It's an often joyful, often plaintive, always tuneful paean to livin' and dyin', lovin' and losin', cheatin' and lyin', laughin' and cryin'. And as they say here in Nashville: "Folks, would you please make welcome to . . . country music."
Locals are also quick to let anyone know that "We've got bluegrass to the East and blues to the West and a whole lot of 'country' in between," which is certainly true, as far as it goes. What does go without question is that this town, beside being the capital of Tennessee, is still the capital of the known universe when it comes to country music, upstart Branson, Mo., notwithstanding.
Nashville is a spread-out city on both sides of the Cumberland River--pretty, but not particularly geared for walking. Its main attractions are centered at Opryland, Music Row and The District, a former warehouse district downtown where steamboats on the Cumberland once loaded and unloaded goods. Now its three main areas (Broadway, Printer's Alley and Second Street) are chockablock with music clubs, bars, restaurants, record shops and other enclaves of entertainment.
Country music, sprightly or melancholy, probably has its roots in the songs of rural Appalachia. The mountain folks drew inspiration from the earthy tunes of their forebears from Ireland, Scotland and remote areas of Britain. The instruments were always simple: fiddle, guitar, lap drum, concertina, penny whistle or ocarina.
To arrive at today's country, add the Mississippi Delta's blues, a smidgen of Southern gospel, perhaps a touch of Cajun swamp shouts and Western songs, although cowboy music didn't add much until Hollywood sprouted its romanticized singing cowboys in the 1920s and '30s.
Country's biggest boost came in 1925 when radio announcer George (Judge) Hay began broadcasting his Saturday night barn dance over Nashville's WSM 650. Two years later it became the "Grand Ole Opry." The show caught on quickly with folks in rural America east of the Rockies and in much of Canada, and has continued with live weekend performances for 67 years, surviving three wars, the Great Depression and MTV.
The next boost came after World War II when visionaries such as Roy Acuff and Fred Rose started Acuff-Rose Publishing, and brothers Owen and Harold Bradley bought a war-surplus Quonset hut, turned it into a recording studio and started cutting country records. Nashville was soon turning out more of them than any place in the world and having a high old time doing it.
These early efforts have grown to today's Music Row, a five-square-block area downtown that houses everything from the bungalow recording studios of individual artists to giants such as Warner Bros., EMI, United Artists, RCA and CBS Records, plus the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
Perhaps Nashville's largest boost has been in recent years, when the largely rural audience for country has spread to a new, urban and much larger segment of music lovers turned on by the likes of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Wynonna Judd, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and countless other artists.
How long/how much? Give Nashville at least two days, perhaps another half for a 15-mile drive over to the delightful little historic town of Franklin, dating from 1799. Both lodging and dining are refreshingly moderate in Nashville. Try to plan a visit over the weekend so you can have a Friday or Saturday night at the Opry.
Getting settled in: Nashville's Shoney's Inn is the showplace of this southern chain, a quarter-mile from Opryland Theme Park and 10 minutes from downtown by Briley Parkway. There's an indoor swimming pool, outdoor Jacuzzi, live entertainment nightly, free coffee and doughnuts and van service to the airport and theme park. Although there's no restaurant, seven are within walking distance.
Close to downtown, Holiday Inn-Vanderbilt greets guests with an apple at check-in. It's a large place, with nightly entertainment, outdoor pool, health club and a free shuttle bus around town. The Commodore Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and each bedroom has a balcony and coffee-making gear.
Halfway between Opryland and downtown, Rodeway Inn is another reasonably priced place with large pool, dining room serving all three meals buffet-style ($4.95, $5.95, $6.95), a sports bar with billiards and darts, and live entertainment on weekends. As with the two above, spacious bedrooms are in contemporary style.
Regional food and drink: Nashville, like Memphis, takes great pride in its barbecue. Around here, they split a square of corn bread, layer it with the shredded meat, stack on cole slaw and douse with barbecue sauce. Now cap with the other half of corn bread and dig in with knife and fork. Tackle it without the cutlery and you'll lose your aplomb quickly.
Once beyond this staple, it's catfish, fried chicken, sausage and Tennessee country ham, great for breakfast with grits and red-eye or cream gravy. Iced tea is the beverage of choice and it just keeps coming.
After barbecue, the town takes pride in its Goo Goo Clusters, a chocolate marshmallow concoction loaded with either peanuts or pecans. Goo Goo has spread throughout the South, thanks to saturation advertising on Grand Ole Opry for decades. They're sweet, sweet, sweet.
Good local dining: "Meat and three" is local slang for many restaurants with three-vegetable specials. But the Prosser family that runs Hermitage House (4144 Lebanon Road) goes well beyond that with their daily buffet at lunch and dinner ($5.95 and $8.50), homemade by family members and served every day for 17 years.
Start with a selection of half a dozen salads (green, tuna, chicken, pasta, cabbage, peas), then move to fried chicken, roast beef, ribs, shrimp or fish. Last stop is a choice of their special apple, cherry or peach fritters, pecan pie or ice cream. Wash it down with oceans of iced tea or coffee and go back until you stagger. Everything is fresh, and it's the best deal in town.
The Cracker Barrel (six locations) is a combination country store and restaurant, the former's goods ranging from OK to high-tacky, the food solid and country: back ribs, chops, baked potatoes. It's a great place for breakfast of smoked country sausage or ham, buttermilk biscuits, hash browns and fried apples. Count on less than $5.50 for a large breakfast, $6.50 for lunch, $10 at dinner for the works.
The Green Hills Grille (2122 Hillsboro Drive) is a very attractive place with vaguely Southwest decor, white archways, lots of large terra-cotta pots and greenery. We found the Santa Fe chicken (marinated breast, hickory grilled and topped with Monterey Jack cheese and black bean sauce; $7.95) delicious. The barbecued shrimp quesadilla , with a Southwest sauce, Jack cheese and rolled in a giant flour tortilla, was just as good for $6.95. Choose from a dozen main dishes and pastas, most in this price range. The corn cakes served only on weekends were absolutely delicious.
Going first-class: The Opryland Hotel is right beside the Grand Ole Opry auditorium and Opryland theme park, a few minutes' drive from downtown, and is one of Nashville's most formidable attractions in itself. Start with two two-acre conservatories that look like domed stadiums filled with lakes and rain-forest foliage, soaring fountains, cascading waterfalls, gazebo cafes, restaurants and bars. One half expects to find Stanley and Dr. Livingstone shaking hands somewhere in all that shrubbery. About half the balconied bedrooms look out on the scene, and it's downright awesome.
The hotel's indoor-or-terrace Rhett restaurant is charming and serene, with some of the town's best and most imaginative food. There's also an 18-hole golf course, pool, tennis courts and every possible amenity.
On your own: Grand Ole Opry has two shows every Friday and Saturday nights (tickets $12.50-$14.50) and matinees ($10.50-$12.50) during the week, each with five half-hour acts of top-of-the-line country stars.
Opryland is a sprawling theme park with 20 mild-to-scary rides, 10 shows going on in a like number of indoor and outdoor theaters featuring professional and lively talent throughout the day and early evening. A $21.95 ticket gets one on all the rides and into all shows ($12.95 for kids under 12).
Take a short drive through Music Row, making sure to stop at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Anyone really into country could spend hours here looking at old photos, instruments, glitzy costumes, Elvis' gold and mother-of-pearl Cad and other memorabilia.
Tennessee's premier historic attraction is President Andrew Jackson's beloved Hermitage, "Old Hickory's" lovely Greek Revival home on 625 acres of rolling woodland 12 miles from Nashville.
Anyone of any age will enjoy the Nashville Toy Museum (across from Opryland), where the enthusiastic owner-curator has put together one of the country's greatest collections of antique trains, boats and toy soldiers during decades of living in England and traveling the world.
For the very essence of Nashville, and a look and listen to the country stars of tomorrow, spend a couple of evening hours in the beloved Bluebird bar-cafe (4104 Hillsboro Road). Many of country's brightest stars faced their first audience here, and Bonnie Raitt started her comeback in this tiny, crowded room with zero decor and the beer without glasses arriving at tables. The Bluebird's spirited air of unbridled joy is very catching.
Getting there: From LAX, fly Northwest, Delta, American, Southwest, USAir or United to Nashville. An advance-purchase, round-trip ticket costs $290-$310. Once there, a rental car is a great idea for Nashville's spread-out attractions.
Where to stay: Shoney's Inn (2420 Music Valley Drive; $79 double), Holiday Inn-Vanderbilt (2613 West End Ave.; $60-$70 double), Rodeway Inn Music City (797 Briley Parkway; $56-$66 double), Opryland Hotel (2800 Opryland Drive; $159-$189 double).
For more information: Call the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce at (615) 259-4700, or write (161 4th Ave. N., Nashville, Tenn. 37219) for a 112-page color booklet--the "Music City Vacation Guide"--that lists lodgings with costs, plus dining, live music clubs and concerts and other upcoming events, along with city and area maps.