I became another one of those Nashville visitors this summer, when I toured the town with a dozen or so travel writers. And we weren’t the only ones experiencing group travel in Music City.
“Nashville has become a premier destination for our company and our clients,” says Joey Spellerberg, president of Moostash Joe Tours, an NTA-member based in Fremont, Nebraska. “We started running Nashville programs over 15 years ago, and it is truly amazing to see the growth and excitement that is happening there. Its mixture of entertainment, attractions and country music history make it a truly unique place.”
Yeah, about that country music. I’m really more of a pop music guy—a child of the disco ’70s—but I figured I could still enjoy Nashville. I don’t have to write about country music. Right?
Wrong. Within 48 hours of arriving in Music City, I had written a country song.
We were touring Ryman Auditorium, known as the “mother church of country music,” and it got to me. The National Historic Landmark, which turned 125 years old this year, was the home of the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show from 1943 to 1974, and it remains a vibrant venue for live music. After watching a sensational orientation film, perusing the exhibits and soaking up the vibe, I sat down in the second row and wrote “Nothin’ Makes Me Happy When You’re Right.”
It’s a horrible song but clear evidence that Nashville can flat out grab you.
My country roots—exposed
It turns out that I’m more of a country music fan that I thought. We visited three museums dedicated to legendary performers—Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and George Jones—and each struck a chord within me.
The NTA-member Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline Museums are housed in the same building. The ground floor holds an impressive assortment of The Man in Black’s stage costumes, gold and platinum records, guitars, and memorabilia. I especially like the postcard that a young Cash wrote to his parents in Arkansas during a high school trip to Nashville. “Having a good time” was his entire message.
Upstairs, I was fascinated by Patsy Cline’s personal items—knickknacks on her dining room cupboard and her sketches of stage costumes. Mark Logsdon, our host at the museum explained the difference in the two collections: “Patsy Cline’s career lasted only six years, compared to Johnny Cash’s six decades.”
Exhibits at both museums cover the feature films that elevated the public awareness of each artist: “Walk the Line” (Cash) and “Sweet Dreams” (Cline). I’ve seen both movies several times, and I know their greatest hits; that’s why I appreciated seeing the tangible tokens of their lives.
I’m not as familiar with Jones, but I still enjoyed learning about his life and, well, hard times. Opened in 2015 and curated by his wife, The George Jones features his outlandish costumes and a sing-along room. My favorite, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is not one of the sing-along songs, but that didn’t stop me from singing it to myself as I viewed the exhibits.
But the granddaddy of Nashville’s music museums—the paramount portrayer—is the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. This multi-level attraction gives visitors the full history of country music while providing intimate portraits of its most accomplished stars. The NTA-member museum draws more than a million visitors a year.
“We get lots of student groups—bands, choruses and orchestras—along with adult groups,” says Dana Romanello, museum sales manager. “We offer exclusive tours, and we can also bring in a Nashville songwriter who will write a song with the group, and they record it before they leave.”
The collaborative program, called “Sharing the Art of Songwriting,” is available for groups of 30 or more.
More music and museums
We visited three other attractions that spotlight Nashville as the middle-C center of not only country music, but just music.
The tag line of the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum is “Come see what you’ve heard,” and the attraction showcases the artists who created music across America in Los Angeles; Memphis; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; New York; and Detroit, along with Nashville.
“When you buy a song, you think of the person who’s singing, but there might have been 500 people that went into the making of that recording,” says Jay McDowell, the museum’s multimedia curator. I would advise any tour operator to make sure it’s McDowell who leads their group through the facility; his industry background and acquisition acumen lend an incredible authenticity to the experience.
The Gallery of Iconic Guitars, jauntily referred to as The GIG, opened just this spring on the campus of Belmont University. The collection’s 500 historically significant instruments, worth an estimated $10 million, were donated to the college by the late Steven Kern Shaw. Displayed on a rotating basis, the instruments include a 1939 Martin acoustic guitar, valued at $350,000; a mandolin from the 1920s considered to be more rare than a Stradivarius violin; and a 1960 Gibson Les Paul electric guitar valued at $225,000.
“The collection celebrates the instrument, not the star who played it,” says George Gruh, a vintage instrument expert and friend of Shaw. “The real stars are the makers of the instruments.”
Tours of Historic RCA Studio B start with a shuttle ride from the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Our guide shared stories about Nashville’s oldest surviving studio and the hit-makers who recorded there, starting in 1957. One thousand of the 35,000 songs recorded in Studio B charted. The guide spun magical music tales, throwing us into total darkness to re-enact Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” She also gave us an insider fact that reveals the little-known truth about the song’s ending.
Don’t miss the live music
Of course, any tour of Nashville will include seeing a performance. It’s unavoidable, really. On the short walk down Broadway from the Cash/Cline museums to Ryman Auditorium, we passed no fewer than five venues blaring live music—at 11 a.m.
Broadway at night offers even more opportunities to get an earful. The street holds 53 honky-tonks, with new venues under construction. It’s a loud scene, crowded but safe, and if a tour operator doesn’t want to turn a group loose to go honky-tonking, there are other options for live music.
I absolutely loved my evening at Bluebird Café, an unassuming venue that seats four songwriters in the middle of the room and surrounds them with 75 or so eager listeners. The performers take turns playing and singing, while the others strum along and even sing back-up. It’s intimate and intense. Engaging and enthralling.
I heard Danny Flowers sing “Living on Tulsa Time,” a tune I knew from decades ago. Gordon Kennedy performed his Grammy-winning “Change the World,” and Brady Seals sang fun and familiar songs. Karla Davis, the youngest of the four, slayed me with her total honesty and her song “A Boy Like You.”
It sounds kind of crazy now, but being so close to those songwriters inspired me to write yet another song as soon as I had a chance: “Eatin’ into My Sleepin’ Time.” It, too, is horrible, but I had to try.
The Bluebird is a tough ticket, but LouAnna Henton of the Nashville CVC has a work-around for tour operators: “The authentic Nashville experience is summarized no better than a ‘writers in the round’ show, and if you’re not lucky enough to score tickets at the Bluebird, I suggest going to the City Winery or the Listening Room,” she says. “These are both large venues that can accommodate groups and showcase the same type of entertainment.”
Rounding out our live music showcase was a trip to the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest-running radio show, now performed in a modern theater. It’s a fast-moving event featuring several acts. The night we were there, I not only got to see a performance by John Conlee, a country music legend who graduated from the same high school as me, but I also heard Exile sing “Kiss You All Over,” a No. 1 song I had heard them perform once before … in 1978.
Houses of history
Nashville’s historical threads are not confined to music museums (and my personal timeline of tunes). Three NTA-member attractions paint profound pictures of the past—local, regional and national. Some 20 minutes from Nashville is Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, the impressive home of the seventh U.S. president. A visit to the 1,120-acre estate can include a guide-led walk through 1837 mansion and self-guided tours of the gardens, cemetery, slave quarters and the original farmhouse. Groups can write their own ticket, according to Jason Nelson, vice president of marketing and sales.
“This place is like a blank canvas,” he says. “Tour operators can tell us what they want, and we’ll make it happen—anything from Instagram scavenger hunts to ghost tours.”
Groups we saw on-site included a family reunion, a school group from North Dakota and a Corvette club doing volunteer work in the gardens.
Located in another part of town is Cheekwood Estate & Gardens. Constructed during a time of rising aristocracy in America and first occupied in 1932, Cheekwood represents the Country Place Era. Estates from that time are rarely open to the public. The property features exquisite gardens, but we spent our time in the 36-room mansion, which has been meticulously preserved and restored. Much of the furniture was bought by Leslie and Mabel Cheek during a 1929 trip to Europe, where they purchased antiques from failing estates.
Our group did not visit Fontanel, an enormous log home that was once occupied by Country Music Hall of Fame member Barbara Mandrell. Open to groups and offering family-style meals, the mansion (20 rooms and 13 bathrooms) features an array of music memorabilia, and tour guides tell stories about the stars who visited the home. The property also has a winery, distillery, zip line adventure, hiking trails, shops and six suites.
Not just notes
As much as music plays a central role in Nashville, the city is also flush with other types of artists. We visited neighborhoods, streets and studios where talented people showcase the work—the art—they are proud to express.
We were exploring 12 South, an area loaded with high-end, hip stores and eateries. (The not-so-hip might call it 12th Avenue.) We visited the jewelry studio and showroom of Judith Bright and the luxury leather goods studio of Peter Nappi. As we strolled past more studios and boutiques, one of my fellow journalists declared, “Nashville is a place where people make their dreams come true.”
I agreed with him. His statement is different than a more common phrase, “where dreams come true.” People here make it happen.
And it’s not all high falutin’ goods in 12 South. We had a great time sampling popsicles at Las Paletas, owned by two sisters who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and want to share a cool part of their culture. We also learned about Nashville’s craft beers at Filling Station, where owner Brandi Soda gave us samples of Bearded Iris, TailGate and Yazoo.
“This is the real Nashville,” she says. “We’re like one ginormous neighborhood here in 12 South.”
On another day, we spent the morning visiting galleries on 5th Avenue of the Arts. The owners of each business described the art—and the artists—they have chosen to work with.
My most memorable artist encounter was at Alan LeQuire Studio, located in a nearby neighborhood. He is the creator of “Musica,” the 40-foot tall bronze sculpture of nine nude, dancing figures that’s located near Music Row.
“People can tour the gallery and, often, go to the studio and see Alan working on a sculpture. To meet the artist and be a witness to a work in progress is a unique experience,” says studio manager Elizabeth Cave.
During our visit, a student was working beside the famous sculptor, who views teaching as his obligation. “You work a lifetime developing a craft, and then you pass it along,” LeQuire says.
He talked about the fountain that will soon be added to “Musica,” joking that the constantly moving water will become clothing for the dancers.
Then he told about his other form of artistic expression: The same hands that can mold metal also strum a guitar and pick banjo strings.
“This is Nashville,” he says. “Everybody plays.”
Top photo by Ann Richardson