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Comfortable capital of music

Costa Rica

Nashville - music capital of the world? You bet. But the accolades don’t stop there. The Tennessee capital is polishing its appeal as a short break destination. Try Athens of the South. Or Friendliest City in the USA, according to a recent vote. Then there’s the shopping. And did we mention the Grand Ole Opry?

Music feast

Nashville operates to a simple rule: life is better, set to music. A fabulous jumble of genres - country, blues, rock, jazz, hillbilly and bluegrass - cram into a few foot-tapping downtown streets. Stroll the sidewalk and select your preferred sound from the gale of music issuing from every bar and cafe. (Classical fans are included: a new opera and concert hall opened in 2006). We decided to scale the Mt Rushmore of Country, the Country Music Hall of Fame. Allocate a day to read the many displays, from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles, via such evergreen B-listers as Conway Twitty, Skeets Yaney and the Foggy Mountain Boys. You want Elvis’s solid gold Cadillac? All five versions of Everlasting Love, which you can play on demand? The Dolly Parton story? All here. We emerged, heads spinning, to sift through the Ernest Tubb Record Shop extravavaganza of country CDs.

Grand Ole Attraction

And then the main event. The new (1974) Grand Ole Opry is 9 miles out of town (take the 34X bus, or a taxi) in a massive 4400 seat hall, even now too small for its following. Best to book before you leave home for the undisputed world centre of country music. It’s an awesome package: 17 acts in 3 hours the night we were there, the whole thing televised for your personal DVD.

Nashville goes Greek

Still the acoustic guitars for a moment, and strike up the Greek bouzouki. Nashville has a big surprise. In Centennial Park, 2 miles from downtown, we found the Parthenon, a complete-in-every detail full-size replica (built in 1897) of the Athens masterpiece, with the world’s biggest (24 ft high) bronze doors. It is a typical Nashville shift of cultural gear, which they continue in the Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, (a National Historic Landmark). Here we found a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the Jubilee Singers, a gift from, of all people, Queen Victoria. Our high culture trip continued through the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts.

Heritage homage

We hired a car and drove the 10 miles out of town to the Hermitage, the perfectly preserved Greek Revival style home, set in fine country gardens, of President Andrew Jackson. (He was the victor the last time USA fought the British, in 1815). Gorgeous original 1830s wallpaper (from Paris, France). On the way back, we intended a cautious, low spending foray into the massive Opry Mills Mall. Our resolution collapsed into stateside abandon in the face of spectacular reductions.

Natchez Trace Parkway

Next day we indulged in utter relaxation on wheels. We took our Chevy to dawdle the opening rolling delights of the 444 miles Natchez Trace Parkway, the lorry-free scenic route, and one of the USA’s finest drives, that starts just south of town.
Built in the 1930s as a truck-free recreational route, to create jobs in the Depression, this is a road from a parallel universe, where driving is still pure pleasure. For effortless hours we bowled along a wide and winding road, as quiet as a country lane, through open, undulating, flower-fringed farmland. Now and then we stopped for a high view into the shimmering blue-green beyond. Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis, is midway (and the obvious overnight stop if you are driving to the end, at Natchez.) The Parkway visitor centre is there.

Fine dining

In a virtuoso feat of memory the concierge at the Doubletree Hotel cascaded off a list of nearby restaurants without taking a breath. ‘Well,’ in that honeyed Southern lilt, ‘I guessed you folks might be hungry.’ We were too polite to ask for them again, but two names stuck. The first, for lunch, was Merchant’s, a converted former speakeasy where Al Jolson stayed. Highlights: a fried green tomato BLT, with fruit instead of fries. Johnny Cash’s Fulsom Prison was playing in the bathroom. Once they took the wrecking ball to places like this. Now, in this town and elsewhere, they reuse them wonderfully.

That evening to The Stockyard, now one of the US’s top steak houses, set in former cattle traders’ offices. It was worth lingering in the foyer, pink Italian marble trimmed with cherry wood, while they checked our coats. On display is what they claim to be the oldest bottle of Madeira in the US (around 1780). ‘One day we’ll either drink it or sell it.’ (Dropping is not an option). We dined in one of several smallish rooms off. Waitresses Andrea warned us off gargantuan starters, and steered us to exquisite steaks.
Afterwards to B.B.Kings’s, owned by the King of the Blues himself, where a few dollars bought us three hours of live music.

The writer travelled with BA Holidays British Airways Holidays, and stayed at the Doubletree Hotel.

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