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Nashville – More Than Expected

October 06, 2008

Nashville – More Than Expected

It is rare that I would travel to a city mostly because of a hotel, but Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel made me a believer.  

What started as an easier way to get to my Virginian in-laws (Southwest flies non-stop from LA to Nashville) evolved into an opportunity to visit the storied Ryman for a Mark Knopfler concert.  The prospect of staying at Nashville’s elegant Hermitage Hotel clinched our plans.  

Upon arrival at the hotel, we were escorted by the doorman into the high ceiling lobby.  The design of the columns and lighting invariably draw your eyes upward, making it easy to spot first time visitors.  Italian sienna marble, Russian walnut and Persian rugs lend a Continental counterpoint to the Southern setting of the hotel. Our corner room was spacious, with a lovely view overlooking the State Capitol and the Legislative Plaza.  The original bathroom fixtures were long gone, crisp lighting and new tile work adorned the vast shower.  The wainscoting and the paintings of Southern hunt scenes were a nice counterpoint to the flat panel TV and modern sound system.   I was able to use the complimentary Internet access at one of the desks, and the custom made bed was extremely comfortable.

Built in 1910, the Hermitage Hotel was Nashville’s first million dollar hotel. A recent $18 million renovation was understandably responsible for the current Mobil Five Star rating.  The list of past guests includes six American Presidents, Bette Davis, Al Capone and Greta Garbo.  Minnesota Fats made his home there for eight years, and Dinah Shore made her debut there while broadcasting across the NBC network. I did not know that the US women’s suffrage movement was headquartered at the hotel.

Before heading to the Mark Knopfler concert, we dined at the hotel’s Capitol Grille.  Featuring Southern fusion cuisine, the service was predictably fine.  Tyler Brown is the executive chef, and his discernment earned the restaurant a nod from Esquire as one of the best new restaurants in the nation. Our waiter suggested a great Syrah to go with our dishes of pork and halibut.  The homemade desserts were equally tasty and fresh; ice cream is the only frozen item ever in the kitchen.

Our walk to the Ryman Theatre was a pleasant few blocks.  Once the home of the Grand Old Opry, it has been the preferred Nashville venue for artists as varied as Coldplay, Dylan, Van Morrison and George Carlin (despite being known as the Mother Church of Country Music). The vast balcony covers nearly all the floor, so no seat is that far from the stage.  There are no individual chairs; instead the pews lend a church-like feel.  Of course, you can’t bring a tall chilled beer into most churches as you can do at the Ryman.

Knopfler brought his ace band to the venue, and offered tunes across a wide swath of his 30 year career.  I was wondering of he would be sufficiently bold to eschew his breakthrough hit “Sultans of Swing,” but he somehow pumped vigor into that chestnut.  As with his days as leader of Dire Straits, he presents a sound mix with his guitar the loudest and his vocals down near the bottom.  Because none of his early songs pushed the upper vocal register, his vocals sound remarkably unchanged across the years.  As he did when I first saw him at the Greek Theatre with Dire Straits in the early 80s, he closed with the ever-stirring instrumental theme from Local Hero “Coming Home.”

After the show, we were directed to the city’s main drag.  “Oh,” said the guy coming out of the theatre when I asked which way to Broadway, “just head over two blocks, you’ll see all the honky-tonks there!”  The nightlife was in full swing for a Tuesday night in the summer, with live music spilling out of nearly every door, including Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.  We strolled down Broadway to the Cumberland River in the warm summer air.

Nashville is home to more than 90 record companies, and music is constantly in the air.  I even noticed live performers at the coffee shops in the airport.

Our far too short stay in Nashville was capped by a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  The original musty Hall was on Nashville’s storied Music Row, but in 2001 the doors opened on the custom-built, three level museum a short walk from both the Ryman and the Hermitage Hotel.  One starts a visit on the third hall, ideally with the handy recorded tour device.  The chronological walk traces the history of country music, and it is a fascinating stroll.  Even folks who claim to dislike country music find themselves impressed. Presley’s solid gold Cadillac sits next to Webb Pierce’s way over the top 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible. Dozens of Hatch Show Print posters trace the evolution of the artists.  Acknowledgement of the role played by more modern performers (Gram Parsons, Eagles, Steve Earle) nobly put the musical spectrum in perspective. The final stop on the tour is a reverential circular room housing the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Eleven members thereof also hold membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, evidencing the melting pot nature of music.

We are already contemplating a return to Nashville, perhaps in time for the Americana Conference in mid-September.

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