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Nashville: An American icon

By Rick Nance,

The walls are plastered with the black, white and gray of studio headshots. Some of the faces you know; many more you do not. But it doesn’t matter; at the Bluebird Cafe, it’s not about the faces or the names. It’s all about the songs.

For more than 40 years, the Bluebird Cafe has been a Nashville institution, showcasing songwriters who have penned some of the biggest hits in country music. You come to Music City expecting to see some shows and hear some tunes, but you walk away from the intimate musical experience with an appreciation for so much more than just a chart-topping hit.

In many ways, a visit to the Bluebird Cafe is like a tour of Nashville itself: Coming to town, it’s easy to think you know what to expect. Nashville’s musical heritage is rich and essential; but spend some time around town, and you’ll discover that art, history and a genuine Southern hospitality give this city more than just a melody. In Nashville, there is harmony, too.

Behind the music
Six nights a week, folks flock to the Bluebird to hear music. The cafe has developed a reputation as Nashville’s listening room, and it’s a place unlike any other bar or honky-tonk you’ve ever visited. At the Bluebird, three or four songwriters sit in a circle in the middle of the room, surrounded by about 100 guests seated at tables and chairs. When the music starts, the crowd hushes, because everyone is there to listen.

Many of the songwriters who play at the Bluebird may not look like music stars, but they have written songs that became massive hits for some of the country’s most famous artists. During their performances, they tell the stories behind the songs, then perform them in their own voices, in their own styles, with acoustic instrumentation. Although it may lack the glamour and polish of a big-time concert, the honesty and intimacy of the musical experience is second to none.

The songwriters who perform at the Bluebird go to Nashville because the city is at the center of the country music world. Nashville’s country roots are legendary, and the best place to get a sense for them is at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“The core exhibition takes you chronologically through the history of the music, and then you work your way forward in time,” said director of media relations Tina Wright. “It’s called ‘Sing Me Back Home.’”

The exhibit traces the roots of country music from the British Isles to Southern farms and black spirituals, and then follows into the contemporary era of music. Along the way, displays showcase items that belonged to country’s biggest stars, such as a Hank Williams suit, Gene Autry’s ashtray and Elvis Presley’s gold-plated 1960 Cadillac limousine. Throughout the exhibit area, visitors can look through large windows into the storage area, where thousands more artifacts are preserved and stored.

The museum’s hall of fame features brass plaques with the names and images of each member arranged in a perfect circle beneath a skylight rotunda. From time to time, visitors can hear live music performed in the rotunda or a number of other theater areas in the museum.

The Country Music Hall of Fame also owns and operates Studio B, one of the most historic recording studios on Nashville’s Music Row. Tours of the studio depart from the front door of the museum.

“This studio is known as the home of 1,000 Top 10 hits,” said tour guide Stephanie Cane. “Elvis recorded more than 250 songs here. In 1977, the day after Elvis’ passing, this studio closed.”

Although the studio is no longer used for commercial purposes, it is still set up as it was during its heyday. On a tour, groups hear about the many artists and producers who worked there, including Presley, Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins, who is credited with creating “the Nashville Sound” in the space.

Along the way, tour participants see some of the historic instruments and equipment used in the recording process. Stepping behind the glass to the main studio room, they encounter the highlight: the Studio B piano.

“This piano is one of the most famous instruments in the world,” Cane said. “Elvis wanted to purchase it at one point. Any song that you’ve heard recorded here was played on that piano.”

Memorable homes
Of course, not all of Nashville’s history is musical. The city is the capital of Tennessee and has been home to presidents, business tycoons, Civil War battles and other notable people and events. Several historic homes around town help to commemorate the area’s past.

Belle Meade plantation started as a 250-acre farm in the early 1800s but grew to be a large, successful horse farm comprising some 5,000 acres.

“The home was built in 1853 by the second generation of the Harding family,” said group sales coordinator Mark James. “There are a variety of outbuildings, including a restored slave cabin. They had a saw mill, a dairy, a blacksmith shop and other shops.”

The main house has been restored to its 1800s look. Art and decor throughout the home reflect its horse-breeding successes and include a portrait of Bonnie Scotland, a champion thoroughbred whose DNA is now in the lineage of every modern racehorse. About half of the items on display are original to the house; they include several chandeliers and a rhinoceros-foot cufflink box.

The second floor of the home has several guest rooms, a central hall lounge and a secret passageway. President Grover Cleveland honeymooned at the estate with his second wife, and two of the upstairs guest rooms are restored to reflect what the Clevelands would have encountered in their separate sleeping rooms.

Not far away, Belmont Mansion was built as a summer home by Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham, a woman from Louisiana who managed to marry three wealthy older men during her lifetime. During a tour, visitors see a number of pieces of artwork that she acquired and hear fascinating stories about her struggle to preserve her wealth during the Civil War. The home is now surrounded by Belmont University.

Love for the arts
Another one of Nashville’s historic homes, Cheekwood, was built by the heirs to the Maxwell House fortune in 1928. Today, the Georgian mansion and the surrounding gardens are an art museum.

“We collect only American art,” said tour guide Judith Hodges. “What we have that no other museum has is 55 acres of beautiful woodlands.”

Both the home and the gardens are used to display art. Indoors, visitors will find paintings by American masters, along with a long-term exhibition of work by Peter Carl Fabergé, including a number of his signature hand-painted eggs.

Outdoors, a 1.25-mile sculpture trail features several large modern statues surrounded by trees and Tennessee wildflowers. Botanical gardens at the estate include a Japanese garden, a water garden, a color garden and other beautiful natural areas.

Another repurposed building, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, is a testimony to Nashville’s love of art.

“We were created from the collective will of the city,” said Ellen Pryor, director of communications at the Frist Center. “People wanted a museum for major traveling exhibitions. The fact that we are sitting in this building is a miracle, because this is Nashville’s historic main post office building. It’s the only piece of property that the U.S. Post Office has ever sold.”

The building itself is one of the museum’s primary attractions. Built for $1.5 million during the Depression, the 1935 structure is replete with art-deco touches. During a tour, guides point out some of the most interesting architectural characteristics.

Docents also take groups on tours to see the artwork on display. The museum has no permanent collection but hosts about 15 traveling exhibitions each year. Exhibits scheduled for the coming year include a look at the birth of impressionism and a collection of vintage works by a Memphis photographer.

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For more on Nashville:

An American icon
Tune that fiddle!
From mastodons to muskets
WEB EXCLUSIVES! Two more Nashville icons

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.