My first night in Tennessee was actually spent partly in Kentucky. I ran up I-75 north of Knoxville about 11 miles into Kentucky to Williamsburg, to visit dear, dear friends from my Ball State days. After an absolutely delightful, and much too short, visit I drove back down to Knoxville for a late evening dinner. I swung into the parking lot of the Applebee’s next to my hotel and then swung right back out and drove across the road to a place that offered “southern” cooking. My dinner of real roast beef with real mashed potatoes and real cream gravy fulfilled its promise. While I ate I was serenaded. First, there was Roger Miller singing King of the Road. The Statler Brothers followed singing Flowers on the Wall. As I finished the last of my potatoes, Dolly Parton was telling a man that he “don’t know love from Shinola.”
I hit the road this morning about 8am for my 3 hour drive to Nashville. The drive today was more of the same. Woods and trees and mountains – all beautiful. When I arrived at my hotel, I made the happy discovery that somewhere between Knoxville and Nashville (pronounced Knoxvull and Nashvull, by the way) that I had crossed back into Central time. Instead of 11:30, it was 10:30 – an extra hour in which to see the home of Country Music.
I started with lunch. I hadn’t wanted to spend the time on breakfast, so I had hotel coffee and a handful of Famous Amos while driving. I knew exactly where I was going – recommended last night by my friends. “You must go to Jack’s” they said. “It is the best barbeque.” And it was. After cleaning my plate as best I could (as a northerner I was brought up that licking it clean was impolite) I moved on to the most important stop of the day – the Ryman Auditorium.
I am not, as my friends will attest, that much of a country music fan. But my mama was. She loved the Grand Ole Opry and was a dedicated Hee-Haw watcher through most of its 25 year run, much to my adolescent mortification. Minnie Pearl made her laugh every time and she loved the way Grandpa Jones played the banjo. So this clearly needed to be my first stop.
The tour of the auditorium itself is self-guided. There are display cases with memorabilia showing the history of the auditorium and stories of those who made it what it was. There’s a short film to watch, and a booth in which you can record yourself singing. While I was there a choir from Plymouth, Minnesota of all places, filed up onto the stage and sang, beautifully. The acoustics are amazing - I learned during the tour that they are considered second best in the US only to Carnegie Hall. I also took the guided backstage tour – 40 minutes of stories and tales of country music stars and their escapades in this place.
I was surprised, and am a little embarrassed to admit, that when I first walked into the auditorium I teared up. At that moment I missed my mother more intensely than I have since she died. I so wish I could have brought her here to see this place and sit in these pews. This is a place that represents something that she related to fully – music that represented growing up simply with simple values. That music and those performers gave her such pleasure throughout her life. She would have loved to experience this.
I also teared up while reading some of the commentary in the displays, and while listening to the stories the docent was telling as he gave us the tour of the dressing rooms and the backstage area. My mother would have loved to hear these
stories and be reminded of people she had listened to and felt connected to through their music. It was a little eerie to walk and stand where so many hundreds of musical giants have walked and stood. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins,Elvis Presley – musicians that transcended one musical genre and influenced countless musicians that came after them. Even though they are all dead, they live on in those who have followed in their footsteps, using their music as a springboard for creating something new and different.
After leaving the Ryman I took in other sights. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is, I’m sure, a must-see for the country music fan and it was certainly interesting. However, for me, it would have been hard to top the experience of the Ryman. A little more suited to my interests was a visit to The Nashville Public Library which is an amazing building with a moving exhibit chronicling the Nashville Sit-ins of 1959-1960, when students from Nashville’s black colleges took part in organized protests against the policies of segregation. My dinner of southern catfish and live country music at Rippy’s rounded out my day.
I’ve been encouraged to visit Memphis while I’m here. It’s tempting to be sure, but I think I’ll save it for another trip. I keep watching the weather channel and keep looking toward home. I think it's time to turn north.
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