This entry will be devoted to our experiences in Music City USA, aka Nashville. This vibrant city is located about 3-hours east of Memphis in the central part of the state. Fun fact for y’all: The section of I-40 that connects the two is nicknamed the Music Highway, there are signs along the road designating it as such (see below). Memphis claims to be the birthplace of rock and roll, and has a proud history in rock, soul, and blues music. While Nashville, well, you know about Nashville and country music… In the last year we’ve taken several day or overnight trips to Nashville. I discussed our experience watching a Titans game in the fall and the beautiful view from the stadium looking over the Cumberland river and into downtown, so this post will focus on other activities we’ve enjoyed during our visits there.
In general, Nashville has a much more modern and bustling atmosphere than Memphis. After spending notable time downtown in both, I would describe Memphis’ architecture as more quaint and reminiscent of eras past. While Nashville, though it has some of that, is packed with newer skyscrapers and businesses. Though the population of the two cities is currently comparable, Nashville has been growing while Memphis has been holding steady. The former city’s growth is evidenced by the crazy number of construction cranes visible in its downtown area (though not as many as Seattle). Between its museums, Honky Tonk Row, recording studios, and multiple large venues for shows and conventions, there is always something going on that draws people into Nashville. Memphis, though it has some unique features, lacks signature attractions on this scale.
Our first experience with Nashville was actually before we even moved to Memphis, we stopped there to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum en route to Norfolk, Virginia. Unbeknownst to us, our stop here coincided with CMA Fest, which is an annual 4-day festival in downtown that is billed as “the ultimate country music fan experience.” As we pulled off the freeway and attempted to navigate to the museum I was surprised with how busy downtown seemed. When we were met with tents, food trucks, road closures, and insane parking prices I began to suspect that, something’s definitely going on…
We found ourselves in the midst of thousands of enthusiastic country music fans roaming around downtown toting their beer and festival passes. Have I mentioned yet that I don’t particularly like country music? (Although, after living for a year in the South, it has grown on me a bit). I know, a bit odd then that I would chose to make this detour to the museum. But I like history and music in general, even if this particular genre is lower on my list. The tourist in me had to visit this attraction – Nashville is country music capitol of the world! Even if, in the midst of CMA Fest, I felt like a bit of an imposter.
Though busy, the Hall of Fame Museum was not as packed with spectators as I had feared from observing the crowded streets below. We purchased our tickets and were notified that there was a mandolin lesson starting in 5-minutes over in the Taylor Swift Educational Center. We consulted the map and realized we were right in front of said educational center and as we wandered into the classroom were handed our own individual mandolins. And no, unfortunately Taylor Swift was not present.
We did meet a quasi-celebrity as our instructor for the 45-minute lesson was a professional musician and active member of Alan Jackson’s band who just happened to be in town because – well, it’s Nashville, country musicians are always in town. After a brief introduction he played a short solo to demonstrate the capabilities of the small stringed instrument. I listened intently with mouth slightly agape in awe of the speed and precision in which he plucked and pressed those little strings. I love listening to musicians who have full mastery of their craft.
He then talked briefly about the Nashville number system which is used by many professional musicians to compose, arrange, and transcribe songs. All my musical experience has come from a solo piano background so I found this system fascinating as it allows for easier collaboration between multiple instruments and vocalists. I remember getting the gist of it with a basic 10-15 minute explanation, but that was last June, so don’t ask me to explain it to you now. There are plenty of tutorials online if you’re really curious.
Next, he taught, or in my case attempted to teach, us some basic cords and a simple song on the mandolin. Bravo to Jeff who absorbed the info like a champ and was able to follow along and play the little ditty at the end. I, on the other hand, got a few of the cords correct but then when attempting to string them together instantly unraveled. It reminded me of a square dance lesson I took a few years ago: I could execute each individual step easy enough, but then once the music started and we were suppose to perform them in a sequence, it was not a pretty sight. I stopped focusing on the steps and just tried to shuffle in the right direction so as not to bump into the people around me who were moving in inexplicable synchronicity. Apparently mandolin playing and square dancing aren’t my thang (fortunately they’re not super high on my list of skills I’m seeking to acquire). But despite my inabilities, I still enjoyed the lesson.
After that we perused the rest of the museum, which was loaded with the amazing stories, displays, and memorabilia that you would expect to reside in this historic music city. Though under the same roof, the museum section was separate from the Hall of Fame which we experienced at the end of our visit. Both were moved to this specially designed building in the early 2000’s and musical motifs are evident throughout. The Hall of Fame section is a rotunda with the Carter Family’s classic song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” written on the inside. The outside spire is a replica of the famous WSM radio tower which broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. When viewed from the air the whole building is in the shape of a bass clef, and from the front you can clearly see the keys on a piano.
Air travel has also brought us to Nashville on a couple occasions in the last year. Turns out Memphis does not have an amazing airport. I mean, it’s super easy to access, parking is cheap, it’s a breeze to get through security and to your gate… there just aren’t any direct flights to Seattle, or anywhere else we wanted or needed to go. Nashville is home to the state’s largest commercial airport and thankfully, does have a direct flight to Seattle. After the over 12-hour delay from Seattle to Chicago and then on to Memphis that I endured in October after going to a friend’s wedding, we opted for the 3-hour drive to Nashville airport on our subsequent trip to the Northwest. And when my parent’s visited they opted for this route as well. Nashville isn’t as big as Atlanta or O’hare, or even Sea-tac, but it’s significant and, wait for it, has a live country band in the terminal to sing goodbye or welcome you into town.
When my parents visited over spring break we stayed downtown for a couple nights and enjoyed some more touristy attractions downtown. My mom suggested we take a narrated trolley tour around the city. You know, one of those ones where you actually learn stuff and can hop on and off to view various attractions. My childhood travels to new big cities almost all involved a tour of this nature. I didn’t mind most of them, though there were a few exceptions (I’m thinking of you Lake Tahoe). I discussed this recently with a friend, who said her mom dragged her on these tours as well. So, sample size 2 of 2, 100% of mom’s of my generation love trolley tours. It’s a fact.
The one we did in Nashville was one of those Old Town Tours with the green and orange painted bus. We caught it downtown near the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum then rode it through its cycle, exiting once to walk around the Bicentennial Capitol Mall and a nearby Farmer’s Market. The mall, think outdoor memorial park mall like the one in DC not shopping mall, opened in 1996 to celebrate the state’s 200th anniversary (bet you couldn’t have guessed that one). It’s located north of downtown and it’s long, narrow shape points towards the capitol building, which is on a slight hill.
At the far north end of the park are a series of carillon pillars that partially surround a large cement circle that has the three star emblem of Tennessee (the 3 stars representing the state’s divisions: east, west, and middle). In the very center of the circle, in the middle of the stars, was an amazing acoustic spot. Our trolley guide told us about it, otherwise we would have never discovered it on our own. If you stand directly on that spot, your voice somehow reverberates or is amplified by the carillons and it suddenly sounds like you are talking into a microphone. It’s crazy because it’s a huge outdoor space, the carillons are meters away, but somehow it does this. I walked into the center of the circle first, then my parents both experienced it.
It was a Monday afternoon, not the busiest time, but there were a few other people milling about. We told a few people, who were polite but appeared a bit skeptical of our enthusiasm. Finally I watched as one gal, probably in her mid 20s, decide to test it. The look on her face the second she stepped into the center and spoke was priceless. Her sudden shift in expression was like a small child who discovered something amazing like ice cream, or the toes on their feet, for the first time: utter surprise and amazement.
The park also had another engineering marvel, what apparently is a Kugel fountain (I was going to call it a large floating globe but then decided to google it). In the center of the WWII memorial section of the park rests an 8-ton carved stone globe suspended on a tiny stream of water. Though it cannot be lifted (well, perhaps with a crane), it can be touched, pushed, and easily rotated by a single person because of the way is rests on the flowing water.
We eventually hopped back on a trolley to continue the tour (despite my dad losing his admission sticker and then thinking he found it on the ground and attempting to peel off a clearly much older, dissolving sticker from the concrete) and drove around the rest of the city. I learned that Nashville is home to Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, which I had heard of but due to their non-geographic names, had no idea where they actually were. It is also home to Fisk University, a historically black college and birthplace of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This a cappella group of African-American singers was originally organized to help bring financial support to the college in the 1870’s and has since travelled around the country and even globally.
After completing a cycle of the trolley tour we started looking for a lunch spot. We departed near Honky Tonk Row and asked the driver for recommendations. He directed us to a specific brewery to try their hot chicken. Apparently Nashville is known for their hot chicken, most famously at Hattie B’s, which always has a line around the corner. Our lunch spot also served this specialty but had no line, spacious indoor seating and, of course, live music. My mom and I shared an order of hot chicken tenders, which even in its mild iteration, had a nice kick to it. There were disclaimers on the menu that if you ordered too high of a spice level you could not substitute it for a milder one or get a refund. If you haven’t gathered, hot chicken is essentially spicy fried chicken. And no, it’s not the same as buffalo wings. The spice and preparation is different. I liked it better.
I’ve been calling it Honky Tonk Row but it’s also called the Honky Tonk Highway or the street in Nashville with all the bars or technically, Lower Broadway. Although it was early afternoon on a Monday pretty much every bar was blaring live music. Several of the bars are owned by country music stars (Blake Shelton’s Ole Red, Jason Aldean’s Kitchen, Dierks Bentley Whiskey Row to name a few) and hold the added appeal that that artist might stop by at any time to perform. We did not see any celebrities as we walked along and listened to the music wafting out onto the street, though apparently there were several in town to help celebrate Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday bash with a star-studded concert. See, there’s always something going on in Nashville.
On the trolley tour we drove past multiple arenas and music venues as well as streets of active recording studios and record labels. The city is clearly booming in the current music industry but it was fun to see the history of the genre in the area as well. I had heard of the Grand Ole Opry but didn’t know if it referred to an actual physical location or was the name of a show. Well, its slogan is “The Show That Made Country Music Famous,” so technically it’s a show that was broadcast weekly on WSM (an AM radio station). But the show was a stage concert and made famous the venue in which it was for years performed. So kind of both.
In downtown Nashville we visited the Ryman Auditorium which was home to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast from the ’40s to the ’70s and took on the moniker of the Grand Ole Opry House. It was originally built as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and has pews and more the feel of a church than a typical performing theater. As the Ryman grew older the Opry was moved to a newer building which opened in 1974 and is used to this day. The former venue held around 2,300 seats while the newer one 4,000.
Jeff and I visited the newer one, several miles east of downtown, about a month later to see a show: Derek Hough Live! (The name of the show has an ! in it, I did not add it for emphasis.) Yes, we like watching dancing shows together despite our, or rather my (I suppose I won’t speak for Jeff here) relative ineptitude in this area. So just before my birthday we travelled once more to Nashville to see our favorite Mormon ballroom dancer perform at the famous country music venue.
I enjoyed visiting the newer Opry House after touring the Ryman Auditorium because it was evident that it was designed to mimic the original venue. Both feature wooden bench rows and a two-tiered seating system. Both also had plenty of visuals and memorabilia to pay homage to the country music legends that have graced their stages.
Within walking distance of the newer Opry House is the impressive Gaylord Opryland Resort. Outside of Las Vegas, and perhaps Disneyworld, it is one of the largest hotels I’ve been in. It features over 9 acres of indoor gardens, walkways, dining, shopping, entertainment, boat rides and recently opened its own indoor waterpark. I looked into staying here when we saw the concert but then, after reviewing the price, decided, nah, we’ll just walk through it on our way out of town. It was beautiful though.
The last major tourist attraction we experienced in Nashville was a trip to the Belle Meade Plantation. I had mixed feelings about visiting a plantation knowing their approval and exploitation of slave labor. But these southern estates are a part of our nation’s history, even if they carry dark undertones. I was excited to find out that this plantation recently added a Journey to Jubilee Tour that focuses on the African-American experience on the grounds. So Jeff and I purchased tickets for that.
We arrived early to the plantation and walked through the carriage house, stables, and in front of the mansion. There was a food and wine pairing group meeting in the stables as we passed and I giggled as I heard the sommelier introduce a wine from the Columbia River Basin in Washington state. I had been a bit surprised when I saw that there was a winery on the premises thinking that Tennessee was not a big producer of this product. Well, I was correct. Most of their wines were imports. Turns out Tennessee soil, though great for other things (i.e. cotton) is not the most fertile for grapes.
Our Journey to Jubilee Tour was initially set to meet in front of a donated slave cabin (the original ones had been torn down) across the grounds. Since it was raining they changed the meeting spot to the back of the mansion house. We went over to visit the slave cabin later on our own. The tour itself only led through a few back rooms of the mansion. I did not realize that most people took this in conjunction with the Mansion Tour, so Jeff and I didn’t get to see the front rooms in the house. Though I did appreciate that they chose to focus the Jubilee Tour on the back of the house and serving quarters where the African-Americans would have spent most of their time (not to mention they weren’t allowed to enter through the main doors).
The content of the tour was very interesting. It is sad how little records they have on the hundreds of people who were enslaved on the plantation but heartening to know they have historians actively researching and trying to uncover more information about these individuals. They did have a few photos of and quotes from a couple African-Americans that worked on the plantation around the time of the Civil War and they shared their stories with us. The tour also attempted to piece together the daily life of and attitude towards those who were enslaved on the plantation.
The Belle Meade Plantation did not grow any of the major cash crops (cotton, tobacco, or sugar cane) but instead specialized in thoroughbred horses. I did not realize, or think about, the use of enslaved people in the history of this American pastime. Shortly after emancipation many of the winningest jockeys were African-American, as this was a natural transition since they were used to working with the horses. Unfortunately racism won out and African-Americans were all but eradicated from the sport.
At the end of the tour our guide said people often asked him, “so where’s the jubilee?” I can’t really remember his answer, so it must not have been very good. But I do remember thinking, that’s a good question. (It’s actually called that in reference to the Year of Jubilee in the Bible but the question was in regards to the definition of the word itself.) It can be painful to look at the past and realize how much of this racism and exploitation is still ingrained in our country today. Reflecting on this makes me think of a quote I read recently that says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Perhaps there’s the paradox of jubilee (I’ll leave you to unpack that one).
Anyways, from the somberness of slavery and racism to… This is the end of my review of things we did in Nashville. I know that’s a bit of a rough transition but it’s about time I wrap this post up. I will summarize by saying that Nashville is a colorful city with a rich and conflicted history. If you are into American history, or especially into country music, I would consider it a worthy destination.
And, to end on a bit of a lighter, hopefully not too distasteful, note it may also be one of the only places where you can ride one or both of these unique contraptions: