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History Happened Here

Singing City

May 2024
7min read

Nashville’s rewards go beyond music

These days airports try to evoke some of the flavor of the communities they serve, and in Nashville the airport corridor leading from the arrival and departure gates is enlivened by walls full of linear posters, at once stark and vigorous, of country music stars. They bear the unmistakable stamp of Hatch Show Prints, one of the oldest working letterpress printshops in the country, still flourishing in the city’s downtown.

The Hermitage Hotel has been restored to Gilded Age glory.
the hermitage hotel2005_6_32a

These days airports try to evoke some of the flavor of the communities they serve, and in Nashville the airport corridor leading from the arrival and departure gates is enlivened by walls full of linear posters, at once stark and vigorous, of country music stars. They bear the unmistakable stamp of Hatch Show Prints, one of the oldest working letterpress printshops in the country, still flourishing in the city’s downtown. Then, just before the stairs leading down to baggage claim, come the familiar strains of “Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash’s imprint still strong on this rendition. The live performer this day is a young man named Jason Parcheel; during two sets a day he captivates travelers, allowing them to forget for a few minutes the anxieties of flying, its delays, and the specter of lost luggage.

This is a good introduction to Nashville, Tennessee’s capital, aka Music City USA, but does it mean that country music is all the place has to offer? You can, of course, spend virtually 24 hours a day in and around Nashville soaking up the music scene, but then you’ll miss out on an awful lot. Downtown itself, home to the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as countless clubs, barbecue joints, and honky-tonks, also has the world-class Hermitage Hotel, the new Frist Center for the Visual Arts, housed in a carefully restored Deco post office (where you can still mail letters), and a gorgeous Romanesque Revival railroad station, now home to a hotel and top-notch restaurant. There is a clear sense here of a city enjoying a rebirth.

For a layered look at Nashville’s history, head down to Fort Nashborough by the Cumberland River. It’s a one-quarter-scale re-creation of the fort that sheltered the settlers of 1779, built in 1930 by a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. From behind the fort’s log walls you can look up to Second Avenue North, where live music is made day and night. The brick buildings that served the prosperous commercial city of the late nineteenth century still stand, forming a fairly complete and attractive streetscape. Beyond their facades rises a modern skyline made distinctive by a signature skyscraper, the BellSouth Building, nicknamed almost as soon as it opened in 1994 the Bat Building for its double-peaked top that seems to resemble Batman’s silhouette.

Over the years Nashville has been designated the Athens of the South because of its many colleges, and the Wall Street of the South, reflecting an early boom in insurance and other financial institutions, but it is country music with which it is most closely associated. It started in 1925 with WSM Barn Dance , the world’s longestrunning radio program, sponsored by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The station’s call letters stand for the sponsor’s boast: “We Shield Millions.” By the 1950s Nashville was a center of all aspects of the recording industry, and today, says the mayor, Bill Purcell, it holds its own with Los Angeles, New York, and London.

You can spend 24 hours a day soaking up Nashville’s music scene, but then you’ll miss out on an awful lot.

At the Country Music Hall of Fame, a 130,000-square-foot space opened three years ago and designed with as much built-in symbolism as a cathedral, which in a sense it is, the point is made over and over that Nashville thrives not just on country but on pop, jazz, big band, gospel, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues. City fathers also point proudly to the soon-to-open multimillion-dollar symphony hall, rising cater-corner to the Hall of Fame.

As for the Hall of Fame’s iconography, I learn from an excellent museum publication that the structure forms a massive bass clef when viewed from the air. Furthermore, the entrance forms an arc suggesting the tailfin of a 1959 Cadillac, “the front windows resemble piano keys,” and the building is topped by a tower that “stretches skyward like a church steeple, recalling the role of religious culture in country music’s history.” None of this would I have figured out on my own, but the exhibits within certainly speak for themselves, from Elvis’s 1960 gold-plated Cadillac Fleetwood to grainy television footage of Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford, to rhinestone-studded costumes and gold-plated records. In short, everything you would ever want to know about country music and its cousins is here.

Outside hums the city that draws more than 10 million visitors a year, each surrounding block expressing its own character. Stretching between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, the Arcade, an iron and glass-roofed marvel built in 1903 and inspired by structures common in nineteenthcentury Italy, could use some sprucing up. It still has its charms—pigeons fly through and people grab sandwiches from a few lunch spots and then sit at tables in the main corridor—but with a little attention this wonderful relic from the era when everyone came downtown to shop could really shine again.

I was swept by the same nostalgia when I spotted an empty Kress Building across Fifth from the Arcade, its 1930s terra cotta facade intact. Then I noticed a sign, kress lofts for sale, the first tip-off that these commercial streets that today more or less close down after office workers go home at five might have a future. Other condominiums and rentals, some new, some renovated, are starting to rise on the Nashville skyline.

The Kress Building was an anchor on the street in the 1940s and 1950s, which is why, in February 1960, it became one of the staging areas for the sit-in movement that soon led to widespread desegregation of the city’s public facilities. The story of how Jim Crow lunch counters fell to a massive nonviolent campaign started by Nashville’s large population of black college students is magnificently told in the Civil Rights Room of Nashville’s newly opened library on Church Street.

A round table in the center of the room symbolizes the embattled lunch counters. Engraved on its surface are 10 rules of conduct, powerful enough to fuel a revolution, set out by two of the leaders, Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman. “do not: Strike back nor curse if abused; laugh out; hold conversations with floor walker; leave your seat until your leader has given you permission; block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. do: Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times; sit straight, always face the counter; report all serious incidents to your leader; refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner; remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”

When King came to Nashville two months later, he said it was “not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

The nationally known Fisk University provided many of the students who fueled this great movement. One of the highlights of my time in Nashville was a visit to Fisk’s art galleries. The modest brick structure, built as a church in 1888 and then used as a gym, gives little hint of the treasures within. The Carl Van Vechten Gallery is named for the great photographer of the Harlem Renaissance who, as a friend of Dr. Charles Sturgeon Johnson, Fisk’s president, steered the collection there. It includes works by Picasso, Cézanne, and Renoir as well as many important American painters, and it belonged to the famous photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, whose wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, deeded the works to Fisk.

South of the city, in a very elegant neighborhood called Belle Mead (and home to Tipper and Al Gore), is the 55-acre Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. I was there in November, and the trees and plantings were showing their last flare. The varied gardens and plantings wove color and texture together like an ancient tapestry. The 1930s Georgian mansion had been built with Maxwell House coffee riches, and most of the furnishings, art glass, china, and a good range of American paintings had come together after the Cheek family departed, having first donated the property to the city. Roaming through the house and its gardens, then stopping at the Pineapple Room Restaurant, could pleasantly consume the better part of a day.

An agreeable anomaly among Cheekwood’s carefully groomed attractions is a group of powerful stone figures by the self-taught African-American sculptor William Edmondson. He was taken up by some of Nashville’s creative folk in the 1930s, given a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and through it all maintained an endearing simplicity, in both chisel and speech. “I am just doing the Lord’s work,” Edmondson said. “I ain’t got much style; God don’t want much style, but he gives wisdom and speeds you along.”

A 15-minute drive east of Nashville brings you to another great estate, the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson. He bought the land in 1804, at first living with his wife, Rachel, in a log cabin and eventually building a house that grew grander as his fortune did, and most of the furnishings we see today actually belonged to him. This man of the people—the only President who has an era named for him—lived very well indeed. The handsomely proportioned large rooms and hand-painted wallpaper imported from France speak to that.

When I visited, the house was decorated for Christmas, but sparingly, because, we’re told, the President-elect was always reminded at that season of his wife’s death in 1828, just before the holiday. After that, Jackson needed more than ever to be surrounded by people, especially his friend the great portrait painter Ralph Earl. While Jackson lived there, Earl performed various homely tasks, like opening Jackson’s mail. He also painted Jackson, his family, and associates through the years in many fine works that hang at the Hermitage and in abundance at the Tennessee State Museum downtown.

The subject of Presidents as slave owners is being scrutinized these days as never before, and the Hermitage is no exception. In fact, visitors’ most frequently asked question is one with a built-in contradiction: Was he a good slave owner? As at every historic property with a slave history, the present-day keepers want to answer yes. Here at the Hermitage we learn that Jackson “was not especially harsh” and that when selling slaves, he never broke up a family. Recent studies and restoration of the few remaining slave buildings on the property should shed more light on this, as will the more than a half-million artifacts relating to the slave population that have been dug up so far.

One of the docents at the house mentioned that a restaurant in Printer’s Alley, named, he thought, the Brass Rail, retained a brick wall from the stables where the young lawyer Jackson had kept his horses. Just before leaving town, I decided to check it out. The picturesque Printer’s Alley is a block-long cut between two streets that house many of the city’s liveliest clubs. I peered down it early on a Sunday morning when it was deserted except for an amiable fellow continuing last night’s drunk. Everything was closed, including the Brass Stables, as it was called, but I probably wouldn’t have ventured in anyway. I picked up a leaflet at the front door to discover that it’s an “Exotic Showbar,” billing itself as Nashville’s “Best Kept Secret for Adult Entertainment.” So is the old brick wall still propping it up? For me at least, that will be another Nashville secret.

Back at the airport, with a two-hour delay ahead, I wandered the corridors. No live music this time, but still a reminder of Music City. I passed a defibrillator prudently mounted on a wall and idly stopped to read an inscription near it. “For Your Achy Breaky Heart,” it said.

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