Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, is nicknamed “Music City,” and it’s particularly identified with the uniquely American form of entertainment that is country music. In February 2013, I spent a long weekend in Nashville, sandwiched around an overnight journey to the nearby city of Murfreesboro. During my all-too-brief stay in Nashville, I delved into the history and heritage of country music by exploring some of the places that honour and preserve that past. As well, I checked out out some of the other institutions that make Nashville special.
The Parthenon: a taste of Greece in the American South
Upon arriving at my Nashville hotel on a Friday night, my first order of business, naturally, was to sing karaoke in the hotel bar. But immediately afterward, I jumped into a cab and headed to a unique attraction: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, complete with meticulous re-creations of the friezes on the pediment and entablature.
Conceived as a temporary installation for the Tennessee Centennial exhibition in 1897, Nasvhille’s Parthenon was completely rebuilt with more permanent materials by 1931. Its floor plan duplicates that of its Greek doppelganger, and filling that floor is an art museum. The collection focuses on 19th and 20th century American landscape paintings, but its signature piece is a gilded, 42-foot-tall statue of the Greek goddess Athena, a reconstruction of an identical sculpture (known as “Athena Parthenos”) that once stood in the original Parthenon in Athens (but was removed by the Romans in the 5th century A.D.). Other than its artistic holdings, the most notable feature of Nashville’s Parthenon is a structural component that you won’t find in its Athenian counterpart: two pairs of bronze doors that weigh some 7.5 tons per door. Each pair constitutes the largest set of matching bronze doors in the world. (The two pairs are the same size.)
Since I’d previously hit the Acropolis during my vacation to Greece in 1996, I can now say that I’ve been to both Parthenons! I didn’t get a chance to check out the interior of the one in Tennessee, though, as my visit was after hours (I’d wanted to see the building lit up at night.)
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
On Saturday afternoon, I took a stroll through one of Nashville’s signature institutions: the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (CMHOFAM). Its exterior evokes a set of piano keys:
A park in front of the museum contains the Music City Walk of Fame, similar to the Walk of Fame in Hollywood but devoted to persons who’ve contributed to the musical heritage of Nashville. It’s not restricted to folks in the country music field, although artists who excelled in that genre are, of course, well-represented.
The CMHOFAM provides a comprehensive overview of the history and development of country music: how it derived from other musical forms such as English ballads, how it was influenced by genres such as rockabilly and bluegrass, and how it ultimately evolved into its present form. Integral to the presentation are biographies of the most significant and impactful country music recording artists over the years. Copious displays of memorabilia make the narrative come alive, and there are video monitors on which you can watch archival footage from throughout country music history. The whole thing is really quite thorough and well-curated, and the production values are first-rate. During the time of my visit, the museum also had a special exhibit on the life of country music star Patsy Cline, whose brilliant career was tragically cut short by a plane crash. (Among Ms. Cline’s best-known standards are “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.”)
A highlight of any visit to the CMHOFAM is stepping into its Hall of Fame Rotunda, a cylindrical room in which you can read bronze wall plaques that recite the accomplishments of the inductees. A full list of those inductees can be found here.
Incidentally, the CMHOFAM is currently in the midst of a renovation that will double its exhibition space and add amenities such as an 800-seat theatre. When the expansion is complete, a visit to the museum will be even more educational, informative, and fun!
Historic RCA Studio B
When purchasing my admission ticket to the CMHOFAM, I added an optional excursion to nearby RCA Studio B. This historic recording studio was the place where many of the most legendary country music tunes were created. Elvis Presley, who himself was heavily influenced by the “Nashville sound,” recorded some of his biggest hits in Studio B.
Inside the studio, I had the chance to sit at the Steinway piano that Elvis used to enjoy playing:
The King liked this piano so much that he wanted to buy it and install it at Graceland (his house in Memphis, Tennessee). However, the studio rebuffed his offer, advising him that the piano was not for sale.
Tours of Studio B are only offered as part of a combination package with admission to the CMHOFAM. (The museum runs you over to the studio in a motorcoach, then brings you back.) I highly recommend going for that add-on.
Bar-hopping on Broadway
After my Saturday afternoon tours, I caught a Greyhound bus to the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where that night I sang at the karaoke show that’s hosted by another H-Bomb. The following evening I returned to Nashville and met up with some friends to enjoy the nightlife on downtown Nashville’s main drag of Broadway. The neon lights that line Broadway are an unforgettable sight:
Here’s a sign that I liked inside Robert’s Western World, a honky-tonk where I grabbed dinner and listened to a live band:
Robert’s Western World is not safe for hippies! By the way, a honky-tonk is defined by wikipedia as “a type of bar that provides musical entertainment (usually country music) to its patrons”; and honky-tonks are especially prevalent in the American South. In Nashville, a specific part of Broadway that abounds with such establishments has been dubbed “Honky Tonk Row.” Even on a Sunday night, bar after bar along that strip was offering live music — often to packed houses.
On Monday morning, before catching my flight back to New York, I moseyed on over to Ryman Auditorium, a storied performance venue in the heart of Nashville’s downtown. It’s perhaps best known as the theatre from which the long-running television program The Grand Ole Opry was broadcast from 1943 to 1974. The Grand Ole Opry is a variety show. Featuring country music performances as well as skits and comedy sketches, it originated as a radio program in 1925 and is still going strong today.
When you enter the lobby of Ryman Auditorium, there are statues of Minnie Pearl (1912-1996) and Roy Acuff (1903-1992) seated together on the bench.
Ms. Pearl (born Sarah Ophelia Colley) is undoubtedly the most iconic cast member in the long history of The Grand Ole Opry; with her catchphrase “How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I’m jes’ so proud to be here!,” her character on the show satirised “hillbilly” culture from the southern United States. Mr. Acuff, the first person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame while still alive, was known as the King of Country Music. As a singer, Acuff appeared often on The Grand Ole Opry; he also founded an influential country music record label. Of course, I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph to the accomplishments of Ms. Pearl or Mr. Acuff. As with so many other people that I learned about during my weekend in Nashville, I want to find out more about them.
Inside Ryman’s main auditorium, I was able to gaze down upon the celebrated stage that was graced over the years by luminaries like Minnie Pearl and some of the biggest names in country music.
I then got the chance to imagine what it would have been like to stand on Ryman Auditorium’s stage and look out at the audience.
Because I’m an international karaoke singer, the management even permitted me to belt out a song on that fabled stage!
Okay, not really; I paid $10 for this photo op. 🙂 And sadly, no singing was involved.
Other things to do in Nashville
During the limited time available to me, I could only scratch the surface of things to do in the greater Nashville area. Here are some other points of interest that are either in Music City, or within a suitable distance for a day-trip:
On the way to the airport, I had my cabbie make a quick stop so that I could take a photograph of Union Station. A former rail terminus, Union Station is now a swanky hotel. (It calls itself the “Union Station Hotel.”) From what I’ve heard, it’s worth a look inside, to admire features such as a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.
The Grand Ole Opry House
You can be an audience member for a live broadcast of The Grand Ole Opry at its current home. That home, known as the Grand Ole Opry House, is about nine miles east of downtown Nashville. Tours of the building are offered.
Located about 10 miles east of downtown Nashville is the Hermitage, the plantation and home that was owned by Andrew Jackson, the eighth President of the United States. (Jackson, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” served as President from 1829 to 1837.) Given that I’m a history geek, the Hermitage will be at the top of my list the next time I’m lucky enough to make it to Nashville.
Dollywood is an eponymous theme park co-owned by country music star Dolly Parton. It’s located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, about a three-hour drive from Nashville. Dollywood offers traditional amusement park rides, and also showcases indigenous crafts and music from the Smoky Mountains region in which it’s found. Also on the site is the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame.