If ever there were a place that took a single note and made it into a song, it is Nashville, where country music is unquestionably king. It is paid homage in a thousand ways - in museums and recording studios and radio broadcasts, on stages and tours and riverboats, at parks and playgrounds.
If ever there were a place with stars in its eyes, it is Nashville, which takes exuberant delight in all the hoopla and holler surrounding the country music personalities. Their footprints are planted in cement, their images cast in wax, their clothes put on display, their cars collected.If ever there were a place with a clear idea of just were it is and how it got there, it is Nashville, who knows that fans are wonderful things to have. They are welcomed, encouraged to take pictures, to sit in on TV tapings, to take in the sights, and above all, to have a good old time.
But if country music is king, don't mistakenly think it is the only song in town.
Throughout its history, Nashville has, at various times, been called: Hunting Grounds, French Lick, the Bluffs, Fort Nashborough, Athens of the South, and Music City USA. There are bits and pieces of all those places in the Nashville of today.
Where else can you find an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon, or wander through the home and gardens that once belonged to Andrew Jackson?
The first white men to arrive in the area called the Bluffs were French fur traders. They established a trading post at the salt spring, a place called French Lick. They were the only settlers until a party of English settlers came down the Wilderness Trail from Kentucky and established Fort Nashborough.
The fort has been reconstructed into a reproduction of the original stockade that protected these first settlers, who arrived on the scene in 1780.
In 1784, the name was changed to Nashville. And in 1796 when Tennessee became the 16th state to join the Union, the capital was moved from Knoxville to Nashville. (Then it was moved back to Knoxville, on to Murfreesboro and finally came back to Nashville to stay.) The State Capitol, built in Greek Revival style by a William Strickland, is still considered a masterpiece of this style.
The Civil War left Nashville in sad shape, but fortunately not all the gracious Southern plantations were destroyed. Belle Meade, Tulip Grove, Traveller's Rest and, of course, The Hermitage, are among the mansions that open their doors to visitors.
The Hermitage, the home of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, is the third most-visited president's home in the country, right after Washington's Mount Vernon and Jefferson's Monticello.
Set on 600 acres of gently rolling farmland just outside the city, The Hermitage offers insight into the life and times of this popular president.
These places all provide an interesting look at Nashville's past. But for a look at its present, you return again to country music.
Where else do mothers tell their children, "Be good and you, too, might grow up and have your own museum?"
After all, in addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (featuring plaques honoring Country Music greats and such memorabilia as Elvis' solid-gold Cadillac, Johnny Cash's personal scrapbooks, original song scores and early recordings), the Music Valley Wax Museum of the Stars, Cars of the Stars, and the Country Music Wax Museum & Mall, you can wander on into Boxcar Willie's Railroad Museum, the Jim Reeves Museum, Twitty City (with not only Conway Twitty's Showcase, but the Marty Robbins Showcase, the Ferlin Husky Wings of a Dove Museum and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame), Barbara Mandrell Country, George Jones' Car Collectors Hall of Fame, Waylon's Private Collection, the House of Cash, the Hank Williams Jr. Museum, the Minnie Pearl Museum and more.
And then there's the Grand Ole Opry, an American original if there ever was one.
"I've thought many times that if you sat down to design a successful show, you probably would do everything just the opposite of the way we do," says Hal Durham, the Opry's general manager.
"I can't conceive of anyone setting out to design a show that has no rehearsals. We don't even know more than 48 hours in advance who is going to appear. We have no advance promotion of the artists our guests are going to see, and we continually interrupt the whole show with commercials."
Nevertheless, the Opry has a homespun appeal that has earned it a place as the longest-running radio show in the world.
It began Nov. 28, 1925, when Uncle Jimmy Thompson, an octogenarian fiddle player who claimed he could "fiddle the bugs off a 'tater vine" stepped up to the mike for the first presentation of the WSM "Barn Dance" show.
The name change came a couple of years later. At that time, the show followed an NBC network program called "The Music Appreciation Hour." One night in 1927, announcer George Hay told listeners: "For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but now we will present `The Grand Ole Opry.' " The name stuck.
Today the Opry still broadcasts over WSM radio, presents a 30-minute live telecast every Saturday night on the cable Nashville Network (TNN) and draws more than a million visitors a year to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville for the weekly performances. (The Opry moved to the 4,400-seat auditorium in 1974. Before that it was at the famed Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.)
More than 60 entertainers are part of the Opry family: Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, just to name a few.
Audiences may not know who will be appearing on the show until they get there, but they can be assured of a lively, boot-tapping, skirt-flapping show. And fans are encouraged to come up front to take any pictures they want, and maybe even shake hands with their favorite stars.
Backstage are the stars' mailboxes. Write to any one of the Opry stars, in care of the Grand Ole Opry, and this is where the letters end up. Most of the stars read and often answer all their fan mail.
Opry tickets can be ordered by mail (Grand Ole Opry Tickets, 2808 Opryland Dr., Nashville, TN 37214). But a portion are held back for sale beginning Tuesday of the week of the performance, so there are generally some available.
The Grand Ole Opry house is the cornerstone of Opryland, a theme park covering 120 acres of rolling Tennessee countryside nine miles outside of Nashville.
Since opening in 1972, Opryland has built its reputation on live entertainment - and lots of it. Approximately 400 singers, dancers and musicians are featured in shows throughout the park - ranging from country to rock 'n' roll, from gospel to Broadway, capped off by Brenda Lee's "Music, Music, Music" show.
There are rides as well: a corkscrew roller coaster called the Wabash Cannonball, a water ride called the Old Mill Scream, the Grizzly River Rampage and more. (The park is open daily during peak summer months, and weekends during the spring and fall.)
New for 1989 will be Chaos, a big, first-of-its-kind indoor ride combining audio visual effects with roller coaster excitement.
New also will be the Minnie Pearl museum, moving from downtown Nashville to join the Roy Acuff museum already at Opryland.
Another popular feature of Opryland is the General Jackson showboat, which recalls the showboat days of the 19th century as it cruises the Cumberland River.
Tucked away in another corner of Opryland (and at several locations around the town) are the production facilities for TNN. Most tapings are free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Among the offerings: "Nashville Now," "Holiday Gourmet," "Fandango," "New Country," "You Can Be A Star," "Country Kitchen," "Hee Haw," and "Crook and Chase."
There is music a-plenty here, but this is also a city of dreams. In one square mile of downtown, an area known as Music Row, there are 35 talent agencies and 237 music publishers and recording studios. Tour guides point out the Nashville Palace, where Randy Travis washed dishes before he became a star. And young entertainers in hotels and clubs throughout the city put everything they've got into every performance. You never know when some music bigwig will be sitting in the audience.
Where else, but in Nashville?