Honky Tonking In Music City - How Nashville Got Its 'Sound'

By Karen Rubin

Music is everywhere you turn in Nashville, which appropriately has taken as its moniker  “Music City.” Music is probably what draws most visitors to this dynamic place, but as we discovered, this is just the beginning for a family exploring downtown Nashville.

With that in mind, make your first stop in Music City’s Honky Tonk district. In fact, families are welcome before 8 or 9 p.m., when most enforce the over-21 rule.

They are literally next door to one another along Broadway (also known as Honky Tonk Highway) and Second Avenue. You go from one to the other (most don’t even have a cover charge – the performers get paid from the tips you deposit on you way out) so you can feast on the music and the atmosphere. In Nashville, they have a name for this: Honky Tonking.

The music starts in the early afternoon, and there are families with young children sitting on stools at tables, enjoying the music. This is really an enchanted time, with the afternoon sun backlighting the performers, the places not as crowded or noisy as they will become. It seems the music is purer then, perhaps because the people are more focused on the performance.

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is iconic in Nashville. Originally called, “Mom’s,” Hattie Louis Tatum Bess, known as “Tootsie,” bought the club in 1960. Tootsie was a singer/comedian who recorded “My Little Red Wagon” and “Tootsie’s Wall of Fame.” She was an impresario in her own way – slipping a $5 or $10 into the pocket of a luckless writer or picker, and it is said she had a cigar box of IOU’s for drinks and food (supposedly, at the end of the year, a bunch of Opry performers paid back the IOUs).

Willie Nelson got his first songwriting job after singing at Tootsie’s; Roger Miller is rumored to have written “Dang Me,” while at Tootsie’s; the photos and memorabilia that line the walls are called the “Wall of Fame.” It is marvelously atmospheric, colorful – even to the orchid colored light that softly lights a table by the window - and the music is fabulous.

There’s also Legends Corner, at the corner of Broadway & Fifth, the gateway to “Honky Tonk Highway”  (you can’t miss it: there is a giant electric guitar outside); The Stage on Broadway, Robert’s, Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, Second Fiddle.

Along the way, stop into the famous Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway). Celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2007, it is one of the oldest letterpress poster print shops in America, produced the posters for many of the Opry stars, as well as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen’s “Live from New York” album (www.hatchshowprint.com). The Country Music Hall of Fame has a whole wall full of the Hatch posters.

Continue down Honky Tonk Highway to Second Avenue, where there and more music places, like B.B. King’s Blues Club & Restaurant, Wildhorse Saloon (for line dancing) and Charlie Daniels museum (really more of a shop with a room of memorabilia).

Take a small detour toward the Cumberland River, and walk over the lovely pedestrian bridge just beyond the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where special performances are scheduled.

‘Mother Church of Country Music’

Seeing the live music whets the appetite for an immersion into the history and heritage of the music that has been synonymous with popular culture.

One of the reasons Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge became so iconic is that it is just 26 steps from back door to the Ryman Auditorium, considered the “Mother Church of Country Music. The Ryman is famous for being the home for the Grand Ole Opry radiocast from 1943 to 1974.

The Ryman was literally a tabernacle - built in 1892 by Captain Thomas Ryman, a steamboat captain and prominent Nashville businessman, for his spiritual mentor, Rev. Samuel P. Jones. A mezzanine was added to accommodate a Gathering of Confederate Soldiers in 1897; a stage was built in 1901. When Ryman died in 1910, Rev. Jones, himself, suggested the name change from the Union Gospel Tabernacle to the Ryman.

Acoustics at the Ryman are said to be second only to the Mormon Tabernacle, surpassing even Carnegie Hall – the wooden pews (they are sacred and were preserved even after the 1993 renovation) actually help the sound.

In many ways, the Ryman is a story of Nashville, itself. The Ryman was losing money and would have closed, but for Lulu C. Neff, who became its manager, and brought in prominent entertainers of a wide variety - Mary Pickford, Valentino, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Rachmaninoff. Performances of Enrico Caruso, John Phillip Sousa and the Vienna Orchestra. These earned the Ryman the nickname, “The Carnegie Hall of the South.”

You can take a self-guided tour ($12.50), seeing many marvelous artifacts, photos (there is even a small recording studio where you can make your own CD).

But treat yourself to the 30-minute backstage tour ($3.75 more) which takes you to the three small dressing rooms where John Cash, the Carter Family, Chet Atkins and so many others would have been (the photos and posters are wonderful) and the back stage area; you actually go to the wings of the stage, set up for the Grand Ole Opry, and can go onto the stage for a picture at the famous WSN microphone. There are wonderful posters and photos - signed photos of Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Marion Anderson, WC Fields, Fanny Brice (615-254-1445, www.ryman.com).

Historic Studio B

Imagine sitting at the very piano where Elvis Presley played during all-night recording sessions! Visitors to RCA Studio B get that unparalleled thrill.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2007, RCA Studio B, between 1957 and 1977, was where some 35,000 records were produced, including 4,000 “hits,” and half of Elvis’ catalog. (The guide shows us where Dolly Parton had her first “hit” – where her car hit the wall).

Acquired and reopened in 2002 as a museum, you visit RCA Studio B as part of a tour from the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is here that you discover the mystery of “the Nashville Sound.”

The 1942 Steinway, built for NBC Studios in NY, has not left the room since 1957 (Elvis’ attempt to buy it was rebuffed). “If a song was recorded on RCA session in Studio B, that’s the piano that was used,” the guide says.

The guide, who confesses, “Like everyone else, I’m trying to make music,” regales us with anecdotes about Elvis at the studio – and how “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” was a perfect take until one of the back-up singers of the Jordanaires, messed up a note at the end.

He explains the source of the Nashville Sound, and how Chet Atkins, a genius guitar player and music producer, was responsible for saving Country music by “smoothing out the rough edges to appeal to broader audience” making the crossover between Country and pop.

Studio B is actually on Music Row – Nashville’s own Wall Street – where music producers and recording studios are concentrated. Reba McIntyre’s own building, he says on the short bus ride back, cost more to build than Country Music Hall of Fame; it has floating rooms, so there is no vibration and better acoustics.

It is so fascinating to see it, pretty much just as it was left, with the original recording equipment.

Seeing Studio B gives me a whole different perspective on what we see at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Country Music Hall of Fame

If the Ryman is the Mother Church of Country Music, Studio B its shrine, the Country Music Hall of Fame is surely its temple.

The Country Music Hall of Fame, in a new $37 million building, sets out the historic and cultural context for the music, how it evolved out of various traditions of folk music, from the fiddle players to the gospel hymns, and how it changed in response to commercial enterprise, even from the beginning.

You get to see Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac, with a gold-plated TV and 40 coats of crushed “diamond dust pearl” paint. Huge walls are covered in gold and platinum records, and then there is the actual “Hall of Fame.”

There are special exhibits, as well. An exhibit dedicated to Ray Charles, on through Dec. 31, provides fascinating insight into this amazing musical innovator. Of particular interest is a display of one of his glittering jackets: “This was intentional – since he was blind, he couldn’t move around, so he wanted to be the focal point.”

The major new exhibition, Family Tradition: The Hank Williams Legacy, Presented by SunTrust, opening March 28, 2008 for a near two-year run, explores the connections between country music’s most iconic figure and his creative heirs – both biological and musical – and examines the ways in which American music continues to be measured by the standards Hank Williams set.

You can easily spend a half-day here (fortunately, there is a small café). Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, 615-416-2001, www.countrymusichalloffame.com).

Fun Food

A fun place to eat when in downtown Nashville, in the Honky Tonk district, is the Old Spaghetti Factory. Housed in a turn-of-the-century warehouse, it is like stepping back into the Victorian era, with red velvet, stained glass, wood paneling and brass; there is even a railroad dining car. The pasta selections are scrumptious – my favorites are the spinach tortellini with Alfredo sauce ($9/dinner), and the spinach and cheese ravioli ($9/dinner). A superb value, lunch and dinner entrees come with choice of soup or salad and freshly baked bread (160 Second Avenue, North, 615-254-9010).

Pancake Pantry, a local favorite, is a Nashville tradition. Plan to wait on line (this is part of the tradition, and coffee, books and newspapers are left for people waiting), a phenomenon depicted in the many paintings of the restaurant. You can get Caribbean pancakes (made with slices of banana and shredded coconut); Apricot lemon delight; Swedish, the list goes on and on. A great place to eat when also visiting Vanderbilt University campus (1796 21st Ave. S, 615-383-9333).

Culture & History

Nashville is far more than music, in the way that New York City (the Big Apple) is more than Broadway theater and Los Angeles is more than Hollywood.

Indeed, on the trail to discover how Nashville earned the moniker “Music City,” we found the Frist Museum of Visual Arts; the Hermitage Hotel, from where the suffragists and the anti-suffragists lobbied the Tennessee Legislators in the State Capital, a stone’s throw away, and a full-sized replica of the Parthenon, constructed in its Centennial Park, in 1897, when Nashville was back on track to economic boom, as a symbol of classical learning.

In fact, Nashville may be known for cowboy boots and the Nashville Sound, but it has quite a penchant for the classical. When deciding on architecture for its new Schermerhorn Symphony Center (named for a beloved conductor), Nashvillians chose Greek revival style and though the $120 million building opened only last September, you would think it had been standing for 100 years.

That says a lot about Nashville, where tall, modernistic skyscrapers are rising up at breakneck pace, reflecting its growing importance as a hub for finance, medical care and as the state’s capital city. Even Printers’ Alley, the original site of Nashville’s printing industry, barely holds on to its bad-boy image of Prohibition-era speakeasies, with new professional suites opening.

The most identifiable structure in Nashville now is the Bell South building –  a double spire that looks like it could have had a part in a Batman movie, towering over the honky tonks below.

But, like the Ryman Auditorium which was saved from the wrecker’s ball, other structures now have contemporary uses, and tell Nashville’s story.

The Tennessee State Capital building, constructed 1845-77, was designed by architect and engineer William Strickland (who also did Independence Hall tower). Slaves and convicts quarried and transported the limestone. It is a National Historic Civil Engineering landmark – one of the first built in US with structural iron roof trusses. The capital grounds set the standard for park development in region. President James K. Polk  (one of three presidents who hailed from Tennessee) and his wife are buried there.

By the time the Capital building was built, Nashville already had a long history, starting with ancient mound-builders and wandering Shawnee of Algonquin stock who occupied modern Nashville’s Cumberland river bluffs. Europeans first settled the area in 1779 as Fort Nashborough. The famous frontiersman Daniel Boone had a hand in it, and his Wilderness Road brought pioneers over the Appalachians from Virginia, the Carolinas and the northeast. Nashville developed rapidly as a trade and manufacturing center, was chartered in 1806 and became the state capital in 1843.

The city found itself at a strategic point during the Civil War – on the Cumberland River, linking to the Mississippi navigation system, and at the crossroads of important rail lines. With federal troops advancing upriver, the state legislature relocated to Memphis, and Nashville surrendered. Andrew Jackson, then a U.S. Senator and eventual President, was appointed military governor; he installed Union loyalists to occupy and impose martial law. As a result, Nashville emerged from the Civil War intact.

The Capitol Building is just above the War Memorial, another exquisite example of classical architecture.

Nashville’s fortunes declined after the Civil War, but by the time of the Centennial Exposition, in 1897, the economy had rebounded. As a reflection, the city built The Parthenon, the world’s only full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon. Located in Centennial Park (a wonderful place to run around, picnic, and attend outdoor performances), it houses Athena, 42 feet high, the tallest indoor structure in the Western world, sculpted by Nashvillian Alan LeQuire. The statue was unveiled in 1990, and in 2002 was gilded and painted with 8 pounds of 23.75-carat gold. In her right hand, Athena holds the goddess Nike, which stands 6 feet 4 inches tall. In addition, The Parthenon houses the City’s art museum, including a rotating gallery featuring the museum’s permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art, and a display of black and white photographs from the 1897 Centennial Exposition (fascinating), and an exhibit about how the Greeks built the original Parthenon, plus special exhibits. (Allocate 1 hour. Closed Mondays; $5/A, $2.50/C, 615-862-8431, www.parthenon.org.

During this time, the city built some other stunning buildings, like the Custom House, the stunning Union Station, now a historic hotel, in these boom years of the turn-of-the-century.

The city took on a new persona in 1925, with the launch of a live broadcast Barn Dance – later sarcastically nicknamed the “Grand Ole Opry” but along with the rest of the country, the city’s fortunes declined again in the Great Depression.

Frist Museum of Visual Arts, housed in the stunning Art-Deco 1934 U.S. Post Office built as a New Deal project, features important exhibits from museums and collections all of the world, so there is always something different on view. It also offers marvelous family activities like Art Quest with 30 interactive stations where families can create works of art together, art-making workshops, family days and informative public programs (The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway, Nashville, 615-244-3340, www.fristcenter.org; admission, open daily).

Living in History

Kids (and adults) love train stations. It is great fun to stay at the Union Station Hotel, quite literally a turn-of-the-century railroad station, and a grand one at that, built in the glory days of train travel.

The 106-year old building, a hotel since 1986, is exquisite, and has been stunningly restored to its former glory at a cost of $10 million, by Turnberry Associates & Corner Partners, which acquired it in August 2005. Now a Wyndham Historic Hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America, Union Station also offers the ultimate in luxury.

Soaring 237 feet from track level to the statue of Mercury above the clock tower, Union Station was built of Bowling Green limestone carved on site from massive blocks, with stunning towers and arches.

Enter the lobby and you are awed at the Romanesque architecture, the original 65-foot barrel-vaulted Tiffany-style stained glass ceiling, the gold-leaf mirrors, 12 rare gold-accented bas-relief sculptures, marble floors, oak-accented doors and walls, limestone fireplaces.

Over it all, at each end of the lobby, are two giant bas-relief panels. At the north end, two angels – Time and Progress – flank a bas-relief mural showing an ancient Egyptian chariot being pulled by slaves. On the South wall there is a bas-relief depicting a locomotive pulling passenger cars, and representatives of Miss Louisville and Miss Nashville on each side of the large clock above the mural.

Even with the refurbishment, you feel totally transported in time. There is a giddy delight in going through a door that says, “Track 14 to Trains.”

The 125 guestrooms have all been redone and offer luxurious amenities including plasma flat-screen television, Ergonomic Herman Miller Aeron work-chair, cordless telephone, custom CD player. The hotel also offers a new fitness center, complimentary business center and is opening a premier restaurant and lounge.

Union Station, 1001 Broadway, Nashville, 615-726-1001, www.unionstationhotelnashville.com).

It’s easy to think you have stepped back in time – or at least to an era of gentility that seems to have long passed – as you step across the threshold of The Hermitage Hotel, and the doorman, dressed in 1910 style, tips his hat.

The Hermitage Hotel, which has reigned for nearly 100 years as “Nashville’s Hotel,” was Nashville’s first $1 million hotel when it grandly opened in 1910, but it wasn’t built by an oil baron, railroad mogul or industrialist. It was commissioned by 250 Nashvillians in 1908, and named after Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, located just outside the city (see Motoring Around Music City).

At the time, Nashville wasn’t yet Music City or the Country Music Capital of the World. It was a city the Bible built – its biggest industry was printing religious materials and publishing hymnal music.

The Hermitage was designed by John Edwin Ruethven Carpenter, a Tennessean who studied at the Les Ecole de Beaux Arts de Paris, and incorporated his knowledge of industrial structures and the beauty of Beaux Arts classicism, and when it opened in 1910, it became a symbol of Nashville’s emergence as a major Southern city.

It was the social center for Nashville, and over the years, has hosted six presidents, plus war heroes, Hollywood actors like Greta Garbo, country music stars like Gene Autry (who checked in with his horse, Trigger, who stayed on the fourth floor), gangster Al Capone and characters like the famous pool-player Minnesota Fats (who lived at the hotel for eight years and had his own pool table on the Mezzanine above the lobby).

The Hermitage Hotel also was the focal point for powerful businessmen and legislators, especially since the State’s Capitol building is a stone’s throw from the hotel.

Indeed, in 1914, The Hermitage Hotel hosted the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s national convention. By 1915, news reports predicted that Tennessee’s powerful suffragists might win the vote for all American women.

In 1920, the hotel was the headquarters for both the Suffragists wearing yellow roses and the anti-Suffrage forces wearing red roses. The anti-Suffrage movement used the hotel as a platform for decrying the loss of womanhood and motherhood, certain results if suffrage passed, they believed.

After weeks of intense lobbying by national leaders, on August 18, 1920, the legislators in the State Capitol passed the measure by a single vote, making Tennessee the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That gave all American women the right to vote.

When The Hermitage originally opened in 1910, it was the most lavish, and state-of-the-art, boasting a “private bathroom in every room.”

It also manifested the mores of the time.

A woman traveling alone could not register herself. She would wait on the Veranda, and in the evening, the ladies would gather there while the men retired to the Oak Bar, which was gentleman-only.

You can still peak through a window that women would use to order their drink, and the Veranda, today, has been enclosed, the ceiling painted with clouds and sky, and it makes a stunning setting for weddings and functions.

The Oak Bar is no longer a gentleman’s club, but still offers a rich, clubby ambiance that has often earned it the title “best bar in Nashville” (and that is saying something). You can easily imagine the days when the Francis Craig Orchestra entertained from here from 1929-1945. The orchestra was also the first to broadcast over WSM (the same station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry show) and had a 12-year show that aired over the entire NBC network. In 1949, Craig introduced a newcomer from Nashville, Dinah Shore.

The Hermitage Hotel was purchased in June 2000 by Historic Hotels of Nashville, LLC, which also owns the historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, and Kiawah Island resort. The Hermitage was shut down for an $18 million renovation of the guest rooms and public areas, which transformed the hotel back to its original glory. It reopened in 2003.

During the renovation, everything was done to make The Hermitage a five-star, five-diamond hotel (it was Tennessee’s only AAA Five Diamond hotel in 2004, 2005). The rooms were completely rebuilt to be larger. Each of the 123 oversized guestrooms and suites has luxuriously designed, custom made beds from Omaha Bedding; five-fixture marble baths; complimentary high-speed Internet and wireless Internet access; CD/DVD players, cable television and refreshment center.

There is a sunlit fitness room with free weights, treadmills, cross-trainers and stationary bikes with personal television; The Spa at the Hermitage offers a variety of signature services.
Refreshments are laid out just beside the concierge desk – fresh lemonade and cider, baked cookies and fresh fruit in the afternoon; coffee, tea and muffins in the morning. In the afternoon, there is a lavish tea and sandwich service in the even more lavish lobby lounge.
At night, you return to your room to find a terry robe laid out on the bed, a wicker basket with slippers, and a place to put your shoes and shoe horn (the overnight show shine is complimentary), and chocolates. The morning newspaper is delivered in a black sack on the door knob, instead of thrown on the floor. The bath has a silver tray; a “bath concierge” will provide just the right combination of lotions, creams, bath oils.

The Hermitage offers an award-winning, AAA Four-Diamond-rated Capitol Grille restaurant (no relation to the chain restaurant), featuring Southern fusion cuisine, with an emphasis on certified Tennessee Black Angus Beef, market fresh seafood and the freshest and best available local products. The emphasis is on freshness – nothing, except ice cream, has been frozen (and even the ice cream is handmade).

Today, we find a real eclectic mix of guests – families coming for weddings and special occasions, business travelers.

The hotel may also be one of the first truly “pet-friendly” – from when Gene Autry checked into the hotel with his horse (which stayed on the fourth floor). The hotel now offers a Very Important Pet program, a pet room service menu, and when you check in, lists VIP Entertainment options (where to walk, where the parks, pet day care, pet stores, restaurants that accept pets like Dog Day Café & Spa, and vets); it also provides pet-walking service.

The Hermitage Hotel commands this wonderful location between the State Capital building, the big office buildings of the business district, and the honky tonks and entertainment places – all a comfortable walk.
For further information, contact The Hermitage Hotel, 231 Sixth Avenue, Nashville TN 37219, 888-888-9414, www.thehermitagehotel.com.

Both Union Station Hotel and The Hermitage Hotel are members of Historic Hotels of America; for more historic hotels, visit Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946, www.historichotels.org.

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.

See also: Motoring Around Music City
© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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