If you’re a hockey fan, you had to be excited and inspired by the support Nashville showed for its Predators through the playoffs, whether you liked the team or not. The buzz downtown was fantastic. I can only imagine those images will draw even more tourists to Music City than the record numbers that have made it a hugely popular destination.
In Nashville, Broadway Street is alive long before noon with revelers and music fans roaming bar to bar. I’d avoid driving if possible (which it is).
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Accommodations are at a premium. I was fortunate to stay at the Union Station. Alison Krauss named her band after this Nashville landmark, the city’s former train station. It’s pricey – I’ve seen it range from US$300-$500 a night. But it’s within walking distance to Broadway Street. However, online I also saw one downtown Airbnb for CDN$142 (one bedroom) and a loft for CDN$76. You don’t have to pay big bucks to stay downtown. And you can always catch a bus to the Grand Ole Opry, but you’ll get tired going back and forth between the massive Gaylord Opryland Resort and where the real action is, downtown.
Here are some of the places and events I like the best during my three days there (besides the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is an absolute must).
- The Johnny Cash Museum. It’s new and a lot cozier than other Nashville shrines, but Cash fans don’t seem to mind rubbing elbows with one another, and standing silently shoulder-to-shoulder while watching the video of “Hurt.” Curators are hungry for video footage or stills from Cash’s onstage proposal to June Carter during their February 1968 performance in London, ON. Pick up a striped black-and-while Folsom Prison baby onesie in the gift shop for the grandkids.
- RCA’s Studio B tour. This is where Elvis recorded more than 250 songs, as did Roy Orbison (“Only The Lonely”), Dolly Parton (“Jolene”) and Floyd Cramer (“Last Date”). Sit at the studio’s original piano for a photo. Then channel Elvis when the tour goes quiet and the host turns the studio lights green and red – that’s what The King needed for inspiration when recording Christmas music in July.
- The Grand Ole Opry, especially on star-studded Saturday nights. When I visited, the Oak Ridge Boys were the featured act, the same week it was announced they were new inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. They were pumped. “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue” never sounded more inspired. Great show on June 28 – Charlie Daniels Band and the Gatlin Brothers.
- The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. Members of this hall of fame must be players, not just crooners, to be nominated. But you’ll enjoy it for the memories, even if you don’t play anything. Some of the artifacts here are more savoury than those in the main hall of fame, such as Joe South’s late 1950s Gretsch 6120, the one he used on “Games People Play.” Its reach goes far beyond country – a new addition is the Fender Rhodes electric piano used from 1972-85 at the Caribou Ranch recording studio on classic pop songs such as Chicago’s “Just You ‘N’ Me.”
Carter’s Vintage Guitars. Dubbed “Nashville’s friendliest guitar store,” it’s a bit off the beaten track, on 8th Ave, but well worth the visit. Accommodating staff let me play – unchaperoned – Keith Urban’s 1958 Les Paul Standard, valued at $90,000. Guitars from Janis Ian’s collection were also on the floor for casual picking, including a 1900 Martin 0-28, with a $14,500 price tag. Again, you don’t have to be a musician to be in awe of the items you’ll see there. But it helps. More heralded for vintage instruments is Gruhn Guitars, which recently moved off Broadway to 8th Ave. S.
- Tin Pan South. Nashville studio musicians would have nothing to play if not for the efforts of the city’s 400 or so staff songwriters, who collectively churn out a whopping 80,000 songs a year. For the past 23 years, Nashville’s professional songwriters have been showcased in an event called Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival. This event, held in March, features 250 songwriters performing 70 shows over four days. The Nashville Songwriters Association International, an advocacy group for songwriters’ rights with 165 chapters (including eight in Canada), is focused on getting copyright laws rewritten to reflect modern technology. “Free streaming is killing songwriters,” says Jennifer Turnbow, senior director of operations for the association. “No one can be expected to produce anything for free. Farmers can’t produce food for nothing. Songwriters can’t write songs for nothing.”
- Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant. This is a Nashville institution, day and night. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the Union Station. It offers fried food galore, but whatever you choose, the prices are downhome: oatmeal, two eggs, toast and coffee and tip for under $9.
- The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium. It lives up to its reputation as the best craft beer bar in Nashville, with more than 200 different varieties on tap. The Flying Saucer draws its name from the hundreds of saucers affixed to the cavernous ceiling. Become a member of the Ring of Honour club after consuming 200 brews. My favourite was Mayday Evil Octopus, a black IPA brewed nearby in Murfreesboro. Take home a Draft Punk T-shirt.
- Queueing up for hot chicken. If you see a lineup outside a restaurant in the middle of the day, odds are it’s for a food fad called hot chicken. Here, hot means spicy and fried. At Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, intensity ranges from mild to “shut the cluck up,” which has a burn notice with it. Try pimento mac and cheese as a side.
- Shopping for cowboy boots. Cowboy boots and western wear has a lot of cache with shoppers in Nashville. On the Broadway bar strip, deals abound, especially three boots for the price of two. Who can have enough? Who can resist boots with your favourite NFL team or college team crest? Check Robert’s Western World, a true institution.
– Owen Roberts was a guest of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. Follow him on twitter at @theurbancowboy.
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