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VOL. 36 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 14, 2012

Walk, ride, glide through Midstate history

By John McBryde

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Tour guide Bill Demain, with Walkin’ Nashville Tours, gathers his group of tourists at the Ryman Auditorium for a story.

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The irony was inescapable. Bill Demain found himself in Nashville, at the epicenter of country music, and nowhere could he find anyone making a living talking about the roots of the genre and pointing out its landmarks.

Not a soul was telling the stories of the people and the music and the intertwined connections that helped to make Nashville become famously known as Music City.

So Demain, a Grammy-nominated music journalist, songwriter and twang enthusiast, did what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do when an opportunity presents itself: He got a business license and began taking tourists and residents alike through the streets of downtown Nashville, telling tales upon tales of the city’s musical origins.

“None of the tours were getting in depth about the music and the artists who really made Nashville what it is,” Demain says. “I thought that would be my angle.”

Demain launched the Walkin’ Nashville Music City Legends Tour  this summer, and for 90 minutes a day, Tuesday through Saturday, he leads groups through decades of country music history in just a few blocks of strolling.

The bus tours can take visitors to the area’s landmarks and homes of the stars, but it’s the up-close and personal tours like Walkin’ Nashville that allow them to stop and smell the beer at Tootsie’s. Whether it’s by foot, scooter or even a tavern on wheels, individuals and companies are providing tourists more intimate options for seeing Music City.

“It seems that several of these types of tours have popped up in the last year,” says Deana Ivey, senior vice president of marketing for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And some of the new ones are pretty unique. They give visitors a view of Nashville in a different light.”

Nashville Segway Tours offers a way to see the sites that is a less strenuous alternative to a walking tour.

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Demain, a longtime resident who possesses a wealth of music knowledge, is the ideal guide for showing folks the sunny and the seedy of the Nashville Sound. With a look and build similar to the late Hank Williams, Demain takes his tour groups to places like Printer’s Alley, Ryman Auditorium and Ernest Tubb Record Shop.

He relates stories of Chet Atkins, George Jones and Dolly Parton, as well as throwing in lesser-known ditties about the Nashville influence on legends like Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix. He’ll pause with a trivia question three or four times during a tour, presenting the person with the correct answer a vintage postcard of a country music legend.

As a one-man organization, Demain relies primarily on word-of-mouth for promotion, particularly through online boards such as Trip Advisor and Yelp.

“Since I’m doing this myself, I obviously don’t have a big advertising budget or anything. It’s kind of guerilla marketing,” he explains. “I thought if I can just get the word out, give a good tour and get some good reviews online, I will have done something. But I’ve exceeded my expectations.”

Jeff Sellers, curator of education for the Tennessee State Museum, also launched a walking tour in 2012. Just as Demain has done with country music, Sellers gives inside stories on Nashville’s history through his tour known as Echoes of Nashville Walking Tours.

“Nashville has so many historic sites that visitors might not encounter or understand what they’re seeing,” says Sellers, who has been an interpretive guide in Nashville for nearly 10 years. “It just made sense to do this.”

Echoes of Nashville has tours on Saturdays and Sundays, with stops that include Lower Broad, Fort Nashborough and the State Capitol. Sellers used Living Social to help get the word out and received about 200 responses.

Nashville Scooter Tours

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Walkers can get a more spirited look at the city through Nashville Haunted Ghost Tour from Nashville Sightseeing, and can even get fed along the way by taking the Music City Bites and Sites tour.

For those who would rather not travel by foot, there are other ways for getting a unique peek into Nashville. Nashville Segway Tours, which is handled through the dealership Segway of Tennessee, covers about 10 miles in and around the downtown area and includes stops at popular spots.

Nashville Scooter Tours is a new outfit that takes visitors to various locations on electric scooters, with an emphasis on the “green” way to get around.

And then there’s the Nashville Pedal Tavern, a 12-seat bicycle-like vehicle that is basically bar hopping on wheels.

“We run it like a bar crawl,” says Angie Buckingham, general manager for the company that has been in Nashville for about 2½ years. “We have a couple of different routes to choose from, with about three or four stops along each one.”

Though there’s no alcohol served on the pedal tavern, guests can bring their own and even designate one of the riders to be a bartender.

Buckingham says business has been good. “We’re booked every weekend, with people needing to reserve well in advance,” she says.

To the South…

They’re walking in Franklin, too – as well as bicycling and enjoying local delicacies while they stroll – through a company that began nearly 10 years ago known as Franklin on Foot.

“Franklin is perfect for walking tours,” says Margie Thessin, who co-founded Franklin on Foot in 2003 after a previous career as an attorney. “It’s very compact, just a few blocks, and, of course, it has a great history.”

And parts of it are scandalous. One of the company’s more popular tours is called “Murder and Mayhem on Main Street,” and its tales of prostitution, bootlegging and murder belie Franklin’s reputation as an otherwise charming and quaint town. The “Haunted Franklin Tour” also is a hit.

“When we had 110 people show up the first night for our ghost tour, I knew we were on to something,” Thessin says.

Franklin on Foot includes a “Classic Franklin History Tour” and, of course, a “Civil War Tour” that tells of the Battle of Franklin and the ensuing years during occupation. The company added “Bike Tours” and “Food Tours” to its list this year.

“We’ve grown every year,” Thessin says. “Even during the bad economy, we continued to grow. I never imagined it.”

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