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VOL. 37 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 06, 2013

48 hours in Nashville: Entertaining out-of-town guests over the holidays? Show them the “It City” like a pro!

By Tim Ghianni

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“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” proclaims the throat-thickening No. 1 tourist destination for anyone either visiting Nashville or simply trying to show holiday guests around town.

George Jones’ monument, which presides over the mid-section of Woodlawn Memorial Park in Berry Hill, could easily fit in as the first, last, or perhaps bookend stops on a 48-hour tour of Music City USA.

His grave is in Jones Estates, a collection of plots he purchased long ago. The monument is easily visible on the right as you come down the double driveway. Jones Estates backs up to the Garden of Dogwood.

Jones himself, a pragmatic and gentle soul, not only purchased the burial property, he began the design for his own monument, which is crowned with his name and the title of his most famous song.

Jamie Croft, 37, his wife and friends traveled from Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada, to bow before Jones’ monument in the cemetery on Thompson Lane.

“I can’t believe I’m standing here now,” Croft says.

He bought tickets to see George Jones’ Final No-Show, his farewell performance set for Nov. 22, at Bridgestone Arena. It became the ultimate No-Show for country music’s most-beloved star after he died in April, leaving fans to use their tickets for a four-hour tribute concert instead.

Just as Jones designed his own monument, he planned his own tribute concert, careful not to leave any friends out, before he died.

Croft is joined by his wife, Rina Wilson, 31, and their friends Ken Southall, 52, and his wife, Sue Morrison, 51, the rest of his posse of Possum pilgrims from Alberta, who had left him by the grave while they went to snag a cab for a Music City tour.

“I don’t know where he’s taking us,” says Rina, nodding back at the waiting cab.

So that readers won’t have to rely on a cabbie’s vision of what’s important, perhaps you’ll want to clip the following words so visitors and hometown tourists will be able to sample Music City’s steel-guitar-accompanied international calling card, as well as its history, culture and cuisine. Feel free to mix and match.

Day One:

The most popular stop right now really does seem to be Jones’ grave.

“We came to Nashville to see George’s final concert on the big stage,” says Canada’s Croft, who seems reluctant to leave the gravesite to take the cab tour. “I’ve listened to him since I was a boy. He was my favorite singer.”

More than 100 performers, basically every star in country music and a few other genres, participated in the tribute, leaving Croft nearly breathless in awe.

“But I would have traded all those people in for George. I’m tellin’ ya.”

He smiles and focuses sad eyes on the monument, decorated with a picture of Jones and his wife, Nancy, who slayed the demons that haunted truly the sweetest man in country music history.

The recently unveiled monument that marks the grave of country legend George Jones is a must-see.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“Isn’t it beautiful” is a statement rather than a question as Croft looks at the grand monument and the sea of all flavors of tulips and roses that surround the full-bronze ledger, a coffin-sized memorial that covers his actual resting place and bears Jones’ signature and “The Possum” nickname.

“Just beautiful.”

A good second stop – if you begin your tour at Jones’ graveside – would be seven or so slow, city miles away on Page Road in Belle Meade, where you’ll find the mansion where Rayna James, the aging diva who reigns supreme on stage and in bed on TV’s “Nashville,” the sexy ABC soaper that treats its namesake city as a co-star.

The trip to see where actress Connie Britton’s fictional character lives also will put you in a section not often seen by visitors: the gilded city within a city that is Belle Meade.

(Be observant of speed limits and do not “look suspicious” as you travel the boulevards linking the mansions of these women and men of wealth and taste: Belle Meade has its very own active police force.)

In the same part of town, you can find the lush former “Maxwell House” estate Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art, which annually perks up artfully decorated holiday trees and programming, and the also-festive Belle Meade Plantation, which offers a window into life among the Old South’s thoroughbreds, both equine and human. Take a tour or just drive through the grounds and maybe visit the gift shop for unique items.

These compounds are monuments to a class of people who long ago didn’t like mixing with “the hillbillies” who toted guitars, banjos and fiddles into Tennessee’s capital city and helped craft its identity.

Those stars – from Eddy Arnold to Johnny Cash to Stonewall Jackson to Little Jimmy Dickens to Waylon Jennings – long were exiled to places like Hendersonville and Brentwood. Changing times have those hillbillies freely mixing, living and coexisting with the silk-stocking set at the annual Swan Ball.

A cultural departure: Since you’re in this part of town anyway, a good place to dine takes you southwest on Highway 100, to the very southern tip of Nashville, and the Loveless Café. This famed establishment is beloved for its biscuits and fried chicken by the country stars whose autographed photos line the lobby as well as by those of us who can’t sing, play guitar or even yodel without suffering serious injury.

While waiting for the greeter to call your name to be seated, visit the surrounding small shops for more unique gifts and keepsakes.

Take a left off Belle Meade Blvd. onto Page Road to find “Nashville” character Rayna James’ TV home.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

On most Wednesday evenings, there is another delight to be found on these grounds. “Music City Roots: Live from the Loveless Barn” – a radio broadcast and streaming internet show (featured on PBS this autumn) – is a $10 smorgasbord of Nashville music, from steel-stringed country traditionalists to roots rockers to miners of the new-fangled “Americana Music” vein (aka “stuff The Byrds might have sung a half-century ago.”) Except for a fistful of “off weeks,” the show occurs every hump day evening in the upscale barn behind the restaurant.

With or without seeing the show, when you leave the Loveless grounds, take a left on Highway 100 and it’s a straight shot to go through Belle Meade and past Vanderbilt on West End to reach Lower Broadway. The once raw honky-tonk and peep-show district has been reborn as a country and western Disney World, Music City’s mostly sanitized version of Memphis’ Beale Street and New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

Music pours from the crosswalk signs and the shotgun-styled saloons where musicians play for tips and beer from 10 a.m. until…. Most will want to stop at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, long-ago haunt of Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and their musical brethren.

Decades ago, a despondent songwriter named Willie Nelson famously “attempted suicide” by stepping out Tootsie’s front door and sprawling out in the middle of Lower Broadway, waiting for a car to run over him.

Back then there were more streetwalkers than street vehicles here, so an unscathed Willie, having proven himself also a failure at self-destruction, was dragged to the curb by his cohorts, who encouraged him to fire one up, write some of country’s best songs and take them on the road again.

Tootsie’s certainly is a must stop, even if you just duck your head in and look at the yellowed, autographed pictures of country royalty while listening to a cover artist twang from the stage near where a plaque honoring Kristofferson is planted in the floor.

(A few years ago, when called down to dedicate this “honor” that would have his bronze likeness stepped on by drunks and tourists long into the future, an uncomfortable Kristofferson sought the reassurance of a journalist friend, who told him his speechifying went just fine, for a songwriter.)

The orchid-colored façade turns up during NFL and college football and basketball broadcasts from this city. And, yes, it has appears on “Nashville.”

But don’t spend all your time at Tootsie’s. Sample the five blocks lined on both sides by honky-tonk heroes singing to boot-scooters and bull-shooters.

The best cover band in Nashville, for example, is the Don Kelley Band, which has played most nights of the last three decades at Robert’s Western World, just down the street from Tootsie’s.

And there’s no shortage of dining opportunities – whether you seek a fried pickle, pulled-pork sandwich, full-on Italian food and more – in this section of downtown Nashville.

A good place to end the night is a half-dozen miles away at The Bluebird Café in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood and upscale shopping empire. Be sure to get reservations in advance for the 9 p.m. shows that feature the city’s best singer-songwriters and sometimes special guests.

Since an understated, acoustic-driven Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler performed here a few weeks ago, could KISS be next? More likely would be Alice Cooper, a frequent visitor to Nashville because of his golfing friendship with Vince Gill.

Actually, this really is a spot where you might see Gill perform with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Radney Foster, Janis Ian and songwriter Don Schlitz (whose original version of “The Gambler” will make you forget about Kenny Rogers’ interpretation.)

While The Bluebird gets more “face time” than the actors on “Nashville,” don’t look for cameras and actors during your visit. Like many of the show’s primary settings, The Bluebird has been recreated on a sound stage.

Day Two:

Start out in Hillsboro Village, a pedestrian shopping district not far from Vanderbilt University.

A breakfast recommendation would be flapjacks where the stars “dine,” The Pancake Pantry. Back when a slender Garth lived in Nashville and really had friends in low places or otherwise, he was a regular for pancakes, washed down by a pitcher of hot chocolate.

There’s usually a line to get in, so if you can’t wait, wander a block or so down the street to Fido, a former pet store where your breakfast plate could include chorizo or poblano peppers with your eggs and designer coffee.

This stretch of small merchants also has been used on “Nashville.” In one episode, this is where TV show Mayor Teddy Conrad (actor Eric Close) – who curiously is the city’s real Christmas Parade Grand Marshall while real Mayor Karl Dean is relegated to counting lumps of coal, well, actually switching on the city Christmas tree – enjoys what becomes a fruitful vertical and horizontal encounter with Kimberly Williams-Paisley (real-life wife of humble Nashville nice dude Brad Paisley).

Take a cab a few blocks, to the other side of the Vanderbilt campus, where Centennial Park offers the world’s only full-sized replica of The Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

The original structure was built in 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Celebration. The current structure, built between 1921 and 1931, also houses a great art museum. And outside is Nashville’s small-scale version of New York’s Central Park, including areas to stroll and feed ducks at Lake Wautauga.

In the warmer months, it also hosts many arts and cultural festivals as well as free weekend concerts.

This Parthenon and the park played a central role in “Nashville” … not the TV show but the 1975 Robert Altman film. The climactic shooting scene took place here (and this writer was an extra, paid with hot dogs and watermelon for a day’s filming.)

Just a few paces away from George Jones’ grave is that of country performer Johnny PayCheck.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Before returning downtown, go to Elliston Place, adjacent to the park, and visit the low-slung burger joint that is Rotier’s for arguably the best cheeseburger in town (but don’t say that if you somehow stumble into another rough-and-tumble burger paradise, Brown’s Diner, a few blocks away, where you might see an Everly Brother or a Rolling Stones sideman enjoying a burger and beer.)

A good excuse to duck inside for awhile is the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a world-class museum in the old downtown post office building which hosts top-notch touring exhibits as well as interactive art adventures for children of all ages.

But if you are only going to choose one cultural stop, it should be the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a block off Lower Broadway, next to the massive Music City Center convention facility and near the Bridgestone Arena (home of the Nashville Predators – another winning possibility if you are free when the boys are back in town) and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Live music, a rotunda filled with the plaques of the honorees and floors of memorabilia and gold records make this a “must” stop.

Added benefits: You will be lucky indeed if you are there on the day when a musical performance or Q&A with a Nashville Cat or honky-tonk hero is taking place.

It’s worth the extra few bucks to sign up for the Hall of Fame’s shuttle tour to RCA Studio B, a living museum to recording, deep in the heart of the cluster of studios that birthed music by Al Hirt, Ringo Starr, Elvis, Dylan and every major artist ever to call himself or herself “country” and/or “western.”

The Hall of Fame, Music City Center, Bridgestone and Schermerhorn – a world-class symphony hall, if that’s to your liking – all have been used as locations for the TV show, by the way.

A can’t-miss is only a block or so away, where the Johnny Cash Museum is filled with relics and more celebrating the iconic Man in Black, who – other than perhaps Grandpa Jones – was the coolest guy ever to hit Music City.

Plan the rest of your day and night around the Grand Ole Opry, which is at the Ryman Auditorium (“the Mother Church of Country Music,” a half-block off Lower Broad) during the winter months. Shows are Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Most times, the early show is at 7 p.m. If you aren’t here on one of those days, take the Ryman tour, where you can have your picture snapped onstage where Hank stood.

(The Grand Ole Opry House out in the suburbs is taken over for the holiday months by The Rockettes, making for a worthwhile trip for those who enjoy being hypnotized by a curtain of lithe, synchronized legs. If you do go out there, save time before or after to stroll over to neighboring Opryland Hotel, a Vegas-style convention resort – filled with fountains, waterfalls and even a river – which is dressed up in holiday finery and dazzling lights.)

While waiting for the Ryman Opry – make sure and buy your tickets ahead of time – wander the Lower Broadway honky-tonk district again. In addition to live music, two of the country’s best record stores – the Lawrence and Ernest Tubb record shops – are within spitting distance of each other on this neon-lit strip. Either is a welcome diversion for any music enthusiast who’d delight in finding a Mac Wiseman bluegrass CD in the “cutout” bin for $3.98.

While wandering Lower Broad, find your way to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. Just as “Nashville” TV actors have walked across this bridge over the Cumberland, so can you. In the bargain, you’ll get the best night-time view of a “Nashville Skyline” that’s much-changed since Dylan immortalized it in his 1969 album by that name.

If you are going to catch the 9:30 Opry (on Saturdays only), then you may want to get your cab driver to haul you across the Woodland Street Bridge to East Nashville’s trendy and TV-show-friendly Five Points section. In addition to The Five-Spot bar (as seen on “Nashville”) among other TV backdrops, this is a pleasant urban stretch of pizza, sushi and coffee joints and even an outdoor weenie stand.

Choosing to go “real local” might lead you to ask the cabbie to drive you to the Family Wash, a former Laundromat in East Nashville, where shepherd’s pie (and other good stuff) and a pint can be enjoyed while you watch performances by neighborhood residents, which includes a good share of the so-called “Americana” musicians.

However, if you seek bluegrass and acoustic music from one of the most-legendary of stages, you will time your evening to make it to the shrine that is The Station Inn in The Gulch section of the city, near downtown.

Still thriving in the crush of trendy condos and white tablecloth restaurants is this worn and friendly blockhouse where Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs established the musical menu.

In addition to fiddles and steel guitars, specialties of the house include beer, bottled water, nachos, nicely thawed pizza and popcorn.

Wrap up your night the way some country stars do: Head south on Interstate 65 to Harding Place east and then quickly left on Sidco Drive and pull into the Waffle House, where you just might see Vince Gill and his pickin’ and grinnin’ pals over plates of eggs and hash browns.

Of course if you (or your guests) are staying longer, by now you know the spots you’ll want to revisit.

Perhaps you’ll have time for a horse-and-buggy ride around the nightclub district and make it to the Edgehill neighborhood for some Legato Gelato (as seen on the TV show “Nashville”).

Maybe even take one of those “homes of the stars living and dead” tours.

Time to go home

Back at The Possum’s monument, Dave and Gloria Eisenschenk, 64 and 63 respectively, from St. Cloud, Minnesota, shake their heads in disbelief that they are standing here.

They, too, bought tickets for Jones’ last concert and attended the tribute instead.

“George converted me. I was a ‘60s and ‘70s rock guy until I saw George Jones in concert the first time. He completely blew me away,” says Dave Eisenschenk.

Just feet away is the Jones Estates grave The Possum provided for his old friend Johnny PayCheck. Generally you’ll find pennies, nickels and quarters decorating the “Take This Job and Shove It” troubadour’s headstone.

Fact is, all around this cemetery are stars, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, Dobie Gray, Dan Seals, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Eddy Arnold, Jerry Reed (even Hattie Bess, aka “Tootsie” of Orchid Lounge fame) – just to name a few – who mingle in death, as they did in life, with Nashville’s regular people.

These “regular people” – or their descendants, anyway – really are the main reason to visit the city, according to Alberta, Canada’s Croft.

“I’ve never been treated like this on this planet,” says Croft, who with his wife and friends rented a condo in Printers’ Alley, a sort of burlesque and blues section of town.

“Everywhere you go everyone is so polite and nice. From the Metro Police to the people in the restaurants or whether in a honky-tonk or an old blues bar,” he says. Croft even found time for naked witness of some of these good people when he slipped into Printers’ Alley’s Brass Stables “gentlemen’s club.”

From its strippers to bartenders to honky-tonkers, “Nashville’s the most-friendly city in the States that I know of,” says Croft’s Canadian pal, Ken Southall.

“On the whole planet. In the UNIVERSE,” corrects Croft, who then looks at his friend, who sits on one of the benches at George Jones’ monument.

“Take your hat off,” he barks, good-naturedly, at Southall. “You’re in front of the King, for crying out loud.”

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