had nothing but music in mind. The acoustics are extraordinary. The ticket office is easy to find and well managed. Moving folks in and out of the venue is extremely well organized and stress free.

Before the Opry House was built, the Grand Ole Opry broadcasted from the Ryman Auditorium in the heart of downtown Nashville for more than 30 years. In homage to that venue, floorboards from the Ryman stage were brought to the Opry House and inlaid in a circle on the stage. Several of the performers talked about the intense feelings of heritage and humility they felt while “singing in the circle.”

Baffling as it sounds, when you buy tickets in advance to the Opry you don’t know who is playing! But that became part of the excitement and the fun. When I found out the day of the concert that we were going to see Vince Gill, I was psyched and when my sister realized Little Big Town was playing too–we started jamming to songs from our iPhones.

Isn’t it great when the reality of an experience is far better than the anticipation of it? Like craving a cherry pie, anticipating its sour sweet goodness, only to have your taste buds experience something even more delicious!?

That’s what the Opry was like for us. We anticipated what we would hear, the performances and the performers, but the reality was an unforgettable American experience of nostalgia, sentiment, education, skill and talent.

Honky Tonks

Jesse McReynolds on mandolin.
Jesse McReynolds on mandolin.

There is no place for ageism at the Opry. Riders In the Sky, who wrote “Woody’s Roundup” for Jesse McReynolds on mandolin.Toy Story 2, have been performing American western music since 1977. Honky tonk singer Jean Sheppard, a member of the Opry since 1955, who recorded the first post-World War II record to sell over a million copies, held her own in “the circle.”

My mother appreciated these performers, not just because they were from her generation, but also because she could easily hear, understand and appreciate the sentiment of their song lyrics.

While at the Opry, I felt choked up with emotion. I experienced chills (what Jennifer Lopez calls goosies on American Idol) and I felt a deep connection to, and appreciation for, America.

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers sang “The Last Parade.” It’s a moving tribute to our veterans, a melancholy melody with picking and harmonizing like I’ve never heard. It will be the first single from their new summer release, Another Day From Life.

The Rhett Walker Band was making their debut performance at the Opry. They sang a country rock song for married couples with more than a few anniversaries. It’s called, “The Better Part Of Me” and I found it very touching, very country. As of this writing it is not yet recorded for download on iTunes, but this is the chorus:

Big Shotz in Nashville.
Big Shotz in Nashville.

When I said I do, I wasn’t telling you just some lines from a song

Of some old country tune When I took your hand and you took my name?

All time stood still with God and family? You were, you are, you know you’ll always be the better part of me

You should probably start your Nashville trip with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to brush up on country music and its stars. Certain country artists are celebrated more than others, but they all seem to be represented.

Interactive Installations

It’s also an education on the birth of country music genres, where they came from in terms of place and history and how they evolved. Manage your time though, because it’s a rather involved museum with changing exhibits, interactive installations and good amount of audiovisual entertainment.

As I mentioned, music in Nashville is everywhere and you don’t need to have a ticket or even plan ahead. Wonder downtown. On Broadway between 2nd and 5th avenue live music drifts from just about every door. Your problem will be deciding which place to stop and listen.

We ended up at Big Shotz (subheading: Our Shotz are Bigger than Yours), the sticky floor and beer aroma were the perfect accompaniment to a very good classic rock band. Carved graffiti all over the chair rail molding completed the “décor.” I made out, “Roy waz ere,” underneath a bunch of other scribbles.

The Gulch

Two Old Hippies features a VW Bus inside the store.
Two Old Hippies features a VW Bus inside the store.

Nashville’s economy is booming right now and with it some neighborhoods are experiencing a renaissance, The Gulch is getting a total revamp. Once a pretty rough part of town, nowheresville along the railroad tracks, the Gulch now has some high-rise apartments, fancy restaurants and destination stores. Be sure to browse in Two Old Hippies and Lucchese Boots.

Two Old Hippies is where our reality intersected with Nashville TV fiction. The show has taped there and been written into the script and the show’s stylist Susie Desarto uses Two Old Hippies as a wardrobe resource. Molly Bedell whose card reads, “Orginal Hippie Chick / Founder,” owns Two Old Hippies along with her husband Tom.

Tom is also designer and owner of his own collection of bespoke guitars, Bedell Guitars. Six years ago they closed their location in Aspen and moved to Nashville. Molly said, “It’s the perfect place for two old hippies like us.”

Honestly, my sister wanted to go to Two Old Hippies based solely on the name, I wanted to avoid it for the same reason. But this is a very cool store. It has a stage in the back for live performances.

They sell everything from housewares to jewelry to shoes and the way it is merchandised is perfectly appropriate–a 1960s psychedelic Volkswagen van parked right in the store is the backdrop for guitars, satchels and shirts.

Lucchese Boots

Lucchese Boots.
Lucchese Boots.

Lucchese Boots.What Tiffany’s is to jewelry, Lucchese is to boots. They have other locations, but it’s always better to buy that most iconic item in the place where it belongs. So, if you want just one thing from Nashville, get cowboy boots and get them at Lucchese (if you can afford it), John Wayne did!

Across the street from Two Old Hippies and Lucchese is the Station Inn another venue on every singer-songwriters’ bucket list. There are no presale tickets and the line can go around the block. Like the Opry, you don’t know who will play, but you can be sure they will be good.

Hermitage Hotel's elegant lobby.
Hermitage Hotel’s elegant lobby.

Preparing for our Nashville trip we used the Nashville CVB at, an excellent resource, but concierge Vickie Hudson at the historic Hermitage Hotel, where we stayed, gave us very specific advice and instructions that really added to the success of our trip. We only had three full days and we had to get it right.

She helped with managing distances and timing, which was crucial because at the time, my mother was recovering from a broken hip and walking with a cane. Check out “When To Call On The Concierge” at CNN Travel for tips on how best to use the expertise of a concierge.

urban grub table
Urban Grub table

We had heard about Germantown from the Visit Music City website, but Vickie told us about Monell’s. In one of the Victorian houses that the neighborhood is known for, Monell’s $13.95 lunch includes; biscuits and corn muffins, white gravy, fried chicken, catfish, vegetable lasagna, broccoli salad, cucumber salad, broad green beans, white beans, smash potatoes, collard greens, peach preserves, corn pudding and banana pudding.

That is what was being served and that is what we ate! There is no menu. Dishes are passed family style and you eat at big tables with other patrons. The menu changes from day to day, lunch to dinner, but many of the dishes are standard. The place just reeked of home cooking and sweet southern hospitality!

Urban Grub

In contrast to Monell’s, Urban Grub, in another emerging neighborhood called 12South, had an overblown menu and pick up scene to match. I’d call it a hottie spot. Debs and dudes where strutting and sizzling along with the kitchen’s lively output of southern fusion dishes.

The noise level is high, but the huge cocktail/lounge/bar seems to warrant that. The whole vibe was Party Nashville. Fun fact: Urban Grub was once a garage.

Whole coffee table books have been published on the Hermitage Hotel. It celebrated its centennial in 2010. You feel the largess of this grand hotel the minute you climb the steps to its vaulted ornate lobby. Named after Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, this is the only five-star hotel in Tennessee.

Goorin Bros hat shop, downtown Nashville.
Goorin Bros hat shop, downtown Nashville.

Even if you don’t stay there, stop in to check it out, have a drink or a cup of tea. There is a small exhibit (in the back right hand corner of the lobby) of historical artifacts from the hotel. It gives you a sense of The Hermitage’s importance in Nashville society through the years.

The nightly rate in 1910 was $2.00. A picture of Gene Autry with his horse, Champion, registering at the front desk is pure nostalgia. They BOTH had to check in, Champion was staying on the 4th floor!

Nashville is about discovering new music and appreciating the old. It’s a place to tune in and open your heart to American patriotism and sentimentality.

Cool neighborhoods, great food and out of the ordinary shopping come with the territory. But no matter where you come from in the United States, you will feel a little more American after visiting Nashville.

Worth a day trip outside of town:

The Hermitage: President Andrew Jackson’s Plantation, beautifully maintained, historically accurate; museum, grounds, mansion, slave quarters and more.

Bell Meade Plantation: Thoroughbred horse farm of the mid 1800s. Both Seabiscuit and Secretariat have bloodlines originating from this farm; mansion, grounds, restaurant, gift shop and winery.

Nashville Recommendations:

Restaurants: – Puckett’s Gro. Restaurant – The Standard at The Smith House – Oak Bar at The Hermitage Hotel

Party Tours – Nashville Pedal Tavern, “16-person pedal party on wheels!” – Nashville Party Barge

Shops – Rocket Fizz, Soda Pop & Candy Shops – Goorin Bros Hat Shop

Tennessee Artisans – Discovered – Ellajude handcrafted jewelry – Karen Davis spoon art

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