I’ve never been a country music fan, but our drive from Baltimore to Phoenix took us through Nashville, the country music capital of the world. That isn’t something that would ordinarily draw me in, but since we were nearby and there is a lot of music history there, we wanted to stop.
We only had a few hours to spend, so Hon and I booked Gray Line’s Discover Nashville Tour. We had a great time seeing the city and listening to the commentary of our tour guide Rudy, who had a strong Southern drawl, a huge knowledge of the city and a dry sense of humor that kept us laughing. At one point, Rudy told us about the Nashville Raccoons, the city’s old hockey team that did great at home, but always got killed on the road.
Rim shot, please.
It’s a corny joke, but having a tour guide with Rudy’s knowledge and wit made the tour so much more enjoyable than the standard … “on your right is the blah, blah, blah.” He was friendly and funny and he humanized Nashville in a way that made the city come to life.
Our tour started when Rudy picked us up at the Gray Line office and off we went with about 15 new friends who met the bus at their hotels.
The Mother Church of Country Music
We stayed on the bus through most of the tour, but we were able to walk through some of Nashville’s most legendary sites like the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry gained its fame.
The Ryman was our first stop and it was there that I started to feel like a visitor in a foreign land. So much of the history … events, names, faces were unfamiliar to me. I knew I was clueless, so when my tour mates oohed and ahhed over something, I made a note to self: Google that. What I was seeing was an important part of American history and I wanted to learn more. Names I had never heard of, like Porter Wagoner, George Morgan, and Red Foley, were treated with such reverence that I’d have to be a complete moron not to realize there is more to country music than heartbroken hillbillies and low-down cheatin’ red-necks.
The reverent atmosphere in the Ryman is more pronounced because it was built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. When we first walked into the auditorium we all quieted down, not because we were told to, but because the room still looks just like a church and that was our natural reaction. The original wooden pews are there and provide seating for more than 2,600, and the stained glass windows still paint the room in quiet, colorful strokes of light.
The history of the Ryman itself is pretty remarkable beyond the notoriety the Grand Ole Opry brought in. It was built by riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, a hard-living, hard-drinking business man who owned a few saloons in Nashville and encouraged gambling and drinking on his riverboats. After hearing a sermon by the evangelist Samuel P. Jones, he was so moved he not only repented, he built the Union Gospel Tabernacle as a revival hall for Jones and the largest convention hall in the South. When Ryman died in 1904, the Tabernacle was renamed in his honor.
The Ryman Auditorium, nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music, was in constant use from 1892, and hosted a remarkable mix of historical figures. President Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant, and Booker T. Washington all lectured from its stage. World renowned performers like Enrico Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Mae West performed there.
Despite the high caliber names that streamed across the Ryman stage, it was the Grand Ole Opry that brought it to national prominence. After making its first appearance in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry called the Ryman home until 1974, when it moved it to its current home in the Nashville suburbs.
It didn’t seem to matter how popular it once was, because after the Grand Ole Opry moved on, the Ryman was nearly forgotten. A few movies scenes were shot there and an occasional hard-core fan would tour the building, but beyond that it was vacant and left to decay. By 1991, it had been vandalized many times, there were holes in the roof and floors, and demolition was its likely future.
Then came salvation in the form of Emmylou Harris and her band the Nash Ramblers, who recorded a live album there and reawakened public interest. A year later, concern was so great, owners Gaylord Entertainment agreed to a multi-million dollar renovation, and when the Ryman reopened in 1994, it was with the same glitz and glory that drew in its first capacity crowds. Big name acts were on-stage again and shows quickly sold out.
These days, the Ryman Auditorium still brings in big names. The day we were there, the box office was busy selling tickets for an evening of bluegrass and banjo with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Roger Daltry will be there in October; Aretha Franklin is coming in April. Even the Grand Ole Opry comes back for a performance every now and then.
Our tour took us beyond the auditorium to the back hallways where salvaged memorabilia is preserved in glass cases. Old handbills advertise Patsy Cline and an unknown Elvis Presley, who appeared only once at the Opry in 1954 and vowed never to return. Presley’s rockabilly music didn’t impress the audience and afterward Opry manager Jim Denny told him he should go back to his truck-driving career. Sepia-toned photographs show Minnie Pearl, a member of the Opry for 50 years, wearing her trademark $1.98 hat and laughing with her Opry friends. Again, I don’t know a lot of the names, but the vitality and the energy of what happened in the Mother Church of Country Music still shines through.
Today, the Ryman is well-cared for and well-loved. It is one of the most popular concert venues in the country and with it’s been designation as a National Historic Landmark its future is secure.
Back on the Bus
After the Ryman, we boarded the bus to start the driving part of the tour. As capital of Tennessee, Nashville is home to the Tennessee State Capitol, a huge and impressive Greek Revival building that sits high up on a hill overlooking the city. The Capitol was completed in 1859 and was visible from all sides, but a building boom 100 years later obscured the view from all but one side. To preserve the remaining view, plans were developed to build a public park, similar to the National Mall in Washington DC. The result was Bicentennial Mall.
Aside from the Ryman Auditorium, Bicentennial Mall impressed me the most. It is a 19-acre state park that was completed in 1996 to pay tribute to the state’s 200th birthday. We entered the park on the south side where a 200-foot granite map of Tennessee includes every county and waterway in the state.
As we continued through the mall, different areas honor highlights in the state’s history and geography. 31 fountains gushing up from ground level represent the state’s 31 rivers. A 1400-foot granite wall along the west side of the park is engraved with a chronology of world, U.S., and Tennessee history.
A memorial to World War II features (get this!) an 18,000 lb. granite globe floating and rotating on 1/8 inch of water. Because the globe floats, visitors can stop it and turn it with their hands to see lines connecting Tennessee to the locations where Tennesseans fought during World War II. It’s a remarkable monument that honors the thousands of Tennesseans who were killed in the war. Along the North end of the Mall, a 95-bell carillon, representing the 95 counties of Tennessee, plays Tennessee Waltz every 15 minutes.
Our tour guide Rudy filled us in on lots of details, and seeing this park from the tour bus had its advantages (comfortable seats, air conditioning, Rudy’s commentary), but this park should be experienced on foot. Every monument is interactive in its subtle way. On the granite map, you’re compelled to walk across the entire state, in the meantime you learn a little about Tennessee’s geography. You can romp through the rivers and walk along its path of history. Visiting this park and simply admiring its sites would be a lovely afternoon, but walking through and getting your hands on, would make for a much more enriching experience.
Ancient Greece in Tennessee
After Bicentennial Mall, we headed to Centennial Park. Oh, Nashville does honor its milestones. Centennial Park is home to one of the more unexpected finds on our tour … The Parthenon. Yes, that Parthenon. Well, kind of.
The centerpiece of Centennial Park is a full-scale ancient Greek building. Seeing that kind of architecture in the middle of a Nashville park was a pretty strange site, but Rudy filled us in as we zipped by on the bus. Nashville built its Parthenon in 1897 to celebrate the state’s Grand Centennial Exposition. It chose to model the Athens original because of its nickname, Athens of the South, earned by the city’s early commitment to higher education.
The Centennial Expo included 36 other structures, all built from temporary materials like plaster and wood, but the Parthenon was the only full size replica. By 1920, all the other Expo buildings were gone and the Parthenon was falling apart. When it came time to decide what to do with it, the public made its wishes known. The building had become a beloved part of Nashville’s personality, so rather than demolish it, the city rebuild it in concrete and made it a permanent part of its landscape. It stands today as the ancient Greek treasure of Centennial Park. It is open to the public and serves as home to the Nashville Art Museum.
A little bit more country
Next up was a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Rudy dropped us off out front and told us to meet him back there in an hour. Some fellow passengers grumbled that an hour wasn’t enough to see everything, and I might have agreed since the Museum is so big, but I’d had my fill of country music at the Ryman and thought an hour would be plenty of time.
It was enough time for me, but country music fans could easily spend hours looking at the exhibits, listening to historic recordings or just browsing through thousands of platinum, gold and silver records that line the walls.
The architecture of the Hall of Fame and Museum is not what you’d call understated, but it is elegant and rich. It’s also true to its roots both musically and geographically. Taking its cue from the music, the façade of the building looks like a piano keyboard, with windows lined up to look like the black keys. The right side of the building arches upward, paying homage to a 1950s Cadillac fin. With the Rotunda on the left and the building curving to the right, the entire complex is shaped like a bass clef.
Inside the Museum, we were directed to start our tour on the third floor and work our way back down to the lobby. We piled into an elevator decorated to look like the inside of a barn … another nod to country music’s roots, and started the tour when the doors opened.
“Sing Me Back Home,” one of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, starts with the evolution of country music as far back as the 19th century and continuing through to today’s country artists. The two-floor exhibit features display cabinets filled with memorabilia and history. Listening booths offer a rare opportunity to listen to crackling old recordings of country music’s earliest creators, and touch-screen kiosks let visitors “interview” their favorite musicians with pre-recorded answers to a surprisingly in-depth set of questions.
Further along the exhibit is a seemingly endless collection of everything Country: Elvis Presley’s gold piano, a very beat-up Martin Guitar belonging to Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams’ custom-made cowboy boots.
Speaking of Hank Williams, the Museum gives a surprising amount of space to the seemingly endless collection of Williams’ wives, supposed wives, children, step-children, unrecognized children, grandchildren, etc., and that was only three generations. That’s in addition to “Family Tradition,” a temporary exhibit on the Williams’ family legacy. It is true that Hank Williams had a huge impact on country music, but even in light of that, I thought the exhibit was a little Jerry Springer-esque and gossipy, and I quickly lost interest.
Walking along the top two floors of the museum, we were able to look into the Frist Library, a two-floor, glass enclosed archive of historical photographs, recordings, films, sheet music, newspapers and more. The Frist Library and Archive is the branch of the Museum that acquires, documents and preserves country music history and makes it available to the public.
In another architectural nod to country music’s geographical roots, the walk down to the main floor follows a long waterfall made of stone from East Tennessee and the flooring is made from southern yellow pine from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
The main floor is home to the Hall of Fame Rotunda, where 108 inductees are honored with brass plaques featuring their names, faces and accomplishments. The inscription, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” from the Carter Family hymn wraps around the room and offers a hopeful link between the long history of country music and its growing future.
We finished our Nashville tour on a low note with a visit to Legends Corner, a famous (I’m not so sure) Broadway honky-tonk. We were herded off the bus and hustled inside for a soft drink and serenade. An earlier tour group was already there, so we settled for bar seating. The serenading was done by a local performer, whose name I’ve forgotten. He had a decent voice and it was nice to get a free soda, but with all the important names and places we had seen on our tour, I felt like we’d had an authentic Nashville experience. This final stop seemed a little too forced and it was a disappointing end to a really interesting tour.
I’m not sure what I thought I would see in Nashville. I don’t think I was expecting to see a bunch of hillbillies sitting around chewing on hay stalks, but I was surprised at how beautiful and well-thought out it is. It’s rich with history, but also very modern and metropolitan. We left that day with a new appreciation for Nashville and a respect for country music that I never had before. I still can’t say I’m a fan, but maybe I am just a little bit.
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