by Clint Williams
If your ears aren’t ringing after two nights in Nashville, well, you’re just not trying. Long famous as the capital of country music, this city along the Cumberland River has more loud bands per capita than any other place I’ve visited. And it seems nearly everyone you meet here is in a band of some description. Maybe that’s why they call this Music City.
To find your way around, just talk to the locals. And while some of the people who guided me through Nashville may be gone by the time you read this, the good food, good music and good times are still there.
When you stay in Nashville, stay where the country music stars stay. The Loews Vanderbilt Hotel is located across from Vanderbilt University and it’s a short cab ride down the road to the honky tonks that make this town famous.
We check-in late and ask bell captain David McClary where to grab a late supper. David recommends Bound’ry just a few blocks away. “It’s got a really nice global cuisine and a lively bar scene,” says David. And it sure doesn’t look like Dixie. The restaurant walls sport murals of steeds and maidens. The menu includes Brie grits, Korean style barbecue, seafood and pan-seared quail. It’s good and the full menu is available until midnight; a pared menu is served until 2 am.
Our plates clean, we’re now ready for some late-night country music.
To get a little history with the music, Bound’ry chef Guerry McComas sends us to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which is just around the corner from Ryman Auditorium, once site of the Grand Ole Opry. “When people got done playing at Ryman,” Guerry says,” they’d go right next door to Tootsie’s.”
The place is classic honky tonk — a band in the front, a band in the back, both playing so loudly you have to order a beer with hand signals. And if you don’t like the music here, there are at least a half-dozen other honky-tonks, all with live music, just a beer bottle’s throw away, including Legends Corner and Robert’s Western World.
A late night leads to an early breakfast and a couple of musicians who just got done playing at Tootsie’s know just where to go. If you want a side of freak show with your eggs and bacon, go to the Hermitage Cafe, says guitar picker Jesse Taylor and fiddle player Josh Hedley. “They’ve also got hash browns that are amazing,” Josh says.
The cafe opens at 10 pm for the late night crowd and closes at 1:30 pm. Families might want to eat breakfast at the Loveless Cafe, Jesse suggests. No impressionable kids are on this trip so we hit the Hermitage. The hash browns are, indeed, amazing. As is the crowd of bikers, cops and people who haven’t yet been to bed.
The hash browns are soaking up the night before and I’m ready to soak in some local history. Laurie Bennett, our Hermitage Cafe waitress, says the Cheekwood mansion is a grand place with beautiful grounds, so we head west of downtown to the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art.
The fifty-five acres of landscaping include a mile-long Sculpture Trail with art work scattered along the walk like bronze bread crumbs. The 30,000-square-foot Georgian-style manse is full of marble and tile and fine wood. An extensive collection of silver, including some from the eighteenth century, is on display. But, the house was built in the 1930s. Hardly the stuff of the Old South.
Susie Monick, greeter at Cheekwood, says we should head down the road a bit to soak in some more local history, really old history. “The Belle Meade Mansion is a Civil War house and it’s only a mile away,” says Susie, who is also a bluegrass banjo picker. Now we’re talking.
Bell Meade Plantation was built in 1853 and later became known worldwide as a renowned thoroughbred farm. The plantation was the site of a brief skirmish in 1864 and the columns of the front porch are pockmarked with bullet holes. The rest of the house has been restored to very much how it appeared in the nineteenth century. Guides in period dress take you through the house, revealing the family’s history and a bit about life in those times.
The tour guides know a bit about current day life in Nashville, too. A spicy variation of fried chicken called “hot chicken” is a regional delicacy and tour guide Gioia Fazzini recommends Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Go with mild, she warns.
There is a line at the door before the place opens. Each order is fried fresh, so there is about a twenty minute wait for the food. It’s time well spent. The mild has enough heat to make your head sweat. My buddy orders medium and soaks his shirt. It’s good chicken, but I’m not sure it’s worth the drive and the wait.
While we’re mopping the sweat off our foreheads, we decide to do the touristy thing and check out the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We find much more than a collection of gold records and guitars. There is the 1960 Cadillac limo, complete with gold-plated television, owned by Elvis. There are custom CD burning stations where you can create a unique souvenir. Helping tell the history of country music are a series of Nautilus shaped listening booths where you can step inside and listen to a country music milestone — the first use of peddle steel guitar, for example.
The bartender at Sobro to Go in the museum lobby — guess what? he plays in a band — sends us to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. The shop founded by the country music pioneer more than fifty years ago has country music in every medium — vinyl, cassette, CD, DVD and sheet music. You can even buy a copy of Tammy Wynette’s cookbook.
After a shower and a nap, I’m ready for a good steak. We ask bellman David McClary for his advice. What can I say? David was dead-on before, so I’m confident when he sends us to Jimmy Kelly’s. This venerable steakhouse opened in 1934 and, while in its third location, hasn’t changed much. The waiters wear white coats. The salads are made with iceberg lettuce. The steaks are done perfectly. The food is good, but the meal is made memorable by our polished, and very funny, waiter: Arthur White.
At one point, I mention nearly everyone I’ve met is a musician.
“What do you play, Arthur?”
“I play the numbers.”
After dinner we walk to Bound’ry for a drink. We ask folks at the bar where we can find the best blues bar in country music town and everyone aims us towards Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar. And there the joint is jumping. The stage opens out to two levels. The prime seats are along a countertop along the balcony rail. The dance floor is where ever you happen to be. The show — on stage and off — is worth the $10 cover charge.
After a night of hot music and cold beer, I need a quiet morning stroll. “You can go to Centennial Park — it’s got a pond, ducks, big trees, benches,” according to Jessica Shelton, a waitress at Eats in the hotel lobby.
There is all that and more. At the center of the park, there is The Parthenon, a full-scale reproduction of the Greek temple. The steps there are a fine place to rest, gaze out over a pond and wait for your hearing to come back.
If You Go
The Loews Vanderbilt Hotel
2100 West End Ave.
911 20th Avenue South
71 Hermitage Ave.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
123 Ewing Drive
217 Louise Avenue
Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Drive
Bell Meade Plantation
5025 Harding Road
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
222 Fifth Avenue South
2600 West End Avenue
Ernest Tubb Record Shop
417 Broadway 615.255.7503
Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar
220 Printers Alley
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
Clint Williams is a former travel writer for The Atlanta Journal Constitution who now gets to do most of his writing wearing shorts.