The snow has arrived and we are starting to hunker down for another long, cold Canadian winter. Winter always starts with the Eating and Drinking Month (aka December) and we do a pretty awesome job of allaying any cabin fever by enjoying a variety of wines, foods, and events. But after that, the novelty wears off and I find myself stuck in the doldrums. That’s when I start planning future travels to far and away places.
This year is a bit different though. Winter started early. Like a whole month early. Ugh. And because my planning for my summer vacation is already planned (an Alaskan cruise), I’ve started reminiscing about past travels to warmer climes.
Nashville is one of them. This past July, my friend Lenore and I headed south to Music City. We used to travel together quite often in our younger days but then we went our separate ways, grew our own lives and finally reconnected again after a decade. This was going to be our first trip together again. Lenore is a music geek and I’m a country girl so Nashville made perfect sense. The planning began well in advance and we were ready!
For everything except the heat.
OMG. Nashville in July is hot. Like outrageously hot. And ridiculously humid. Where I live, for a few days in early July it had been just as hot and humid as in Nashville but in Canada it was considered god-awful, don’t-go-outside, how-can-you-deny-global-warming, oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-throw-up kind of hot. In Nashville, it’s totally normal. In fact, we saw people walking around in hoodies and suits with nary a bead of sweat on their brow. Meanwhile, I was ducking in to any place that had air conditioning and trying to wear clothing that wouldn’t touch my body.
Our main mode of transportation was Uber. At first, I thought this a little excessive as when I travel I usually use public transit or walk. But as it turns out, the Ubers were very well priced, friendly and easily accessible while the public transit system is not. Even the locals say that it is inconsistent and difficult to navigate. It’s better to drive and in fact, Nashville seems to be made for vehicles. If you decide to drive there, be prepared for traffic. But everything you might want to see is within a fairly small radius (Opryland being the exception). Three major highways intersect in Nashville and should you decide to explore other parts of Tennessee, it would be easy enough to do. Many attractions in Nashville are within a walkable distance if you have really comfortable shoes and can take the heat. I love walking but the thought of walking just over half an hour from our Airbnb to downtown was unthinkable in temperatures that tipped into the 40’s °C with the humidity. That being said, we only uber-ed to one location in a neighbourhood and then walked everywhere in that neighbourhood and then uber-ed back to our Airbnb.
Going on a recommendation from Lenore’s sources, we decided to stay in East Nashville. We found a lovely Airbnb that was a few minutes’ walk to the main area of restaurants and some funky shopping alleys. East Nashville is a quieter village-like neighbourhood where the streets are lined with charming houses and buildings that are only one or two stories, with covered front porches and interesting architectural features. The gardens are lush with bougainvillea, coneflower, magnolia and peonies and there is an air of community and neighbourliness with their rustic decor, handwritten signs and commercial businesses interspersed with residential homes.
After getting settled in our Airbnb, it was time for dinner and we headed to Edley’s BBQ to get us in the mood with some classic southern grub – pulled pork, brisket, mashed potatoes, beans, coleslaw, corn bread, you name it, they’ve got it. And the price was very reasonable. The platter pictured below cost only 10$ and they substituted the corn bread that comes with every platter for an additional gluten-free side.
We noticed the prices were quite reasonable in a lot of restaurants. I figured because Nashville was such a touristy city that the prices would be outrageous, like in New York City, but no, they all seemed to be very average. (Of course, we had to take Canadian exchange into consideration but even then, a lot of the places we ate weren’t overly priced.)
We visited several other restaurants in East Nashville as well. On Friday morning and Sunday morning, we visited the Marché Artisan Foods (twice for breakfast because it was so good). They have a large selection of gluten-free options in their seasonal and fresh menu. I had the peach tartine and ricotta (pictured above) and even though it was so good I could have ordered it again, on Sunday morning I ordered a grilled cheese. A couple of evenings, we hit Five Point Pizza for a later-night bite (sadly, only Lenore got to try their pizzas as they don’t have gluten-free options.) It’s between $3.25 and $5 a slice and very tasty. You could definitely stay in budget if you were happy eating pizza every night. On Saturday night, before we headed to the Opry, we decided to go to the Butcher and Bee. Butcher and Bee supports local and sustainable as well as creating gourmet flavours with local foods. For dinner, they serve sharing platters so we ordered several and were able to try a variety of different dishes – like whipped feta and cucumbers, bacon-wrapped dates, scallops, and fire-roasted carrots. Their menu also changes with the seasons as they serve locally produced food. We also went to Battered and Fried for sushi a couple of times and were impressed with their selection. On Thursday evening, after we left the design studios, we Uber-ed back to East Nashville for the evening for some gluten-free pizza at Italia Pizza and Pasta (a helluva lot of food for a great price!) and then across the street to Urban Cowboy for a drink (pictured below). Urban Cowboy is also a B&B but we just went into the public house for a drink. We heard the food was amazing but since we had just eaten, we didn’t order anything.
In the evenings, as dusk approached, we decided to stop into some of the local East Nashville drinking/music establishments. On Thursday evening, we hit the Red Door Saloon for a drink and on Friday night, The 5 Spot.
One thing that should be noted about Nashville is nothing really gets started until later in the evening (like 9 pm). And because we are approaching middle-aged (cough…early 40’s) and have incredibly busy lives filled with responsibility, this is just about my bedtime. But because I was on holidays, I gave it the old college try and stifled my yawns as we sipped our girly drinks and listened to 80’s hard rock at the Red Door Saloon.
Farmers’ Market and Germantown
On Thursday morning (our first morning in Nashville), we headed to the Nashville Farmers’ Market. It is open 7 days a week but unfortunately, not all the stalls are open every day. The massive and beautiful Gardens of Babylon garden centre was open and even though we couldn’t take anything home with us, it was relaxing to just walk around and enjoy the wares. We found a place (Music City Crepes) that made gluten-free crepes (omg yum!) and spent quite a bit of time exploring the locally-made and locally-coloured items in Batch Nashville. There were cookbooks of southern cooking, books and postcards about Nashville and Tennessee, soaps, linens, locally-made jewelry and leather goods, whiskey-infused edibles, and much more. The Farmers’ Market is a great place to find unique souvenirs and there were many things we considered buying. But because it was our first day, we held off. You may want to consider hitting it on a weekend day near the end of your stay when more shops are open and you have a better idea of what kind of souvenirs you’d like to take home.
From there, we walked through the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park towards Germantown. We had to walk slow. Our bodies were still getting used to the heat. If you like history, it is an interesting monument that relates the history of Tennessee through a variety of marble pillars and walls. At one end, the capitol sits atop the hill and looks over the Mall. There is also an amphitheatre there for special events, 31 fountains representing Tennessee’s major waterways and rivers and a 200′ granite map of Tennessee. Walk from one end to the other and you can say you walked across Tennessee. <Insert bad joke sound here.> At the other end – towards Germantown – fifty columns that house 95 bells surround the Court of Three Stars.
Germantown is a great place to find food. We went looking for shops and found mostly restaurants. Germantown was the first suburb of Nashville, populated with Germans in the mid-19th century. It’s buildings are low brick buildings festooned in vines and lush tropical flora. We did find a few clothing and home decor boutiques that were certainly fun to browse through and talk to the sales assistants (all of whom are actually musicians). And all the shops were very well air-conditioned, thank the Lord. At Alexis + Bolt, the lovely sales assistant even offered us a refreshing sample of chilled wine. This shop occupies a house and they also hold evening events there which I imagine would have the feel of an intimate house party.
After that, we grabbed an Uber and headed back to our Airbnb before heading out again for our clothing studio tours.
Elizabeth Suzann and Jamie + the Jones
Lenore and I have both been delving into the world of making our own clothing. We both felt this need to live a more sustainable and more meaningful life and so started learning how to make clothes that we love out of natural, sustainable fabrics that not only fit us because they are tailored to our own bodies but are also very much our own style.
When Lenore told me about buying a piece from Elizabeth Suzann and Jamie + the Jones and asked if we could go to the studios to pick them up, I was all over it! While I don’t own any pieces from these two designers, I completely appreciate the fact that they are both small, independent businesses that started with a idea and are now rapidly growing online companies whose employees and clients stand by them whole-heartedly due to their authenticity and positive outlook. Not only do these two small companies strive to create beautiful pieces by traditional methods using sustainable fabric, they have both collaborated with my favourite designer, Alabama Chanin.
When we arrived at Elizabeth Suzann, we were greeted by Emily who just oozed positivity and excitement for everything Elizabeth Suzann stands for. It really is hard to put into words how it felt to see the entire process – the bolts of fabric, the employees cutting the material, to have business aspects explained, to see some of the new pieces, to speak with Elizabeth Suzann, to quietly and quickly observe the seamstresses at work and to ask questions about both the business and about Nashville in general. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I even asked what kind of background one needed to become a seamstress because I was thinking of quitting my day job just to be a part of this team. Alas, it had to end. But onto Jamie + the Jones!
We arrived at a quaint little house and knocked on the door. We were invited into the showroom and were able to take a look around. Then we were invited to go to the studio so Lenore could pick up her cropped T. The Jamie + the Jones studio was smaller but still fascinating. I happened to be wearing a kimono-style cardigan that I had made out of sandwashed rayon and while Lenore tried on her new top, the three of us had a quick conversation about fabrics, methods and what made us want to be makers.
Old Town Trolley Tour
On Friday, we decided to head downtown and hop onto a sightseeing bus. We took the standard tourist Old Town Trolley Tour of the city. Yes, these tours are ultra-kitschy, complete with bad jokes, short video clips and no air conditioning but it is a great idea for two reasons. 1) It’s cheaper than an Uber to get around the whole city and 2) there is a lot of really interesting information given that you might never have found out otherwise.
We bought our tickets and hopped on at the downtown kiosk. One stop we didn’t take that we should have was at Marathon Village. The tour bus stops here and the old motor works industrial park has been renovated into artisan boutiques. It is not in the downtown core and isn’t really walkable so this is an inexpensive way to stop and see the Marathon Village before hopping on a later bus and moving on to a different part of the city. Some of the sights we saw were the Ryman Auditorium, Marathon Works, the Farmers’ Market, the State Capitol, Centennial Park (the Parthenon), Music Row, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, the Gulch and then back downtown. You can start anywhere and hop off and hop back on at any of the fifteen stops along the route. Buses come approximately every 15 minutes.
Doing a tour like this early in our stay gave us a good sense of what was where, how far away everything was and what we still wanted to see. For example, we now had a vague idea of where our Airbnb Experience was on Saturday and could budget time accordingly. Also the Gulch looked like it would have been an interesting place to wander for an afternoon. Unfortunately, time ran out and we didn’t make it back.
Hatch Show Print
We finished our tour one stop from the beginning at the Country Music Hall of Fame. When we bought the ticket for the trolley, we also bought a ticket for the Hatch Show Print tour, which is located inside the same building as the CMHF and received a discount on the entrance fee.
I really knew nothing about this place before seeing it. But if you are interested in music history and paraphernalia and are interested in learning about the art behind these iconic posters, then this is a fabulous presentation. It really is more of a presentation than a tour. It is still a working print shop, that just happens to be viewable by the public in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Hatch Show print presentation started in the print shop with an explanation of how the business has worked with their customers to create memorable posters. After that, we moved into a work room and listened to another presenter talk about the evolution of the company, from humble beginnings, through the digital age and how they’ve kept their traditional industry alive. As we listened, we were given the chance to create our own Hatch print as a souvenir.
Saturday was our music day. Around noon, we headed downtown. We were excited to check out Broadway – “the strip”. We knew that the music played all day long and we could check out some souvenir shopping as we wandered.
It’s true, the music on Broadway is non-stop. And it really doesn’t matter when you go, there will always be talented musicians playing. Because this is NASHVILLE. This whole city is made up of the most talented musicians around. So then how do you decide where to go? Well, if you had all day, you could literally just walk from one honky tonk to the next. As we walked along Broadway, we decided to stop into the shops along the way, to admire the cowboy boots, to laugh at the tacky souvenirs and to check out Ernest Tubbs Records. Eventually we came to Robert’s Western World and popped in for a glass of wine (from a mini bottle) and a basket of fries. If you decide to pop into several bars, you should know that Nashville has a tradition of not charging a cover fee. This is because the band relies on tips throughout the show so bring some small bills to spread the love.
This lively strip is not actually that long – four or five blocks of the tourist attractions, including Bridgestone Arena. So it won’t take you long to see it. We grabbed a bite to eat at Merchants Restaurant before heading off to our next event.
Imagine Recordings on Music Row
The next thing we had planned for this whirlwind tour of Music City was an Airbnb experience – a recording session with Imagine Recordings and an up-and-coming recording artist. We met Steve, our host and an extremely talented musician with a huge list of accomplishments and collaborations. He explained that we would be meeting Justin Adams, a country singer/songwriter who would be recording two songs. We, as the audience, had three different locations from which to observe the recording session – from the control room (where the recording engineer edits the song), from inside the “live room” (where the musicians are playing), or while sitting in the room we had gathered in, from which one could see the musicians playing through glass walls.
After Steve introduced himself and then introduced Justin, we were able to ask both of them questions about the music industry, about their influences, experiences, challenges, etc. After that, Justin and his band went into the live room and set up to record the two songs.
I was blown away by the vast knowledge and passion these artists share. And I’ve said it before, but the level of talent is unreal. I know the basics of music. I took piano lessons while growing up and understood music theory in grade school. I can hold a tune and I am charged with teaching basic music theory to my own young students. To some, I know a lot. But some of the conversations these musicians and sound engineers were having, were at such a high level of expertise, it gave me a whole new appreciation for the amount of work that goes into being in the music industry. I know that statement sounds trite but the end product of what we hear and see makes it seem much easier than the whole process actually is.
We were lucky because the recording session went a little longer than the 90-minute scheduled time and we were able to sit in the control room and listen back to the whole song after they were finished. Photos were taken and last questions were asked. We were sorry to leave but we had a date with the Opry.
Grand Ole Opry
Well, you can’t go to Nashville without going to the Grand Ole Opry. I admit, I didn’t know any of the artists that were appearing that night except the Oakridge Boys but it’s an event in and of itself. It’s historic and bigger-than-life.
The Grand Ole Opry used to be at the Ryman auditorium downtown but in 1974 the Opry was moved to its current location. The current location is out of the city in an area that has been made into a resort called Opryland. There is an opulent hotel, courtyards, a boat cruise that travels on an engineered river around the resort and a massive (but ordinary) mall. We had no desire to see any of that. We were here to be part of history. We were a touch late but found our seats with no problem and sat down to enjoy some classic country mixed in with the younger up-and-comers.
Getting an uber out to the Opry was not a problem at all and it cost around $17. But getting one back was an entirely different story. When the show at the Opry is over, the crowds and traffic are similar to the end of a professional sports game.
Our tickets for the show were in the evening and we had originally planned on doing the backstage tour right after. It was sold out but to be honest, we were so tired by then anyway, we were happy to have gotten tickets to the Sunday morning backstage tour.
The backstage tour lasted about an hour and there is one that starts every 15 minutes. It was very informative, with a tour guide as well as short videos narrated by Blake Shelton about different points of the Opry’s history. It was really cool to see the dressing rooms, the stars’ mailboxes, props from the series Nashville and to have our photos taken on the 6′ wooden circle that was salvaged from the original stage after the flood in 2010.
Oh, and no firearms of any kind are allowed in any part of the Opry. You can check your sidearm at the front and retrieve it after the show. (In Tennessee, we learned, you can carry a licenced handgun.)
Johnny Cash Museum
After our tour of the Opry, and our whirlwind four days in Nashville, we were losing steam. But there was one more stop I wanted to make. The Johnny Cash Museum.
It happened to be raining at the time we arrived and consequently was very busy. It’s quite a small museum and it is designed to lead you through his life – from childhood to his last days. I knew he was a legend but I don’t think I realized the scope of his work nor his influence. Learning about his life in chronological order made me quite emotional as I came to the end of the museum and watched several repetitions of his last video released, Hurt. Many of the artifacts I had just stood in front of and read about are featured in the video.
The museum shop in front of the museum had some fun Johnny Cash souvenirs and is worth a stop even if you opt out of seeing the museum itself, though I would recommend the museum. The museum is located in the same building as the newly-opened Patsy Cline museum.
It still shocks me that we crammed so much into just over four days. Four-six days is the perfect amount of time to explore this historic, exciting and legendary city. There is so much to do, you will never be bored. The next time I find myself in that part of the world, I would love the opportunity to explore some of the experiences outside of Nashville as well, such as the Jack Daniels Distillery, a day trip to Memphis, Mammoth Cave National Park, take a historic tour of the state, and some gorgeous state parks. It was indeed a trip well worth taking. But the next time I go, won’t be in high summer.