Experiencing Music City from the Neighborhood Level

By Karen Rubin & Eric Leiberman

Nashville is a city that isn’t just fun to visit, you can easily imagine living here.

Hanging out with the locals – going to the places and getting involved in community events – is the best way to confirm that.

This was on glorious display during an event aptly called “Regions Free Day of Music”, presented at Nashville’s utterly stunning cathedral of music, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

The center, built in a Greco-Roman classical style with marble columns and stunning detail, looks like it has been standing there for eons, but actually opened only in September 2006.

And yes, there is another “Mother Church” of music in Nashville, just a few blocks away: the Ryman Auditorium, which was originally built as a tabernacle and has been the epicenter of country and bluegrass music for generations.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is a veritable cathedral of music (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Schermerhorn Symphony Center was named in honor of the late Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn who led the GRAMMY award-winning for 22 years. The Nashville Symphony performs more than 100 classical, pops and special concert events each season and including recitals, choral concerts, cabaret, jazz and world music events (concert schedule and tickets are available online (, 615-687-6400).

This “Regions Free Day of Music” festival offers a taste of that extraordinary variety and incredible talent – but what I focused on were the young families or all stripes who sat on the marble floor in the lobby to hear chamber music, MTSU Symphonic Brass, the young violinists and cellists of the Blair School of Music Suzuki Players, the Nashville children’s choir, and others.

But I will never forget that first moment when I went through the double doors into the Laura Turner Concert Hall, itself, and caught my breath as I gazed at what was absolutely a magnificent cathedral – the wood and pipes of a massive organ forming the front wall with a gallery that provided seats looking at the conductor right above the orchestra itself, the orchestra assembled on a proscenium stage open to the audience, the second level offering a mezzanine but along the sides, private boxes of incredible elegance.

The design of Schermerhorn Symphony Center was inspired by some of the world’s great concert halls, many of which were built in Europe in the late 19th century. Its shoebox designed 1,844-seat Laura Turner Concert Hall is one of the few halls nationwide to feature natural interior light through 30 special soundproof windows. It also offers an amazingly intimate setting. The seats are distributed over three levels, including a special choral loft behind the stage, which can seat up to 146 chorus members or audience members during non-choral performances. The stage can accommodate up to 115 musicians.

Designed to present a variety of musical genres, including classical, pops, cabaret, choral, jazz and blues performances, the hall provides vivid acoustical clarity, warmth and reverberance specifically catering to the sound of natural instruments. An automated system of moveable banners and panels located around the hall can adjust the acoustics for various types of performances.

The hall also features a custom-built concert organ, crafted by Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco, comprised of 47 voices, 64 ranks and 3,568 pipes, ranging in length from 3/4-inch to three that are 32-foot stops that create a lyrical sound with expressive range. About 20 percent of the pipes are made of wood, sugar pine or poplar, while the remaining 80 percent are a combination of tin, lead and zinc. The organ took two years to build and then 7 months to install and finish.

And we, the audience of this spectacular free community event, had the run of the place. So, at one point, I move around to the seats that look down on the orchestra, so you can see the conductor.

I was dazzled by the performances I saw of the Tennessee Valley Winds and the Cool Springs Symphony with the pure sounds of vocalist Erica Mitchell.

Meanwhile, the Martha Rivers Ingram Courtyard was filled with the music of jazz and swing.

While this was going on downtown at the Symphony Center, a Celebration of Cultures was underway at Centennial Park, about two miles up Broadway (yes, that is the name). An annual tradition for the past 12 years, it showcases Nashville multiculturalism with music, dance, ethnic foods, marketplace, and children’s activities in this vast park created for Nashville’s Centennial Exposition in 1897.

The centerpiece of the park is The Parthenon, the world’s only full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon, that was built for the exposition. It houses Athena, 42 feet high, the tallest indoor structure in the Western world, and the city’s art museum, including a rotating gallery featuring the museum’s collection of American art. For the Celebration, admission was free (closed Monday; fee,

There is no better way to get the rhythm of a place than by joining in a community event, like Nashville's annual "Regions Free Day of Music", at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We wandered out of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to Broadway lined with the Honky Tonks for which Nashville is justifiably famous, each one with their lore of famous musicians who have played. Even on a bright Saturday afternoon they were already filled with music and atmosphere, but we were headed for a small ice cream parlor serving the most delectable homemade ice cream.

On the next block, we went into the iconic Hatch Show Print, in business since 1879 and one of the nation’s oldest-known letterpress poster shops. Owned and operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame, Hatch has created the original art for vaudeville, circuses, Grand Ole Opry stars, concerts and sporting events. We delight in rummaging through a “sale” cabinet for posters priced at $3, as well as finding posters for just about everybody you have ever heard of in country and popular music (316 Broadway,, 615-256-2805).

The Bluebird Café

A completely different music experience awaits at the Bluebird Café. This is a delightfully local hangout, literally located in a strip of stores just after the Shell station, and just before McDonald’s, next door to a furniture store. The red neon lights in front window make it stand out.

The Bluebird Café has gained a reputation worldwide for presenting the best original country and acoustic music seven nights a week. Performers do not generally play “cover” songs. Musicians do not jam here, and songwriters frequently are accompanied by just one guitar or piano.

The Bluebird Café, which pays homage to songwriters, was founded by Amy Kurland who earlier this year entrusted ownership to the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), a trade organization committed to protecting the rights and future of the profession of songwriting, and to educate, elevate the songwriter.

To get to play here, up-and-comers go through an audition process.

Blair School of Music Suzuki Players performs during the "Regions Free Day of Music", presented at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Sunday Writers Nights shows are scheduled by audition, and are selected to play along with other writers who show growing talent and maturity in their songwriting and performance skills. These shows feature 9-12 songwriters playing 3 songs each. The show is hosted, and each show ends with a special guest performance by a hit-writing songwriter from the Nashville Music Industry. Sunday nights are always well attended, which gives the writer a chance to perform for a full room (and a good chance to develop a following and collect names for a mailing list).

Early Shows offered Tuesday through Saturday, feature the best up and coming songwriters from the Sunday writers nights in no cover charge shows at 6:30 pm. Some of these shows are in an “In The Round” format where four writers sit in a circle in the center of the room and take turns playing their songs. Other shows are set up on stage and feature three different acts each doing a 30-minute set.

Sunday Spotlights, a no-cover show presented 6:30-7:15, is one of the few opportunities for bands to play.

Open Mic is for writers who haven’t played at the Bluebird and writers from out of town. It gives songwriters a chance to play two of their own original songs, solo, or accompanied by no more than two others on stage. Writers who don’t get a turn that night, are given a “play next time” ticket.

We come to the Friday late show that starts at 9:30 p.m. which is the headliner showcase of songwriters: Vince Melamed on keyboard (he played with Jimmy Buffet and the Eagles); Bob DiPiero, Gary Burr on the guitar (he played with Carole King and Ringo Starr), Jim Photoglo and Kelly Keagy. They play so well together, despite the different styles and “signatures”, you forget that they are not an actual band – a tribute to their musicality. They take turns playing their own music, offering amusing banter in between. It is very intimate and personal, and you feel like you have been invited into friend’s basement. You get a unique opportunity to hear original material from different points of view. It is often a chance to discover up-and-coming writers, but also to hear hits, new and old, from some of the best. Among the stars who have graced the stage are Garth Brooks, Michael McDonald and Faith Hill.

n there is an $8 cover charge for food and drink, though you can sit in a “pew” at no charge. Luckily I had called for a reservation because there was quite a line when we arrived and every seat was taken. (You can check the performance schedule and make reservations on line. Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville 37215, 615-383-1461,


In the same Green Hills neighborhood, jazz lovers will find F. Scott’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar. The restaurant features an award-winning menu, wine-tastings on Mondays and jazz nightly. It serves contemporary American cuisine in a setting that combines the comfort and familiarity of a neighborhood restaurant with flair and sophistication.

Stop in at the Hatch Poster Shop, a Nashville staple since 1879 (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

What impresses is how cosmopolitan and chic everything is – from the casual restaurants like Noshville Delicatessen (an authentic New York-style delicatessen which flies in bagels from H&H and serves buckets of sour pickles, ) and Mellow Mushroom, a delightfully artful and oh-so-mellow restaurant with a “hippie” and eco-conscious ambiance serving very imaginative and delectable pizzas (212 21st Avenue South Nashville, TN 37203 615-342-0044) and to the shopping malls in the suburbs.

In fact, just across from where the Bluebird Café stands, is Hill Center, Green Hills (interesting note: parking meters on the main street are used to improve pedestrian safety and slow traffic, and the money is donated to the Teen Center at the Green Hills YMCA; free parking is available nearby). The shops are absolutely beautiful, but our visit is to have dinner at Pei Wei Asian Diner, a new concept created by that P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, which redefined Chinese cuisine in America.

Imagine a fast-food concept (incredibly reasonably priced), but served in the most stunning environment, and the most eclectic menu of Asian styles: Vietnamese Chicken Salad Rolls; Pad Thai (Thai sweet and sour sauce, tofu, bean sprouts, scallion, egg, crushed peanuts, lime, cilantro, rice noodles), and a variety of Signature dishes where you choose the style and main ingredient (chicken, beef, shrimp or vegetables): Mandarin Kung Pao (Chile seared soy sauce, scallion, garlic, snap peas, carrot and peanuts), Thai Dynamite, Mongolian, lemon Pepper, Thai Coconut Curry, Orange Peel, Honey Seared, Spicy Korean, Ginger Broccoli (Open for lunch and dinner; Hill Center, Hillsboro Pike & Warfield Dr., 615-514-3230; also Old Hickory Blvd., Brentwood, 615-514-4990).

The newly-opened Hill Center offers upscale boutiques like Anthropologie, Posh, Hemline and Francescas.

Green Hills is one of Nashville’s neighborhoods, known for some of Nashville’s most desirable homes.

Each of Nashville’s neighborhoods has its own personality and beat: the historic Gulch District, with its industrial history, was where the downtown railroad terminal used to be and where old warehouses have been renovated into residential and office space, upscale restaurants and vibrant nightlife like City Hall Entertainment Space, and Station Inn, which since 1974 has been famous for authentic bluegrass and live acoustic music nightly.

Eighth Avenue South is known as Nashville’s Antique District and is where you can find Nashville’s only comedy venue, Zanies Comedy Night Club.

At The Bluebird Café, a legendary place for local Nashvillians, see major songwriters perform together(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Elliston Place, located near Vanderbilt University campus is a young, trendy neighborhood of small shops and cafes. The legendary Exit/In is where Jimmy Buffet and comedian Steve Martin got their start.

In Hillsboro Village, near Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, you will find the Pancake Pantry, a Nashville breakfast tradition with a menu of 21 pancake selections. The lines are famous – even enshrined in paintings of the Pantry.

Another way to be a local is to take in a local sport: we had the chance to see a historic football game, when Vanderbilt University defeated Auburn for the first time since 1955, for a 5-0 record that hadn’t happened since 1943. Downtown, there is a hockey arena where the Predators play, and just over the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, providing a stunning view of Nashville’s interesting skyline and Cumberland River, is the football stadium where the Titans play.

Another delightfully local thing to do is visit the Adventure Science Center, which has just opened a $21.4 million, 160-seat Sudekum Planetarium with a 63-foot dome that can display 6.5 million stars, and a Space Chase exhibit hall with 30 displays and 63 interactive stations including a stimulated moon walk ( Another treasured attraction is the Lane Motor Museum, located in a former 132,000 sq. ft. bakery, featuring an incredible connection of one-of-a-kind cars, micro-cars, historic cars (

The best way to enjoy a place like a native is to participate in the special events. Music City’s Festivals and Events calendar is full of annual celebrations.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, Nashville offers “Holiday Harmony,” with costumed docents reenacting holiday life in the 1800s, to stage performances bringing out the holiday spirit, and decorations (, 800-657-6910).

Gaylord Opryland Resort offers a Country Christmas from November through December, with live music, carriage rides, craft shows, and nearly two million Christmas lights (888-999-OPRY,

Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art offers a Season of Celebration (end of November through New Year’s), a holiday wonderland of decorations, storytelling, cookie decorating, multicultural activities and musical performances (, 615-356-8000).

The1853 Belle Meade Plantation, where some of America’s most famous thoroughbred racehorses including Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Giacomo all trace their origins, is lavishly adorned in Victorian splendor for holiday tours (

Where to Hang Your Hat

Going local: see a college football game. Here, a touchdown catch by Vanderbilt University provided a historic win against Auburn (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Who would have imagined that five minutes from Nashville’s modern airport, there would be a hotel with stunning design and artwork, live music and a dance floor in the lounge, a fitness center and swimming pool?

My arrival in Nashville began this magnificently choreographed visit, where I was able to just sink in to the community like a native.

It begins with the utterly commonsensical organization of the airport that allows for stress-free logistics. It is a beautiful, modern building – there is even a Tootsie’s with live entertainment right in the terminal – and all the visitor services are near at hand.

So you get your bag and 30 seconds later you are at the rental car counter. I booked a rate with Thrifty on that was cheaper than taking taxis back-and-forth downtown, walked out the door, and there was the car, just steps away.

The Hotel Preston, literally outside the perimeter of the airport and a five-minute drive, provides a free transfer from the airport, but the car rental afforded me the flexibility to get around Nashville’s neighborhoods like a native.

The Hotel Preston, an intimate boutique-style hotel with 196 rooms and four suites, was a delightful choice. It is owned by the same company that built the Hotel DeLuxe in Portland, Oregon, which I also enjoyed immensely and which similarly manifested the stunning modern design and luxurious accoutrements.

I love a place that smacks of creativity and cleverness and beauty without sacrificing ergonomics – there was Sweat (the fitness center); Gather (the ballroom); Think (boardroom). Instead of the mundane Women and Men to indicate gender on the bathrooms, there was Sit and Stand.

Café Isabella, a very pleasant dining room, serves up a sumptuous blend of what is fondly refered to as “Italian comfort food with southern roots.”

The Hotel Preston is a stylish, artful, wonderfully whimsical and luxurious boutique hotel, just five minutes from Nashville's airport (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The Pink Slip lounge is where there is live music nightly (open 5 to 1 a.m., with live entertainment Wednesdays through Saturdays from 8 p.m. to midnight).

This is a “hip, happening hotel” that exudes attitude, with luxurious boutique style accommodations, plush bedding. Here at the Hotel Preston, you can order up a pillow from a pillow menu, as well as the version of the Bible of your choice, lava lamps, a bedtime story, artist-in-training kits. Other amenities include data port, wireless internet, and pets are welcome. The hotel also provides free airport transfer. (Hotel Preston, 733 Envious Lane, off of Briley Parkway, just south of I-40, Nashville, Tennessee, 37217, 866-986-8089, 615-361-5900,

Another convenience: a gas station with a convenience store just across the street, open late to pick up a snack or drink, and to refill the gas tank before returning the rental car.

A handy Music City Vacation Guide is available from the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, One Nashville Place, 150 Fourth Avenue N Suite G-250 Nashville, TN 37219, 615-259-4700, 800-657-6910

See also:
From Live Music Venues to Museums, You Gain New Appreciation for Country

NASHVILLE’S RICH HERITAGE: Country Music’s Capital Shows Penchant for Classical

NASHVILLE FOR FAMILIES: Music, Meerkats, Motorcars Are Just a Few of Fun Things to Enjoy

Friday, 14 November, 2008

© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at and at Send comments or questions to


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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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