The Grand Ole Opry went under water after the devastating rains of May 1-2, 2010. We visited that hallowed ground just one week earlier and got out of town before the deluge.
There are two major campgrounds adjacent to the Opry, but they’re quite pricey. We found one in Goodlettsville — Nashville Country RV Park, about five miles northwest of the Opry — that sounded pretty good and was more in line with our spending goal. The place was clean, located near all the services we could possibly want, and on-site family owned. There were Grey Line tours from there to attractions, and there was a bluegrass concert every Friday night! There were all sorts of resources nearby, including a Dodge dealer with whom we made arrangements to perform the 30k service on our truck. Turns out the service manager was a transplant from St. Augustine, where he had done the 15k service!
Andrew Jackson’s Home
Wednesday found us exploring The Hermitage. Physically within the borders of Nashville, it is approximately 12 miles northeast – and about the same distance southeast of our campground. The Hermitage is exquisite, as you might imagine. But it is still in repair mode, with many people working on the exterior. This has been the case for over 150 years. After Old Hickory’s death in 1845, the estate accrued to his adopted son, Andrew Jackson Jr. A lousy businessman, he ran the plantation’s cotton business into the ground. Ten years later, he sold the property off in two parts to the state and to private interests. Subsequently, in 1889, the Ladies Hermitage Association (“LHA”), made up of descendants and other wealthy women, was chartered primarily to prevent the building of a Confederate Soldiers’ Home on the property. Both prevailed, and the LHA became the driving force behind reconstitution for many years. The original 1,050 acres were finally reunited in total, but not until early in this century.
We started in the huge visitors’ center, where we parted with almost $50 for the full experience. The first step is to get wired – an audio tour that was prompted by numbered placards throughout the buildings and grounds. There were two principal exhibits there. One provided a study of antiquity, everything from gowns to farm equipment to artwork to artifacts dug from the grounds. The other was the first in-depth study of the 150-odd slave population in residence from 1804 through emancipation in 1865, including giant photo murals and descriptions of roles and duties. One, Alfred Jackson, lived on the plantation longer than any other person, black or white. A stableman and handyman, he was a favorite of the family. He stayed on through thick and thin, eventually working as a tour guide for the LHA, and when he died in 1901, his funeral was held in the mansion and he was buried in the Jackson family cemetery.
The mansion remains elegantly appointed. Costumed docents take turns leading visitors on the tour from room to room. Once we completed the interior tour, we walked out the back door to a simple horse drawn cart seating 20 along its sides. Our well informed driver, horsewoman by trade, gave us an hour-long tour of the grounds, from herb garden to cotton fields to slave quarters to other outbuildings. Among the “other outbuildings” was the original two story house that the Jacksons lived in while the mansion was being built. Once vacated, it was reduced to one story, as a slave quarters could never be as high as an owner’s building.
Jackson was no friend of the slave. While he was a good master, he saw no way that the country could exist without them. Nor was he a good friend of the Native American, having sidestepped the move by Georgia to send the Cherokee west along the Trail of Tears, even though the Supreme Court had blocked it. He was no friend of England, having lost his mother and two brothers in the Revolutionary War. He was no friend of Spain, having militarily annexed much of Florida. But his friendship with the American people led to the revolution of the federal government. He was the first president elected by the populous rather than the power elite, and he created the roots of today’s Democratic Party.
Obviously, there’s much more to know about Old Hickory and his home. What we’ve tried to give you here is the strong impression that visiting such a place makes upon you. It was a visit worth every moment and every penny.
It was our intention to visit both the Country Music Hall of Fame (“CMHOF”) and the Ryman Auditorium. We never got closer to the Ryman than a drive-by, because the CMHOF was such an incredible intake. For those of you who don’t know about the Ryman, stand by – we’ll spin the story shortly.
My fascination with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (see previous story on Memphis) has been equaled by similar interest in Nashville’s Mike Curb. In brief: Mike, just 65 years old, has served as California’s lieutenant governor, owned multiple record companies, recorded a plethora of droppable names, written and/or produced numerous top 10 hits, endowed music education curricula at more than six colleges, given away untold millions through his foundation, owned Daytona winning stock cars, won dozens of awards, and . . . and . . . and . . . it’s endless. Our interest in the Curb story results from his involvement with the CMHOF. He is one of ten Chairman’s Circle donors to the Museum, which includes the Curb Conservatory.
But enough of this divertissement. Back to the tour.
Our tickets entitled us to a bus ride over to the famous RCA Studio B. You know from our Memphis story that Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA for $35,000. Studio B is where the King recorded his first RCA hit, Heartbreak Hotel, followed by dozens of others. Considerably larger than Sun, the RCA studio was nonetheless another “plain pipe rack” kind of place – designed for the business of studio recording. But that doesn’t mean that being there wasn’t ethereal –“being there” rather than simply reading about it is what this whole journey was about.
The initial room was the original studio and later a reception room. It contained huge photos of the best-know stars: Jimmy, Don, Chet, Waylon, Don & Phil, Charley, Roy, Grandpa, Dolly, and Porter, and Gillian. Can you fill in the last names? Chet is Chet Atkins, who actually ran the studio for many years.
Early recording equipment and mixing boards followed, along with pictures of sessions, as our tour guide Julie moved us on into the real business areas. There she spun stories of Elvis sessions that never started before midnight, dubbing that saved one of his most famous recordings (we won’t tell) and the piano on which he created his magic. For us, the tour was our hour of magic.
Studio B was purchased several years ago by the aforementioned Mike Curb. It is leased to the Hall of Fame for $1 a year in perpetuity, and it is shared by the Belmont University school of Music Education, endowed by . . . guess who?
On the way back to the CMHOF, our driver took us past a controversial statue, Musica, a massive structure on a traffic “roundabout” that features naked males and females dancing in a garden. The city is certainly divided about it.
Now for the HOF itself. We could have spent days there. We started on the top (third) floor. There, a series of panoramic exhibits, most with step-in music rooms, chronicle the origins and early years of the country phenomenon. Across the way, early performances are continuously running on screens. Taking in as much as we could, we wended our way down the long corridor and through a collection of artist-specific exhibits. Others heralded the clothiers, the greatest of whom was Nudie Cohn, California’s tailor to the stars (Bernard Lansky, Elvis’s Memphis connection, was no slouch either).
The next floor down featured an endless exhibit on the Williams family. Hank’s death at 29 led his wife, Audrey, to generate her own career (I never knew that!). The Williams’ generational progeny , Jr. and III, came from that liaison. Hank then had a daughter with Bobbi Jett and eventually married Billie Jean Jones. After his death, it was proven that he married Billie Jean before her previous divorce was final, but the same was true of Audrey! In any event, Hank Jr., Hank III, Jett, and III’s sisters, Hilary and Holly, have all had profitable music careers.
While the Williams clan dominates much of the second floor, there’s due recognition of important country duets, such as Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.
Continuing down the spiral stairway, one enters the hall of honor, where the plaques of all 112 of the honorees are exhibited, from Hank, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose in 1961 to the class of 2010. In all honesty, we can attest to recognizing a little over 60% of the names and having a familiarity with the music of better than half of them. But it would have been lower than that before this journey.
We dashed for home, much overdue. We left behind a commitment to repeat this visit down the road.
The next couple of days were inclement, and we stuck close to home. The thunderstorms were at time quite violent – perhaps a precursor to what fate had in store for the area just a week later. They stopped long enough for the campground to roll out its Friday entertainment – a catered BBQ supper and bluegrass concert. On Saturday evening, as the final storm passed through, the sky was clear with stars and moon, but we were entertained with a natural light show – a terrific lightning storm was still creating fireworks to the east.
Sunday was Opry Day, or as much as we could make it Opry Day. Again, bear with me for a little history. In 1901, one Cornelius A. Craig became president of the Nashville Life And Accident Insurance Company and made it incredibly successful. One contributing factor was his son, Edwin, who convinced the board to allow the founding of a radio station, WSM (we serve millions), to popularize their product. A key program, the WSM Barndance became the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. And the name has stuck ever since. As the weekly in-studio audience increased, the show relocated to several venues.
In 1892 a wealthy riverboat captain, Thomas Ryman, built the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It was renamed the Ryman Auditorium after his death in 1904. The Ryman became home to the Opry from 1943 until 1974. National Life bought the Ryman in 1969, but it then built a new home for the Opry just east of town. After a business upheaval in the core insurance business, the complex was sold to Ed Gaylord, a billionaire media mogul and friend of Minnie Pearl’s. Today, the massive complex includes the Opry, the Opry Museum, the Gaylord Opry Hotel, the shopping center and other peripherals. It is surrounded by a city of related tourist businesses.
Today, most Opry programs originate from the Opry itself. But the Ryman, eventually restored to better than its original glory, hosts the Opry and other country music concerts.
We visited the Opry itself, but time prevented us from giving it its full due. We did, however, pay considerable attention to the museum. One enters it through a portal that replicates the original Union Gospel Temple and then wanders through the years of memory.
We plan to be back this way in 2012. Another week in Memphis and two in Nashville will give us the opportunity to complete this huge and rich story.