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Southern comforts in Music City, USA

Norah Jones and Dolly Parton
Norah Jones and Dolly Parton perform onstage at the 37th Annual CMA Awards at the Grand Ole Opry House November 5, 2003 in Nashville, Tenn.Scott Gries / Getty Images file
/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

It isn’t the full-scale replica of the Parthenon (complete with 42-foot gilded statue of Athena) that gives Nashville its reputation as the Athens of the South. It’s all the learning going on. From Vanderbuilt University, to Free Will Baptist Bible College, to Nashville Auto Diesel College, the city has nearly 20 institutions of higher education. Yet the broadening of minds doesn’t distinguish Nashville nearly as strongly as the tapping of toes does. Ever since the Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting on the radio there in 1925, the Athens of the South has also been the Mecca of country music. So slip on your purdiest dress, or hitch up your Levis with the biggest belt buckle your back can support, and step out for 24 hours in the town best known as Music City USA.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.
Start your morning with a steaming stack of hotcakes at the Pancake Pantry. Its got pancakes you never dreamed of: Caribbean buttermilk pancakes covered with coconut, pecans, banana, and powdered sugar; Swedish pancakes thin as crepes and wrapped around lingonberry preserves; sweet potato pancakes topped with whipped butter and cinnamon cream. There are 20 variations on the pancake theme in all. Don’t be put off the line stretching out the door and around the block. The wait’s never too long, and you stand a good chance queuing up with a luminary of the country charts.

9 a.m. - noon
You can trace the bloodlines of famous racehorses like Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Funny Cide to an old Nashville stud farm called the Belle Meade Plantation. You can also wander there among 30 acres of manicured lawns, shade trees, and Antebellum Southern ambiance. No longer must you be part of the landed gentry or a house slave to get into Big House, an 1853-built Greek Revival mansion with a big verandah and Civil War bullet holes on its stone columns. Guides in period costume lead tours through the grand domicile, which is loaded with original and 19th-century antique furnishings. After the tour, explore the gracious grounds and the historic outbuildings, which include a carriage house, a stable, and a log cabin built in 1790.

Morning Alternative
Pick up a copy of the Nashville City Walk brochure at the Visitor Center in the Gaylord Entertainment Center, and take a self-guided tour of downtown. You can pick and choose among the various sites, including a reconstruction of Fort Nashville (the original was built in 1780), and Gruhn Guitars, the world-famous vintage string instrument store. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Mother Church of Country Music, a.k.a. the Ryman Auditorium, which was home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974. This Ryman is filled with memorabilia of the music and of the place itself, and you can wander freely. If you dare, you can stand on the stage where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Enrico Caruso once stood and belt one out to test the room’s legendary acoustics.

Noon - 2 p.m.
Stay at the Belle Meade Plantation for lunch by Nashville’s culinary darling, Martha Stamps, who writes cookbooks, caters the best parties, and puts inspired twists on Southern tearoom cuisine. Among the colorful dishes you might find on the seasonally-changing menu at Martha’s at the Plantation are fried green tomatoes with horseradish sauce, crawfish cakes with remoulade, and sweet potato biscuits with country ham and fresh pear chutney, as well as buttermilk-battered fried chicken with milk gravy. Save room for the minty lemon sorbet, with a sugar cookie on the side, naturally.

2 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and marvel at the two-story wall of records, covered with every gold and platinum country recording every made. Trace country music back in time to it’s Irish and Scottish folk roots, then follow it forward again as it fragments into subgenres such as bluegrass, rockabilly, Cajun, and cowboy. Pay homage to the Great Ones as you stand before their hallowed relics, such as Emmylou Harris’ jewel-encrusted cowboy boots, Elvis’ gilded Cadillac limo, and Naomi Judd’s rusty wringer-and-tub style washing machine.

Afternoon Alternative
See what’s new at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, located in Nashville’s gorgeous old post office, Classic Moderne on the outside and pure Art Deco on the inside. The Frist has no permanent collection of its own, but instead hosts world-class international, national, and regional exhibits that change every few months. After soaking up the current works, head upstairs to the ArtQuest gallery, where you can roll up your sleeves and you can make your own prints, paint your own watercolor, or sculpt your own Venus de Milo.

5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
It isn’t only recording stars and country music industry big-wigs that make Nashville go ‘round. The World Capital of Country Music is also the state capital of Tennessee, and at the Capitol Grille you can sit down to an elegant dinner where the lobbyists and legislators dine. This clubby, highly-regarded eatery is tucked in the vaulted-ceilinged basement of the posh, Beaux Artsy Hermitage Hotel. The New Southern menu features entrees like sautéed grouper with garlic whipped potatoes, with sides of sautéed sweet potatoes and stone-ground cheese grits. There’s caramelized apple cheesecake for desert.

Around 7:30-10 or 10:30 (times vary)
If you’re in town on any Friday or Saturday, and certain Tuesdays, catch a show at the legendary Grand Ole Opry. The light-hearted, cornball humor, the constantly changing roster of hosts and guests, and the kinetic thrill of live radio all make for an engaging evening whether your boots tap naturally to a country beat or not. Show times and locations vary, and tickets almost always sell out, so plan ahead for this one. Shows start at different times, depending on the date, so do check the website first. If you miss the Opry, head to the Bluebird Café,  located out in the suburbs, but still Nashville’s premiere “catch a rising country star” joint. At the early show (starting around 6 p.m., you’ll get a lot of up and coming young singer songwriters; more established names take the tiny stage at the 9 p.m. show.

10 p.m. - onward
Go honky-tonk hopping along Lower Broadway. For line dancing and deep fried pickles, hit the Wild Horse Saloon, where you can scoot your boot and whet your puckered whistle at the same time. Be sure to mosey on into Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the venerated dive with the purple façade. This was the favorite hang-out of Grand Ole Opry performers back when the Opry was located around the corner in the Ryman Auditorium. The Greats still come to hoot and holler. Up-and-comers keep the tiny stage filled from 10 a.m. until 2 in the morning.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

Pancake Pantry, 1796 21st Avenue South, phone 615/383-9333.

Belle Meade Plantation 5025 Harding Road; phone 615/356-0501 or 800/270-3991. Admission is $10 and it’s open to visitors Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. (the last tour starts at 4 p.m.)

The Gaylord Entertainment Center is at 501 Broadway.

The Ryman Auditorium, 116 5th Ave. N,between Commerce and Broadway, phone 615/254-1445; www.ryman.com. Open daily from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $8 adults, $4 children 4-11, free for children under 4.

Martha’s at the Plantation, 5025 Harding Rd, phone 615/353-2828; www.bellemeadeplantation.com. Open daily from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. only. 

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 5th Ave. S, phone 800/852-6437 or 615/416-2001; www.countrymusichalloffame.com. Admission is $16.95 and it’s open daily from 10 a.m. -5 p.m.

Reservations are highly recommended at the Capitol Grille, 231 Sixth Ave. Call (614) 345-7116.

You can purchase tickets for the Grand Ole Opry online at, www.grandoleopry.com, or through Ticketmaster outlets, or at www.ticketmaster.com/artist/806097. Theatre doors open at different times for different events; you’ll find a full calendar at the Grand Ole Opry site. Generally, though, seating begins 30-60 minutes prior to the performance start time. Call customer service at (800) SEE-OPRY for specific show details.

Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Rd, phone 615/383-1461; www.bluebirdcafe.com.

Wild Horse Saloon, 120 Second Ave. N, phone 615/251-1000; www.wildhorsesaloon.com

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, 422 Broadway, phone 615/642-1700; www.tootsies.net

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.