Knocking Around the honky tonks of Nashville

Who’s Vince Gill? If it’s not Dolly Parton or Miley Cyrus, I don’t know who you are talking about. That’s Melissa.

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I’m the country music fan. Melissa is the hair band fan. She doesn’t know from Garth Brooks and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t know from Poison and Motley Crue. Oh, she does know Kenny Rogers…who just happens to be one of her favorites…and Minnie Pearl…only because of the hat with the tag.

We were going to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky as a part of my birthday celebration, and Nashville is only about 90 minutes away. And while Melissa is not exactly fond of some good old country twang, she absolutely loves the energy of live music. And downtown Nashville has a real abundance of live music along Broadway and on the side streets and in the alleys.

It was not going to be easy to find accommodations because it was not only Labor Day Weekend, it was also the opening weekend of SEC college football with Tennessee hosting Virginia. We realized that when we boarded the plane and there was a wave of orange shirts all over – one shade of orange for Tennessee and another shade of orange for Virginia. That meant Nashville was going to be overrun with college football fans. Oh…and with a LOT of bachelorette parties. Apparently Melissa knew that Nashville is the bachelorette party capital of the universe. I was oblivious to that tidbit of information.

Melissa found a place on the outskirts of downtown – The Iris Motel is located a few miles away. It’s in an area that appears to be rebuilding, near a hospital and huge shopping area that included a Walmart and The Home Depot. Everything was within walking distance. Its décor is a minimalist’s delight…looking almost like they were constructing pieces of furniture and decided that they weren’t going to finish. It was extremely clean and very conveniently located.

The Iris Motel in Nashville, Tennessee.

Breakfast at Buttermilk Ranch. If you are looking for great tasting and huge portions, this is the place. But if you are looking for “healthy eating” welllllll…you might have to walk off a bunch of those calories. The menu pretty much revolves around their unbelievable baked goods, especially their croissants. Oh, they are well worth it, but you are not going to want to be heading for a weigh-in afterwards.

We were scheduled to meet my college friend, Charlie Mattos, for an early lunch….pretty close to finishing our croissant-laden breakfast. We asked Charlie for a recommendation for a barbeque place close to downtown and he suggested Puckett’s. We arrived early and saw that Printer’s Alley was about a block away. So we decided to walk off the croissants and check out the area. It was pretty quiet but it was pretty early in the day…and we hadn’t hit Broadway yet.

Lunch at Puckett’s was really nice. I got to see Charlie who I hadn’t seen in person in 40 years. We went to the University of Miami (It’s all about the U Melissa!) and we got to know each other while working at WVUM, the college radio station. It was great to catch up and it really seemed like no time had passed.

Oh…the food was really good too. We got our first introduction to “meat and 2” and “meat and 3” which is apparently a common menu option where you choose a meat – beef, pork, or chicken – barbecue style and get three sides to pick from. Melissa just had to get the pulled pork and she said it was the best pulled pork she ever tasted…even better than mine! Damn! I know, I know. Alan doesn’t eat meat. But some barbecue places DO have seafood selections, especially catfish in the South. Puckett’s had a barbecue salmon and it was REALLY good. The sauces are obviously what makes it so good.

I had told Melissa that Charlie worked at WSM radio in Nashville and at the Grand Ole Opry. She asked Charlie, “So what do you do again?” He said that he “announces at the Opry.” So she followed up with, “So you in like some kind of booth?” referring to a press box type of setting. “Actually, I am just up there on the stage,” he responded.

At that point, a group of people came over and said, “I’m sorry…we don’t want to interrupt your meal, but we just had to stop and tell you how much we enjoyed the show last night. You were just terrific.”

Charlie thanked them and took pictures with them. Melissa just looked at me smiling. Charlie laughed and said, “I didn’t set that up.” Charlie did, however, set us up for tickets to see the show at the Grand Ole Opry that night and, rather than take a picture at Puckett’s, he said we should wait and take the obligatory pic at the Opry.

After lunch we walked along Broadway and the street was closed off as they were setting up to host SEC Nation – the college football show – the next day.

Melissa and Alan at Legends Corner in Nashville, Tennessee.

As soon as we turned onto Broadway, we were standing on the corner where the legendary Legends Corner sits…just steps from the Ryman Auditorium and begins the journey along the path of honky tonks and musicians playing and working to hone their craft.

With every step you could hear the live music. You don’t even have to go IN to any of the venues, you could just meander past and listen. There, of course, was a lot of country music, but there was also other genres being covered. We were in front of Valentine’s and, for some reason, the music really drew us in. It turns out it was a young singer from Canada, Melissa Livingstone, who came to Nashville to fulfill her dreams like so many others before her. We went in to Valentine’s, sat for three songs, and then moved on. I mean, there are so many more to see.

Melissa Livinstone at Valentine’s on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee.

There are a LOT of museums to see in Nashville. But how can you NOT stop in at the Johnny Cash Museum? Johnny Cash? Come on. So of all the museums…we chose that one. It’s located on a side street off of Broadway and is sharing a space with the Patsy Cline Museum.

The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennesee.

I am a huge Johnny Cash fan…and I was anxious to see what the museum was all about. But I was a bit disappointed if only for the fact that the space is quite small and, as soon as you enter the museum itself, the people are really bunched up because the chronological story of Johnny’s life and career is right at the entrance and if anyone is reading it…year by year…decade by decade…you’re waiting…and waiting…and waiting.

I give the curators credit…there is a LOT to see in the museum. But the experience is impaired by the numbers of people cramped into a really small space. Yes I recommend going…but go when the museum first opens or else you aren’t going to be able to enjoy it.

Melissa has always loved cowboy boots. We have searched near home for a pair and she couldn’t settle on anything she really liked. So where else could you find boots if not in Nashville, right? I promised Melissa a pair of boots when we got to Music City. And after going into the boot shops along Broadway, she found the pair that she really liked at Big Time Boots. After all, how can you go out to the Grand Ole Opry on a Friday night and NOT be wearing boots?

We had some time so we ventured into another honky tonk, Robert’s Western World. It’s a really cool place that looks like an old-time bar with a lot of old signs, cool neon, and a lot of antique radios displayed. It’s sensory overload for a lot of people but it really captures the essence of what you expect from a cowboy bar.

Robert’s World on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee.

Oh…and the music was, again, really good. The band played a lot of popular country tunes and Melissa got a real kick out of the couples who were country dancing in front of the stage. There were a lot of boots and cowboy hats in the place. Melissa’s boots were still in the box, though.

We wanted to get a quick bite to eat before our night at the Opry, so we ventured into Assembly Hall where we got tacos and, believe it or not, listened to music. Assembly Hall has multiple floors for congregating and eating, and multiple acts playing music as well. So we were able to enjoy another round of music before we even got to the Opry.

Tacos and Music at Assembly Hall in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Grand Ole Opry is really a special place. Legends have performed at the place. It’s so special that you have to be invited to be a member and it is a HUGE honor to receive that invite.

The Opry’s history dates back to 1925. The founder of National Life and Accident Insurance Company decided to launch his own radio station, and so WSM –grabbing from the company slogan “We Shield Millions” – was born. On November 25 of that year, a National Barn Dance program featuring a fiddle player was broadcast, and that day is recognized as the day the Opry was born.

Originally broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium, the last show there was in 1974 because of the decay of the venue. The show was moved to the current location, and a circle was cut from the wooden stage of the Ryman and was placed at center stage of the new auditorium, where it is still considered sacred ground.

The shows from the Grand Ole Opry are still broadcast, live, on WSM. The acts for our show…Jeannie Seely, Jake Hoot, Mike Snider, Craig Campbell, John Conlee, Mark & Magee O’Connor, Ben Folds, and Don Schlitz…and the host…Charlie Mattos.

When Charlie appeared to open the show, Melissa turned to me and said, “I thought he was going to be in some booth or something…I didn’t know he was going to be up there on the stage. He’s up there on the stage.”

Melissa did not know ANY of the acts…except for Ben Folds…she said she did hear of him. But the others? Nope. None of these performers would be singing “Girls, Girls, Girls” or “Bad Medicine.”

Charlie Mattos introducing Jeannie Seely at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

Even Jeannie Seely. She was made a member of the Opry way back in 1967 (yes, before Melissa was born) and, at 83 years of age, is still performing almost nightly. She opened up with the song, “Hey, Good Lookin’” and Melissa instantly perked up and said, “Hey…I know that song!” Yeah…well…it was downhill from there. LOL Not really. The music was really good. Melissa liked it. Some of it.

Charlie had messaged me that he would meet us during the 15-minute intermission. When the curtain came down, he came to get us. He brought us down for the “obligatory” pictures and then had us sit there in the first few rows for the second half of the show.

Alan and Melissa with Charlie Mattos at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

During one of the commercial breaks, after Charlie announced some birthdays and anniversaries, he totally surprised us by mentioning us to the audience. “….and there they are in Section 7….” Melissa was really excited and she had to tell Erin and Lauren right away.

Each of the acts did a set of three songs. I knew most of the songs, some were new to me. Melissa was waiting for a song that she would know after that first song Jeannie Seely sang. When I told her that that song was actually a Hank Williams song…she said, “I don’t know him.” Oy…

The last act of the evening was Don Schlitz. Who? He opened with saying, “None of you know who I am…”

Don Schlitz, singer and song writer, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

To which I could hear in my head Melissa respond, “That’s RIGHT!” Schlitz is the writer of many popular songs. One of my favorite songs that he wrote, “When You Say Nothing At All” was made famous by the late Keith Whitley and covered by Allison Krauss. The audience knew that one, of course. Melissa…not.

Schlitz ended the night with a song he wrote for Kenny Rogers – The Gambler. “I finally know the words!” And she did. And she sang right out and enjoyed it, along with the rest of the audience.

The next morning we started off with a buffet brunch at Adele’s. There was a real smorgasbord. Actually, it was. There was a really nice selection of offerings from eggs and grits to salmon and chicken. There was a line for bagels and muffins and they even had lox. Lox! In Nashville! And a table for sweet treats that included pecan squares and chocolate chip cookie halves…yes…halves. Good thing they were in halves because they were so sweet…a half is all you can eat.

How could we go to Nashville without hitting Music Row? It was extremely hot so we just drove around taking in the sights of the many recording studios that still exist in the area. Most of the studios have moved their offices elsewhere, and the area is being redeveloped.

RCA recording studio on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee.

We took a walk to the Walk of Fame which is in a park a couple of blocks down from Broadway right across from the Country Music Hall of Fame. A nice picture opp…but…in the heat…a real quick stop.

Melissa loves Dolly Parton. Who doesn’t love Dolly Parton? The Walk of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

Visiting the Ryman Auditorium and learning about its great history is a must. The venue has maintained a lot of its original charm. The Opry left in 1974, but the venue still hosts a lot of great shows. I was totally unaware that the restoration of the Ryman was spearheaded by Emmylou Harris.

The Ryman Auditorium was built by a riverboat captain named Thomas G. Ryman. Its doors opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It was renamed Ryman Auditorium after Ryman’s death in 1904. And it became the home to the Grand Ole Opry in 1943.

Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

The tour of the Ryman was really good. It starts off with a video that presents the history of the Ryman. Then you can go on a self-guided tour, with the option of listening to a brief talk by one of the guides who is available for questions. The auditorium with the original wood pews and flooring still holds all of the charm.

We went for dinner at a place right around the corner from the The Iris Motel. We had stopped in to Common Ground the morning before to get a cup of coffee. But we found out that they are not a coffee shop. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who thought they were a coffee shop, because the manager told us that he was having a lot of people coming in asking for coffee. And as he was explaining that to us…as if on cue…another woman came in…asking for a cup of coffee.

They got the hint, I guess, and changed the name to Common Ground Bar and Grill. We had to try the dinner and the place has some nice offerings. But it is more of a place to share plates so be prepared to go with someone who likes what you like.

Our last night in Nashville we needed to head back to Broadway and experience the energy and music of the honky tonks and the crowds. Broadway remained closed off to traffic and throngs of people meandered about the streets. There were lines of people waiting to get into every honky tonk. You didn’t HAVE to go in, you could still hear the music just standing outside of the place, but going in is part of the experience.

The streets and honky tonks were still mobbed with college football fans…mostly University of Tennessee fans and some University of Virginia fans sprinkled in. And there were also a lot…a LOT…of bachelorette parties.

The bachelorette parties were kind of mobile. They were mobile as in the members of the parties walking in their respective groups around the streets…and they were mobile as in actually BEING mobile. There were a lot of party buses that are obviously built and designed to host…private parties. They are not so private as they are in full public viewing for everyone on the streets to see as these buses drive up and down the streets of Nashville with the participants drinking, and dancing, and drinking, and shouting down to the people on the streets.

Nashville is, apparently, the bachelorette party capital of the world!

There is also one vehicle where you have to peddle like a bicycle…a bicycle built for 16 (not two)? I guess so you can work off the alcohol by peddling around the city? I don’t get it. But that’s for another story. This one is really about the music and the honky tonks!

All of the places were pretty much inundated with people, but we found Losers Bar & Grill on one of the side streets. We got a drink, (the beer was awful and I dumped it after three sips), and we listened to the music. The place was small but really quaint and done up like an old-time saloon. A young guy named Austin Brooks was there with his band and he really was excellent. He did a great job of playing to the crowd, and he just had a presence with a great sound.

We went to a second place, Second Fiddle, right on Broadway in the cluster of honky tonks. It was another place with an older appearance and a LOT of old “stuff” on the walls. The music was also good as we caught the last two songs before the band took a break.

Printer’s Alley in Nashville, Tennessee.

We made one more trek to Printer’s Alley and this time the Alley was jammed with people. It was getting late and we had had enough. We got to see over a dozen acts in a two-day period and they were all really good. Any lover of music, especially country music, would really enjoy a visit to Music City. I guess that’s why they CALL IT…Music City.

Last stop was a breakfast at Pfunky Griddle…a little “Pfunky” place that we just happened to see while driving to The Iris Motel. It looked like somebody’s house with a dilapidated sign out front. But it turned out to be a real eclectic place in a converted home that has hot pot stations for customers to griddle their own pancakes and fry their own eggs. It’s like Kramer on Seinfeld with making your own pies. “We give you the ingredients and you just throw it in the oven…” I can hear Melissa in my head saying “Ok…I’ve had enough.”

Flipping pancakes at the Pfunky Griddle in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s the end of my birthday celebration…so it’s enough of the country twang. Melissa just loves that twang. Maybe not…but she does love her new boots.

Out in the country past the city limits sign
Where there’s a honky tonk near the County line
The joint starts jumpin’ every night when the sun goes down
They got whiskey women, music, and smoke
It’s where all the cowboy folk go to boot scootin’ boogie

Brooks and Dunn

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