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Country cool

VOLANTE Elyse Glickman reports that there is more to Tennessee than Nashville and Memphis, which resonates with its rich musical legacies. The state also boasts the I-40 (the Music Highway), a variety of museums, lush green spaces and an eclectic assortment of restaurants serving everything from barbecue and comfort food to contemporary bistro, ethnic, and vegan fare

Photographed by the author

 

 

 

The Omni Hotel Nashville’s pool and lobby

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

Nashville often comes to mind when the term country music is uttered, and, perhaps, a nighttime soap opera appearing on the US’s ABC-TV, and later, Country Music Television (CMT) focused on the drama behind the music. Even if you aren’t a fan of the genre (or the television show), it can’t be denied that country music and its artists collectively have had a profound influence on America’s overall cultural heritage as well as other artists in the pop, rock, and soul genres. The Omni Hotel Nashville personifies that mindset along with the city’s current renaissance, including its status as a LEED Silver Certified property.

The lobby is a real show-stopper. Take a closer look at the ceiling’s lighting fixtures, curves of the floors and walls, natural woods, opalescent marble accents and even furniture arrangement and you realize you are inside a ‘guitar’. It’s a tribute to Gibson USA, which has its electric guitar manufacturing facility in town and indelibly influenced Nashville’s music culture and musicians all over the world.

The Omni’s smack-dab city-centre location is a big asset, with shopping, dining, Lower Broadway’s music clubs and honkytonks, and individual museums dedicated to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and George Jones a short walk away. Other must-dos, including Music Row and the GIG (the Gallery of Iconic Guitars) at Belmont University, are readily accessible by car. However, this hotel does several better. For starters, the multi-floor Country Music Hall of Fame is fully integrated into the hotel as Hatch Show Print. The shop not only houses a boutique selling replicas of American pop’s most iconic show posters, but also classes and workshops allowing the creative to compose their own masterpiece.

Upscale boutiques have proliferated in Nashville’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods, offering a mix of clothing, jewellery, and home wares, putting the city on track to become one of America’s best shopping destinations. Following that lead, the hotel’s Five and Tenn boutique replaces the thrown-together souvenir and sundry hotel boutique with a “general store”-inspired 3,000 ft² emporium stocked with a “greatest hits” selection of mostly locally crafted goods for the entire family. In-tune selections include Col Littleton’s fine leather goods, Lucchese boots, and home accents from Spirit of Nashville.

True to the blueprint of other Omni properties, food venues have a distinctively local flavour. They run the gamut from live entertainment venue Barlines (where parents can reward themselves on date night with a rollicking show), to proper sit-down dining at Bob’s Steak & Chop House, to grab-and-go goodies at Bongo Java Coffee Shop. The centrepiece, however, is the three-meal southern restaurant, Kitchen Notes, which not only updates tried-and-true southern fare (vegetarian breakfast biscuit sandwich, anyone?), but also stages its Biscuit Bar, serving a variety of biscuit creations throughout the day. A vintage interior enhances Kitchen Notes’ appeal, rendered with repurposed materials that include accents discovered from nearby antique stores and flea markets. Honky­tonks, show bars, and dive bars along downtown Nashville’s South Broadway and elsewhere pack locals and visitors in every night of the week for many good reasons—rousing live music, quirky décor, and tried-and-true well drinks and beer at (mostly) fair prices. As long as spirits are high and the environment remains fun, those saloons are not going anywhere. Case in point: landmark bars such as the long-running Dolly Parton-adorned Dino’s, Robert’s Western World, and the quirky Santa’s Pub.

Just as curious non-country fans will visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry, and like what they see and hear, customers coming in for their usual can be convinced to get out of their comfort zone. If you look at some menus, bar management high-end hotels like Omni Hotel Nashville and trend-setting establishments such as sister restaurants the Farm House and Black Rabbit, the Green Pheasant, and 5th & Taylor are broadening their playlists with that same mindset, and playing with a number of trends such as the gin craze, fresh ingredient focused menus, draft cocktails on tap, and more.

‘Bachelor and bachelorette parties pepper the city on a daily basis, and a finely tuned bartender must be able to whip something up on the spot,’ Max Oates, senior bartender at Barlines at the Omni Hotel Nashville, explains. ‘This is where my knowledge of the local spirits we carry at Barlines really comes into play, and helps me reach that satisfying smile on my guest’s face when they try something new. As for my sophisticated drinkers that are looking for something a little different, I enjoy infusing syrups with ingredients that you wouldn’t think would work until you try them in a cocktail.’

While we’re on the subject of markets, there are plenty of cool discoveries beyond the downtown core, whether your objective is to happen upon some truly unique eats, land some cool fashion finds, or check out a surprisingly diverse bar scene. Notable neighbourhoods include the Nations, Belmont, and Hillsboro Village, each with shops and restaurants infusing a global sensibility into Nashville’s all-American milieu. Some businesses double as museums while others are as interested in community enrichment as they are in setting fashion and lifestyle trends.

Able, located in the Nations district on the city’s west side, was conceived by Barrett Ward, whose life and career aspirations were transformed by a trip to Ethiopia. After witnessing how extreme poverty forced young women to take their life into their hands to support themselves, she created a business plan to provide women overseas and in Nashville a means to engage in creative, meaningful work to thrive. What started with a line of hand-woven scarves sold online gave way to full lines of Fair Trade shoes, bags, jeans, clothing, and jewellery devised to make both the wearer and the team of women creators make a powerful statement on making the world a safer place for women. Able’s flagship not only allows one to see these ethically crafted chic items in one place, but meet some of the designers and see them in action. Project615, a few minutes away, also supports philanthropic causes through sales of its apparel.

While Thistle Farms’ body and home products are sold nationwide at retailers like Whole Foods and dozens of boutiques, its headquarters in the Nations inspires in a similar fashion to Able. The storefront not only appeals with a lively café and stylish assortment of candles, body products and decorative items from other local artisans (whose wares can also be found at Able), but also a team of down-to-earth saleswomen who benefited from the non-profit social enterprise behind the scenes. The sales’ staff, along with the women who created the candles, lotions, soaps and other personal care and home products, also survived life on the streets and not only received shelter, but training and the wherewithal to move into middle-class lives.

There are numerous guitar shops around town, as one would expect, but nothing like Carter Vintage Guitars in ‘the Gulch’, known for its antique shops, and Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a humble cafeteria with down-home food that just happened to win recognition from the James Beard Foundation. While serious musicians come here when they want something more than a guitar to practise on, others come to appreciate some of the rarest guitars and stringed instruments in the world, as well as their role in the lives of legendary musicians and songs.

With so many Vanderbilt University students in the vicinity, it is no surprise that Hillsboro Village is a style hub. Shops in the area run the gamut from Posh, stocking contemporary fashion for young men and women at a variety of price points, to a branch of New Orleans-based UAL (a.k.a. United Apparel Liquidators) chock-a-block with many steals and deals. The brick-and-mortar location of the Grilled Cheeserie, an outgrowth of a food truck empire started by former husband-and-wife Los Angeles residents, is an essential place to rest and refuel after a morning of power shopping.

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Above, from top: The Country Music Hall of Fame. Able showroom. One of the Able staff. Thistle Farms. Outside Carter Vintage Guitars. A massive selection inside Carter Vintage Guitars. Food served at Arnold’s Country Kitchen. Befitting its vendor’s name: a snack from the Grilled Cheeserie.

 

 

No matter your perspective on Elvis Presley, you can’t deny his influence or the impact of his contemporaries who first set down their musical roots in Memphis and its nearby towns. The perfect place to start is at Graceland, which, like ‘the King’ himself, has become larger than life and impossible to contain in one building.

While the mansion he called home is smaller than some people may expect, Elvis’s “castle” is a most entertaining time capsule for the 1960s and ’70s. Some interiors are as over-the-top as you would expect them to be (the ‘Jungle Room’, the basement entertaining areas), though others such as the dining room and upstairs living room, and his parents’ bedroom are surprisingly low-key, even with the baroque-influenced style of the day. When sizing his life up through his belongings on display, there is no question that the Elvis was complex but endlessly creative and genuinely loved his family and friends.

Because there is physically and psychologically more to the man, it was perhaps inevitable that a larger, well organized museum and entertainment would ultimately blossom. In 2017, the Graceland expansion continued the Elvis experience in a way which will more than satisfy diehards while keeping more casual pop culture fans engaged with separate rooms focused on his autos and vehicles, trophies, work in films (the trailers viewed in chronological order are a blast), and a wardrobe of iconic late career jumpsuits and stage costumes. Another room, ‘Icons’, displays original designed created for other artists from Elton John to James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, and Kiss.

The Guest House at Graceland, also opened in 2017, provides a satisfying AAA-rated Four Diamond resort extension of a Graceland visit. A few parts of Graceland are recreated within the hotel, including the main stairway, complete with a chandelier purchased for the home that did not actually fit the space. However, aside from presidential level suites lavished with late ’60s flash, most of the private and public areas are remarkably tasteful, hinting at Elvis’s love for luxury without screaming it. Other fun touches include a nightly complimentary peanut butter sandwich bar as well as a full-size theatre where one of the King’s movies is screened on nights when it is not in use for a corporate function.

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Above, from top: Graceland façade. Elvis’s music room inside Graceland. Elvis’s MGA on display. Stairway replica at the Graceland Hotel. Graceland Hotel’s honeymoon suite. The Tina Turner Museum in Jackson, Tennessee.

 

Beale Street, in the heart of Memphis, is a must for any blues fan and barbecue connoisseur, while restaurants such as the Liquor Store and the Beauty Shop Restaurant repurpose local institutions into cheeky and fun diners with excellent updates on comfort food, including some healthy variations and inspired mixology. On the other hand, if you are craving a true southern breakfast and want to go whole hog, Sunrise Memphis is where you want to start your day, down to the buns and biscuits.

The National Civil Rights Museum is one of the most powerful and timely explorations of contemporary American history and race relations in America. The restored exterior of its home, the Landmark Motel, is sobering and uplifting at once, given that it was already famous as the only lodging for black travellers, including top entertainers, before Martin Luther King’s fateful final public appearance on April 4, 1968. Once you hit the Music Highway, you can continue your exploration into modern US history and Tennessee’s music history at the Tina Turner Museum inside the Flagg Grove schoolhouse at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center.

While the section of the museum dedicated to Tina may not be as lavish as Graceland, what’s inside—her famous costumes, gold records, and childhood mementos—tells one of America’s great rags-to-riches stories, especially given her personal experience growing up in the south. The visual documentation of the future superstar’s life provides an insightful look into life for African-Americans coming of age in the 1940s and early 1950s, and the young Anna Mae Bullock’s determination to rise above the day’s social and societal restrictions. The site is also home to the West Tennessee Music Museum, where fans will find more Elvis Presley memorabilia as well as items from fellow rock pioneer Carl Perkins, bluesman ‘Sleepy’ John Estes, and others.

With roadhouse diners still a popular subject for food- and travel-oriented television cable channels, the Grind Mac and Cheese Burger Bar in Martin, meanwhile, is the perfect stop during an I-40 road trip. The ’80s rock-themed restaurant offers a prolific menu of America’s favourite comfort foods, reinterpreted with recipes pushing the boundaries of flavour and presentation to delicious heights. Owners Alan, Mark, and Lisa Laderman and their peppy staff members stretch the definition of ‘family restaurant’ by creating an environment that transcends welcoming and warm that’s at once modern and nostalgic.

The Pinson Mounds Archæological State Park is another example a labour of love paving the way for a must-visit place that preserves history and culture for future generations. During the 1950s and 1960s, several residents banded together to convince the state to purchase the land to protect 15 Native American mounds used for burial and ceremonial purposes. Those efforts led to it becoming a Tennessee State Park in 1974, and later, be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park also features bike and walking paths, trail maps, guided tours, seasonal special events, and a permanent museum with artefacts and a timeline of local Native American history housed by a structure replicating the Indian mounds.

Back on a lighter note, the Music Highway also has something special for fans of classic movies and nostalgic television shows. Rusty’s TV & Movie Car Museum in Jackson is home to both originals and rebuilds of cars from Wayne’s World, the original Ghostbusters, The Fast and the Furious, and Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine van. Owner–founder Rusty Robinson makes himself available and is game to tell the stories behind the cars and vehicles, both on their respective sets and how they made it to the museum. Although it is open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, its also one of the best roadside attractions with its US$5 admission fee and owner’s knack for deft storytelling. •

 

Above, from top: Rusty Robinson with the Mitsubishi Eclipse from The Fast and the Furious, at Rusty’s TV & Movie Car Museum. A roadside scene in Jackson.

 

 

 

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