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Finding America's Music Roots in Nashville

During two decades of visiting family in Nashville, I have see all the things that must be seen. I have watched country music acts like the Gatlin Brothers, Barbara Mandrell, and, yes, Minnie Pearl perform a song apiece at the Grand Ole Opry in its newfangled quarters at Opryland USA, the amusement park and concert hall that is Nashville's main attraction. I have toured Andrew Jackson's house, walked around the replica of the Parthenon, and rolled up the Cumberland River on a paddle wheeler. But in recent years Nashville has been a boomtown, and so I have fallen behind on my must-sees.

I missed the opening of the umpteenth Planet Hollywood, with Demi and Bruce and Arnold winging in for the ribbon-cutting. I haven't yet line-danced at the Wildhorse Saloon, the giant club off Lower Broadway that has a 3,300-square-foot dance floor. I haven't been to the newly opened Nashville Arena, the first venue in town big enough for Garth Brooks. And I haven't yet made tailgate-party plans for the day in 1999 when the Houston Oilers become Nashville's National Football League franchise.

It's not that I'm ignoring the goings-on in one of my favorite places in America I've just been looking elsewhere in Nashville. For as the city has become a sort of country-and-western theme park, down to the Civil War sites and occasional antebellum mansion, another kind of tourism has experienced a parallel spurt in growth. It too focuses on Nashville's glorious past-- but unlike those merchandised and marketed by Official Nashville, these attractions are as engaging for the locals as they are for visitors.

A mile up the road from Planet Hollywood, for example, crowds still gravitate to Hap Townes, a dumpy old cinder-block diner that has taken the meat-and-three-vegetables lunch plate to the level of art. Around the corner from that mammoth line-dancing club, Robert's Western World serves up cheap beer and music that sounds pretty much as it did 40 years ago. Just down the block, Hatch Show Print continues to create concert posters with type that's almost 150 years old. Unlike other cities that have become tourist destinations, Nashville matches every sign of Disneyfication with a thriving slice of the city's authentic, native culture. There's no danger that these small enterprises will put a dent in Opryland admissions, but their street-level survival represents a triumph of continuity; by preserving the past, they reach out to the future.

Twenty-five years ago, Nashvillians will tell you, the only time you saw people downtown after dark was when shifts changed at the phone company. No longer. Lower Broadway, the street that used to define the heart of commercial Nashville, is once again a magnet. However I construct my Nashville days, Lower Broadway is where I tend to spend my evenings, for a very simple reason: Nashville is one of the last cities where you can hear great American music at bargain prices, in informal settings, and without reservations. And by music, I don't mean just achy-breaky Eagles rip-offs sung by studs in cowboy hats; I'm talking about thought-provoking lyrics and crafty tunes by performers you've never heard of but who are just as good as (or better than) ones you have. Know this: Nashville's best live music has nothing in common with the stuff that afflicts you when your car radio lands for a few seconds on a commercial country station.

The perfect spot to kick off your first day in town is the Pancake Pantry. Looking in, you might not think it's the absolute best place to have breakfast, but that's because they've renovated this Nashville institution, froufrouing it up with sconces and green Naugahyde booths. Regulars might complain about the redo, but it hasn't driven them away. And if you're fortunate enough to have Joyce Stubblefield, a 33-year veteran of the Pantry, as your waitress, she may tell you about the time Garth Brooks told Jay Leno he ate only cereal for breakfast. So Leno got Joyce on the air and she, as is her way, told the truth: "Garth has two scrambled eggs, ham, and hash browns, with two hot chocolates."

From the Pancake Pantry, I'd go immediately to the most important repository of Nashville's musical history. The artifacts at the Country Music Hall of Fame tell a story that's easy to gather in an hour or two: this music was originally played at barn dances and church socials, and it developed alongside the blues as an indigenous, unpretentious folk art. Then radio came along, and, with it, the Grand Ole Opry. After singers became stars, it was only a matter of time before country became big business.

These exhibits testify to a love of music more than of money. It's evident in the wonderful footage of country greats from Jimmie Rodgers to Travis Tritt. Or in the handwritten lyrics to songs you know well, such as Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," scrawled on the stationery of the Monument Records company. Happily, there's also goofy stuff, like Willie Nelson's sneakers. And, of course, the showstopper: Elvis's 1960 Cadillac limousine, with 40 coats of paint to give it a "solid gold" look, a shoe polisher, an ice machine that makes cubes in two minutes, and gold records lining the roof.

For a fresh perspective on Elvis and a host of other musicians, walk (or drive) the few blocks to RCA Studio B for the museum's ultimate exhibit, the no-frills birthplace of countless hits on the order of Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and much of the classic Nashville sound, syrupy with strings and backup choirs. Still a working studio, it was created in the 1950's and looks as retro as The Flintstones. Nostalgia is one thing, but kitsch is another; I'd avoid the mini-museums and gift shops that surround the hall of fame.

Better to make a radical mood shift and tour Belle Meade Plantation, a Greek Revival house called "the Queen of Tennessee Plantations." It was built in 1853 by owners who had taste as well as money. Evidence of the slavery this fortune depended on has been stripped away, and only the beauty of the grounds and house remains. And then I would stroll through nearby Cheekwood, the city's best museum. There's a good collection of regional art here, but I'm more taken by the lush grounds, including 27 acres of botanical gardens, that surround this Georgian mansion just 10 minutes from the center of town.

If, like me, you're someone who believes that a day of travel without a bout of shopping is a missed opportunity, the place to do it without breaking your nostalgic reverie is the White Way Antique Mall. The 55 dealers who stock this 9,000-square-foot emporium seem to bring only their quirkiest items and best-preserved vintage clothes. Howard Finster folk paintings range from $250 to $600, 1930's-style plastic clocks top out at $75, and a cherrywood corner cupboard costs $2,500. For years, I've been buying perfectly preserved pink Schiaparelli hatboxes here, never for more than $40, but now I have my eye on a $65 ladder-back chair with a cane seat, and an early-fifties bicycle that's unaccountably selling for $110.

The ideal choice for dinner on your first night of Nashville time-traveling is Jimmy Kelly's, which opened in 1934. Southern hospitality lives on: the owner is third-generation, the waiters wear white jackets, and the menu features corn cakes, blackened fish, and steak. If there were a swing band and after-dinner dancing, the supper club experience would be complete.

After a soothing martini and a hefty meal, Lower Broadway will come as a shock. The main drag is aflame with lights and awash with people; it's like an Edward Hopper nightscape, but painted on a night when Hopper was in a rare good mood. First stop, Tootsies Orchid Lounge. It's not enough for Tootsies to have one ancient and legendary music room that doesn't charge admission you can stroll past the band and the knots of dancers to an even shabbier and more exalted shrine, Upstairs at Tootsies. Part of the magic here is that the Ryman Auditorium, the celebrated home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, is just across the alley; Opry stars used to slip out between sets for a drink at this bar.

As midnight approaches, time to move down three doors to Robert's Western World, also known as "the Boot Bar" because the walls are lined with official country footwear. The boots are allegedly for sale, though no one I know has ever witnessed a purchase. The main attraction is music. If you're lucky, you'll catch the group called BR5-49, which takes its name from a license plate on the old TV show Hee Haw. This band has a repertoire, and then some; they've regularly played four or five hours a night here, and gained a Grammy nomination for their brand of high-quality hard country that honors the tradition and fools around with it, too: at the stroke of midnight, they break into "Me and Opie Down by the Duck Pond," an homage to Andy Griffith.

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