How to Level Up Your Next Trip to Nashville
Sure, you can do Nashville, Tenn. on one of those pedal-powered trolley-bar vehicles that allow you to get loaded as you sightsee. But your only view will be that of the drunk guy or gal pedaling across from you, and your only takeaway will be slightly stronger calves.
There’s so much to see and do in Nashville, however, that you should remain sober for at least part of your time there.
Nashville holds the nickname Music City, and rightly so, because music permeates every aspect of the city’s soul. So we’ll start our tour of Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry itself. The Opry presents a potpourri of performers, young, old, Black, white, singers, bluegrass pickers and even appropriately corny comedians. The theater seats more than 4,000 and packs the house multiple times a week. The Opry endures because it deliberately offers a sense of continuity and comfort in a fast-changing and often uncomfortable world.
If you want to understand Nashville itself, it behooves you to pay a respectful, perhaps even worshipful, visit to the Ryman Auditorium in the heart of downtown Nashville. The history of the Ryman is as extraordinary as the venue itself. Tom Ryman was a 19th-century Nashville riverboat captain and man about town whose soul was saved at a traveling minister’s tent show. The grateful, now God-fearing Ryman vowed that no preacher, whether the one who brought him to religion or any other, would henceforth have to preach in a tent in Nashville.
Ryman therefore built a stunning hall seating 2,800 people to which preachers of all stripes—Methodists, Baptists, what have you—could preach. When he eventually passed on, Rev. Sam Jones renamed the hall Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman has seen a range of performers that perhaps few other venues can claim. These include Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Nijinsky, B.B. King, Helen Keller, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and pretty much every country star you can name. The entertaining and moving video presentation is worth the price of admission.
You’ll find the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a few short steps from the Ryman. The front of the building has a design of massive piano keys, and inside you will find exhibits, videos and objects of worship, like Hank Williams’ guitar and Elvis’ solid gold Cadillac. You’ll see everything from pickin’ and grinnin’ a century ago to the creation of the controversial Nashville sound, as well as country music in modern times. You’ll also learn about how the music of enslaved people contributed to and blended with what we call country today. An interesting sidenote gleaned at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: Enslaved Blacks brought the banjo from Africa, but mostly abandoned it when the instrument became a staple of minstrel shows.
As part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum experience, be sure to tour Nashville’s famed, dare I say hallowed, RCA Studio B. Here, Elvis cut more than two hundred songs and pretty much every great musician—country, gospel and rock—made their way to the studio to benefit from its matchless acoustics.
Then there’s Lower Broadway, where those aforementioned pedal bars ply their trade and where your outfit is not complete without a half-empty go-cup. The bars open around 10 or 11 in the morning, and musicians are playing country hits and classics. The first two songs we heard were “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait and “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” by Mark Chesnutt. Perfect. There’s no shortage of musicians working on Lower Broadway for sub-minimum wage, so be sure to toss some cash in the tip jar and thus support the future of the country music industry.
Now, you say that there’s more to Nashville than these top tourist attractions. Fair enough. But how do you find them? You go to Bespoke Experiences, a family-owned enterprise that provides personalized, intimate, private visits highlighting the history, architecture, dining and landscapes not just in Nashville but in many locations throughout North America. The basic idea of Bespoke is that you’ll get much more out of your travels if you have an experienced team of professionals to plan your visit, a local to take you to places that you might never have thought of and have insights that you won’t find anywhere else.
Bespoke is not for the hop-on, hop-off crowd who want a basic sightseeing experience. Instead, use them if you want to enjoy a custom experience designed for just you and your party—no strangers—in a luxury vehicle with local ambassadors who know the territory inside out and backward.
Our guide and driver for our private tour of Nashville, Anita and Jack, turned out to know pretty much everything there is to know about Nashville, from its founding to its response to historical moments, such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as surviving natural disasters, to the specifics of statues honoring legendary Nashville musicians. They also knew where to find the best biscuits and gravy, the most delicious fried chicken and the best ribs. Hungry yet?
They have enormous expertise in the South, with private experiences available in Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn. as well as Nashville. But you can go further afield with Bespoke to locations such as Chicago; Denver, Colo.; Napa Valley, Calif.; San Diego; San Francisco and even Toronto.
So now you’ve got your sightseeing squared away. Let’s talk lodging. If you’ve ever wanted to spend the night in a museum, now’s your chance. You can think of the 21c as a hotel with contemporary art, or you can more accurately view the place as a museum that has some hotel rooms tucked away. The 21c is the brainchild of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, contemporary art collectors who happen to be the Browns of Brown-Foreman. If you’ve enjoyed Jack Daniels, then you’re already a satisfied customer of that fine firm.
Brown and Wilson are noted contemporary art collectors who live with great artwork in every room of their home. They wanted to make the art they love more accessible to more people. The goal: Take art out of a formal museum setting and put it in a place where people could be surrounded by it because contemporary art sparks new ideas. What kind of place? How about a hotel?
They opened their Louisville. Ky. hotel in 2006 and never intended to grow beyond that. Then people from other cities began to approach them about bringing 21c to their hometowns. 21c Cincinnati was second to open, in November 2012. Bentonville, Ark. opened in 2013, and more cities followed. (Bentonville? You’ve heard of Walmart, right?)
You can even stay in rooms that were personally decorated by acclaimed artists. Once such room at the Nashville 21c Museum Hotel offers a fully active recording studio—it is Nashville, after all—as well as an art studio, so you can do your own art while someone else in your party is recording songs. Try to find that in a typical hotel chain.
If you’re a business traveler, you can find plenty of nooks and crannies in 21c Museum Hotels decorated not with the typical sterile, bland, corporate artwork that graces—or perhaps disgraces—many hotel chains. Instead, you’ll be in private space or conference rooms as eclectic as the contemporary artists themselves. It’s a game-changing approach to the lodging industry, and I’m sure it won’t be long before the majors try to beat Brown and Wilson at their own game. That won’t be the easiest thing, though, because you can’t buy taste.
So there you have it. Can you get all that from a pedal-powered traveling bar? Not a chance. So go beyond the bars and see what Nashville really has to offer. The Music City won’t let you down.