Broadway, Nashville

Nashville on my Mind

3rd May 2019

Jennifer Lipman takes a road trip through the varied musical, topographical and historical landscapes of the American South, and finds herself to be a country woman at heart…

Less than an hour after arriving in Nashville’s slightly ambitiously named ‘international’ airport, we were taking in the rowdy strains of some good ol’ fashioned honky tonk music in a bar on the city’s main thoroughfare.

We were on Broadway – as glitzy and neon-lit, if not quite as imposing, as its more famous Manhattan cousin – but having headed to the loud and brash Tootsies Orchid Lounge, we could’ve been anywhere. In almost every Nashville bar or restaurant you happen upon singers and performers showcasing their skills, many of them are phenomenally good; they don’t call it Music City for nothing.

Nashville is the spiritual home of country music, and, for a variety of reasons including a popular television show of the same name and the crossover appeal of stars like Taylor Swift, it’s now a premier tourist destination for Americans. The chance to experience this dynamic and fun city without too much hassle is now on the table for those of us across the pond, with British Airways offering direct flights as of last year.

At present, relatively few Brits visit states like Tennessee or Georgia, but while New York, DC and California have much to recommend, my husband and I were keen to see the South – Trump’s territory – for ourselves.

I’m glad we went when we did. The effects of Nashville’s tourism boom are everywhere, from our cab driver bemoaning the soaring cost of a beer to the overinflated hotel prices (we stayed in an Airbnb in a central location and it was absolutely the right decision, given how busy our days were) to the new buildings popping up left, right and centre. Make no mistake, the skyline and feel of this Tennessee city will look very different in a few years.

For now, though, it’s wonderful fun, assuming you have at least a faint interest in the history of singers like Patsy, Dolly and Taylor. Must sees include the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which took us through the story of the genre by way of the outfits, cars and of course cowboy hats of some of country’s biggest stars.

Aficionados will also enjoy the Johnny Cash Museum, showcasing his musical career, cinematic turns and his Christian awakening – although rather whitewashing his tumultuous personal life (we found that Nashville loves to celebrate its famous sons, but is less keen on interrogating their stories) – and you’ll want to stop by the Grand Ole Opry, the dazzling home of a nearly-century old weekly country radio show that anyone who’s anyone has appeared on. The latter was great fun, not least for the chance to peek into the dressing rooms that the stars use today and hear the behind-the-scenes gossip from the well-informed tour guides.

Keen fans can buy tickets for the weekly live Opry broadcasts, but we chose the cheaper and more intimate option of heading to ‘listening room’ venues specialising in acoustic performances. Book in advance for an open-mic night at the tiny Nashville institution The Bluebird (12 tables, almost always sold out on the day), where signed and unsigned singers and songwriters will serenade you with their tales of love, loss and everything in between.

Nashville is mainly about the music, although there are other attractions, including a lifesize replica of the Parthenon in a downtown park, and all the barbecued food you can ask for. Heading to the fast-gentrifying Gulch area, we sampled the South’s famous ‘biscuits’ (like a plain English muffin) at Biscuit Love, enjoying them smothered in chocolate sauce and peanutbutter, leaving us unable to eat for the rest of the day.

This was a common theme during our southern travels; portion sizes in this part of America live up to the stereotype, and almost everything comes smothered in cream, cheese, or deep-fried in some way.

From Nashville, many visitors continue their musical travels through to Memphis, but for our deep south road trip we opted to head east instead, towards Georgia and the Atlantic coast. Around four hours later (or five if you count an unanticipated time-change as we crossed state lines) we were in Jonesboro, taking in the charms of Stately Oaks, a grand antebellum house made famous for being the apparent basis for Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. We didn’t find Scarlett or Rhett but we did give a damn about the tour delivered by the charming Darlene (dressed in full period attire), who told of us of a time when celery was a luxury dinner item and ‘courting candles’ were used to determine whether a prospective suitor would become a husband.

We then headed into Atlanta proper, bypassing more Gone With the Wind tourism for the chaotic delights of the World of Coca Cola, dedicated to the city’s native beverage. It’s as much a lengthy advertisement as a proper museum – the gift shop was a sight to behold – but we nevertheless enjoyed sampling myriad flavours and looking at old soda fountains and marketing paraphernalia from a brand that created the popular image of Santa and is recognised perhaps more than any other around the globe.

If you can, avoid staying overnight in Atlanta, which has little to recommend it, and instead head further east towards Savannah and the stunning coastal surrounds. If Atlanta is a brash concrete jungle, full of skyscrapers and beeping traffic, old Savannah is its genteel cousin: a colonial town made up of pretty cobbled streets, charming pastel-hued houses and some 20 historic public squares.  

There’s no shortage of bustling cafés and bars – be sure to stop at Leopold’s for an ice cream – nor art galleries, antiques stores, 19th century houses to visit and churches to be impressed by. We largely bypassed these, and any official tour, to simply wander around and take it all in, reading up on the city’s revolutionary and civil war history at assorted plaques and monuments.  We did find the time to stop in Chippewa Square where Forrest Gump sat on his bench, although the famous seat has since been moved to a history museum.  

After a busy few days, we wanted a rest – and rest we found, just a short drive north in South Carolina. The Montage Palmetto Bluff is a resort, yes, but it’s so much more than that; set in 22,000 acres of nature reserve on the Atlantic coast (a bigger landmass than Manhattan) featuring alligators and copious other wildlife, it comprises two villages, a golf course, a lake and several high-end restaurants, including the classic Carolina-focused Octagon Porch.

It’s luxury, but relatively understated; rooms are elegant and beautifully furnished in white and grey, without being showy, and the resort is unexpectedly family-friendly (two tree houses on site and the grandest kids’ club I’ve ever seen). Plentiful thoughtful touches, like the bar stocked with full size bottles rather than standard hotel minis, or the communal s’mores cooked outside every night before dinner, simply add to the experience.

You can sail, swim, shoot, ride, hike and enjoy all manner of sporting pursuits – this is a place where many of the guests have a healthy outdoorsy tan all year round and play tennis in full whites – or you can bike or golf cart around the seemingly endless and utterly mesmerising Bluff landscape. Forcing myself out of the very comfortable bed to enjoy sunrise at the lake, I was glad I’d made the effort; I’ve scarcely seen colours that vivid in the natural world before, and it made me all the hungrier for the lavish breakfast that was on offer.

Palmetto Bluff is just a stone’s throw from nearby tourist spots, including picturesque Hilton Head Island beach, and not too long a drive from Charleston, another colonial town beloved for its beauty and character (with, incidentally, direct flights to Heathrow as of this spring).

To conclude our Deep South adventure, we went in the other direction, road tripping down to Miami and the Florida Keys for sunshine and relaxation. Collapsed on a deckchair on Key West, glistening turquoise water all around us, the sun high in the sky and all the fresh fish we could ask for, it felt like we were in paradise. Soundtracked, of course, by some of those wonderful country tunes we had fallen in love with ten days earlier in Nashville...

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