Running the Country Music Marathon or Half Marathon this weekend? Here are some ideas for things to do before and after the race.
Written by: John Mendelsohn
Built in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium, a National Historic Landmark, is best known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. Three new exhibits showcase the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s, and Johnny Cash and June Carter’s appearance at the venue. Ooh and aah at, for instance, the dress Dolly Parton wore the night she was inducted into the Opry, and have your picture taken on the stage where everyone from Houdini to Hank Williams to Bruce Springsteen has stood — or, in the latter case, dashed back and forth maniacally.
The least expensive tour of The Country Music Hall of Fame, the self-guided one, will set you back a tidy $19.95 — but boasts three floors of exhibits and displays that even the most casual country fan will find good for an afternoon’s diversion. You might want to have sunglasses handy for viewing costumes of the stars; there’s also lots of good A/V stuff, a few cars-o’-the-stars, and dozens of platinum and gold records. Some visitors are incensed to find the likes of Garth Brooks unmentioned, but nobody said life was fair. If you somehow fail to be diverted, there’s a good restaurant on the main floor.
The smaller, much less expensive (free, you see!) Opry Land Museum, right next to Opry Land, in a separate building, offers a wealth of photos of such titans as Patsy Cline and Minnie Pearl. Not exactly La Parton’s induction dress, but you can’t beat the price.
By the way, if you sign up for a tour of The Grand Ole Opry, as no visitor to Nashville does not, you’re likely to be led around not by a good old gal hilariously gussied up like Minnie Pearl, but by a bored teenager who doesn’t know Minnie Pearl from Pearl Jam. He’ll show you the hallowed performers’ entrance, though, the TV studio, the sitting and dressing rooms, and of course the famous stage that so many famous feet have trod. The tour includes performances by a slightly dispiriting mix of past-their-prime B-list stars and up-and-comers.
The 90-minute NashTrash Tour, which travels through downtown Nashville past such hallowed local sites as the Ryman Auditorium, the Wildhorse Saloon (familiar from CMT), and the Country Music Hall of Fame, will have you snickering pretty much from the moment you board the Big Pink Bus, as the Juggs Sisters, Sheri Lynn and Brenda Kay, bombard you with ribald tales of all your favorite country artists, even if you didn’t realize you had any.
For those in the mood for rather less high-larity, Tommy’s Tours are pleasantly informative — and hardly bereft of chuckles, as you can infer from its prices: $25 if you like the tour, $50 if you don’t.
The food at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theater is fine, though the salad bar used to be a lot more sumptuous, and desserts are no longer included in the price of dinner. The in-the-round theatrical presentations are generally fairly enjoyable; they do especially good work with Beckett and David Mamet.
Those who found amusing the small joke in the latter part of the preceding sentence might be better directed to the Station Inn, there to see The Doyle and Debbie Show, which the New York Times called “gloriously tacky,” and which inspired the Austin Chronicle to gush, “It’s hilarious in the manner of Spinal Tap’s tour in the mockumentary and just as spot-on in satirizing a musical genre’s styles and sensibilities (or lack thereof).” In recent years, stars Bruce Arntson and Jenny Littleton have become big favorites of everyone from local amateur thespians to tattooed and multiply pierced college smart alecs who would ordinarily sneer at anything even vaguely pertaining to country music and culture.
The hour-long tour of RCA Studio B, where a great many country classics have been recorded, includes yet another drive down Nashville’s Music Row, where the most powerful record companies and managers and so on have their sequined offices. In Studio B itself, you can sit at a Steinway piano that Elvis Presley once played, and glimpse a cabinet that Elvis kicked in during a rare moment of pique. Very much worth the extra $10 at the Hall of Fame!
The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum isn’t nearly as well known as the Country Music Hall of Fame, but may be much more interesting to the music fan who doesn’t know Brad Paisley from Shinola, as it honors both stars and heretofore-anonymous studio musicians in multiple genres. Instruments played on original recordings by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hank Williams, Sr., to George Harrison, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan are on display. Easily navigated and colorful, the museum comprises mainly such artifacts as instruments and documents relating not only to the most notable unsung musical heroes, but to also those in Detroit, Memphis, LA, and Muscle Shoals.
Robert’s Western World, a traditional Nashville dive with cheap beer, loose women, and live country music, or at least cheap beer and live country music, is generally acknowledged as the best place in downtown Nashville to (gingerly!) grab a fried bologna sandwich after midnight, and there are those who’ll tell you it’s nothing less than the best place in America to hear traditional country music, though on Friday and Saturday nights things get a bit weird with Brazilbilly, specialists in bossa nova-flavored rockabilly, providing the entertainment. You won’t find yummier cheese sticks anywhere in town!
Legends Corner, also downtown, puts the remarkable pedal steel guitarist John Hughey’s virtuosity on display every Wednesday evening. He’s played for Conway Twitty and Vince Gill, and will make your jaw drop open in wonderment. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the Cadillac Ranch and The Stage are also good for live music. The latter has a terrific house band, and offers Pabst Blue Ribbon in longneck bottles. Most nights there’s no cover charge at these places, so you can dash back and forth between them depending on who’s playing what song.
The Tennessee State Museum (free, but eyebrows will be arched if you make no donation) provides a nice overview of the state’s history, and is especially strong on prairie/log cabin life and Andrew Jackson. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, President James Polk, and Sam Houston fans won’t be disappointed either. The Native American exhibits are fascinating, and there’s lots about the Civil War.
An actual battle of which was fought on the grounds of Belle Meade Plantation, with bullet marks on the front columns to prove it. The guided house tour is interesting, but perhaps less so than the stables — which are grander than many peoples’ actual homes — the mausoleum, the dairy, the slave cabins, and other out-buildings, all of which you may explore at no charge.
If you find yourself on a bus alone late at night with someone who describes himself as a fan of President James Polk, be it in Nashville, Nogales, or Novato, California, get off at the next stop.