The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

July 2004

Spark Me Like You Used To Do
A Walking Tour of Nashville


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 rosemary focaccia.

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 warning.

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 romantic notion.

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 waitalertfor the enemy. The Vietnam Veterans Park is a quiet place.

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 artifacts.)

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 Collection.

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 Broadwayjust down from the honk tonksHatch 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 venuesincluding Hard Rock Cafe, Spaghetti Factory, and Hootersare located here. There’s also B.B. King’s, where the music is more interesting than the food ( 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 different beer.

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.

Welcome Home.



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