Sunday, August 24, 2014

Elsewheres: Nashville, TN

The thing about Wish-I-Was-There travel lists is that they never get shorter. Once the travel bug sinks its teeth into your skin there is no shaking it; you might scratch a place off of your list only to find yourself adding another ten. Just to share, my top three five are Paris, Rome, Venice, Istanbul, and Barcelona, but I also want to see Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Romania, Portugal, China, Cambodia, and Egypt (and even that is not a comprehensive list). And Iceland. Whoops. Tokyo, too.

Get my point?

I have been to plenty of places within the United States thanks to growing up with generous and adventurous parents, but there was one in particular that – until this June – I had always kept in the back of my mind: Nashville, Tennessee.

Traveling to Nashville was, for me, the completion of my Music Cities of the South trilogy. First, there was Memphis (I applied to a college there – the only one outside of New England – and therefore needed to visit), home of Sun Studios, Beale Street, and the blues. Then there was New Orleans (I attended a wedding that my now-fiancĂ©e was a bridesmaid in), home of Bourbon Street and jazz. Finally, there was Nashville (I had the good fortune to attend a conference in town), home of country music, honky tonks, and Second Fiddle. Only in retrospect have I realized this, but if you want to travel America, follow the music.

So now that my trilogy is complete, what can I conclude? Memphis had my favorite music and New Orleans had the best food, but nothing beats the downtown of Nashville. As a sum-total experience, the combination of endless live music, good local beer (Yazoo), and a close-quarter, safe downtown to cut loose in makes Nashville an experience. Like a full-immersion language program, Nashville drops you into the heart of Country Music Culture, never lets you forget where you are, and – with its fine Southern hospitality – smooth talks you into a sip of the Kool-Aid. 

You’ll leave wishing there were honky tonks wherever you’re from.

Getting downtown in Nashville is easy; it’s a relatively small pocket of blocks that starts with Tootsie’s and ends at the Cumberland River. Tootsie’s is an easy find. First of all, it is purple. Second, it is all over the promotional materials for downtown and it is pretty much always packed. Which is exactly why I avoided it, and exactly why I would recommend the place next door instead: the aptly titled Second Fiddle. I might be busting tradition (I am a known curmudgeon), but Second Fiddle is better and far less crowded, which makes it far more enjoyable. I walked into Tootsie’s, up every flight of stairs, made uncomfortable body contact with every crowd, saw that each floor was packed, and walked right out. It was a lot like being on the T, actually. Luckily for me, Second Fiddle was comfortably busy (there was actually a seat at the bar), and the music was good. I mean, it was real good. We’re talking Waylon Jennings covers that sounded like the man himself.

Whether you’re a country music fan or not, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a fantastic and worthwhile visit. There is a wealth of American history seared into its music, and the museum works equally well as a history of the genre as it does part and parcel of Americana. It revels in showing you Elvis’s gold Cadillac and Patsy Cline’s outfits while explaining the origins of country music and its place throughout the course of American history. The museum is a feat of shared storytelling, the dream of country music fans and historians alike.

And lastly, there’s the people-watching. People in Nashville are cutting loose, man. They’re dropping $500 on a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots, chasing it with a ridiculously huge belt buckle, and polishing off their stay with dance moves that run the gamut from Dancing with the Stars-level choreography to Chris Farley’s “Fat Guy in a Little Coat.” But everyone – I mean everyone – is having the time of their life doing it. Nashville has an infectious happiness. But how could it not? It is a holy city in the Tao of Country Music.

So there you have it. Nashville has a coaxing charm that is propelled by country music and the stories it tells. There was a catchy joy in knowing I was watching a lot of other people’s travel dreams come true. It was so catchy, I realized that I had really always wanted to visit myself – as I said, this was the conclusion of my Music Trilogy. 

Like the ancient Greek sirens, Nashville sings a melody into the air that will draw you in. Unlike the sirens, Nashville has no strings attached – just good times.

Til next time!

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