Bright Lights Music City

Nashville Traces Its Proud Cultural History in Eclectic Ways

Two weeks after my refreshing journey to Nashville, the famous Music City was inundated by the flood of a century. Estimates are pouring in that the total damage caused by the massive flooding may reach a staggering $2 billion or more. But today, the waters have receded and Nashville is back to making music and reveling in its heritage.

Country music is probably the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of this classic Southern city. Just as Los Angeles is the traditional home of the movie industry, Nashville is the home of country music and a place many legendary stars call home.

The town is always humming and bustling. It has a population of 605,473 and is located within 600 miles of half the population of the United States. Several interstate highways pass through Nashville, and the city sits alongside the Cumberland River, which feeds into the mighty Mississippi. Unfortunately, this past May the scenic river turned deadly when heavy rains caused the Cumberland to overflow its banks and flood numerous neighborhoods, as well as many Nashville landmarks. While devastating, most of the local attractions have been renovated and are open for business.

It’s a town with a great many venues for live music, and on any given night top musicians can be found playing for tips as they chase their dream of becoming a star. Those who make it to the big time may find themselves on stage at the 83-year-old Grand Ole Opry, or might even one day be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A visit to the Hall of Fame is just the ticket if you want to get an in-depth look into the country music genre and its history. As a museum, it’s a gateway to exploring in a visual and emotional way the people and the sounds they have created over the decades.

The Grand Ole Opry itself has been around since 1927 and is the longest-running radio show in history. Today it features live performances up to eight times a week, and its members are an exclusive family. Once inducted, they are committed to bringing the show to life every night.

None of the newcomers can match the performance record of 89-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, a 60-year Opry veteran, but they get the thrill of a lifetime when they take the stage. At their feet is a 6-foot-wide disc of dark oak wood, taken from the stage of the old Ryman Auditorium — the Opry’s original home. Legendary performers such as Patsy Cline and Hank Williams stood on this piece of hallowed ground, and it creates a sense of connection between the heritage of the old and the promise of the new. The Opry was badly damaged in the flood, but it is now open after $20 million in renovations.

Beyond country music, Nashville is rich in many other ways. For example, it’s home to the Predators, the 2010 Stanley Cup contenders in professional hockey, and the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Nashville is quite the sports town when it comes to professional and collegiate teams.

What struck me the most on this visit was the solid foundation Nashville has in culture and the arts. The Frist Center for Visual Arts, which opened in 2001, is a former U.S. post office building. It’s the only former post office that the federal government has ever sold. The impressive Art Deco building houses an art gallery and a floor dedicated to art education for children. As part of its mission to make art accessible to kids, they get in free and are welcome to attend its many art education and experience classes — also at no cost. The museum chose not to invest in any permanent collection, but rather dedicates its money and ongoing contributions to bringing in world-class exhibits.

The Frist Center is currently running “The Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” which includes 100 paintings from the permanent collection of the Paris museum and tells the story of the development of Impressionism through the works of artists living in Paris in the mid-to-late 19th century. Among the exhibition highlights are paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, as well as James Abbott McNeill’s piece popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The Nashville museum is one of just three venues in the world to host the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 23, 2011, when the paintings return to Paris.

Another plank in the cultural foundation of Nashville is the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony. The city welcomed the $123 million music hall in 2006. This masterpiece of acoustic design — inspired by the great music halls of late 19th-century Europe — features 1,872 seats and 30 soundproof windows, making it one of the few concert halls in North America to use natural light. It too sustained major damage in the flood, but after a reported $42 million in repair work is scheduled to reopen in January.

What would a trip to Nashville be without staying in one of its most historic hotels? The 100-year-old Hermitage Hotel was saved from the wrecking ball in 2000 by Historic Hotels Nashville Inc., and after a three-year, $20 million reconstruction of everything behind the outside walls, the hotel reopened in 2003. Today it is Tennessee’s only Mobil 5-Star hotel, and AAA has it rated at Five Diamonds. The Hermitage Hotel is within walking distance of all the downtown fun Nashville has to offer and is a great lodging experience — possibly one of the top 10 in the world.

Experience the diversity, culture and history of Nashville. It’s a city close enough that you could go away for a weekend “vacation” on a regular basis.

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