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Tennessee: Volunteer Vacation

On country roads and in town squares, I discovered authentic Tennessee.

The Volunteer State has numerous great destinations for tourists, some of which are carefully packaged and highly trafficked. But in the communities of Middle Tennessee, friendly locals with big smiles and bigger stories extend a warmer welcome.

I spent five days exploring Nashville and the back roads that connect it to communities south of town. My trip took me through Rutherford, Williamson and Maury counties and introduced me to the people and places that lend Tennessee its true character.

Along the way, I enjoyed the heritage of music that runs deep in this region, starting in Nashville and permeating the entire area. History there is more than music, though, and I learned some of the compelling stories of the Civil War and its impact on the families that lived in Middle Tennessee. And along the way, I found tradition and innovation coming together to create an emerging food and drink scene that gives visitors new ways to experience Tennessee’s authentic flavor.


A Music Movement

It’s impossible to spend time in Middle Tennessee without taking in some of the music — the area is considered the country music capital of the world and is home to some of America’s best songwriters, performers and music venues.

Before heading out into the smaller communities in the area, I spent some time in Nashville to check out several music museum developments that offer extended visitor experiences. First stop was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a downtown institution where a recent renovation and expansion has brought a wider range of music encounters.

The expansion project more than doubled the museum’s space, from 140,000 square feet to 350,000 square feet, and brought expansive new gallery space, as well as the new 800-seat Country Music Association Theater. The new space will help the museum staff better exhibit items from its massive collection of music memorabilia.

“Our collection is over 2 million items,” said Emily Hester, the museum’s media relations coordinator. “We only display 10 percent of that at any one time. But we keep our archives visible so that people can see what we’re working on and what we’re preserving.”

The museum’s expansion also brings a new element to the visitor experience: The new space includes an on-site workshop for Hatch Show Print, an organization that has been creating letterpress concert advertisements since 1897. Today, the workshop operates under the auspices of the Hall of Fame, and the staff there continues to create authentic advertisements with wood block type and hand presses, just as it did 134 years ago. Tours, talks and hands-on printing sessions are available for groups.

I also visited another new music museum in downtown Nashville, the Johnny Cash Museum, which gives visitors an up-close look at the man who defined country music for generations. Exhibits at the museum range from biographical sketches of Cash’s early life to listening stations playing music from some of his 96 studio albums. Along the way, visitors see many of his costumes, instruments and awards, as well as pieces of furnishings, decor and table china from the Cash family home.

Music isn’t all history in Tennessee, though: Songwriting, recording and publishing are still big business in the area, and that business expands into the countryside and smaller communities that surround Nashville. I found music everywhere I went in the region, but one of the most memorable experiences was in Leiper’s Fork, a historic village about a half-hour’s drive outside of Franklin. The village has developed a reputation for its high-end boutiques and galleries, as well as the many professional musicians and songwriters who live nearby and who gather for picking sessions around outdoor fire pits.

The night of my visit, everyone in town had piled into the local general store and restaurant for open mic night, which featured several hours of performances by talented local musicians — many of whom work professionally in the music industry — as well as newcomers searching for their first opportunities to perform near Music City. The food was good, but the music was even better, giving me an intimate look at the genuine sense of community and fun shared by the residents of that tiny Tennessee town.


Hallowed Ground

Beyond music, there’s more to history in the communities of Middle Tennessee. Civil War battles fought in numerous towns around the area have left their marks on the region, and the legacy of the struggle gives visitors a compelling glimpse into the human impact of the war.

Groups can begin an exploration of the area’s Civil War history at Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro. The Battle of Stones River took place there at the end of 1862, and it proved to be one of the more violent battles of the Civil War. Visitors to the battlefield learn about the events there and their meaning in the context of the war.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of passion, pride and belonging exuding from this place,” said superintendent Gayle Hazelwood as she welcomed me to the park. “Our point is to engage in the broader story of the Civil War. It impacts the lives and the freedom of everyone here today.”

My tour started at the visitors center, where guests learn some background information about the battle and then proceeded onto the battlefield. Along the way, I saw numerous monuments, memorials and burial grounds. A Civil War buff may find the place interesting for its historical detail; I found it a place for gratitude and quiet reflection.

In Smyrna, I found a more personal story from the Civil War at the Sam Davis Home and Museum. The historic home and plantation is dedicated to the memory of Sam Davis, a young Confederate scout who became a local hero when he was captured and eventually killed by the Union army for refusing to turn over Confederate intelligence. The site has two homes where Davis lived as a child and gives visitors a look at typical Tennessee life during the Civil War, in addition to the personal story of Davis’ heroic actions.

For a moving, personal Civil War story, I made my way to Carnton Plantation in Franklin. The family that lived in that elegant country home, built in 1826, saw its peaceful way of life shattered when the Battle of Franklin erupted in late 1864.

“The Carnton House became a field hospital,” said Eric Jacobson, the COO of the Battle of Franklin Trust, as he showed me around the house. “There were about 35 to 40 wounded in every room, and there were wounded soldiers here for seven months. Life was never quite the same after that. The Battle of Franklin was always here.”

Visiting the home today is a surreal experience. The beautiful architectural details and period furnishings represent an ideal historic Southern grace. But hearing the story of the events that took place there reminded me that the real grace on display at the Carnton house is not in its decoration but in the bravery and sacrifice of its inhabitants.


Beverages in Bloom

Music and history have also helped to inspire a new beverage movement that is taking root in Middle Tennessee. I found traces of both at wineries and distilleries that are adding their own spin to Southern hospitality.

In Nashville, Belle Meade Plantation has preserved the history and estate of a wealthy farm family for generations. In 2009, the estate introduced the Winery at Belle Meade, which revived the heritage of winemaking at Belle Meade and became the only winery in Nashville.

Groups can visit the winery for tastings, which include some modern wines and two different varieties of wine made according to historic recipes that came from the estate’s original winery. They can also combine a wine visit with culinary experiences, during which participants prepare and eat meals in the kitchen of the 1807 home using historic recipes, tools and techniques.

About 30 miles south of Nashville, Arrington Vineyards opened in 2007 and counts Kix Brooks of the country music duo Brooks and Dunn as one of its owners. Groups can sample wines in the tasting room, a converted farmhouse, or take a behind-the-scenes tour of the vineyard and production facilities. During the summer, the winery features a concert series called Music in the Vines on weekend evenings.

Perhaps the newest entrant onto the area’s beverage scene is Short Mountain Distillery, a project that endeavors to use historic Tennessee moonshine techniques to benefit local farmers and distillers. The distillery is located on a farm in rural Woodbury, and groups that visit can meet the farmers and master distillers who are working to produce the spirit.

A visit to the distillery is a lesson in both history and hooch. Groups learn about the area’s moonshine heritage and see the distillation process up close. The tours end with a tasting of the classical whiskey, as well as its apple-pie-flavored variation.

“The recipe we use here is the one they’ve done in this area for 100 years,” said Billy Kaufman, the founder and owner of the distillery, as he walked me around the farm and down to the spring that serves as the source for his moonshine. “We call this the Copper Cave Spring, and they’ve been making moonshine here as long as they’ve been making moonshine.”

Like everyone else I had met during my trip, Kaufman and his distillery reinforced what I had come to discover: Travel experiences don’t get any more authentic than on the back roads of Tennessee.

Tennessee Department of Tourist Development


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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.