We had celebrated Stephanie’s birthday bash in two out of three planned cities, but I swear this last one was just as much, if not more, for me. But, we’ll get back to that in a bit.
Music City, USA! Aka… Nashville, TN. Sounds perfect for me right? But…what if I’m not a Country Music fan? It was clearly time to broaden my horizons. Stephanie started me off with a trial by fire – a night in the Opryland hotel.
Wow, this place is huge. With just over 30 million rooms, it’s one of the largest hotels in the country. (Okay, 2888 rooms.) It’s so big that the outdoor spaces are actually indoors, as the view from our balcony will show.
After dropping our stuff, we went exploring. There’s a canal in the central promenade area where you can actually take an indoor boat tour. So we did. Then we browsed around the shops. If I was a country music fan, I would have been in heaven.
Stephanie had stayed in the Opryland Hotel eons before she met me, and she wanted to recreate the experience for me. That experience included a Dancing Waters show. We arrived at the right time, but after 30 minutes of waiting around, it was clear the waters would not be dancing. There was no announcement, no apologetic hotel employee, nothing. This wasn’t even the only incident like this. Earlier in the afternoon we had decided to check out some of the live music happening all around the hotel. Not being country fans, there was exactly one band we wanted to see. We headed over to the restaurant on the schedule to find that it was closed – again with nothing to let us poor, hapless guests know.
Now, we aren’t the types to complain about things, but the lack of dancing-water-light show was a real disappointment to Stephanie, so we headed to the front desk, and found a manager. She was very apologetic. Even better than that, she refunded our parking fees, our gondola ride (18 bucks), and even my Moon Pie. Extra Bonus: Despite what the manager had told us, subsequent Dancing Waters shows went off without a hitch, and we were still able to enjoy the experience! The day was saved.
For dinner we went to the Jack Daniels restaurant on site. We don’t usually post pictures of food, but this was fan-freakin’-tastic Southern cooking. More importantly, Jack Daniels would factor heavily in to the future of our Nashville visit. So feast your eyes on our feast (feastly). Man, I’m getting hungry.
One night was enough in the oh-so-points-expensive Opryland, so for the rest of our visit, we returned to our roots and went couch surfing. Our host, Steve, was great, and pointed us to all sorts of things to see and do in Nashville. He lived walking-distance from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack – the original pioneer of Nashville Hot Chicken. What is hot chicken? It’s basically friend chicken that’s been doused in hot sauce before its fried. It was totally worth the 45 minute wait!
Some of the other Nashville highlights we enjoyed were the hip Five-Points district, where we had had some most delicious $5 slices of pizza, and Centennial Park. Built in 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, the park contains a full-size replica of the Parthenon. Inside is an art museum and a display of items from the Expo. There’s also a nice lake to wander around, and fun swinging chairs that Stephanie loved. We swung a LOT over our time in Nashville.
Remember when I said this part of our trip was perfect for meee? After a few days in Nashville, the whole reason for our trip there was about to unfold. We had timed our trip to coincide with the Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. We took a beautiful drive through rural Tennessee to Lynchburg – about 1.5 hours from Nashville. Before getting our grill on, we toured the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Now Stephanie and I aren’t big drinkers, and we never drink straight spirits, so it was even funnier that I had insisted on taking the version of the tour that included a flight of five different types of JD to sample.
The tour was really interesting. Every drop of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is produced right there in Lynchburg. Things we saw included making charcoal from sugar maple wood for “mellowing,” the original natural spring that still provides all the water for the distilling process, and the famous oak barrels that are used for aging.
After touring the facility, we got to sample the product. They gave us tiny cups with maybe a quarter shot in each one. After finishing all the ones Stephanie didn’t like, I had a total of about a shot and a half. This was enough to get my head pleasantly spinning. (Did I mention what a lightweight I am?) We did find that we liked the Tennessee Honey, so we set off to the requisite gift shop to buy some. Ironically, Moore County where Lynchburg is located is a “dry” county, meaning that alcohol cannot legally be sold. Somehow, Jack Daniel’s is allowed to sell you the bottle, so if some of their product happens to be inside it, well, that’s just fine with the authorities.
Good thing the Barbecue was just down the street, as I was in no shape to drive. (Just Kidding.) We learned that in order to blend in with the crowd in rural Tennessee, your clothing must fall into one of the following categories: Harley Davidson, mossy oak camouflage, or Alabama Crimson Tide. All kidding aside, the barbecue was a lot of fun, and had been on my hit list for almost 20 years. In order for a barbecue team to be invited to compete, they must win a state championship of at least 25 competitors. This is an extremely prestigious event that featured over 100 grilling teams from all over the world.
At the Barbecue, we met up with Stephanie’s Aunt & Uncle. Gail and Bob live in Huntsville, AL, which is about as close to Lynchburg as Nashville. Even better, Stephanie’s Aunt Gail knew someone on one of the barbecue teams. We went over to say hi after the judging was over, and were treated to some of the best Gol-Durned brisket I’ve ever had. We found out later that their team came in 8th place. Not too shabby!
Back in Nashville, I couldn’t escape it any longer. It was time to go listen to some country music. We headed to downtown Nashville and the Honky Tonk Highway.
This stretch of Lower Broadway is one country bar after another, and the bands there all work for tips, so there are no cover charges. You’re free to wander in and out of different venues soaking up as much of Music City as you like. Now, I feel about as at home in a country bar as I did in the principal’s office in elementary school, but I have to say, I had a really good time. We saw some fun acts, and I found myself getting into it and wanting to stay longer than either of us thought we would. We even came across a horn band comprised of kids called Pelican 212, featuring mini Blues Brothers as the front men who were R-O-C-K-I-N’ the street. My favorite, though, was the last act we saw: a country/rockabilly crossover featuring a stand-up bass player.
One day to go, so we went to Monell’s for lunch. This place is similar to Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah. You are seated with whomever enters the restaurant at the same time as you, and you enjoy family-style dining as plate after plate of amazing Southern cooking is passed around the table.
After consuming my body weight in killer food, we worked it off at Shelby Bottoms park where we went for a long walk and a short nap before renting bikes and taking in the scenery.
Our last night in Nashville, and we couldn’t leave without seeing some more live music. Our couch surfing host, Steve, is in about 30 bands (Okay, 6), and his glam band, Lipstick, was playing that night. Before we got to see him play, though, we had to suffer through the God-Awful opening act. Remember in back in high school the stoner/metal head guys who thought it would be cool to form a band? Well this was them. The first thing they did was proclaim that they played “HEAVY F–KIN’ METAL!” Seriously, these guys were a caricature. Here’s a pic to sum it all up:
Lipstick was pretty good, though. It’s always fun to watch a band and go “Hey I know that guy on the bass!” It was a good thing we were there, too. One of the people they depended on to open their set was AWOL, so I got to fill in as mad-scientist dog, Dr. Woofenstein.
I *knew* I loved barbecue. I had never even heard of the Opryland Hotel. And I was pretty sure I hated country music. But in the end, the 3rd city in Stephanie’s Birthday Tour turned out to be a huge hit!