Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tennessee, Part 2: Nashville & Memphis


Our next stop on our road trip through Tennessee in 2012 was Nashville. We had both wanted to visit this town for quite a while, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it is now one of our all-time favorite cities. You can say it had us at hello. Maybe not so much "hello," but more like "I get off of my shift in a couple minutes, I can totally help you out then." 

Thanks to the wrong turn I described in Tennessee Part 1, we got into Nashville quite late, and after the harrowing drive (low-lighted by a lousy salad bar at a Shoney's) we really needed a beer. Upon arrival at our hotel, we asked the bellhop to point us to the nearest liquor store. He explained that the only store that still sold beer at that hour was pretty hard to get to. However, he was almost off of work, and if we could wait fifteen minutes, he'd be glad to go on a quick beer run then. Talk about southern hospitality! I somewhat skeptically handed over a twenty and insisted he buy something for himself while he was there. Twenty minutes later, he returned, six pack and change in hand. He refused to get anything for himself and was truly content by merely making someone's night. Our hero!

Mrs. Tires gets mad props for her ace hotel selection. On top of the noteworthy hospitality, the Hampton Inn in downtown Nashville is perfectly located near many of the music clubs and popular tourist spots. Thanks to our Hilton Rewards credit card, we got a three-night stay for free, plus an upgrade to a one bedroom suite. 

TRAVEL TIP: Get a Hilton Rewards credit card, or an equivalent. We put all our expenses on our Hilton card. This usually leads to 3-4 free nights worth of free hotel stays every year, and cashing them in goes a long way towards travel expenses.

The great location meant quick access to Broadway St., which is referred to as Broad Street by locals and bluegrass legend John Hartford. Broad Street is a must-see in Nashville. It's jam-packed with awesome music venues. Our first stop was at Robert's Western World, where the live music started at 11:00 AM. That's when we saw the best act of our stay, a solo artist named Pork. Robert's Western World also featured a food and drink special involving a fried bologna sandwich and a PBR. I didn't try it. I am pleased with my decision, but part me is still curious about what a fried bologna sandwich tastes like. We made several trips to Broad Street during our stay, including braving a torrential downpour to get one last band in on our last night. Totally worth it. They played John Hartford on my request.

Additional props to Mrs. Tires for braving the rain!
An old-timey country band plays my John Hartford request. 

Wandering down Broadway brought us to the Country Music Hall of Fame. We didn't go in, but took some shots outside, including some near the Hollywood star-inspired sidewalk plaques. I have heard this museum is pretty good, but it was such a nice day and we were having a great time wandering, so we passed. Add it to the "next time" list.

We kept wandering and ended up at the waterfront. We ran into this sculpture, which is an icon in Nashville.
What is this thing called? It's awesome!
We continued to wander around downtown and found place after place to hang out, eat, play pool, listen to music and explore. Everywhere we visited seemed welcoming, down to earth and interesting.

Custom hot dogs at the Beer Sellar
Seedy hilarity at Printer's Alley. 
I also fulfilled my dream of belting out obscure Garth Brooks songs at an authentic country western karaoke bar. Truth be told, the crowd was NOT digging it - a foreign reaction for this karaoke ham. I think Nashville is over country music. Sure, they're hanging on to their roots (and profiting off of it) but the headlining acts at many of the music clubs played rock, pop or rockabilly more often than they played country. The karaoke selections also reflected this phenomenon. Don't get me wrong - there's still a vibrant country music scene there, but I get a sense it's more for show at this point and many of the locals have moved on.  We ended one night by seeing an awful Creed ripoff at 2:30 AM. 

The replica of the Parthenon is a must-see in Nashville. I had heard of this place many years before and expected something hokey and cheesy, but to my surprise, it was a beautiful, detailed and ornate stop that I wold go back to again in a heartbeat. 

The structure was built in 1897 but has held up incredibly well. It shows what the Parthenon looked like in its heyday. It's worth the $6 entry fee just to see the humongous and awe-inspiring statue of Athena in the center of the building. She stands with her hand outstretched, and in her hand is a much smaller figure of Nike. Nike is as tall as I am. That's how big this statue of Athena is. There's also a nice art gallery in the basement. See it! 

We spent our last night in Nashville at the Opryland Hotel. This hotel is also huge and ornate. It features its own greenhouse conservatory and other wonders. We sang our first pool-side karaoke and saw our first water fountain light show there. It was pricey, but worth the visit. You'll definitely get lost while going from one spot to another, and you'll love every minute of it.  

The hotel is close to the new site of the Grand Ole Opry. Once hosted at the Ryman Auditorium on Broad Street, the Opry has been moved to a newer, more modern a mall parking lot. We tried to get on a tour, but were too late and it was sold out. Too bad. I hear one gets to stand on the Opry stage as part of the tour. Another one for the "next time" list. You can also see the Grand Old Opry stage show, but we opted not to spend the $50 per ticket to see Joe Diffy and company that night.  

The Opryland Hotel is also very close to the Willie Nelson Museum. I can't say that this one is a must-see, but it was enjoyable. The front section is a huge Nelson-themed gift shop, and the back features a museum of many of his belongings. His living room set and pool table were among the more interesting features, as they were once seized by the IRS, then purchased from the IRS by some Nelson fans who then returned the furniture to Willie. It also has the carpet bearing the Texas state flag Willie used to stand on while performing. The museum also features an exhibit on Willie's love of Native American art, and another on his movies, but strangely doesn't mention a word about his love of marijuana or his public pot advocacy. The closest thing to it is a trivet in the gift shop which declares itself to be "Willie Nelson's Pot Holder." Har dee har har. 

One last recommendation from Nashville: get some BBQ at Edley's. Delicious! 


One of my all time favorite songs includes the line "for reasons I cannot explain, there's some part of me that wants to see Graceland." Paul Simon really hit the nail on the head there. I too had the unexplained desire to visit Elvis' home. It had been a bucket list item for many years, and it exceeded my expectations. 

The home is as quirky as it is famous, with a basement covered in wall-to-wall shag carpet, strange monkey statues, mirrored stairway ceilings and of course the famous jungle room, which features an indoor waterfall. My kind of place! Unfortunately no flash photography is allowed so the photography is tough, but I did manage to get a few good shots. 

The Jungle Room
The rest of the Jungle Room

One of many strange monkey statues

We also saw Elvis' old school wall-mounted TVs. They're bulky, boxy TVs like the ones our parents grew up with, yet they were set inside the wall. Man knew how to live! 

Our visit just happened to intersect with Elvis week - the annual celebration that takes place on the week of his death. This meant that his grave, which sits by the pool and is decorated year-round with fan-created gifts, was even more populated with colorful dedications and tributes to the legend. 

The tours are a bit unusual, as they're self-guided. You get headphones and a walkie-talkie looking thing that feeds you a narrative as you peruse the house. It's informative, but a bit isolating. I've heard the walkie-talkie things have since been replaced with iPads. Another note: much of the house is open, but not the upstairs, which includes Elvis's still-intact bedroom and the bathroom where he was found dead. Still, Graceland is a phenomenal site, not to be missed.  

Did I mention we visited during Elvis week? Yes. Yes I did. 

Did I mention we caught the finals of the Elvis Impersonator competition? Not yet? Well then… 

We learned our one night in Memphis happened to be the night of this delightfully obscure show. We made a note of it as a wait-and-see kind of thing, as we weren't sure if we'd arrive in downtown Memphis in time. Thankfully we did, and we scored $15 obstructed view tickets. The obstruction was minimal, and we had no one in front or behind us, an added bonus. 

The competition is a culmination of a few rounds of impersonations, which narrow the field down to the top 10 Elvises. (Elvi?) The show starts with each participant singing two songs. Many sing popular Elvis tunes, some sing covers. They were all good performers and knew how to get the crowd going. Judging is based on showmanship, singing ability, and physical likeness to Elvis. Judges choose the top five, and they each sing one more song. Perhaps my favorite moment of the night was when they brought all 10 impersonators on stage for a final moment before announcing the winners. I loved seeing in the collection of Elvi onstage. An impersonator from England won the competition, the first ever non-American to win. 

Our final stop in Tennessee was the famous Beale Street, where we lined up for some world-class partying. When I say lined up, I mean it. Everyone had to be searched and pass through metal detectors to enter the street. A bad omen for what would be a disappointing night. 

What we thought would be a Bourbon Street-esque experience turned out to be awkward and uncomfortably segregated. Locals were openly hostile to tourists, giving bad looks and zero courtesy. As we loosened up a bit, we started grooving to a street performance of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," another all time favorite of mine. Our dancing didn't last two minutes before a local came up to us and openly mocked our dance moves. I can't claim to be an expert dancer, but believe in the freedom of expression inherent in the exercise. These assholes clearly didn't agree.

We shuffled off for some Memphis nachos - which are covered in pulled pork and BBQ sauce. This sounded appealing and I was starving, but they were disgusting. I didn't finish more than a third of the dish. I would be haunted by those nachos on the long drive home the next day.

We made our way to a few more bars after that, and were continually shocked by how uncomfortable the vibes were at each one. The only place we felt truly welcomed was at a rather generic blues bar that clearly catered specifically to tourists. Between that and the way the street booze vendors aggressively pushed their shots that looked like blood and came out of fake syringes, the whole Beale Street experience was very strange and uncomfortable. Mrs. Tires accurately compared Beale Street to that scene in Pinocchio where all the bad kids are brought to Pleasure Island and turned into donkeys.

Moral of the story: Do not go to Beale Street.

Despite the foul ending, we absolutely loved Tennessee, and we'd go back there in a heartbeat. Who knows, maybe we'll even become Nashville residents someday.  

Tennessee Must-Sees:  
  • Broadway St. (Nashville) 
  • Replica Parthenon (Nashville) 
  • Graceland (Memphis) 
  • Dollywood (Pigeon Forge) 
  • Great Smoky Montains National Park (Pigeon Forge) 
Worth a peek:  
  • Grand Opry Hotel (Nashville) 
  • Willie Nelson Museum (Nashville) 
Skip It:  
  • Beale Street (Memphis) 
The "Next Time" List:  
  • More thoroughly explore Pigeon Forge
  • Drive to the top of the Smoky Mountains
  • Gaitlinburg (The slightly-less-novel-but-still-quite-interesting sister city to Pigeon Forge) 
  • Grand Ole Opry Tour (Nashville)
  • Country Music Hall of Fame (Nashville)
For more on this adventure, see Part 1, or check out #raymanroadtrip2k12 on twitter. 

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