City Portrait: Nashville, Tennessee

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

"Well, somebody told me, When I got to Nashville, Son, you finally got it made." - Waylon Jennings, "I Don't Think Hank Done It This Way"Music City, USA. The Country Music Capital of the World. Rock City. The Athens of the South. Decidedly southern, Nashville, Tennessee is clearly international too. Restaurants serve sweet tea, grits, red-eye gravy and country ham beside establishments specializing in tofu, vegan dishes, and all types of ethnic foods. For every fish fry there is a ballet, and for each old-fashioned barbecue joint there is a mahogany-tabled brewery. But the tie that binds the differences here is the ever-present music that drifts like smoke from the dark honkytonks and quaint cafés to one of the grandest stages of them all.

I rolled into Nashville late in the evening on a Honda Gold Wing 1800 from Memphis on I-40, a stretch of road better known as The Music Highway. Heading straight for historic Second Avenue, I find the Wildhorse Saloon rollicking with the best country-western dancers in the world. A 1,400-capacity multilevel nightclub with 3,300 square feet of dance space, the Wildhorse Saloon is frequently featured as the line-dancing venue for shows on The Nashville Network (TNN). It is also part of the Gaylord Entertainment Company family that owns the Grand Ole Opry, Opry Mills, and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Resort.

The city's juxtapositions are everywhere. Just around the corner from the huge production that is the Wildhorse Saloon, a couple of street musicians collect coins playing harmonica/guitar duets on the banks of the Cumberland River. Up Broadway, both sides of the sidewalk are lined with neon lights and dark bars, nearly all of them with some musical performer visible through the window. A duet on stage tells me they play anywhere free. "Just playing on this street is payment enough for us," one of them explains.

After all, only the lucky few ever make any headway in Nashville. One jazz guitarist told me not only do you have to be one of the best to make it in Nashville, but you also have to know people in the industry. If you aren't connected, you'd simply better be the best, he said. It's a long road between playing free gigs in the smoky dives around town and an invitation from The Grand Ole Opry, but scores of aspiring musicians pack up their guitars and follow their dreams to this town every day.

More than anything else, Nashville is known for The Grand Ole Opry radio show. The first broadcast, then called The WSM Barn Dance, was November 28, 1925. Reputedly it was renamed one night in 1928, when announcer George D. Hay said, "For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but now we will present 'The Grand Ole Opry!'" If a country music singer played The Grand Ole Opry, it could make or break a career in one performance. Today, it is the oldest continually running live radio show in the world.

The country music recording industry grew into a thriving business around this show and the sounds it produced came to identify the heartland of America. On the heels of the show's success, Opryland, USA opened in 1974 as a theme park and auditorium for the famous radio show. The theme park played a key role in converting Nashville to an international tourist destination, but recently closed to make way for Opry Mills, a large retail shopping center, in 2000. It is still the site of the weekly radio show, as well as the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Hotel, the country's largest non-casino hotel. You can even take a boat ride on a river that meanders through the enormous complex.

Before Opryland opened, The Grand Ole Opry was staged in the old Ryman Auditorium downtown, and performances are still held there today. Long ago, the famous building was the site of religious revivals, which contributed to its nickname, "The Mother Church of Country Music." Another musical landmark worth visiting downtown is the Country Music Hall of Fame. Artifacts like Elvis Presley's 1960 Gold Cadillac and Loretta Lynn's well-worn road atlas are on display inside.

A short drive from downtown is Music Row, so I rode the Gold Wing through this area on my way out of downtown. Handsome buildings with names like Sony Recording and RCA Records occupy about four city blocks, but look like impenetrable fortresses. Apparently gone are the days of recording studios with open doors, where the sounds of the heartland would drift right onto the street.

It's easy to spend all your time in Nashville caught up in the music scene. Music is everywhere, but it is by no means all that Nashville has to offer. The "Athens of the South" nickname is derived from the presence of several fine educational institutions (Vanderbilt, Fisk, and four other four-year universities), and, of course, the Parthenon, just across the street from Vanderbilt in Centennial Park. The world's only complete reproduction of the Parthenon in Athens, it houses a 42-foot statue of Athena, the largest indoor sculpture in the Western World. Centennial Park was dedicated for the 1897 Centennial Expo celebrating the city's one-hundredth birthday, and is worth visiting in the evening just to get a view of the Parthenon in the golden lights.

Besides the music industry, this capital city also houses Tennessee's government centers. The high-rise skyline is a reminder that much more than pickin' on a guitar goes down in Nashville. Of particular fame is "The Batman Building," so nicked for the spires rising on either edge of the skyscraper, purportedly designed to resemble Batman's mask. BellSouth, the building's owner and tenant, denies the existence of a "Bat Cave" beneath the structure. A great view of the "The Batman Building," the Capitol Building, and the Nashville skyline can be had from the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park just a few miles west of downtown.

In the late afternoon, I took the Gold Wing southwest from downtown, following West End Boulevard past Vanderbilt and Centennial Park, all the way out to Belle Meade Plantation. The Greek Revival antebellum mansion is located on the grounds of a horse farm long known as one of the top thoroughbred farms in the nation. In fact, most Kentucky Derby winners can trace their lineage in some way back to this farm. Civil War buffs will note that skirmishes in the Battle of Nashville were fought in Belle Meade's front yard. The massive stone columns of the plantation house are still riddled with bullet holes.

Another special treat for visitors to Nashville is the southern food, like Southeastern style barbecue, made from pork, and sometimes slathered with a vinegar-based dip rather than traditional barbecue sauce. Instead of fancy, five-star fare, many of Nashville's best-known eateries are diner-style, eat-on-a-budget places. Known as "meat and three sides" restaurants, some of the more popular are the Loveless Café, on the southwestern outskirts of town (rumored to have the best scratch biscuits in the country), and Arnold's Country Kitchen on Eighth Avenue near downtown. The Pancake Pantry near Vanderbilt is one of the city's most beloved restaurants, and by 7:00 a.m., it's packed to the rafters.

Nashville has so many different aspects that it's hard to divvy up the time to take it all in. With the exception of the Historic District of downtown, Nashville is sufficiently sprawled so that you need to ride to whatever you want to visit. Of course, while this is a hassle where four-wheeled travelers are concerned, we on two wheels don't seem to mind the obstacle of cruising through town on our prides-and-joys. Besides, this is a town with country roots where a nice ride still turns heads like it was 1960. But for all the capital of Tennessee has to offer, it always comes back to one thing - the tunes. My last night in Nashville, I checked out The Bluebird Café, an intimate singer/songwriter joint where patrons sit so close to performers, it's as if they are on an examination table. In this staple of the Nashville music scene, ambitious new artists put themselves under intense scrutiny and established performers routinely try out new songs.

Leaving town, I cranked the stereo. And when pulling once again onto "The Music Highway," I heard Waylon ask me if I was "sure Hank done it this way." I doubt it, but if he did, I hope he kept the shiny side up.