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It's a Twang Thang

Today's gangsta rappers, accustomed to the bling-bling burnishes on souped-up SUVs, would look with envy at Webb Pierce's 1962 Bonneville convertible on display here, with its silver-dollar-studded dashboard and pistols for door handles. Parked nearby, Elvis Presley's 1960 gold Cadillac limo, complete with a television and record player, looks as exciting as Grandma's Buick.

In the hall of fame rotunda, a stately, almost hallowed place, I wandered silently past plaques bearing such venerated names as Jimmie Rodgers, Chet Atkins, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and the Carter Family – names that are the equals of baseball's Ruth, DiMaggio and Robinson. A full century of history is marked by the names of the 101 individuals who have been inducted into the hall. The hushed tones are an unmistakable sign that visitors here revere their musical heroes. For tastes running from "Hee Haw" to highbrow, this building is a treasure.

A plaque commemorates the late Waylon Jennings at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (Mark Humphrey - AP Photo)

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Country Music Shrines

Because this is Nashville, the country music lessons don't end with the hall of fame. Two blocks away sits the Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music," which hosted the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943-1974. It was built as a religious revival hall by Nashville riverboat captain Thomas Ryman in the 1890s, so maybe it's not surprising that so many visitors find their spiritual connection to country music within its walls.

Walking through the lovely hall today, it's hard to fathom that this small auditorium was responsible for introducing so many great country music names to the world. Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kitty Wells are just a few of the thousands who performed on the stage of what is now a National Historic Site. Even Elvis Presley delivered a "shocking" performance here in 1954. The Ryman is air-conditioned these days – it was refurbished in 1994 – but I closed my eyes and imagined an impossibly hot summer night in the early 1960s, the hall filled with fan-waving country music lovers trying to keep from melting while Patsy Cline performed onstage.

"I recorded a song called 'I Fall to Pieces,' and then I was in a car wreck," Cline reportedly told the Opry audience during one of her shows. "Now I'm really worried, because I have a brand-new record and it's called 'Crazy.'"

Since reopening eight years ago, the auditorium continues to present shows by top artists, country and otherwise. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and James Brown have all made a point of performing here. In recent years, the Ryman is also where Nashville's music community comes to grieve. The hall has been the setting for memorial services and funerals for bluegrass great Bill Monroe, singer Tammy Wynette and, in March, outlaw singer/songwriter Waylon Jennings.

The Grand Ole Opry is another Nashville institution, even if it's no longer in Nashville. The world-famous radio and television show moved in 1974 to Opryland in the suburb of Music Valley, a 15-minute drive from downtown. Opryland itself is spectacularly charm-free – a stretch of restaurants, hotels, discount shopping outlets and, yikes, the nearby Music Valley Wax Museum of country stars. But taking in a performance at the Opry – a magical, musical variety show held every Friday and Saturday night – is still a must for any serious country music devotee.

The hokey red-barn frame behind the stage now has a giant video screen in it, but the show retains its old-time feel. Longtime Opry members like fun-lovin' Bill Carlisle deliver such cornball comedy lines as, "Year after next I'll be 94. And you know what, you can live that long too if you don't die." But it's the wonderful music provided by a parade of musicians – some well-known, others less so – that makes the Opry such a treasure. Favorites like Porter Wagoner, Stonewall Jackson and Little Jimmy Dickens rekindle country music memories, and new acts are always being introduced.

Part of what makes the show so appealing is the chance to see so many stars perform, even if they play only one or two songs. Singer Vince Gill, an Oklahoman who now lives in Nashville, treasures the Opry's nearby presence. "Having 20 or 30 country music stars in the same place every week means that the Opry has the potential to do something different," he says. "The fans enjoy seeing people singing with different people and playing with different people, something that's not the norm."

Clubbing in Nashville

While the hall of fame, the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry represent country music's enshrined and historic side, Nashville still pulses with country music's present. Music Row, home to the industry's publicists and record companies, is the destination for a never-ending stream of hopeful country singers and musicians.

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