Nashville: Where We Suck at Being Tourists

On our way south for the winter, I decided we needed more urban in our lives (the city kind, not Keith, although see below), so I booked us a week in Nashville, then a week in Memphis, thinking we’d go into town maybe two days each and soak up southern culture. I’ve never been.

I’m also fairly ignorant of the role Nashville has played in this country’s music. I mean, I know a few things about Nashville, mostly from having watched Ken Burn’s series, Country Music back before we hit the road. The show is a vast historical documentary spanning the roots of American music, including western country, hillbilly country (watch it: it’s fascinating), rock, and bluegrass.

That’s where I learned that Marty Stuart, whom I wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole previously, is actually a clever, erudite, charming man and a gem of a music historian. Tracy and I even half-joked how worth it would be to find out where he lives in Nashville and stalk his house, hoping he might walk out to his mailbox in his bathrobe (oh la la!). Turns out he’s touring right now, so we escaped arrest, at least. Thanks for the tip-off, Doug!

Planning the Day

My point is that we came here, to Cedar Creek Campground north of Nashville, to dive deep into Nashville culture, but we turn out to be terrible at that. For one thing, it’s been seriously cold since we arrived, as in around freezing each night, so we chose to go in to the city one day only: the only warmer day that’s not on a busy weekend.

With just one day to do Nashville and a lot of time leading up it, I planned the heck out of it. I created a Google Maps map of potential parking lots (because the truck can’t fit in a garage or street parking). I found a walking tour about the history of music locations downtown and created a map for that and downloaded the audio portion. Previously, I asked everyone I met about places to see and took copious notes—and created a map of those. Then I ordered all this stuff into a day-long itinerary. I was ready.

Why We Suck

Well, since we left the D.C. area, we’re not used to being in crowds. Or indoors. And, amazingly, it turns out that Nashville is full of tourists. (Duh.) Seriously full of them.

I had to start the day at 10 am at the Apple store (my watch isn’t updating), and 10 happens to be when the first-shift bands start at all the restaurants and when the tourists hit the sidewalks.

I’m talking men with American flags on more than one piece of clothing (I thought that desecrated the flag?) and young women in bridal shower groups wearing matching cowboy hats and little colored jeans jackets with open backs and fringe. Nashville is all costume and show to them (actually, not far from country music’s roots, when I think about that), but I couldn’t help being majorly distracted.

What is super cool about this tourism is that each restaurant and bar in one district has live music going all danged day and night, with the windows open wide to lure people in. It reminded me of that town in Mexico that’s dedicated to American tourists interested in dental work and eyeglasses: every single doorfront is one of those offices (plus a pharmacy thrown in here and there). That’s what that town is for. Live music is what Nashville is for, and they’re not going to let you forget it.

You’d think we’d be all over that. We love live music.

But this time of year it’s almost all inside there, and we’re not keen on sharing air with a bunch of drunk-at-10 am tourists, shoulder to shoulder (the above pic is misleading; I’m sure 20 people walked in front of me seconds later). Plus, most of the bands we could hear from the sidewalk were playing crowd-pleasing covers (REO Speedwagon, for example) and riling everyone up to whoop and holler and, I assume, leave money in the tip jar. (Do the restaurants even pay these bands?)

We would have loved to hear bands we would have chosen, at any of the venues we’d been recommended. They’re all indoors though, and at night, and we’re not keen on leaving Banjo for that long or driving back to the campground in the dark.

I know, whine whine whine. I’m just trying to paint a picture about why we’re bad at this.

What We Did Not See

We did not go into the Country Music Hall of Fame, although the building outside is impressive as heck.

I overheard groups of people talking about how much they wanted to hit up the gift shop, and I could just imagine them plowing between me and the exhibits as I try to read about them. Nah.

We did not go to the African American Music Museum, despite the enticing current exhibit (look!). I guess we’re just spoiled from living near D.C. with all the free museums there; this one, like the Country Music one, was about $25/person. (If we’d gone into both, plus parking and lunch, that would have been $200 for the day, without even having enjoyed a band, which really is the point.)

Are we cheap? I think we’re just travelers who are bad at being tourists.

We did not tour the famous Ryman Auditorium, although I did walk around the outside grinning like crazy.

I even posed with Bill Monroe and thought good thoughts in front of Loretta Lynn. I enjoyed that.

What We Did See

The crowds and overall constant-cheap-party vibe turned me off of my planned walking tour, but we did hit the highlights that had been recommended by friends.

One of the Daves at TCPC recommended The Acme Feed and Seed restaurant, which has a rooftop bar where we had lunch overlooking the Cumberland River. I failed to take a photo of that, but I did get this one of Tracy digging a photo of Sam Bush on our way to the rooftop.

We did the Music City Walk of Fame, the country music version of that Hollywood stars sidewalk. It amused us to no end which stars they’d chosen to honor. Some had connections to Nashville, whereas some seemed to have been picked for diversity’s sake only. I mean, would Jimi Hendrix have even been served in a restaurant in Nashville when he was an up-and-coming artist? (Okay, so it turns out that young Hendrix formed a band in Nashville after he left the army in Kentucky. So, maybe not the stretch we laughed about while walking.)

I did find Marty Stuart’s star, which was a teeny thrill.

And we followed the advice of a fellow Airstreamer I met on Facebook who runs Gibson Gives, the charity arm of Gibson Guitars. He recommended Gibson Garage, a guitar store and museum of sorts that was pretty danged interesting. It’s a veritable mecca—or would be if we actually knew anything about guitars.

More guitars than I’ve ever seen in one place (more than John Leedes’ closet!) were hanging from a conveyor belt, slowly circling above our heads. Among the types for sale in alcoves on the floor were historic models with plaques explaining their significance, often with a list of famous guitarists who’d played that model.

Here I felt way out of my league, in that had I known the first thing about Gibson guitars (more than I was frantically texting questions about to friends as I walked through), I would have gotten a lot more out of the visit.

It was kind of the opposite of the tourist areas we’d been to that day where the base pleasures of people were being tapped (cheap drinks, songs everyone knows, those weird group bicycles people fake-peddle and drink on).

I felt like Goldilocks: nothing fit what I was looking for.

But hearing bluegrass at The Station Inn, or any quality band at The Ryman, or, heck, any small-time musician playing his or her own music at any small bar, would have hit the spot. Next time, when we’re not sucking at being tourists, we’ll do one of those. Maybe we’ll even spring for a museum and wander into a random honkey tonk and do the two-step together (or try to), as I’m sure you would have had you the opportunity to spend one day in Nashville.

We did see a lot of sights as we walked the town, though, and we’re going to have better-adjusted expectations when we go in to Memphis next week. However, I’m not even going to start thinking about the crowds and bars in New Orleans when we’re staying in the French Quarter over Thanksgiving. One episode of ”Crowd-phobic, Outdoorsy Couple Tries to Enjoy a Famous City” at a time.

8 thoughts to “Nashville: Where We Suck at Being Tourists”

  1. Oof, yeah, the main drag in Nashville especially should be avoided, it’s mostly a tourist trap. I wish I’d given you some ideas of places to eat (the farmers market has an international food court, and there’s a small historic cafe nearby with a brunch I’ve enjoyed). You should have swung into Chattanooga before heading west, lots of outdoor walking and dog friendly spaces.

    1. I may have gone overboard in my complaining just to make my theme clear; overall I’m glad I saw the heart of the tourist bit, since I didn’t know that existed. And I would have loved to have seen you in Chattanooga! It’s just that I’ve been there several times when I lived in Atlanta, and I’m trying to go to only new places right now. And we should head south and west faster than we are. Our travel is always more complicated than you’d think. Also, I didn’t know you ever glanced through this blog – hey there!

    1. You lucky dog!! I want all the details when you get a chance, please. I have a feeling I hate his music but I want to know all about what he said and what he was wearing 😜

  2. I expect you’re just fine at being tourists. Just not at being like the 20-something “tourists”. I’m not a country fan, and we did go to a funky blues bar when we were there, and enjoyed it (in February, not full tourist season); I expect it’s not unlike going to New Orleans and thinking Bourbon Street is where you have to be. Every town has those places that become what they think people want!