NASHVILLE — Their enchanting music lures you in like Sirens casting a spell on sailors at sea.
If you aren't careful, a short walk on lower Broadway in Nashville leads to a long, late night.
There is a certain vibe on this three-block strip where Broadway intersects with Second and Fifth avenues, an area with more than 30 honky-tonks, featuring live music from 11 a.m. till 2:30 a.m.
And it’s free, just tip the performers.
At night, Honky-Tonk Row is as bright as any stretch of Las Vegas or Times Square. As I walked the street one evening, the music varied from blues, bluegrass, classic rock, pop and, of course, country.
This music scene is enough to make Nashville attractive to visitors, but the energy from the city is stronger than just live music from the honky-tonks. This is a creative hub with art venues and a variety of museums.
As I listen to stories about singers walking into restaurants where I’m dining, or notable performers getting their start where I’m listening to music, I start to realize there is something cool, chic about Nashville. The synergy of music, food and history makes Music City special.
Nashville is becoming quite the hot spot, averaging 13 million visitors a year. Hotels in the city are selling out, making it difficult to get a room downtown, so plan ahead.
I stayed at the Hilton Downtown Nashville, which was one block from the action on Broadway and an easy walk to many other activities.
Tin Pan South
Music attracted me to Nashville March 24-28 for Tin Pan South, the largest songwriters festival in the world. The event, which celebrated 23 years, allowed music lovers to get a unique, personal experience, as songwriters tell the story behind how they wrote notable songs and then perform the song. This year’s event featured more than 360 songwriters and acts at 92 shows in 10 different venues.
I attended three concerts, visited the Grand Ole Opry and visited the honky-tonks for more live music. The music scene exceeded my expectations. But what I did not anticipate were all the family activities.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Johnny Cash Museum and the Musicians Hall of Fame are great visits. You can spend hours in each of these places. The amount of memorabilia and information to read or listen to in each is impressive.
Music lovers of varying degrees will find something that interests them. All were a short walk from my hotel as well.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has everything from Elvis Presley’s gold car to “The Smokey and the Bandit 2” Trans Am on display. From Chet Atkins to Blake Shelton, old and young artists are displayed prominently. It includes an education center named after Berks County native Taylor Swift.
One of the highlights for me — besides taking photos of that Trans Am for my brothers — was the new exhibit called “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats,” which looks at the Nashville music scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Bob Dylan bucked executives at his record label and surprised his fans when he came to Nashville in 1966 and recorded his classic “Blond on Blond” album. Working with the city’s unmatched session musicians (known as the Nashville Cats), Dylan produced what many music experts call a rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece and went on to record two more albums here.
Around the same time, Johnny Cash was recruiting rock and folk musicians, including Dylan, to appear on his groundbreaking network television show, “The Johnny Cash Show.”
The exhibit, which will be open for about two years, has music, videos, old photos and great literature that captures the era.
I found the same great literature, memorabilia, videos and music at the Johnny Cash Museum, as well as the Musician’s Hall of Fame & Museum.
The Musician’s Hall of Fame & Museum features the known and not-so-well-known talented musicians who played on many of the greatest recording of all time.
In August, the history of the Grammies is coming to the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.
Another nice family tour is RCA’s Studio B tour on historical Music Row. This is Nashville’s oldest recording studio and home to hits like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” and 250 hits by Elvis Presley.
Besides seeing the studio, this is a driving tour, which provides a nice overview of the city and takes visitors through Music Row, a street lined with a dozen music offices and studios.
The Grand Ole Opry — past and present — homes are both worth a visit. The past is the 2,062-seat Ryman Auditorium, regarded as the Mother Church of Country Music. The former church (with wooden pews) was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-74 and is a National Historic Landmark renowned for its exceptional acoustics.
It still hosts about 200 Grand Ole Opry shows a year. There is a $15 front stage tour and a $20 front and back stage tour. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.
The new location for the Grand Ole Opry is huge, seating nearly 5,000 people. The large auditorium still has a church-feel (padded pews) and is home of the most famous weekly radio program of country music, broadcast live through WSM radio.
I didn’t grow up a country fan, but one group I liked was the Oak Ridge Boys (my father played their record — yes, record — with the song “Elvira”), so it was a thrill to see and hear this famous group perform while I visited the Grand Ole Opry, and yes, they broke into “Elvira.”
“Walk East Nashville” tour hosted by Karen-Lee Ryan is a great way to see an area outside the city. Currently in the midst of a renaissance, the neighborhood of East Nashville sports buildings dating to the 1850s as well as several dining venues and a bustling retail area.
Besides learning about the area and shopping, this fun tour has plenty of food sampling (the menu included breakfast sandwiches, biscuits, seafood, steak, pizza and candy), tantalizing the palate and peaking my interest to come back to these places again.
Stops include Margot, one of the first dining restaurants to break ground in the Five Points section of East Nashville; Bongo Java, a locally brewed coffee house; Edley’s BBQ (great breakfast wraps, as well as BBQ); and Sweet 16th, a neighborhood bakery with reasonably priced baked good (they too have a tasty breakfast sandwich).
In addition to learning about the area, the tour allows you to walk off some of the tasty food.
My favorite stops included Fivepoints Pizza (New York Style), Lockeland Table (for a cocktail and food samples) and the Idea Hatchery, Art & Invention Gallery (for shopping).
In the last five years, the food scene really picked up, locals told me. Besides the places mentioned in East Nashville, I’d recommend several more.
If you want upscale, Capitol Grille at Hermitage Hotel, is a Five Diamond eatery with most of the food coming from local farms. My steak, carrots and macaroni and cheese were excellent. Virago is an Asian fusion and sushi restaurant. The sushi is wonderful. At City Winery, I had rack of lamb, which was great, but you also can get a good tasting hamburger there.
If you are looking for a more casual, family meal, go to Hattie B’s, known for its hot chicken, black-eyed pea salad and pimento mac and cheese. The hot chicken, which is a type of fried chicken, is a local specialty, and it tastes better than fried chicken.
Hattie B’s serves this in five different heat levels from Southern (no spice) to Shut the Cluck Up (not for the faint of heart). I tried a piece of Shut the Cluck Up and started to cry; it was a slow burn that felt like my mouth and face experienced a bad day in the sun. Southern still has a kick, but you can enjoy the flavor.
The Row, which is located right off Music Row, features classic Southern cuisine and live music every night.
In talking to the staff there, Harry Connick Jr. brought his children with him three straight days, and Blake Shelton often comes in and orders chicken fingers off the children’s menu (don’t ask, I was told from a restaurant official, who also said there is a no photo or gawking rule, too).
You never know who you might run into, and that’s part of what makes Nashville special, as it lures you back for more action — kinda like those honky-tonks.