Exploring a New Country

Think Nashville's just big hats, honky-tonk, and Dolly Parton?  Think again.  Discover jazz, funky neighborhoods and Mexican Popsicle stands in Music City, U.S.A.

Why do I cringe at country music, but I love this song?” I asked a Nashville neophyte who relocated to Music City two years ago from New York. I wasn’t referring to any song in particular, but to that easy-going, fun-loving attitude that pulses through so much of country music — it is as contagious as line dancing in a boot scootin’ saloon. You can’t help but get hooked on it.

She laughed: “I meet more people from NYC here than you can believe.” After four days exploring Nashville’s neighborhoods — historic, nostalgic, artsy, down-home — I can see why it’s a place where everyone fits in.

Nashville is Billboard’s best without the bling; it’s Top 10 with a side of twang. It’s big dreams and big names without the big attitude. And, best of all, it’s a hip, accessible alternative to the Big Apple or Los Angeles, conveniently located between the two high-maintenance cities and a direct (cheap) flight from Hopkins.

Any notion of Nashville as backwoods was erased at the five-diamond Hermitage Hotel, where I encountered a richly appointed, Beaux Arts-inspired foyer and an elegant afternoon tea service. Of course, just around the corner are honky-tonk bars on Broadway and jazz dives in Printer’s Alley, so you’ll never stray far from Nashville’s musical roots.

I tasted Nashville’s charm during an evening at the Bluebird Café in the Green Hills neighborhood.

The club, nationally recognized for being “the place” for songwriters, is wedged into a strip center — an unassuming, sterile location for a venue where artists bare their souls. Inside, the audience was hushed; no chatter corrupted the acoustic performance. Clustered on an intimate stage, four singer/songwriters crooned to an attentive crowd hanging on every chord, every reprise. Their voices aren’t the familiar Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts or Garth Brooks, but I liked their sound better. At the Bluebird, I was sold on country — this country anyway. The songwriters’ original renditions of Billboard chart-toppers spoke to me in a way the big names never did.

Between gigs, I checked out a few of the city’s many attractions: the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry takes the stage (there’s your “Hee Haw” fix, banjos and all, plus Mr. Grand Ole Opry himself, Porter Wagoner); and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (ask for docent Mancil Ezell if you take a tour — he brings the art to life, and you can ask him about anything Nashville).

During a tour at Studio B, the famous RCA studio where Elvis and others cut their first hits, I learned that Elvis was originally blond and that when Willie Nelson first sat down with a guitar in Nashville’s hot spots, he wore only suits. He was a Bible salesman until he “got over it,” my tour guide explained (his repertoire of one-liners and star gossip could fill a score — the hour-long tour was worth it just for the shtick).

There are more talented musicians in Nashville than ever before, the guide pointed out: 15,000 of them competing for airtime in one of the studios on a four-block recording drag called Music Row. Of that number, 10 will make it big.

That’s good news for the rest of us; all this talent contained in one city is an all-access entertainment pass to free music, no matter what your taste. Country hopefuls take the stage in a string of bars on Broadway, where the atmosphere reverberates with the Nashville I expected to find. File into Jack’s Barbecue for an authentic, cafeteria-style plate of smothered pork; then belly up to the bar at Tootsie’s — its back door is within sight of the Ryman Auditorium, and you might catch an encore of one of the performers after they retire from that stage and move on for the night.

Meanwhile, “the buckle of the Bible Belt” is cranking it up a notch in the development arena. The emerging 12 South neighborhood is taking shape as the city’s hot spot for up-and-comers.

Galleries, independent restaurants and kitschy boutiques fill old bungalow homes. Rumours Wine and Art Bar and its neighboring gallery were one of the first footprints of 12 South’s artistic entrepreneurialism.

While I gave my ears a rest, Savant Vintage Couture, Frothy Monkey coffee bar and Las Palletas, an authentic Mexican Popsicle shop, provided me with plenty of places to window shop and pop in for refreshments.

I found an antiques-collector’s haven on Eighth Avenue South, where the monthly antique auction at Douglas Corner Café draws a standing-room crowd. And just down the road, I stumbled across a different kind of fast-talking: Zanies, a comedy club that’s hosted name-brand comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.

Of course, music rules wherever you go in Nashville. Douglas Corner Café entertains hungry ears six nights a week. The unassuming club has seen Cheap Trick, Garth Brooks and Jon Bon Jovi take the stage. And if rock ’n’ roll is more your style, Elliston Place (just west of downtown) is home to bars such as Exit/In and The End, where you can happily head-bang the night away.

Music is woven into the social fabric of every neighborhood, every attraction. And it resonates.

Weeks after returning, I’m still cuing up the country hits and jazz mixes I picked up during my trip. I love this song. And this one! I’m already planning my encore visit, hopefully in time for “Awesome April,” a month of festivals thrown in celebration of Nashville’s heady convergence of music in all its forms.

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