Country boy, city dad head to Nashville

NASHVILLE -- My college-sophomore son and I make an interesting pair. He'll listen to country music all day long and is teaching himself to pluck a tune or two on the guitar; I'll tolerate the music in limited doses, but if I never heard another country song again, I probably wouldn't miss it.

Can two mismatched people spend a mutually enjoyable day or so in Nashville?

Piece of cake. Make that a piece of pecan pie.

Even if you don't know that a git-fiddle is a twangy word for guitar or that "bless your heart" is Polite Southern for "bite me," Nashville is a fun town. There's plenty to see and do, and the weather's nice even in the dead of winter (compared with what we Yankees endure).

More important, Nashville is a real city, with cool museums, sophisticated restaurants, colleges (Vanderbilt University, and let's not forget Belmont University, which hosted one of the presidential debates), an NHL franchise (seriously; they play hockey down here) and a pro football team that, um, beat up Chicago's pro football team a few weeks ago.

Less important, Nashville has some of the coolest team names: The Titans (football). The Predators (hockey). The Sounds (AAA baseball). Even Vanderbilt's athletic teams are known as the Commodores; I don't think they were named specifically for Lionel Richie's old group, but the town is nicknamed Music City, so who knows?

(Nashville also is known as the "Athens of the South," a goofy nickname hung on the town after it built a lifesized replica of the Parthenon in the late 1800s as part of Nashville's centennial exposition. The Parthenon, rebuilt and gleaming, still stands proudly in Centennial Park.)

Anyway, here we were, Country Boy and City Dad, hanging around in Nashville, with only two problems: Our mutually exclusive musical tastes and the small matter of the boy's under-21 status, which barred him from the honky-tonks and most of the other musical clubs.

We still had fun. And we didn't go near the Grand Ole Opry.

Day 1:

We set up camp in the Union Station Hotel, a property I'd admired on an earlier trip, when I'd killed a couple of hours in Nashville on my way someplace else. It actually was the city's main railroad station once upon a time, and it looks very much the part of a grand old hotel, with its exterior ironwork and magnificent marble lobby. Behind the front desk is an enormous, old-timey display of train arrivals and departures, as though the station were still operating. And among the myriad sofas and chairs in the lobby, some women in beautiful dresses were being photographed.

"Magazine shoot," the porter said matter-of-factly. "We get a lot of that."

The upstairs room levels are a bit confusing -- the hallways are practically labyrinths -- but it all circles back, so if you pick a direction and stick to it, eventually you'll find your room. There was a little pardon-our-dust action going on in the property (not that it affected me), and the hotel was dealing, so I managed a sweet price for a huge room with extra chairs, a flat-screen TV and enough room to play catch. We put room service through its paces the first night, and they did just fine.

The first thing we did in the morning, apart from sleeping very late (rousing a college sophomore is not the easiest thing in the world), is head out to the Farmers Market, a year-round market on the north end of town. We found it without too much difficulty, once we figured out that 8th Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard are the same street. The market buildings themselves are nothing special (though one is undergoing renovation), but the abundant displays of fresh vegetables and fruits are impressive. I looked askance at the tall stack of bananas, but most everything else appeared to be local. As far as Chris (my son) was concerned, this stop combined the lethargy of a non-interactive museum with the horrors of fresh vegetables. We didn't linger.

Already it was time for lunch, so we sped south to Arnold's, one of Nashville's legendary meat-and-threes, restaurants that serve a protein and choice of three sides for a set (and ridiculously low) price. Chris and I made our way through the cafeteria-style line, loading up on country-fried steak, green beans, tomatoes and mashed potatoes (him) and fried shrimp with collards, fried green tomatoes and mac & cheese (me), washed down with water and sweet tea. You sit at beat-up tables with mismatched chairs, surrounded by cinderblock walls painted beige. You don't come here for the ambience. But the food is good, the portions huge, and the whole thing set me back $20, including the $2.50 I left behind for the busser.

Then it was time to indulge the lad, so it was off to the Country Music Hall of Fame, whose modern-design exterior gives way to exhibit space that celebrates two centuries of country music. One floor is devoted to yesteryear, including a limited-run exhibit dedicated to trailblazing singer Kitty Wells; the other floor is more contemporary, housing an homage to the Williams family (principally Hank and Hank Jr.)

In between are scores of costume displays, audio and video clips, a wall of gold records that seems to go on forever and a grand, glass-domed Hall of Fame rotunda filled with the bronze plaques of inductees. You could spend a lot of time here, especially if you pop for the one-hour guided tour of RCA Studio B, where such stars as Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison and many others recorded hits. We passed on the Studio B tour, but the museum is very cool.

From the big house to the outhouse, sort of, we next traveled about six blocks to the Hermitage Hotel, a grand property in the middle of the business district and home to two impressive-looking restaurants, including the very upscale Capitol Grille (no relation to the Capital Grille steakhouse chain, which is spelled differently).

But that's not why we visited. I was looking for the bathroom.

The Hermitage, you see, was the grand winner of this year's America's Best Restroom award, which goes to the loo with exceptional hygiene, style and public access, and this I had to see. We strolled into the lobby and found the restroom without too much trouble. It was nice, elegant in a neutral hotel way and spotless. I wasn't dazzled.

We were heading for the door when Chris said, "Maybe that's not the right bathroom."

Hmmm. I approached the concierge desk and began a hem-and-haw inquiry. Apparently the hotel personnel get this question a lot, because the concierge stopped me in midsentence and directed me to the proper potty.

"We're very proud of it," she smiled.

As well they ought to be. This was a spectacular restroom, an Art Deco aqua-and-black, spotlit potty palace, a gleaming Royal Flush whose splendor made me feel, well, inadequate. I had no business being there. I snapped a dozen or so photographs and left, resisting the urge to bow.

We decided to put some miles on the car, so we zipped west to Music Row, because with a name like Music Row, it's got to be cool, right? With music?

Um, no. Music Row is great if you want to drive past rows of corporate headquarters for major and independent recording labels, and I guess you could hope to see a star walking in or out, but mostly it's a collection of impressive buildings open for business, not tours. Studio B actually is here, but you still have to buy tickets through the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But it was a pleasant enough drive, and it segued nicely into our short drive through South Nashville, where we saw signs for the Frothy Monkey coffee shop and Katy K's Ranch Dressing, which is just a great name for a western-wear boutique. And at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Kirkwood Street is a small office building with no sign, where we found Las Paletas, a Mexican popsicle stand operated by two sisters from Guadalajara. They sell flavors such as watermelon, avocado and cucumber, along with more traditional flavors. The coffee and chocolate banana popsicles were wonderful, and the cantaloupe (which we bought for a little kid) was "great" (his word).

We had just enough time to get to the Ryman Auditorium before it closed. Everyone has heard of the Grand Ole Opry, which these days sits a considerable distance northeast of downtown, but Ryman Auditorium, just a half-block north of the honky-tonks that line Broadway, is the Opry's original home. By day, the auditorium (a National Historic Landmark) is a museum offering self-guided tours of the main floor, balcony and stage if you're lucky (we weren't; they were setting up for a show).

By night, it's still a functioning concert space with an eclectic performance calendar. In the last couple of months, the Ryman has hosted shows by k.d. Lang, Ronnie Milsap, Robert Earl Keen, ZZ Top and Carlos Mencia. (Not together.)

Dinner was at City House, a cute place in Germantown, an upscale neighborhood on Nashville's north side.

Chef Tandy Wilson crafts Italian dishes with a regional Southern accent, and he's revered for his salumi (including the belly ham that graced a thin pizza) and frico (montasio cheese and potatoes cooked to a crispy exterior, like the world's most heavenly hash browns).

There also was a yummy tomato and bread stew, meaty Georgia shrimp and cannelini beans seasoned with mint and lemon and, for dessert, assorted Italian cookies. It was all terrific, and I ordered way too much of it.

Day 2:

I was on my own for the second day; the boy returned to campus (something about a class he couldn't miss), leaving me without a car, which is not the best strategy for exploring Nashville. But next door to the hotel is the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a one-time post office with a Classicism exterior and an Art Deco interior (amazing cast-aluminum doors and grillwork). Even if you don't check out the artwork (there's no permanent exhibit but a regular schedule of traveling ones) it's worth walking through the Grand Lobby (free) or down the community arts gallery (also free), which ends at the cafe, where you can get an inexpensive coffee (and free WiFi).

From there it was a short hike east along Broadway to what's known as the lower Broad, which is where you'll find colorful honky-tonks, including the venerable Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a purple-palace of country-music hopefuls; I stuck my head in and, I swear, the band was playing Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" with a bit of Southern twang.

Lower Broadway is very touristy and kitschy (there's a karaoke bar called Wanna B's), but there are two must-sees on the strip. One is Hatch Show Print, which has been making colorful, letterpress posters for decades; you can buy reproductions of famous country-music concert posters, which is the best Nashville souvenir you'll find. The other is Ernest Tubb's Record Shop, which has a jaw-dropping array of classic and modern country music recordings and DVDs. (The lady ahead of me in line was buying $1,200 of classic vinyl records, all by one artist, and you could tell she was thrilled to have found them.)

Wander north of Lower Broadway a bit and you'll find yourself in the District, which is the city's financial district commingled with various shops, restaurants and the like.

On 5th Avenue, between Church and Union streets, you'll find the Arcade, a block-long stretch of shops and eateries under a glass ceiling. There's not much going on here, but it's a quick stroll.

Go back to Church and walk east and you'll see the entrance to Printer's Alley, a dank, depressing and none-too-clean collection of music clubs (half of them shuttered) and a girly club.

Keep moving. South on 2nd Avenue, there are a few interesting stores and music clubs, including Wildhorse Saloon and B.B. King's.

And that will lead you back to Broadway, where you can turn west and repeat the honky-tonk tour.

My final stop before heading for the airport was at Rippy's, another Lower Broadway joint with food and usually music. It was quiet when I stepped in, but I was hungry, and I figured I'd get faster service in a place that didn't have a live act playing.


GETTING AROUND: Lower Broadway, the financial district and sights such as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Ryman Auditorium and destinations such as the Gaylord Entertainment Center and Nashville Convention Center are grouped closely enough to make walking an attractive option. But if you want to include West Nashville (including Vanderbilt University) or the Grand Ole Opry in your itinerary, a rental car is a good idea. Cabs are plentiful in Nashville, though you have to call for one, and prices are reasonable.

STAYING THERE: Most of the big hotel chains have outposts in Nashville. I stayed at the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway, (615)255-6850;, a grand property that used to be the city's main train station. It's about five blocks west of Lower Broadway. Rooms can run $350 or more, but I was able to find a room on the hotel's Web site for $206 (state, county and city taxes added another $34).