Town and country in Nashville
It's a good time to be in Nashville. Conde Nast Traveler this year declared the US city one of the top five places in the world to visit in 2013. Jack White's Third Man Records empire continues expanding. The eponymous, deliciously soapy TV drama has had another season confirmed. Taylor Swift lives there.
And, as we find out, it is home to ridiculously friendly people. We land at the airport and mumble sleepily about rental cars. A passing stranger all but gets whiplash, so fast does she swivel to brightly inform us that rental cars are on level one, and we should take the escalator over there because of our heavy bags.
Hertz's staff are so fascinated that we're from New Zealand, they throw in a free GPS. They're also contrite that there's only a small, budget car available.
Delightfully, this means a roomy vehicle with individual seat-warmers, a USB plug and air conditioning so hearty it makes one feel like a human popsicle. Welcome to Nashville.
Not for nothing is it called Music City, and Tim and I intend to explore as much as we can. First: The fascinating, multitalented, erstwhile White Stripe, Jack White. The Detroit native moved to Nashville in 2006, later opening Third Man Records (623 7th Ave S), a record label, concert venue, office, and wondrous vinyl and merchandise shop, all of which is almost too exciting to such fans of his work as we. Especially when label co-founder Ben Swank gives us a rare behind-the-scenes tour.
White's distinct aesthetics are visible everywhere, and we spy mountains of vinyl for shipping locally and abroad, and the stage where they regularly hold concerts. It's a relatively small room, with walls of royal blue, and a wall mounted elephant head.
That evening, Tim and I have the equally ridiculous honour of seeing The Kills performing in it; their set recorded direct to acetate. Delightfully, there is a porch strung with fairy lights and friendly people selling hot dogs (meat and vegetarian), bottled water and soft drinks.
Alison Mosshart bounces from instrument to instrument, dancing gracefully and loose-limbed, with guitarist Jamie Hince, square of shoulder and straight of back, their chemistry as intense as their music. It's really the loveliest concert-going experience we've ever had.
As for omnipresent country music, there's the strip on Broadway, where honky-tonk bars unfold like the landscape building in a mid-90s motorbike video game.
We enjoy grilled cheese and local beers (look out for Yazoo) at Robert's Western World (416 Broadway) one lunchtime, while the band plays songs that are familiar to us - Ring of Fire! - and songs that are familiar to the appreciative audience.
On a Saturday night it's almost too crowded for me, but if you're happy to jostle then you'll get along fine.
Anyway, southern hospitality overrides all - I, sitting on a high stool, accidentally kick a passing man with my foot. He turns to me and says "ma'am" with such apologetic force that I don't quite know what to do with myself.
By this stage the country music is rowdy, high-energy, and everywhere, like the records and photos on the wall of visiting luminaries - so go with it and make sure to drop a few dollars into the bucket in front of the stage.
Taking country music to a whole other level is the Grand Ole Opry (2804 Opryland Dr). Our backstage tour starts with a video that takes you back to where it started at the Ryman Auditorium in town until, by force of popularity and numbers, it was forced to move to the current larger, purpose-built venue down the road, retaining a circle of wood from the original stage as a nod to its roots.
The tour reveals some particular quirks about the place - several of the plush dressing rooms have a strict open-door policy, and each person ordained into the Opry has their own mailbox there.
The show itself runs in two halves, with a variety of acts - well known in their field, although probably also doing very well out of this show.
Like nonagenarian Little Jimmy Dickens, who has been an Opry member and hall-of-famer since way back - he makes several jokes at his own expense and is in good spirits. Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank, has a piercing voice and dark, wry lyrics. It opens with the character of Minnie Pearl - based on the comedy routine of Sarah Cannon, who generously elected that once she died, the character she created and who was an Opry mainstay in the 60s, could live on.
"Howdee!" she cries, and the audience knows to respond with the same. Another quirk: audience members are allowed to go right up to the stage and take photos - even with flash. This friendly, anything-goes attitude encapsulates the show - flubbed lines, audience participation, standing and cheering.
It's good cheesy fun and worth your time for the spectacle, even if you don't adore country music as sincerely as the Opry does.
The Ryman itself is still operating as a concert venue, and the tours are fantastic. A stunning old building, it's steeped in history - it's where Johnny Cash and June Carter met, for starters.
Bring it all home by checking out the Country Music Hall of Fame, dedicated to country's roots and offshoots. During our time there it's hosting exhibitions on Taylor Swift and Patsy Cline. It's oddly thrilling seeing the unstoppable Swift's tour costumes, and rather heartbreaking charting Cline's lamentably short career.
We spontaneously attend more gigs during our stay, like Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome's act, Garfunkel and Oates at Zanies (2025 8th Ave S) taking life's small, awkward moments and sardonically lampooning them through song.
Significantly larger is Live on the Green, a series of free concerts throughout autumn, held by Lightning100, a local independent radio station. Alas, we've missed Alabama Shakes and Dr John, but the headliners for the show we catch - Here Come the Mummies - are bizarrely good fun, as is watching the crowd go bananas for them. And for music you can take away with you, Tim and I buy about 15 records from Grimey's (1604 8th Ave S) alone.
With stacks of vinyl, from populist to obscure, it's easy to spend hours idly browsing. Plus, it's worth loitering near the counter to eavesdrop on the music banter between staff.
There are also great record shops on Broadway, specialising in - wait for it - country music. Just follow your nose.
Tim and I are deeply into our coffee, so it's a pleasure to discover Barista Parlor (519 Gallatin Ave). They offer pour-over filters, siphons, and cold-drip - we adore it. And for what it's worth, it Instagrams up a treat.
City House (1222 4th Ave N) is breezily elegant, and so busy Tim and I have to sit at the bar. Luckily we enjoy sitting there to watch everything happening. We order a luscious potato pizza, home-made cottage cheese with tender roasted beets and gremolata, and butterscotch pear pie with a sublime buttermilk sherbet.
No less busy, but distinctly more relaxed is Arnold's (605 8th Ave S), recommended by the charming Dani of Third Man Records. We eat spectacular fried chicken, three-inch-thick mac and cheese, baked vegetables, grits, cornbread, roast beef, chocolate chilli pie and bottomless sweet tea, all for about $8.
Other good eats: Fido (1812 21st Ave S), specialising in coffee; Las Paletas (2907 12th Ave S) for fancy handmade icecream and popsicles; Bobbie's Dairy Dip (5301 Charlotte Ave) - for the best black bean burger, plus shakes and onion rings and picnic tables in the sun; Puckets Grocery and Restaurant (500 Church Street) for reliable Americana; and The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden (731 McFerrin Ave) for excellent gourmet burgers.
What else do you need to know? Absolutely, rent a car. Nashville is enormous and encompasses several neighbourhoods, each with their own flavour and good times to explore. Driving here is a pleasure though, roads are wide and smooth, and the "righty-tighty lefty-loosey" US road rule isn't so hard to remember. Tim and I stay at the Hyatt Opryland (220 Rudy's Circle), which boasts disarmingly friendly staff, a great breakfast buffet, and the comfiest bed I have ever, ever, slept upon. I recommend it.
And finally, the hard water here makes my hair even more enormous than it normally is. I feel closer to Dolly Parton already. Nashville: we love it, y'all.
Sunday Star Times