Nashville - Music City

Joe, I believe ya!

It was winter time, everyone was talking about the Polar Vortex and other cool names for a band, it was time to shakes things up and take Róisín on a little tour of this country she calls home. Rooooooad Trip, bags shotgun!

Our 1,500 mile road trip (I helped out and drove zero miles!) began in Music City, also known as Nashville, Tennessee.

I am famous in certain circles for adding ‘ville’ and ‘Tennessee’ to the end of statements to add, shall we call it, ‘excitement’ to my sentence (see an example here when I talk about a trip to Niagra Falls). Visiting Tennessee was like a going on a date with my punch line.

Thankfully, Nashville’s airport didn’t disappoint, flanking the baggage carousel like a guard of honour stood a row of “grandma-on-her-front-porch” rocking chairs, behind them, large Jack Daniels ads. Hell yeah, we were in the South :)

I shimmied between two large men in large cowboy hats, I stalked a little lady in head-to-toe leopard print and I stared at a group of teenagers with soul patches, before finally getting into our rented big-ass southern SUV.

We pulled up outside a train station, ‘Not much of a road trip’, I muttered to myself as I pictured us catching the 11.15 back to San Francisco. However, I was in for a treat, Union Station is no longer a station, it has been converted into a very classy hotel. Our hotel room felt like a luxurious first class train cabin with a balcony that looked down over the relaxing hotel mezzanine below. The ceilings were high, the sheets were like clouds, the bathroom tiles were subway tiles (I love subway tiles, is it weird to have a favourite bathroom tile? ...probably).

The sign said it all

I could have sunk into my cloud and spent the day in the hotel, but we were in earshot of Nashville’s main street, Broadway, the Honky Tonks were calling.

Broadway is just a few blocks long but it is happenin’! It’s got 3 things which will see you through a trip to the South; boot shops, hat shops and honky tonks. A honky tonk, for the uninitiated, is a bar that plays live country music. You had better like country music cos these bars were everywhere. It was easy to see why Nashville was nicknamed ‘Music City’.

I'm gonna play me some geee-tar
As well as liking country music it’s also helpful if you like drinking hard, as this is a party town. In one honky tonk establishment I asked for a water to go with my pulled pork. The waitress nearly fell out of her cowboy boots. Another bar we hit, to listen to more music, sold t-shirts that simply said “Thanks for drinking”. Even the first song that played on the radio when we drove our big honking car from the airport had the hook line “I’ve been drinking on a plane”.

I’ll be honest I’m not a massive country music fan but I do recognise that it has produced some geniuses (and I’m not talking about Taylor Swift, c’mon). I was very excited to discover that Nashville’s Johnny Cash museum stayed open late. It was a lot smaller than I was expecting but it was fun and interesting.

We decided to do a bit of exploring the next morning and headed, on a Google tip, for a hard to find hipster hangout (it ain’t hipster cool unless it’s hard to find). Why did the hipster burn his mouth? Because he had his coffee before it was (that’s Dom’s joke!). 

Kinky boot
Barista Parlour in East Nashville is definitely in-your-face hipster in its lazy cool decor and lazy cool staff but interestingly the clientele were a mix of soccer moms, cab drivers, pot-pie hat wearing posers and us! You can bring hipster to Nashville, but Nashville brings Nashville to hipster.

Big Boots, etc
Another reminder that we were in the South was the food. Breakfast menus were full of references to biscuits. I don't mean an ole digestive to dunk in your earl grey I mean southern scones to mop up your gravy with. Oh yeah, gravy featured heavily too.

Biscuits and gravy sloshing about in our bellies, we took a spin across the Cumberland river and checked out Richland Ave, the houses were all built in the early 1900s and are the American dream houses, swinging seats on the porch, etc. The private schools nearby are set in acres of rolling landscape, it’s stunning.

Ever since reading Gone with the Wind and watching the movie as a kid, I’ve wanted to experience the antebellum south (pre American civil war). We saddled up and headed to a plantation a short ride from downtown called Belle Meade. We were greeted at the house by a larger than life lady in 19th century dress. She warmly welcomed us into her house and the tour began.

The house was beautifully laid out with efforts made to recreate it as it once was. We arrived mid November so the house was decked out for Christmas.

In it’s heyday the plantation employed 136 slaves, one of the highest in the state at the time. Most of the slaves worked with the horses as it was mainly a stud farm. Come Christmas time two of the slaves would be put on Christmas tree duty - they would stand all day beside the Christmas tree decorated with live candles. If the tree were to go on fire they would dose it out with buckets of sand!

"Frankly My Dear, I don't give a damn!"
For me it was a kick to see a plantation house. To my surprise it was exceedingly similar to any stately home you might visit in England and Ireland from the same time period (minus the slave quarters of course, a sad and humbling part of US history).

You have to eat fried food when you’re in the South. Partly cos that’s nearly all that is on offer. The word on the hipster street was that Hattie B’s was the best. Having lived in the US nearly 3 years and having visited 25 of the 50 states, I can conclude, yanks love to queue for food. The portion sizes were massive which made sense with the long wait. Underneath your mounds of chicken which comes with fries and Mac n Cheese is a slice of bread (just in case you’re still peckish). My arteries winced but my taste buds sang.

I wasn’t overly concerned about making it to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but I am so glad we followed the strong suggestion from the hotel concierge and sauntered on down. You forget country music isn’t just big hair and shiny belt buckles. There’s old-time country, gospel, bluegrass, country-blues (think of the soundtrack to the movie O Brother Where Art Thou) plus big hair and shiny belt buckles.

"To the fella over there with the hella good hair"
If you can overlook the Taylor Swift sponsored hall of hair (or whatever it was) the first exhibit you’ll pass through is the history of Country and Western. I did know that Country had its roots in bluegrass fiddle and banjo music that the scots and Irish immigrants had brought to the US (it’s not talked about much but hundreds of thousands of Irish slaves were kidnapped in Ireland at the same time as the African slave trade, they were transported to the New World and sold into labour - the forgotten white slaves).

Dolly Parton's guna
But I didn’t know that it was these slaves (or their descendants, plus new Irish immigrants) that mixed the celtic music traditions with the African slaves to make that famous banjo plucking, toe tapping hillbilly sound. Deride country music as much as you like (and I do) but it has it origins in some interesting fusions.

Everytime you hear a country singer talk, and God knows they like to talk, they always mention The Grand Ole Opry. I was itching to see the place. Hyped up on music and museums we made a beeline for the Ryman Auditorium which hosted The Grand Ole Opry radio show. Its history is impressive, hosting acts, comedians, operas, political debates, etc. It's mostly famous for being the "the mother church of country music" and it does have that churchy feel.

The Grand Ole Opry felt like a special place. It had inspired so many people. You could tell good times had happened there. I had chills thinking of thousands of people sitting in the pews where we sat, watching the show going out live on the the radio, with block parties erupting on the street. Apparently the place filled with the smell of fried chicken as people would break out their picnics in the auditorium. It still houses acts to this day and not attending a show is a regret I will rectify one day (I didn’t think it would be Róisín’s cup of tea, she's more into hip hop).

As we were about to leave I gave a sudden gulp. There was a recording booth, with real live sound technicians in it, who would let you make your own record for 2o bucks. Your OWN record from the Grand Ole Opry. I was sorely tempted, but alas I can’t hold a tune. Damn, where’s your woman Taylor Swift when you need her ;)

We’d had a ton of fun in Nashville, it was great start to our road trip, pedal to the metal, it was time to get our whiskey on and visit a Tennessee institution…the Jack Daniels distillery.

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