On the Town in Nashville, Music City U.S.A.

by Karen Rubin

The charm of Nashville is how authentic it is. Nashville is a real place, a real community, real neighborhoods with deep roots and rich heritage. It has a small-town feeling that belies its emergence as a regional center for commerce, health, education. Nashville is very much the Athens of the South with an intricate cultural fabric, but the dominant theme is the Music Industry.

At live music venues like the Station Inn, you can see major musicians like John Cowan in an intimate setting © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Just about everyone has someone or knows someone who is in the music business.

The Nashville music community is close-knit and very engaged in the community-at large. A great many don’t just perform here, they live here. Just about everyone you meet tells you about some major star who they see at the grocery store.

Only about half of the visitors to Nashville come because they are Country Music fans, but almost invariably, you get caught up in the stories, the personalities, and yes, the music, itself.

Music-wise, Nashville is not stuck in the past, a themepark-like caricature of itself. Music is profuse; Nashville is the place that up-and-comers come to be discovered, like actors flock to Hollywood and singers to Broadway. Go past any karaoke place and you will hear phenomenal performances, or any band, even the street performers outside the honky tonks.

At the Bluebird Cafe, see songwriters perform their own music in an intimate setting. Here Kent Blazy, Chris Wallin, Cory Batten and Karyn Rochelle delight the audience © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

One of the best ways to experience Nashville’s music scene is at the BlueBird Cafe – an unassuming local haunt (in fact, it is a small strip of stores in a suburban neighborhood), which has gained a reputation worldwide for presenting the best original country and acoustic music. What makes the Bluebird so special is that it showcases the songwriters who created the hits you recognize. On a typical night there are four who sit in facing each other in a square, while the audience crams in tables all around. The night we were there, Kent Blazy, Chris Wallin, Cory Batten and Karyn Rochelle were performing; they were teasing Cory over having had the #1 country song that week, “Black Dress,” his second in nine months. There is also a bar and a few pews (no cover charge there).

What is amazing is that these are not players in a band – each is a noted songwriter and so when they play together, it is unique and it is live and when it is over, it is over.

It is as if you were that “fly on the wall” or better, as if you had been invited in to that garage when the guys were getting together to jam, and talking about how they came up with an idea for a song (Blazy joked, “I just wrote this while we were tuning up.”). They banter with each other and drawing the audience in on the conversation (many in the audience are actually family and friends, so you feel like the guest at the party). The evening is always different, always surprising and interesting and the music is always incredible.

Songwriter Cory Batten performs his song, which had just hit #1 on the Country chart, at the Bluebird Cafe © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We had the phenomenal experience of stopping in at the Station Inn, another live music venue, where we heard John Cowan and his band play. The room is so intimate and the ambiance so raw, and the audience has such a direct connection to the performers.

Monell’s for Downhome Cooking

Another local attraction is Monell’s – where you go when you are hungry for traditional Southern cooking.

Housed in a gorgeous Victorian townhouse built originally by the founder of First National Bank on a street in historic Germantown that overlooks the domed Capitol Building, Monell’s is a local favorite.

The atmosphere is simply wonderful – seating just 72 people mostly at long tables in what would have been the parlor and the dining room where you may well be seated with strangers (won’t be strangers for long!) or even Opry stars like Tim McGrath and Faith Hill.

There is no menu – the food (and there is an amazing amount of it) is served family style. There are no reservations, either – people wait on line and that includes Oprah’s father.

Nashville's honky tonks on Broadway are pure delight, even in the afternoon © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Michael King believes that kismet brought him to Monell’s. “The house picked me.” He relates how he came to Nashville, was fired from his job, got lost and found himself in front of the house. He poured everything he had into the restaurant and was $10,000 overdrawn on his account when the marketers for Viagra tapped him to do an event.

We hear these wonderful stories as we devour delectable fried chicken, savory BBQ, his signature corn pudding (the secret is getting the butter in the pan smoking hot; it takes 4 1/2 hours to cook, like a soufle), biscuits, sauteed vegetables fresh from the Farmer’s Market, and turnip greens (you are supposed to put vinegar on it).

From those difficult days, Monell’s (named for a partner from Kentucky who left the scene, but King kept the name and the Monell family recipes), has become a staple of Nashville. In a month, he’ll go through 7 1/2 tons of chicken (prepared in an iron skillet, not a deep fryer; 3000 eggs, 1500 lbs of butter, 5000 lbs of potatoes, 550 lbs of banana (for the dessert which replaces pies that patrons just didn’t have enough room for). Just three cooks prepare the 10,000 meals (250 a day) . King hasn’t raised the price in an eon – still $12.95 for the dinner.

Nashville's honky tonks on Broadway are pure delight, even in the afternoon © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

King has purposefully combined traditional cooking with historic preservation: In addition to the original Monell’s in Germantown, he has four other restaurants in historic settings: Gallatin’s Historic FitzGerald Manor (562 South Water Ave (Hwy 109) Gallatin, TN 37066, 615-230-8335); another at Historic Lillie Belle’s (132 3rd Ave South, Franklin, TN 37064 (615-790-6998);

Monell’s serves lunch, dinner, weekend breakfast and Sunday meal (1235 6th Ave North Nashville, TN 37208, 615-248-4747,www.monellsdining.ypguides.net). There are sophisticated, trendy restaurants tucked into neighborhoods, like the Germantown Caf�, with a stunning modern ambiance set off with art work, relatively new but gaining a reputation for desserts like cheesecake Amaretto, an apple pie with walnuts served in a bowl with lots of butter that seems sinful, Key lime pie, Cr�me brulee, and chocolate decadence brownie (1200 Fifth Avenue, North; Nashville, TN 37208; +615.242.3226, www.germantowncafe.com).

Wildhorse Saloon

Wildhorse Saloon is a very different experience – appealing especially to out-of-towners as well as to locals. This place is a restaurant, bar, concert site, dance venue and TV studio. Come for the fried pickles (unbelievable! they are addictive) and stay for the line dancing. It is a hoot.

A couple steps out to the honky tonk music in Nashville © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Here, I get to taste for the first time Wildhorse Saloon’s famous fried pickles – amazing and addictive. The buffet is rich with southern favorites – BBQ ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, southern corn casserole, southern succotash, chop trot salad.

And then it is on to the dance floor for a Line Dance lesson.

The Wildhorse Saloon is another attraction of the Gaylord group, which owns and operates the Grand Ole Opry, the historic Ryman Auditorium, and the Gaylord Opryland Resort (the Gaylord even has a shuttle bus service that takes you downtown, right to the Wildhouse Saloon door).

The building blends in with the historic district, but it was completely rebuilt by Gaylord on the site of a mattress factory to be used for TV broadcasts of the Nashville network to compete with club dance form Knoxville and Live at the Cheyenne Club out of Orlando. Can You Duet is filmed here, and other shows, as well.

The Wildhorse Saloon a 66,000-sq.ft. live entertainment complex – it is a restaurant, bar, concert site, dance venue, and even offers a billiards room with 10 Olhausen pool table (complimentary for guests).

Even the street entertainers in Nashville, Music City U.S.A. are entertaining; no doubt they hope to be discovered © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The entertainment can be surprising – Ringo Starr, Rick Springfield, Sugarland have played here, and the venue is a two-time winner of the Academy of Country Music’s “Nightclub of the Year.”

This is also a venue for groups, accommodating a whopping 2,600 people for a function.

Gaylord’s Opryland Resort

The hub for our journey through Country Music heritage is the Gaylord Opryland Resort, an enterprise that also owns and operates the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium, the Wildhorse Saloon, and the Andrew Jackson showboat.

At one time, the resort accommodated the Opryland themepark, which operated here from 1972 to 1997. Now it seems, the magic, the fantasy of a themepark have been brought inside, literally under glass, in the most incredible resort.

Now it's your chance: at the Wildhorse Saloon, take a lesson and join in the line dancing - it's a kick © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Gaylord Resort is guaranteed to drop any jaw – 54 acres under glass, with magnificent, lush gardens, cascading waterfalls, a rotating “gazebo” that is a bar-lounge, an interior river where you can take a boat ride, an entire village of shops and even a re-creation of a southern plantation mansion that is a steakhouse.

It is as if a themepark designer was asked to build a human settlement on the moon.

You watch people as they leave the massive Cascades lobby – like a rotunda with marble and granite – where as many as 580 guests can be checked in per hour in the busiest times. They are caught unaware as they pull their suitcases on wheels and, like walking through some rift in the universe, come into the Cascades Atrium – a lush garden with a 3 1/2-story waterfall, a revolving bar, fountains with leaping water, and bridges and skywalks, with 480 rooms around, many with wrought iron balconies, all under glass like a giant greenhouse. In this two-acre section, an amazing engineering feat when it opened in 1988, are more than 8,200 different tropical plants (oranges, coconuts and bananas are sometimes found), and trees as high as 70 feet.

Monell's in historic Germantown offers traditional southern cooking with ambiance © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Garden Conservatory is next – actually the first of these indoor gardens to be built. It is in the middle of the resort, and you feel like you are in your own world.

Each of the sections is that way – like their own villages or communities – like the different theme areas of DisneyWorld, only this is a resort.

The Delta Atrium, the resort’s most recent expansion, is a 4 1/2 acre interiorscape rising 15 stories. when it was built, in 1996, the $176 million addition was the largest construction project in Nashville history. It doubled the size of the resort, adding 1,024 guestrooms, 10 meeting rooms and 57,000 sq. ft. ballroom.

The real fantasy of the resort is on view here: it has a quarter-mile long Delta River, where you can take a ride aboard a Delta Flatboat, and dine in the Old Hickory Steakhouse, a life-size re-creation of an antebellum mansion. There are also “dancing fountains” – a display of water that shoots 85 ft high during choreographed water shows with music and light effects.

The wow factor: Gaylord's Opryland Resort is a wonderland of indoor gardens and waterfalls © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Then you come to the Magnolia Lobby, which was the original Opryland Hotel, when it opened in 1977, with 580 rooms and one ballroom. It was designed to resemble a grand southern mansion, with grand staircase (a favorite spot for family portraits), Tiffany-design chandelier. It is how the gateway to the resort’s entertainment district, featuring Fuse, a Vegas-style nightclub with sleek red-and-black interior, go-go dancers, VIP couches.

In keeping with a city under glass, Opryland offers an amazing array of dining options – in addition to the Old Hickory Steakhouse, there is Ristorante Volare set amid gardens, where you think you are in an Italian trattoria; Cascades Seafood Restaurant which emphasizes freshest ingredients, including sushi, served with sophistication and a cosmopolitan flare; the Water’s Edge Marketplace buffet “waterside” in the Delta atrium which is immensely popular for breakfast; Paisano’s Pizzeria & Vino, a delightfully informal eaterie serving Tuscan-style pizza and wines; Stax serving their famous burgers; Rusty’s Sports Bar & Grill; Findley’s Irish Pub; Jack Daniel’s Saloon (the only restaurant that uses the Jack Daniel’s name) honoring a fine Tennessee tradition in a barrelhouse setting where there is live music most nights; the Conservatory Cafe; and the Relache & Magnolia pool bar and grill.

The wow factor: Gaylord's Opryland Resort is a wonderland of indoor gardens and fountains © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Gaylord caters to conventions and groups – there is a humongous convention center – and has all the amenities that appeal: a world-class Relache Spa, Salon & Fitness Center, with one of the most beautiful indoor lap pools anywhere, an outdoor pool (in season) and hot tub, 3400 sq. ft. fitness center (personal training and group classes available).

It also offers an award-winning Scottish links style 18-hole golf course, Gaylord Springs, designed by former US Open and PGA champion Larry Nelson. In addition, groups can take advantage of Gaylord’s other venues. Carved from the banks of the Cumberland river, the par-72 layout is bordered by limestone bluffs and federally protected wetlands. It derives its name from the springhouse found on the fourth hole. Its 43,000-sq. ft. antebellum-style clubhouse serves as the centerpiece for activities.

The Golf Institute at Gaylord Springs, equipped with diagnostic testing, two indoor hitting bays, is available year-round.

It is rare to see something this big so tastefully done.

The level of service is also remarkable. When we arrived, there were about 4,000 people checking out after their convention but you would hardly realize it except for the rows of baggage outside for collection.

We went to Celebrity Services to check in � the accommodating staff took our bags and our cell phone number, to call us when our room was ready and have our bags sent up.

We pulled out our bathing suits and shorts and headed for the fitness center and 25-meter pool to spend an enjoyable couple of hours.

You seemly don’t get over the size and scope of Opryland Resort – with 2,881 total guest rooms, it is, in fact, is one of the largest non-casino gaming hotels in the world.

A river runs through it: take a flat-boat ride on a quarter-mile river in the Delta Atrium of Opryland Resort © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Even with color-coded areas (your room card matches the color of the hallway rugs), you feel you need a GPS for the first couple of days you are there. But that also makes being at the resort so interesting – there are all these different spaces and places. You can actually rent a scooter or a wheelchair.

A Year-Round Paradise

The lavish gardens are what make the Gaylord Opryland Resort quite literally a year-round paradise. There are 50,000 tropical plants, rare international blooms and Southern species, meticulously selected and lovingly maintained by a staff of 20 full-time interior horticulturalists.

A tour of the gardens with Hollis Malone, the manager of horticulture, gives you insight into what a challenge and an accomplishment this is – considering you have to use natural means to control pests, for example. Malone uses bio-rational pesticides instead of chemically-engineered ones, like Botanigard or Beauverai Bassiana which comes from a natural fungus, Conserve-Spinosad, a natural byproduct of fermentation, and Azadiractin which comes from the Neem tree. He also uses insect growth regulators which prevent insects from reproducing.

The Garden Conservatory, which opened in the spring of 1984, features 10,000 tropical plants representing more than 215 species. Towering palms and banana trees rise 60 feet above the atrium floor; in all, 37 different families of trees represented.

The gazebo and gardens at Gaylord's Opryland Resort is a popular venue for weddings © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

An elaborate climate-control system keeps the temperature in the Garden Conservatory 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round – not an easy feat considering that the sun beats down through the glass roof. the relative humidity stays around 35 percent, and an air exchange system ensures that the air in the atriums does not become stale, exchanging air four times in a 24-hour period.

A precise drip-irrigation system was developed that allows many plants to be watered slowly over the course of several hours. The soil is a special mixture of pine, peat and cypress bark solelite developed specifically for the environment.

For the Cascades Atrium, Malone visited dozens of Florida nurseries before selecting more than 8,200 tropical ornamental plants representing 449 species, before the 1988 opening. “Many of the plants flower year-round, so you are surrounded by an array of brilliant colors and aromas,” Malone said.

The extraordinary lush gardens, shopping and dining village and river, all under glass of the Delta Atrium at Gaylord's Opryland Resort © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Delta Atrium has a subtropical feeling, with its roots in the South. Even though it is an indoor environment, 370 trees and palms – between 20 and 40-feet tall – share space with thousands of smaller plants. To create the appearance of the outdoors, Malone chose black olive trees and West Indian mahoganies because they resemble oaks, but unlike oaks, do not shed their leaves.

There are 120 sabal palms, tall lady palms, banana trees and cycads, and 1500 plants representing 30 varieties of camellias.

Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center (2800 Opryland Drive, Nashville, TN 37214, 615-889-1000, www.gaylordopryland.com) is the flagship of Gaylord Hotels which also has the Gaylord Palms, Kissimmee, Florida; Gaylord Texan, Grapevine, Texas; Gaylord National, National Harbor, Maryland (www.gaylordhotels.com). Southwest Airlines is my favorite way to travel to Nashville from Long Island, providing convenient service from MacArthur Airport at Islip (ISP).

For more information about visiting Nashville, contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-657-6910, Nashcvb@visitmusiccity.comwww.visitmusiccity.com.

See also: Grand Ole Opry Shows You Can Be ‘Ole” and Still Be New
Nashville: Where The Heart & Soul of Country Music Still Beats Strong

Wednesday, 7 April, 2010

© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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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 examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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