NASHVILLE -- Garth Brooks. Faith Hill. Willie Nelson. Dolly Parton. You expect to find them in Nashville. But Presidents Jackson and Taft? Painters Edgar Degas and El Greco? The Greek goddess Athena? Those are the true surprises in "Music City USA."
For the 10 million annual visitors to Nashville and the estimated 30,000 aspiring songwriters who call the city home, it's safe to say the music is the magnet. Odds are your waiter is waiting for Alison Krauss to record one of his songs, or for the Bluebird Cafe to invite him to perform. Along Music Row, where all the leading record labels and publishers reside, you can almost hear the sighs of longing from wannabes who would love to break into the business.
At night, the neon signs of Broadway beckon to young and old, who wander Honky Tonk Row from Tootsies to Legends to Roberts to Bluegrass Inn to Second Fiddle without paying a cover charge, and listen to country, rockabilly, folk, bluegrass, and country pop bands who play for pittances plus tips. By day, there's the same music and upbeat atmosphere with less smoke and a somewhat lower decibel level.
If you're in Nashville on a Friday or Saturday night, run, don't walk, to a show at the Grand Ole Opry, the longest continually aired live radio show in the world. Settle into your plush seat in the modern, 4,400-seat auditorium, and enjoy a steady stream of performers like Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Riders in the Sky, Connie Smith, and Radney Foster.
The history of the Grand Ole Opry is almost as electric as the show. Boogie down nostalgia lane on the new backstage tour of the Ryman Auditorium (referred to as the mother church of country music, which formerly housed the Opry) and learn the history at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It all began with British settlers who took their fiddles with them as they moved westward. During the Spanish American War, black soldiers popularized the guitar. Then came the influence of gospel music, folk songs, and the tunes of immigrants. Out of the basic British stock, a music melting pot emerged with rich ingredients like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and the Louvin Brothers.
Also consider a visit to Belmont Mansion, former home of its steel magnolia proprietress Adelicia Acklen, who many believe was the model for Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind." Acklen married a rich man when she was 22, became a widow, demanded a prenuptial agreement for her next marriage to another wealthy man (and this was more than 150 years ago), and later inherited this, one of the largest antebellum homes in the country. A good companion visit is to the Greek Revival-style Belle Meade Plantation, built in 1853 and called the "Queen of the Tennessee Plantations." In its day, it was a thoroughbred stud farm, and in the main hall are portraits of its famous racehorses: Most notable is Iroquois, the first US-bred horse to win the English Derby, and Bonnie Scotland, great-grandfather of Seabiscuit.
President Taft dined at Belle Meade, and there was even a special shower built for him because he was so portly that he got stuck in the bathtub.
Two other historical houses are not to be missed: the Hermitage, which was the only house President Jackson ever built, and nearby Travellers Rest, the home of Judge John Overton.
Almost everything at the Hermitage actually belonged to "Old Hickory," as Jackson was called, and it reflects his personal life and lifestyle. He threw dancing parties in the main hallwaybecause it was the coolest place in the house in summer, and he entertained smaller groups by telling stories in the parlor. In Jackson's bedroom, where he died, a portrait of his wife, Rachel, hangs across from the bed. She died l7 years before him, and he wanted her to be the first thing he saw in the morning and the last thing at night.
Overton, a good buddy of Jackson's, was a lawyer who amassed a fortune. He "founded" one of the largest cities in Tennessee by investing in riverfront land, calling it Memphis, and then selling off pieces.
If you have another day to spend in this area, Lynchburg, a country town about 90 minutes from Nashville, is worth a visit. The Jack Daniel's distillery is here, an odd attraction in a dry county, and tour guides are banned from giving you a taste of the largest-selling US whiskey in the world. What you can have, however, is a sniff directly from the vats, and it's enough to knock you back against the walls. The tour takes visitors through the milling, mashing, fermenting, and distilling areas, the old offices, and the spring-water cave. It is entertaining, informative (if you ever run out of vanilla in a recipe, you can substitute Jack Daniel's), and also bizarre. It seems that Daniel had a temper; he kicked his safe when it wouldn't open and broke his toe. It got infected, gangrene set in, his foot was amputated, and he died at 61 from complications.
"A little glass of Jack Daniel's on his toe could have cured him," a guide reported.
So what about El Greco and Degas? Their works hang with those of Francisco Goya, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts that displays world-class art in rotating exhibits. Almost every month, there's another show, with attendant educational programs and free entry for those under l8. Best of all, it's housed in a magnificent, Art Deco former Post Office building that has been left virtually unchanged since 1934.
One last thing before leaving Nashville: the Parthenon. Because university-rich Nashville was dubbed "the Athens of the South," the city fathers decided to capitalize on the concept and built an exact replica of the original, to within one-16th of an inch. Inside is a 42-foot-high, garishly painted and gilded statue of Athena. Supposedly, the Athena of old looked very much like this, or maybe the Nashville version is just gussied-up for Saturday night at the Opry.
Judith Fein is a freelance writer in New Mexico.