Hanging in the lobby of the
Nashville Sheraton, where VVA will hold this year’s Leadership
Conference, are photographs of Music City in its heyday: the
men are hot and the women are fresh and sweet as cantaloupe.
Hillbillies tumbled out of hollows then and into Nashville,
blinded by the lights and city life, dazzled by the music. For
Nashville was an alchemist’s crucible, transforming pain and
poverty and drink and boredom into bluegrass, rockabilly, and
western swing, spinning out all the variants that would become
Country and Western.
Maybe that celestial explosion has cooled to a simmer. Maybe
there’s no longer the exhilaration of being swept away in a
glorious American unknown something. It’s true: the Grand Ole
Opry has been tamed, homogenized, corporatized, and moved to
the ’burbs, where it anchors a shopping mall.
But the afterglow is still warm and fine. It’s less than a
five-block walk downhill from the hotel to the Mother Church
of Country and Western Music: Ryman Auditorium.
Unfortunately, after Carole King finishes up the Saturday
before VVA arrives, the next act isn’t until the end of
August. But Ryman is still open for self-guided tours ($8.50).
In the quiet and ghostly serenity of the empty music temple
who knows which legend may come unbidden?
Soon after arriving in Nashville, you’ll start hearing the
story about Ryman Auditorium and the honky tonks. About
how some famous singer (let’s say Hank Williams, both musical
giant and iconic good-timer) would play a set at Ryman, then
rush across the alleyway to Tootsie’s (or one of the other
honky tonks) where he would drink for a sizeable amount of
time. Then, just moments before his next set, Williams would
jump up, race back across the alley, and clamor on stage just
in the nick of time because he knew it was exactly (fill in
the blank) steps between his barstool and the Ryman stage.
So take a snapshot of the alley and slip into one of the honky
tonks. There’s Tootsie’s and Legends and Robert’s and the
Stage. They line half a block of Broadway. They all have near
constant live music; most have stages only slightly larger
than a dining room table. The beer’s cheap ($3.50), but if
it’s crowded you’ll have a hard time getting served. The
crowd: well, some of the Sheraton’s photos might come to mind.
The music’s terrific. Hell, even bad music is good when the
musician is within arm’s length, when you can watch her finger
the frets and the bass player nods a greeting. They’re all on
the dream machine, hoping the star-maker will walk in any
moment. In an hour or tomorrow you will see another band,
another name, but maybe some of the same performers.
Kaleidoscopically, the musicians shift. You might be watching
a band, and they’re doing a great job, then they invite
someone they know on stage to sing. All of a sudden it’s a
different band with a different energy and a different drive.
Or one night as you go from honky tonk to honky tonk listening
to all of Willie and Waylon and Patsy’s old chestnuts, you
take your seat as the intro starts, and you recognize the
song. Then, shockingly, out of the mouth of some snake-hipped
kid singing for tips comes sounds and words that are fresh and
raw again, and that old chestnut suddenly grows roots that
wrap tightly around the heart. And you know ole Johnny Cash
don’t have an eternal lease on that song anymore. This skinny
kid with battered cowboy boots has just shown you why he calls
himself a recording artist.
In the morning, after a large glass of water to wash down the
aspirin, it’s time for breakfast. The best choice is Provence.
Make a right out the door of the hotel, a right at the corner,
go down hill one block, and you’re there. Or, once you get the
lay of the land: slip out the side door by the swimming pool
and you’re in view of the restaurant.
It’s located in the northeast corner of the Nashville
Library, a lovely building abutting the back of the
Sheraton. It’s a great place to slip away or to see the
special exhibit, Nashville: Now and Then, featuring
photographs taken recently and others a quarter-century ago,
an exhibit that spills into the Provence. The heady smell of
fresh-baked bread pervades the restaurant. The food is fresh
and delicious, and so is the coffee. Cafe latte, fresh fruit,
scones, and eggs. It’s open for lunch, too, with sandwiches
like roast chicken with citrus vinaigrette and Italiano on
If it’s cheaper fare you’re after, try Burger King or the
Southern Cafe on Sixth Avenue. Southern Cafe opens at 6:30 (Provence
at 7:00) and serves omelets ($4.25) or fried eggs with side
orders of grits or hash browns, bacon or sausage.
You’ll learn soon enough that in Nashville most restaurants
close between lunch and dinner, and it’s hard to get lunch
after, say, 2:30. Sure, there are exceptions; this is just a
Directly across from the Sheraton is the Vietnam Veterans
Park. It sits in an enclosed plaza. On one wall is
engraved the names of the 1,289 men from Tennessee who gave
their lives in Vietnam. A plaque recognizes the more than
49,000 Tennesseans who "served with distinction and valor, but
often without recognition."
In the center of the plaza is a sculpture by Alan LeQuire.
Like Frederick Hart’s statue in Washington, this contains
three soldiers. But those depicted here are no band of
brothers, overcoming racism and fear, looking both forward and
back, who guard liberty. LeQuire saw something other than that
His men are not handsome or muscular or heroic. They are
plain, bordering on homely. They assume awkward, rigid,
self-conscious poses. Even among comrades, they are alone,
confronting their own fears and private demons even as they
waitalertfor the enemy. The Vietnam Veterans Park is a quiet
LeQuire’s other famous sculpture in Nashville is a colossal
Athena that dominates the interior of the Parthenon–the
world’s only full-scale Acropolis-free replica. Maybe it’s
even better because the pediment sculptures have been replaced
and restored. It earned Nashville the sobriquet of the Athens
of the South, surely a surprise to Athens, Georgia. The
Parthenon is on Nashville’s West Side, a short cab ride from
the hotel. Nearby is Music Row, where most of
Nashville’s recording studios are located.
Back behind the Vietnam Veterans Park is the Tennessee
Military Museum. It holds extensive WWII munitions
collections and fabulous WWII propaganda posters. The Vietnam
collection is–how would you say?–sparse. (This is the moment
when the museum’s director urges VVA members to contribute
Just beyond the Military Museum is the handsome Tennessee
State Capitol Building. From the rear steps you look out
at the view spread out at the foot of the hill. That’s right:
Capitol Hill. Right in Nashville. It’s the same hill the
Sheraton shares. Everything is just a short walk down hill.
Down hill beyond the Capitol is Bicentennial Park It’s
your best source for local fruit and vegetables, gorgeously
fresh and juicy, and invitingly cheap. Tennessee is a rural
state–those farms are just a few miles away. Just beyond this
outdoor Farmers Market piled high with tomatoes and
watermelons and peaches and blackberries bigger than your
thumb is an enclosed market with international foods and a
good half-dozen restaurants.
A quick stop at the Horny Toad House of Hot Sauces is probably
in order, where the proprietor may offer you a sample of his
near-suicidal concoctions. But don’t tell him it’s hot as
hell: He’s a religious man and may take it poorly.
Several museums are close to the Sheraton. The Tennessee
State Museum sort of diagonally to the right of the hotel,
prides itself on its collection of Tennessee paintings,
silver, ceramics, furniture, and firearms. There’s no fee;
it’s open Tuesday to Sunday.
A couple blocks over, at Fourth and Charlotte Avenues, is the
Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery. During the
Leadership Conference, Early Morning Paintings by
Memphis painter Hamlet Dobbins will be on exhibit.
Also, check out the Frist Center, which is about eight
blocks down hill at 919 Broadway, a ways up from the honky
tonks. Make a left at the Sheraton’s front door, a left on
Seventh Avenue, and a right on Broadway. Located in an elegant
Art Deco building that once housed the city post office, the
center presents exciting and inspiring visual art from around
the world. In August, the Frist Center will be showing
Pre-Raphaelite Dreams: Paintings and Drawings from the Tate
Far and away the biggest museum in Nashville is the Country
Music Hall of Fame and Museum (Biggest price, too:
$15.95). It’s located a couple blocks further down from the
honky tonks. Housed in a large modern building whose
architectural motifs mimic keyboards and clefs, the museum
contains a vast collection of musical memorabilia.
One of Nashville’s most fascinating museums is not a museum at
all but a letterpress shop. Hatch Show Print, one of
America’s oldest poster shops, has been in business since
1879. Its business exploded with the music business, and the
walls of the shop are lined with posters promoting the country
and western luminaries of Nashville. "The Opry stars always
needed posters," said Jim Sherraden, Hatch’s manager, resident
artist, and impresario.
Their work is done computer-free, the old-fashioned way, with
movable type and woodcuts. "When we set up the words for an
Emmylou Harris poster," he said, "we might be using the exact
same ‘E’ and ‘Y’ that had been used for Elvis Presley."
Located at 316 Broadwayjust down from the honk tonksHatch
offers posters to the tourist trade. They vary in price from a
$2 equestrian broadside to a $600 fine-art print. Hatch has
designed posters and album covers for Bruce Springsteen and
the Rolling Stones, as well as for Kitty Wells and George
Jones. They’re open Monday-Friday, 9-5.
If you get hungry or restless, turn right at the front door of
the Sheraton onto Union Street, walk a couple blocks to Fifth
Avenue. Make a right, and you’re in view of The Arcade,
a pedestrian mall anchored by a Walgreen’s, and featuring
local restaurants such as House of Pizza, Oriental Lunch,
Maggie’s Cafe, Greek Touch, and Jim’s World of Famous Hotdogs.
Don’t pass up the Peanut Shop, the Nashville Nut since 1927.
Wandering further down Union Street toward the Cumberland
River, you’ll come to Second Avenue. Well-known to
Tennesseans, Second Avenue is a long corridor of food and
music. Many chain entertainment and dining venuesincluding
Hard Rock Cafe, Spaghetti Factory, and Hootersare located
here. There’s also B.B. King’s, where the music is more
interesting than the food (www.bbkingbluesclub.com
for performance schedules), and the Wildhorse Saloon,
which bills itself as "dinner, dancing, and the hottest live
country music in Music City."
Nashville also has several good microbreweries. Try Big
River Grille at the corner of Second and Broadway. They offer
a large selection of beers brewed on site. Or you can request
the sampler: a tray of juice glasses, each containing a
Now, the citizens of Nashville are a loquacious and gregarious
bunch, fond of exchanging elaborate pleasantries, Civil War
histories, or analyses of the merits of pellet stoves. So
think twice before making idle comments or extending
absent-minded greetings. Conversation is important here.
The citizens of the Volunteer State are a good-natured but
independent breed, proud of their state’s long and honorable
military history. Don’t be surprised when strangers approach
to say Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.