Music to Her Ears

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Nashville makes me want to sing. Granted, my vocal skills are best heard in a car and with radio accompaniment. But in Music City, melody really is omnipresent, from the notes that tumble out of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a classic honky-tonk on Broadway, Nashville’s main drag, to the vintage tunes tinkling from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop across the street. Even the pedestrian signals at the Nashville crosswalks play songs instead of the customary chirp (country near the visitor’s center, classical near the Symphony Hall, natch). It’s a little surreal, a little enchanting and I figure that if you’re not part of the population who walks around with a song in your head (and I am), you soon will be.

Even a short, 48-hour trip to Nashville, like mine, allows a fair amount of sightseeing, especially if you stick to the city’s compact downtown. Unfortunately, I do not run into any living, breathing music stars during my stay, but my encounters with their legacies begin immediately with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the bass clef-shaped building in the heart of downtown. Even if you don’t follow Taylor Swift’s love life or only know Blake Shelton from “The Voice,” the CMHOF is still a cool place to visit.

Ryman Hall
Hatch Show Print’s presses have been running since 1879.

If country music tells the story of the lives of ordinary folks, this museum illustrates the lives of the storytellers. It also underscores the particular personal connection fans have to this genre. I smile as a man taking a photo of Elvis’ gold piano reminds his wife that “Uncle Jim died when Elvis Presley died.” Later, I gape at the handwritten lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and at Gram Parsons’ psychedelic Nudie suit, not so much for the appliqued marijuana leaves and naked ladies as for the minuscule size of Parsons’ hips; I know I couldn’t fit into those trousers. And I stare in awe at a wall of concert posters in primary colors—for Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride—created by Hatch Show Print, a kissing cousin to Baltimore’s Globe Posters.

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Ryman Hall
Historic Ryman Hall Auditorium, aka The Mother Church of Country Music, still hosts concerts—and tourist snapshots.

Since 1879, Hatch has been turning out gorgeous, vibrant letter press posters, and I join a small group that watches a demonstration of the process—the arrangement of wood blocks in the press, the application of ink onto the rollers, and the cranking of the paper through the press—all done one at a time by hand. Hatch can design wedding invitations or baby announcements, but concert posters (many for the nearby Ryman Auditorium) are what keep music fans coming in the door looking for souvenirs. What limited edition extra posters aren’t scooped up the day after a big concert remain for sale in large bins, as do some reproduced vintage designs. I grab a repro ad for the Baltimore Elite Giants, a professional team in the historic Negro League, for my baseball-loving husband and a poster for an indie band whose tagline, “Wash away the pain with AM gold and country goodness” speaks to me. Then I walk a few blocks to the Ryman.

The moment you see the Ryman stage, you recognize why it is called The Mother Church of Country Music. Years after it began life as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the Ryman retains its ruby and royal blue stained glass and pew seating that curves around the stage as if embracing it. Tourists can pose for photos on the historic stage, but I prefer to sit and imagine the performers who have graced the stage, from the Metropolitan Opera to Will Rogers to Houdini, not to mention the prolific membership of the Grand Ole Opry that performed and was broadcast from here from 1943-1974. The Ryman still hosts concerts, and I curse my timing because the thought of seeing Dwight Yoakam perform on this little stage makes me shiver.

The next day, I soak up the art deco atmosphere of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. A stunning renovation of a city post office (a branch of which still operates in the building’s lower level), the lobby is a tour de force of marble and aluminum grillwork that sparkles in the afternoon sunlight. The museum boasts no permanent collection, instead hosting rotating exhibits. Like T.J. Maxx, it’s never the same visit twice.

Ryman Hall
The Gaylord Opryland Resort features nine acres of indoor gardens and glitz.

That evening, I drive out of Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry House adjacent to the Disney-like sprawl of the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. I have my doubts that I will enjoy this newer slice of old Nashville, home of the Opry since 1974, but once Whispering Bill Anderson ambles onstage delivering old-fashioned sweetness and a song, I’m hooked. Like the old-time radio show it is, a commercial is read aloud, then Del McCoury and his bluegrass band take the stage. My toe taps, and I find, once again, that I am singing.

Places to Stay

You can walk to just about any downtown attraction from the Hilton Nashville Downtown, an all-suites hotel. Rooms from $200/night. 615-620-1000, nashvillehilton.com. The 1501 Linden Manor Bed and Breakfast is a cozy, three-room Victorian B&B near Music Row with big breakfasts. Rates: $125-$195/night. 800-226-0317, nashville-bed-breakfast.com. The Hermitage Hotel, the city’s grand dame, dates to 1910, and has an opulent lobby, plenty of porters and A-plus service. Rooms from $259/night. 615-244-3121, http://www.thehermitagehotel.com

Grab a bite

Just 32 seats frame the U-shaped kitchen at The Catbird Seat, Nashville’s hottest restaurant. The seven-course tasting menu—the only option—runs $100/person. 615-810-8200, http://www.thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com. Lockeland Table was nominated for James Beard Best New Restaurant honors and offers gourmet wood-fired pizzas and Southern comfort food. 615-228-4864, lockelandtable.com. Newcomer Silo dubs its food “farm to fork, elevated Southern cuisine.” That translates to chicken-fried local rabbit, pot likker greens and cast-iron skillet jalapeño cornbread. 615-750-2912, http://www.silotn.com

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