Music City, USA – Nashville

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday: Drive from Gainesville, GA to Chattanooga, TN
  • Friday: Rock City and drive to Nashville
  • Saturday: Touring Nashville
  • Sunday: Drive back to Gainseville, GA for work

Dates: May 5-8, 2016

Our Odyssey: 

Friday night. Cowboy boots on. Grand Opry show and backstage
tickets in hand. We couldn’t have been any more touristy in Nashville than we
were as we made the 20 minute drive from downtown Nashville to Opryland, where
Grand Ole Opry Theater now lives, alongside big hotels and a giant shopping
mall.

“The Grand Ole Opry is boring,” some people had told us a
few weeks prior when we told them we got tickets. “You know that’s not the
original theater, right?” said others. I don’t know where anyone ever got a
less-than-amazing opinion of the “new” theater (the show has been broadcast
from this theater longer than it had been from its original home at the Ryman
Auditorium downtown) or of the quality of the show, because we loved it and had
a blast. We treated ourselves to popcorn, a hot dog and a personal pizza to
split for dinner and took our seats in the back.

The people watching before the show was great – so many
people from different backgrounds and age groups were there, some dressed up,
some dressed very casually, some excitedly telling anyone who would listen that
this is their first time coming to the Opry, that they’ve been listening on the
radio for decades, and that they are so excited to have been able to make the
trip. Taking all of this in, I realized that the Grand Ole Opry is like the
Vatican of country music – bear with me here. People from all over, tourists
and country music believers alike, have made this pilgrimage to come see the
legendary Grand Ole Opry. They’ve saved up to make the trip after decades of
wondering what it would be like to see the show in person. Like the Vatican for
Catholic pilgrims, the Grand Ole Opry is a major once-in-a-lifetime bucket list
event for many country music fans – especially those who were alive when the
show started and put country music in homes all across the United States.
Simply put, getting to see a show here is a very big deal.

The show itself is still broadcast live on the radio today
and is broken up into several 30-minute segments, each with a different host
(typically a member of the Grand Ole Opry – a country music star invited to be
a member, of which there are only 187 in its history) and 3-4 acts. We saw
bluegrass, mountain string music, contemporary up-and-comers (bluegrass group called
Flatt Lonesome), and well-loved classics (Roy Acuff; Connie Smith; Shenandoah;
Aaron Tippin). Every performance was great, and Tim even ended up downloading
albums from a few of the groups we saw.

After the show we went on the backstage tour of the theater.
This was an expensive splurge that we debated about a few weeks prior to our
trip but ultimately decided, hey, this is our anniversary trip, it’s our first
time in Nashville, and it’s the Grand Ole Opry, let’s do it. And we are so glad
we did! The backstage tour was phenomenal.

We got to see all of the dressing rooms, and because the
show had just ended, many of the performers (Flatt Lonesome and Connie Smith to
be exact) were still milling about. Connie Smith has been a member of the Grand
Ole Opry for 50 years and Tim made eye contact with her and said, “Nice job
tonight.” To which she politely said “Thank you!” Tim and I aren’t particularly
star-crazy but that was pretty neat!

We also got to learn more about how performers get to be
invited into the Grand Ole Opry. Basically, everyone who performs at the Opry
has been invited, so it’s an honor to just perform on that stage (which, by the
way, is partially made from the same stage of the Ryman Auditorium, so although
the building is different, all performers have stood on the “same stage”).
Being invited to perform and being invited to be a member are very different
things, however. To be a member you had to have made significant contributions
to country music and have performed at the Opry previously. When someone is
invited to join, it’s always a surprise and they always do it in a way that is
very personal to that performer.

For example, when Darius Rucker was asked to join a few
years ago, it was after one of his performances at the Opry and he had agreed
to take questions from the audience. A few audience members asked their
questions, and then Opry member Brad Paisley stood up to ask a question. I
think as soon Darius saw it was Brad Paisley he had to have known what was
coming when Brad asked if he would please become a member of the Grand Ole
Opry. There are many examples like this and so it’s clear to me that being
asked is a very personal, heart-warming, special moment in a performer’s
career. Queue the tears.

One of the coolest parts of taking the backstage tour, of
course, was getting to stand on the Grand Ole Opry stage – including the wooden
circle taken from the Ryman Auditorium when the show moved to the newer theater
in Opryland. They even took a photo of us – which we then paid $25 for a copy
of. Our rationale – we’ve paid more for less cool things, and it’s a pretty
cute photo of us.

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Tim and I on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry

After leaving Opryland we headed back downtown and met up
with Tim’s cousin, Zach, and his fiancée Trisha, who happened to also be in
town for the weekend with friends, at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. This particular
honky tonk is one of the oldest and most historic in Nashville – but frankly,
on a Friday night, it was loud, crowded and way drunker than we were.

After catching up with Zach and Trisha we all parted ways
and Tim and I got to bed.

The next day we hit a few significant sites downtown. We
started our day walking to the Nashville Public Library across the street from
our hotel to check out the informative displays in the library’s Civil Rights
Room – a mini-museum documenting the events of the civil rights movement in
Nashville, including an abundance of video and photo footage.

We then walked to the Ryman Auditorium, where we did a
self-guided tour. The tour starts off with a very well-done audio-visual
introductory “film” – though calling it a film does not do it justice, as the
presentation uses the entire room to bring the history of the auditorium to
life.

The auditorium came to be after Thomas Ryman, a drinker and
gambler, confronted Reverend Sam Jones in 1885 about his constant preaching
against such activities. In the course of the conversation, during which Ryman
aimed to berate Jones for his preaching, Ryman was so moved by Jones’ words
that he repented of his sins and from there set out to construct the Union
Gospel Tabernacle. The tabernacle was later renamed to the Ryman Auditorium
after Ryman’s death in 1904 and went on to host a number of religious and
secular events – Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini are just 2 of the many acts
that the theater hosted.

In 1943, the Grand Ole Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium,
where it stayed until the 1970s when it moved to its own theater in Opryland. When
the Grand Ole Opry moved, it took a few pieces of the wooden stage with it, to
put in the floor of the new stage in Opryland.

Today, the Ryman Auditorium still hosts numerous performers
every day and is one of the most iconic buildings in Nashville.

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Stained glass windows at the Ryman Auditorium

After our tour of the auditorium, we went to the Country
Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This was a particularly special visit for me,
since my maternal grandfather’s cousin, Merle Travis, was a country music
performer who became a member of the Hall of Fame. In addition to his plaque in
the Hall of Fame, the museum also houses the famous Travis-Bigsby guitar –
designed by Travis and built for him by Paul Bigsby. The design is thought to
have inspired Leo Fender’s design of the Broadcaster in 1950. The Travis-Bigsby guitar now resides in the Music
Hall of Fame Museum.

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Merle Travis’ guitar

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Merle Travis’ Country Music Hall of Fame plaque.

In addition to my
family connection, there were many other interesting displays and information
at this museum – Elvis’s old cars, a wall of Platinum and Gold records, and
many displays documenting the history of the evolution of country music, decade
by decade.

By this time, we
were quite hungry! So we went to a restaurant near our hotel, delightfully
called Puckett’s Grocery (my last name is Puckett). My namesake restaurant did
not disappoint – I got a delicious plate of BBQ and fried okra. For dessert,
they had peach cobbler on special. This was my dad’s favorite so naturally we
had to order one for me and Tim to split. Interestingly, the waiter brought out
3 spoons instead of 2 for us to share…

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Puckett’s grocery

After this
delicious late lunch, we retired to our hotel for a brief nap before meeting
back near Broadway (the main strip of bars and restaurants) for a ghost tour. We
ended up actually being the only people on the tour, which was fine with us.
Our guide took us into various restaurants and bars, telling us about some of
the history and ghost sightings in each. While the ghost stories weren’t told
in a particularly engaging way, the tour itself was interesting. Notably, we
got to go in the back of the BB King’s building where they have preserved old
mirrors and doors from the 1800s, as well as downstairs in to a dark basement
in another establishment where in the 1800s, slaves were kept. It was a somber
and sad place to be.

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Antique mirrors in the back of BB King’s.

After the tour we
stayed at the last bar for a bit to listen to the band, which started playing “Simple
Man” by Lynard Skynard just as we were about to leave. This was one of the
songs we played at my dad’s funeral in February. So, of course, we decided to
stay.

Eventually when
we got hungry we ventured to a place called Acme Feed and Seed for dinner and
drinks – as with everywhere in Nashville, there was more great live music and
fantastic BBQ.

We then found a
bar called the Swingin’ Doors Saloon, where an acoustic duo was performing on
the rooftop. This was a fantastic place to be on a Saturday night, with clear
warm weather. We stayed up there for a few hours, before heading back down into
the saloon to dance for a bit before heading back to our hotel for bed.

The next morning,
we were groggy but happy – this was the first weekend Tim and I had together
where we could really “get away” in several months, and they had been several
stressful months. I was so grateful to get to come to this city with my best
friend to explore, eat good food, learn more about my family and just have a
great time. Nashville, we can’t wait to go back!

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