The Candidates' Stomping Grounds: Al Gore's Nashville

By Linton Weeks
Sunday, July 16, 2000

Though Al Gore grew up in Washington, he spent summers at the family home in Carthage, just east of Nashville. In the early 1970s, he worked as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. His national campaign headquarters is there, in a strip mall on Mainstream Drive.

CHOWING DOWN: West of Nashville, out past snooty Belle Meade and the scenic Harpeth River, is the low-key Loveless Cafe (8400 Highway 100, 615-646-9700). This, says Al Gore's campaign staff, is where the veep likes to grab a quick bite when he's in the neighborhood. Run by the McCabe family since 1974, the Loveless is a down-home den of country cooking, offering breakfast all day, corn cakes, blackberry preserves and country ham saltier than sea water. The walls are spangled with photos of celebs who have eaten here--Sen. Strom Thurmond, B. J. Thomas and, of course, Al Gore.

Owner Donna McCabe--in a blouse with a sunny plaid Peter Pan collar and Bermuda shorts to match--allowed as how she's known Al for years and years, but hasn't seen him in quite a long while, "not since he's become so, well, so political."

DINING FINE: "It's not a fancy restaurant by any stretch of the imagination," a member of Gore's staff told us about the Mad Platter (1239 Sixth Ave. North, 615-242-2563), a funky old joint in a converted grocery store on the southside of Nashville. Au contraire, we reply after sampling the food.

We can see why Gore loves this world-fusion grub. The poached salmon with jalapeno hollandaise, crab ravioli, smoked artichoke and shrimp bisque and almost everything else we ordered on the ever-changing menu were, as we say when we're in Nashville, dee-licious. The quality and preparation of the food rivaled any we've ever tasted. Anywhere, mon frere.

The Mad Platter often caters Gore's fund-raisers. While sampling the Chocolate Elvis for dessert, we caught sight of Gore campaign generals Donna Brazile and Carter Eskew ensconced at a back table.

GETTING SWEATY: The active Gore, his staff told us, enjoys running. One of the best places to jog in Nashville is on the riverside path that runs alongside the Cumberland River. On the route you'll see historic Fort Nashborough, Adelphia Coliseum where the Tennessee Titans play NFL games and the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, a marvelous merry-go-round designed by artist Red Grooms.

COOLING OFF: The vice president, as you may remember from his New Hampshire PR fiasco (when he asked that thousands of gallons of water be released during a drought so he could be photographed canoeing on the Connecticut River), is crazy about canoeing. He and his father, Sen. Albert Gore, used to paddle around the Caney Fork River near the family farm. But if you want to rent a canoe, head toward the Harpeth River where Tip-A-Canoe (intersection of Highway 70 and the Harpeth River, 615-254-0836) will provide a boat and all the trimmings. You can float your way along the lazy stream--and fall in when you need to. And you'll come parlously close to the Loveless Cafe.

LEARNING SOMETHING: The Country Music Hall of Fame (4 Music Square East, 800-852-6437 ) sits like a slate-roofed cathedral on a hill overlooking the Nashville skyline. Gore must like this place--its former director, William Ivey, was selected by President Clinton and Gore to chair the National Endowment for the Arts. Here you'll find culture with a capital Cult. If country music is your religion, this is your altar.

Grand Ole Opry fans filter through the exhibit rooms packed with musical memorabilia--Elvis Presley's gaudy gold Cadillac; Mother Maybelle Carter's autoharp; Minnie Pearl's hat with the dangling $1.98 price tag; Hank Williams's fishing tackle; Patsy Montana's sexy boots; and lots and lots of guitars, photos, recordings and motion picture clips.

We were so struck by the conservatism of the hallowed hall that a video loop of Garth Brooks smashing a guitar--while crooning "Friends in Low Places"--seemed a disturbing desecration of all that is sacred.

CHARACTER BUILDING: In the 1970s, Gore was a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean (1100 Broadway, 615-726-8908) and a student at Vanderbilt law school. At the paper, he covered breaking news from his desk in the newsroom. He also wrote features, including one about a disastrous fast-food eating contest. The Tennessean is open for free hour-long tours on Tuesdays and Fridays.

If you're in the mood to re-create the Gorey story, you can buy too many burgers at the McDonald's across from the newspaper on Broadway. There are other good places to eat nearby. Merchants Lunch--said to look "like half-past midnight in the afternoon" by the North Carolina bluegrass group, the Red Clay Ramblers--is just down the street. So is the original Maxwell House hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt pronounced the local blend "good to the last drop."

STAYING PUT: One of the best places to stay in Nashville is at the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway; 800-996-3426, rates $84-$150), near the Tennessean. This is a majestic space, full of dark wood and wrought iron, once frequented by trains with exotic names, such as the Azalean, the Georgian and the Dixie Flyer. If you mind your manners, Howard P. Muldrow, who runs a shoeshine stand at the century-old hotel, will give you a splendid guided tour.

HEELS APOPPIN': At the Wildhorse Saloon (120 Second Ave. North., 615-251-1000), short men wear cowboy hats, tall women wear jeans and boots, large models of horses sit on stools at the bar, and more horses hang upside down from the ceiling. There's stock car racing on the TV.

On the vast dance floor, some two dozen people line-dance to a song about lost love. Maybe this is where Gore learned the macarena. It's definitely where he has raised a bunch of money. One night in 1999, the vice president raked in $1.6 million here. The only thing that might have kept him from kicking up his heels a little more was that the very next night another man was to appear in the same saloon, also raising money. This guy was a Texan. Named George W. Bush.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company