NASHVILLE — My husband and I had booked a food tour and Grand Ole Opry tickets, but that was it. Everything else on our last-minute trip to Nashville would happen in the same spirit of spontaneity in which we had decided to flee Boston for a few days. So when our airport Uber driver raved about the Peg Leg Porker, an hour later Mark and I joined the fast-moving line at one of Music City’s most beloved barbecue joints. After grabbing our tray at the counter and jockeying for a table in the no-frills dining room, we dove into our Memphis style dry-rub ribs, barely speaking over the din, but occasionally grinning at each other through the thin, sweet haze of smoke.
That’s how it would go for the next two days. Without an agenda beyond having some Southern fun in February, we welcomed whatever food and musical wonders came our way in Nashville. As it turns out, there would be plenty.
In Opryland that night, we didn’t know what to expect from a performance of the iconic radio show that had been running for more than 90 years, and can still be heard at opry.com. We did know that every country music star worthy of their Stetson has performed on one of its celebrated stages over the years.
Our Saturday evening show featured eight artists, including legends like the Gaitlin Brothers and Ricky Skaggs, along with more recently minted stars. But when 77-year-old Jeannie Seeley strutted to center stage and sang a restrained but powerful “Ode to Billie Joe,’’ those of us who know the 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit from our childhoods could feel country music’s storied history in that one voice — time-tested and husky — filling the hallowed hall.
After the show we Ubered downtown to get a feel for those famous honky tonks that feature live music from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m, or longer. If Nashville is really “a drinking city with a music problem,’’ here is where the delinquency begins. Per our second Uber driver’s suggestion, we did some “window shopping,’’ listening to the bands from outside on the street before deciding which of the bars to elbow our way into. At that hour on a Saturday night, the crowds were thick, rowdy, and a long way from sober. But with a “when in Rome attitude,’’ Mark and I had a blast “boot scooting’’ on dance floors up and down the gritty, 20-block stretch of Broadway.
With no cover charge at the clubs — performers are paid from a tip jar — it’s easy to have one drink, maybe a snack, before tipping the talent and moving along. We downed Jack on the rocks at Whiskey Bent Saloon, ate fried bologna sandwiches at Robert’s Western World, and later pushed through the mob at Tootsies Orchid Lounge to see where greats like Willie Nelson would cross the alley in between acts at the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s most renowned stage.
At 1 a.m., we walked the 1.3 miles back to our Marriott Residence near Vanderbilt University, marveling at the compactness of the city, while thinking next time we’ll stay downtown.
With Sunday open for exploring, we bought a Groupon for the Johnny Cash Museum and had an intimate look at the life and legacy of Nashville’s most legendary musical son. We opted for lunch at the black and white bistro Merchants, a culinary oasis amid Broadway’s bustle, and were soon tucking into fried green tomatoes and baked pimento cheese, debating what to do with the rest of our day.
When we grilled our amenable waiter for suggestions of a laidback music venue without the honky tonk intensity, he pointed us to FGL House, praising its “chill’’ atmosphere and skyline views. Before long we were sipping local brews from Yazoo on their sunny rooftop bar, listening through the afternoon to the stream of country talent that took the stage in one-hour sets.
But it was that night at The Row, an historic club just a two-minute walk from our hotel, that a few young singer-songwriters blew our minds. Kata Hay, who made headlines for kissing Christina Aguilera on “The Voice’’ Season 10, belted out some original songs that had us scratching our heads over why isn’t she a household name. With the answer perhaps being that the talent level in the Music City is practically stratospheric. You hear live music everywhere, and most of it is really good, if not great.
The following day, our food tour with “Nashville Eats’’ cookbook author Jennifer Justus meant we were finally going to taste the city’s most celebrated dish: hot chicken. After two days of hearing about deep fried cayenne-spiced chicken served on white bread with honey and pickles, we were primed for our tasting portion at Lula’s Café.
I can’t possibly explain how insanely delicious it is — heat plus sweet plus crispy fried meat. But here’s what I can tell you: even after eating the world’s fluffiest parmesan biscuits at Kitchen Notes, beef short rib tacos at Bakersfield, whole-hog pulled pork at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, and a dessert of GooGoo clusters (imagine your favorite candy bar on steroids), Mark and I began plotting how to squeeze in one more meal of hot chicken before leaving town that evening.
Our plan required that we shed some calories on a vigorous walk across the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, followed by a whirlwind visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Even if you don’t love, or even like, country music, go to see those bedazzled costumes and Elvis’s gold Cadillac with its 24-carat trim. The “Hee Haw’’ set (Minnie Pearl anyone?) kicked me into sentimental gear, as I remembered watching the weekly country music TV program with my grandma.
By late afternoon we finally felt we’d earned some more hot chicken and ordered online at Hattie B’s to avoid the wait that someone, I can’t remember who, warned us would be long. After savoring that last memorable Nashville meal and still making our flight, I was really glad we listened to that person and, for that matter, everyone else.