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DESTINATION: TENNESSEE

Nashville's Flip Side

The country music capital makes room for a new genre of hip clubs, chichi restaurants and eclectic galleries

February 25, 2001|DOUGLAS WISSING | Douglas Wissing is a writer living in Bloomington, Ind

NASHVILLE — I confess an aversion to all things country. Plangent songs of cheatin' sweethearts and bad ol' bosses depress me, and country ham always seems to get stuck in my teeth. Cowboy hats make me look moronic, and high-heeled pointy boots give me the wobbly gait of a drag queen in training.

So when I needed to go to the Country Capital of the South last spring, I didn't think my destination looked like a playground for someone who believes country isn't cool, never was and never will be.

To be sure, there's still plenty of country in Nashville. The vintage neon Bruton Snuff sign that lights up the downtown skyline is as much a part of Nashville as the Hollywood sign is of Southern California. The legendary Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892, hasn't been home to the Grand Ole Opry for about 25 years, but it still packs 'em in with full-scale musical productions such as "Stand By Your Man: The Story of Tammy Wynette" and concert series that include bluegrass and classical. (The new Opry is about 20 minutes east of downtown.)

Ernest Tubb's Record Shop still has its guitar-shaped sign illuminated on Broadway, as it has since 1947, and the wailing sounds of steel guitars still drift out of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge across the way. Around the corner, Dangerous Threads still custom-tailors fringed and rhinestone-studded stage wear for country luminaries, and platinum blonds dressed in sequins promenade down Broadway.

One day I walked out of the venerable Hermitage Hotel (it and the Union Station hotel are gracious, genteel and gorgeous) and watched a hopeful young player with an immense black cowboy hat and a guitar case in hand lope past a bronze statue of Chet Atkins. At that moment, I realized country was alive and well.

But I also discovered, in between researching a biography I'm working on, that there's a lot more to Nashville than just country music. More than a decade ago, the booming educational, medical and insurance industries overtook the music industry as the city's economic engines. They have helped make Nashville a prosperous, sophisticated town.

Nashville, the capital, is just 25 miles south of the Kentucky border in north-central Tennessee. The city sits at a strategic musical place, between blues-drenched Memphis at the head of the Mississippi Delta and the old English and Celtic musical traditions of the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee. The confluence of the two in Nashville helped spawn the great river of country music that flooded America.

Founded late in the 18th century at the site of an early French salt lick, Nashville became a flourishing cultural and commercial center of the upper South in the antebellum years. Ten miles east of downtown, Andrew Jackson's stately Hermitage, an 1821 Greek Revival mansion with "Gone With the Wind" columns, is a graphic reminder of the bygone days.

By the late 19th century, Nashville was known as the "Athens of the South" because of its many educational institutions, including Vanderbilt and Fisk universities. In honor of its nickname, boosters erected the Parthenon in 1897 as the centerpiece of the Tennessee Centennial Celebration in Centennial Park. The city fathers intended the structure--the world's only full-scale replica of the Athenian temple--to be temporary and didn't build the wood and stucco structure to last. But residents so loved it that they built another of concrete in 1922, and it continues to serve as the city's symbol. (A winning entry from a local magazine's "You're So Nashville If . . ." contest reads, "You're so Nashville if you think our Parthenon is better because theirs is falling down.")

Cool neighborhoods full of restored Victorian and Arts and Crafts bungalows on both sides of the Cumberland River pulse with highly evolved dining and hip, distinctly non-country entertainment, with nary a biscuit or hitching post in sight. Local galleries and museums offer interesting art experiences, some tucked away in unexpected places.

I headed for Hillsboro Village, a 1920s-era neighborhood and commercial center near Vanderbilt that's been recolonized as a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining area, and quickly found Provence Breads and Cafe. Couples sat at sidewalk tables sipping lattes as happy shoppers exited with baguettes and loaves of fougasse under their arms.

Inside was an array of French cheeses the likes of which I haven't seen since I was last in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The ochre- and mustard-colored cafe has the feel of the south--of France. Rustic walls and large photos of Provence sent me off on a lovely daydream as I ate my bowl of Yukon Gold potato soup with a chunk of crusty baguette.

After lunch, I wandered over to Fido for a cup of local Bongo Java, roasted on the premises in a big red Rube Goldbergesque machine. Pierced "modern primitives" shared the brick-walled space with paunchy guys in khakis, cohabiting in a convivial caffeine detente.

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