Motoring Around Music City

By Karen Rubin

Our previous visit to Nashville was focused on the music, art and history attractions of downtown Nashville reachable without a car. On our return visit, our car was like a magic carpet to a slew of attractions that are wonderfully engaging for families with children spanning the age range from toddlers to teens.

Nashville is world-renowned as Music City and the downtown area brims with honky tonks, the Ryman Auditorium, Printer’s Alley. But outside the downtown are many intriguing music venues that are attractions in themselves.

The place to experience music with your older teen is Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café, where locals and visitors-in-the-know alike have the thrill of experiencing songwriters performing original material in an intimate “in the round setting”.

Innocuously situated in a shopping strip, sandwiched between the Shell Station and McDonald’s just a few miles away from the downtown Honky Tonks, the Bluebird Café, which first opened in 1982, is becoming iconic, much as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and for the same reason.

The music is pure, the audience is rapt, silent (actually, “Shhhh” is the Bluebird’s motto), sitting around the four musicians who perform facing each other in a circle in the center, and there is the strong possibility of seeing someone who is or who will become a major star.

The autographed photos on the wall of people who have performed at the Bluebird Café are a veritable who’s who, such as Garth Brooks who played there before he was discovered, as well as Amy Grant and Faith Hill. Performers have included Christopher Cross, Art Garfunkle, and Amy Lou Harris.  The Bluebird Café was even the setting for the movie “The Thing Called Love,” starring River Phoenix.

Early shows have no cover, though there is a $7 minimum charge for food and drink, which is not hard to meet. Late shows have a cover charge that goes to the entertainers.

Late shows feature established hit songwriters while earlier shows feature the songwriters of tomorrow, though you may well get to see someone who is a pro.

It is amazing, given the stature of the Bluebird Café in the musical community in Music City, how small the establishment is. There are only 21 tables, but this is what makes for the intimate experience that is so much of its charm and what makes the experience so special.

There are shows seven days a week: Tuesday through Saturday, it is the circle-in-the-round format; on Sundays, the first show features songwriters who have auditioned, and then in the second show, features more established songwriters; Monday is an Open Mike, where people come in “off the street” to sign up for a turn.

They now take reservations (call early for “big” shows). (Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Road, 615-383-1461, www.bluebirdcafe.com; click the link to see who is playing.).

Grand Ole’ Opry

Of all the music places, the most famous is the legendary Grand Ole’ Opry, which began as a radio show in 1925 and for decades, from 1947 to 1974, was broadcast from the famous tabernacle of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.

But the Ryman, which literally was built as a tabernacle in 1897, was not air conditioned, and even the most devout music lovers found it oppressive in the summer, while the demand for seats outgrew the hall. So the Gaylord company built a brand new venue for the Grand Ole’ Opry at its amusement park, Opryland, just outside of town.  We learned that the land on which it was built was originally John Harding’s plantation, the scion of Belle Meade).

The amusement park is no more – in its place is the Opry Mills, a retail, dining, entertainment complex with over 200 outlet and specialty retailers, themed dining and entertainment venues, all under one roof (much like Sawgrass Mills, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). One of these fantastic entertainment venues is the Grand Ole’ Opry, which faithfully mimics the tabernacle look of its matriarch, the Ryman, so you sit on vast pews, and the feel of that Mother Church of Country Music.

It also houses the Grand Ole Opry Museum, a free attraction which pays tribute to the world’s longest running radio show and its stars with exhibits featuring the legendary Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl (“howdeee”), and Little Jimmy Dickens.

Almost a million people visit the Opry every year to see their favorite stars.

It is thrilling and weird at the same time to sit in on one of the broadcast performances, and see, in the flesh, Porter Wagoner (who we had seen as a museum exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and at RCA Studio B), and Little Jimmy Dickens, and to hear their music performed by themselves as well as the new generation of singers. Old timey, hokey and new all at the same time, the Grand Ole’ Opry is classic.

The broadcast, with Cracker Barrel commercials and all, is fast paced – the acts come on and off seamlessly – and features a variety of musical styles in half-hour segments.

Shows are Friday (at 8 p.m.), Saturday (6:30 pm. and 9:30 p.m.) and Tuesday (at 7 p.m.). (The radio show broadcasts from the Ryman Auditorium from Jan.-Feb. and Nov.-Dec.). You can get a line up of performances online, and order tickets. (Grand Ole Opry, 2802 Opryland Drive, 800-SEE OPRY, www.opry.com).

Another wonderful venue for families to enjoy music and get into the spirit of the Old South, is to enjoy a cruise on the General Jackson Showboat, a 300-foot paddlewheel riverboat accommodating up to 1,100 people, which sails twice daily from the pier at Opry Mills (Opryland Drive).

For more than 20 years, the General Jackson Showboat has sailed the Cumberland River and offered visitors a wide variety of shows in its two-story Victorian theater. Midday cruises lasting 2 ½ hours, offer a country music show and lunch (from $41.26/A, $24.12/C), while three-hour evening cruises offer an elegant dinner and a Broadway-style revue ($from $66.51/A, $41.29/C), though you can also purchase a cruise-only ticket  ($14.95/A, $9.95/C). There are also special shows throughout the year like Sunday Gospel Brunch Cruise (866-567-JACK, generaljackson.com).

Fun Food

At Opry Mills, shopping is sport and entertainment, and the icing on the cake is the selection of fun dining experiences.

The Aquarium, a themed restaurant in the same vein as Rainforest Café (which is also at Opry Mills and is owned by the same company), is novel for its humongous aquariums big enough to hold sharks, rays, a giant moray eel, and hundreds of fish.

The biggest aquarium, 200,000 gallons and free form in shape, takes up the entire center of the restaurant, from floor to ceiling, where you can see more than 100 species of colorful tropical fish from the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific and Indian Ocean. To everyone’s delight, a diver makes feedings twice a day in full view of the dining room. The food was delightful – our burgers were superb, and there is also a menu to satisfy everyone in the family, with fish, seafood, and steaks (615-514-FISH, www.aquariumrestaurants.com).

The Aquarium Restaurant is offered symbiotically with Stingray Reef, located just across the hall, where you pay $3.95 per person for all day admission and can touch and feed live stingrays and visit exhibits of over a dozen species including lionfish, piranhas, poison dart frogs. There are games and a carousel, as well.

From there, we treated ourselves to a movie at the 32-screen cinemaplex, where one of the theaters is IMAX. There we saw the latest Harry Potter in IMAX (20 minutes of it in 3-D). It was phenomenal.

For more family fun, explore Nashville’s topnotch zoo and science museum:

Nashville Zoo at Grassmere

Take a walk on the wild side at Nashville’s world-class Zoo. Situated on a sprawling 200 acres on what used to be a farm dating from the colonial era, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere lets you stroll trails and paths from habitat to habitat – you come upon the Siamung clutching a toy as it climbs a tree on Gibbon Island; you encounter Meerkats popping out of their holes – in fact the Meerkat habitat and Gibbon Island were voted the best in the nation by Animal Planet, for their natural beauty and the way they immerse zoo guests in the creatures’ environment.

This place is enchanting not just because of the natural settings that take you completely out of an urban environment, but the many opportunities for close-up and interactive experiences. At Critter Encounter, you get to walk into a field (not just a pen) with sheep and goats; there are opportunities throughout the day to “Meet the Keepers” as they feed the Bengal tigers or the alligators or even the Giant Anteaters (Nashville Zoo is part of the Giant Anteater breeding and conservation program; there are only 50 in the U.S.), and 20-minute Animal shows take place in an amphitheater near the Unseen New World, an indoor display of fantastic reptiles, fish, bats, insects.

You'll also encounter African Elephants on a three-acre savanna, cougars, black bears, zebras, cheetahs, African wild dogs, elands, lynx, red pandas and playful river otters – there is really an excellent selection.

As so many of the attractions in Nashville, a city that is clearly booming, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is growing and improving. It recently opened Lorikeet Landing, with more than 50 of the brightly colored Australian parrots that move freely inside a meshed enclosure and come to your finger when you offer them a cup of nectar. The new Giraffe Savanna features three rare Masai giraffes, and Alligator Cove has the look of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in re-creating the feeling of a jungle outpost.

The zoo is continuing to expand and improve with a Red River Hog exhibit in the savannah area, African wild dogs, and Lynx exhibits.

Children will love the Jungle Gym playground (don’t show the kids the jungle gym until about 45 minutes before you are ready to leave, because you will never get them away), where there is also a shaded picnic area and misting station, and a carousel.

Take time to visit the Grassmere Historic Farm – the home of the Croft sisters who deeded the land to the city (Union soldiers camped there during the Civil War), and made it possible for the zoo to relocate there in 1997; guided tours of the house are offered seasonally.

(Allocate at least 3 hours. $13/A, $8/C 3-12, $11/S. Nashville Zoo, 3777 Nolensville Rd., 615-833-1534, www.nashvillezoo.org).

Adventure Science Center

Adventure Science Center encourages children of all ages to explore how science, invention and innovation affect their lives through marvelously engaging hands-on, interactive exhibits and programs.

The center is cleverly done, and will appeal to any age and fairly comprehensive in terms of laying the foundation for learning and appreciating science in their world, from tunneling into an exhibit of robotic dinosaurs to climbing around structures to learn basic physics of light, energy, and climbing down a vertebrate ladder.

The most thrilling section is BodyQuest where you can investigate all the body’s systems, literally walk into a brain (BrainStorm) that lights up different parts; interact with a 10-foot tall heart that occasionally suffers a cardiac arrest, and sit in “the Amazing Aging Machine” to see what you will look like as a 70-year old after a lifetime of smoking (if you make it that long). There are arcade-like games, like a basketball toss and pitching game which use play to teach, but the most fun (we did it about three or four times) was Body Battles, an interactive laser game that animates the ongoing struggle inside all of our bodies between health and illness.

There is even a flight-simulator ride – a three-minute virtual reality experience where you are in the pilot’s seat.

The center’s Sudekum Planetarium is being reconstructed and expanded, and is expected to reopen in June 2008.

(Allocate 2-3 hours, $9/A, $7/C, Adventure Science Center, 800 Fort Negley Blvd., 615-862-5160, www.adventuresci.com).

History Comes Alive

The best way to engage children in learning history is to make the past come alive. The best way to do this is to take advantage of opportunities to see first hand where people lived, how they lived, to walk where they walked, and see the objects they used.

Nashville, Tennessee’s historical attractions provide the perspective of colonial America, the westward expansion, the plantation economy of the Old South, the Civil War from the Confederacy’s perspective, and finally, industrialization.

The Hermitage – Andrew Jackson’s Home

Costumed interpreters take you through the mansion home of Andrew Jackson, the populist President and the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, furnished almost entirely with the artifacts from Jackson and his family, and regale you with wonderful anecdotes.

In Jackson’s bedroom, you see the last portrait made of his wife, Rachel, completed less than two weeks before she died as the couple was packing to go to White House for his first term as president, as well as his actual slippers and robe. In the parlor, you see the piano forte Old Hickory bought for his granddaughter for $450 – a princely sum that could have purchased a large house – and her dolls and tea set.

There is a stack of bound volumes of newspapers from 1828-1832 – remarkable. The docent relates that Jackson was avid reader of newspapers and subscribed to 15 from all over the United States, adding that they are printed on rag, not the pulp-paper, so the pages are not even yellow or brittle.

Jackson purchased 425 acres in 1804, living in a simple log cabin until building a brick home in 1821 in the Federal style. The Greek Revival Mansion we see and associate with Jackson today was built in 1836.

By then, the plantation had been expanded to 1,000 acres, growing cotton as well as its own food. During the 1840’s, 140 slaves performed the work on the farm.

An exhibit in the modern Visitor Center (where there is an interesting 18-minute film about Jackson and The Hermitage), discusses the issue of slavery in that era; it notes that he allowed slave families to stay together.

The grounds of The Hermitage contain replicas of slave cabins, a smokehouse and the first Hermitage home, which is currently being reconstructed. Built in 1804, slaves lived in the two-story farmhouse for 40 years after the second Hermitage was completed.

Visitors are invited to watch archeologists excavate historic sites during the summer.

(Allocate 2 hours; The Hermitage, 4580 Rachel’s Lane, Hermitage, 615-889-2941, www.thehermitage.com.

Belle Meade Plantation

Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, this “Queen of the Tennessee Plantations” Belle Meade was where thoroughbred racehorses were bred. It was home to English Derby winner Iroquois, but perhaps more importantly, most of the winningest thoroughbred horses today: Seabiscuit and War Admiral to Secretariat, Smarty Jones and Barbaro, all trace their lineage to Belle Meade.

The plantation was founded in 1807 by John Harding and his wife Susannah, who built it up from a log cabin and 250 acres of land into a massive operation that at one time covered 5,400 acres. You can see the original 1790s log cabin, the 1890s stables and carriage house, a replica Slave Quarters (if you read the notes you see that the re-creation would have been for the house slave; living conditions for field slaves were much worse).

The 45-minute tour through the 1853 Greek Revival mansion, presented as it probably appeared in the 1850s, is led by docents wearing period clothing. The stories they tell about four generations of the Harding and Jackson families (no relation to Andrew Jackson, though they knew one another) are spellbinding – their prosperous rise in the lavish world of thoroughbreds to their ultimate bankruptcy – against the backdrop of the history of Nashville and the nation.

The visit was even engaging for pre-teens who were enthralled by seeing the furnishings (the vast majority belonged to the family), the portraits and hearing about the lives they led.

The entrance hall walls are covered with portraits of famous horses raised there.

One of the portraits depicts the horse Bonnie Scotland with Bob Greene, a slave who at the age of 3, was given as a wedding gift to take care of the horses. He develops a special talent for handling the horses, and is revered in the household, which is clear from the portrait. Even the French government sends an envoy to learn from him how to train horses. It is Bonnie Scotland, never successful as a race horse that is the ancestor to the most famous racehorses in history.

But in the 1880s, of course, that is not known.

No, the “rock star” of Belle Meade is Iroquois, the first American horse to win the English Derby – at the time, comparable to winning the Superbowl. A ticker tape parade was held in New York City for the horse.

This 150-year old antebellum home tells the history of the Old South from slavery to the post-slavery era. It was one of the few homes that can claim to have had a Civil War battle fought on the lawn – craters are still visible in the columns of the front porch that mark the explosion of cannon fire.

Very moving was the exhibit which discussed slavery on the plantation, admittedly (almost apologetically) stating that the living conditions displayed were probably reserved for the most valued house servants, and would not have been typical of slaves who worked in the fields.

The living history experience is enhanced by demonstrations – open heart cooking, feeling the rough textiles of the loom, hearing the hammer of the blacksmith.

(Allocate 2 hours, $14/A, $6/6-12, Belle Meade, 5025 Harding Road, 615-356-0501, www.bellemeadeplantation.com).


Carved out of this enormous Belle Meade neighborhood, and just a short distance from Belle Meade, is Cheekwood. 

Once the private estate of the Cheek family (they made a fortune investing in their cousin’s company, Maxwell House coffee, and then a nascent IBM), this is an amazing oasis, a Wonderland really, consisting of 55 acres of botanical gardens, a mile-long sculpture trail, and a world-class art museum housed in the 1932 Georgian mansion designed by New York architect Bryant Fleming. (Construction started in 1929 and finished in 1932, coinciding with the Great Depression, and during that time, was the largest employer in Nashville).

Visiting art here is like seeing someone’s private collection in his or her house. Even children will be under the spell of such masterpieces in this atmosphere.

Incorporating many European architectural designs, paintings and furniture, the mansion remains today as it did 70 years ago. Next door to the mansion is a modernized paddock where revolving contemporary art exhibitions are displayed.

The mansion is surrounded by 10 brilliant gardens and a Sculpture Trail. The gardens were designed by renowned 1930s landscape architect Bryant Fleming, each representing a particular group of plants or garden style, and bloom for a majority of the seasons. The mile-long Sculpture Trail features works by 15 internationally acclaimed artists meandering around the property.

There are also many activities and programs specifically for kids. For example, this past summer, “Once Upon a Garden,” created storybook settings amid the natural landscape. Also, every Tuesday and Saturday morning, from 10 a.m. until noon, there are “morning art adventures.”

(Allocate 2-3 hours. Cheekwood, 1200 Forrest Park Drive, 615-356-8000, cheekwood.org).

Lane Motor Museum

Motoring around Music City, a must-visit is the Lane Motor Museum. This place, located on a typical street appropriately lined with automobile showrooms, was such a surprise. You won’t find your father’s Buick, and this is not your typical car museum.

You don’t have to be a car lover to find yourself enthralled by this extraordinary collection of cars, appreciating their special significance all the more from the interesting and even humorous “Fun Facts” supplied for each one.

Founded in 2002 by Jeff and Susan Lane (Jeff was a life-long collector), passion is what fuels this place.

There are some 150 vehicles on display, mainly from other countries, making this collection all the more special. Many of the cars are quite literally “unique” or unusual. Unlike many car museums, the majority of these are in running condition (the Lanes even take them out for a spin) – you can even look into the repair shop to see what car is being worked on.

There are microcars; amphibious vehicles; competition cars; alternative fuel vehicles (like a 1945 Machet Velocar that went 21 mph “or as fast as you could peddle”). There are military vehicles and motorcycles, and most fascinating, the prototypes and one-of-a-kind vehicles (easy to find under a big sign that says “Unique”), including a one-of-a-kind propeller-drive car, a 1932 Helecron, made in France.

The collection is constantly rotated to keep the exhibit fresh, and there are special exhibits, such as “Hold Your Horses: The History of the Deux Chevaux – the Citroen,” which was going on during our visit.

The presentation is interesting but tremendously fun. An orientation video is highly recommended, and the museum map offers 50 fun things to do.

There is even a play area for youngsters, and a virtual reality racecar game, where you sit in the seat, choose your car, color, track and level of difficulty and drive (free).

(Allocate 1 ½-2 hours; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, $5/A, Seniors 55-plus, $3, under 18 free; 702 Murfreesboro Pike, 615-742-7445 www.lanemotormuseum.org).

Embassy Suites Nashville Airport

Our base of operations for our motoring tour of Nashville was the Embassy Suites-Nashville Airport. At first blush, I would have thought an airport hotel would be cold, institutional, and even smoggy with jet fumes, especially considering that it was situated within an office park.

In fact, the Embassy Suites was ideal for our family, superbly situated so it was central to all the attractions we wanted to visit by car (free, convenient parking is nothing to sneeze at), and was loaded with “extras”.

To begin with, the 296-suite hotel, which just underwent a $702 million renovation, has the look and feel more like a Caribbean resort hotel than a hotel that caters to transient business travelers – a huge atrium and lounge/sitting areas landscaped with giant palm plants, a waterfall/fountain and even a cage with cockatoos.

Because the rooms are all suites, there was plenty of room for our family to spread out – the children stayed in the living room, separated by a door, in the pull out Queen-size couch, where there was also a television (remote control), microwave, sink, and refrigerator, and table/desk.

Our room was spacious, and was loaded with creature comforts and amenities, including practical items like iron and ironing board.

But that was only the beginning. The hotel has a large indoor swimming pool – great for swimming laps or just frolicking – as well as a whirlpool tub, and a fitness room. The pool is set off by big picture windows, and opens to an outside sitting area.

In the morning, the complimentary breakfast, served in that festive, tropical setting, is a luscious affair, with the piece de resistance: omelets freshly prepared for you with the ingredients that you select, plus a selection of cooked meats, grits and hash brown potatoes, fresh fruits, cereals, breads and pastries, juices.

Each afternoon, between 5 and 7:30 p.m. there is a Manager’s Reception where drinks (beer, wine, sodas and so forth) and snacks are served complimentary.

The hotel features 14,000 square feet of meeting space including 10 meeting rooms, a business center (where we could use computers and check emails at no charge), concierge services, a small gift shop.

It is only 2.5 miles from the airport (free shuttle service to and from the airport), and seven miles to downtown (about 20 minutes); it was also about 15 to 30 minutes from every attraction we wanted to visit. And the service was warm and gracious.

A superb value, with rates from $99; Embassy Suites Hotel-Nashville Airport, 10 Century Boulevard, Nashville, 615-871-0033, embassysuites.Hilton.com.

For more information about visiting Nashville and the Music City Total Access Attraction Pass (where you can choose four attractions and one free admission for $45) contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 150 Fourth Avenue North, Suite G-250 Nashville, TN 37219, 800-657-6910, www.visitmusiccity.com. Lodgings, packages, discounts and the Total Access Pass can be purchased online.

For more information about downtown Nashville and to read about Honky Tonking in Music City, click here.

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