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Nashville Rocks

After their set, he says, "I'm going to be a rock star." He's on his way. A couple of months ago, his group signed on with a Nashville talent agency.

Needing some smoke-free air, I check out the action at the Exit/In through the huge front window. Cool-smooth opening act Ben Lee is singing "Running With Scissors." Besides being a popular rocker, he is also the significant other of actress Claire Danes.

Back in the End, eerie-intriguing singer-songwriter Julien Aklei is onstage with her two-man weirdo backups, the Intolerables. One Intolerable, in a black mesh hood, plays an egg shaker; the other plays drums. Aklei, originally from eastern Kentucky, stands center stage -- in a short white dress with blue ribbons and a white sun hat -- looking more like a Girl Scout leader than the wry rocker she is. She strums a pewter-colored guitar and sings songs based on Homer's "Odyssey." She has a haunting voice and a strangely tough-vulnerable stage presence.

She is followed by the competent Hot Pipes and the inspired Spiral, a high-energy local band led by Jason Pappafotis.

On the stool, Gunnar Nelson raises a fist in the air and signals encouragement. People are bouncing up and down in front of the stage. One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Screaming Through December's Jones.

After the set, Nelson congratulates Spiral. As it turns out, Nelson played guest guitar on the latest Spiral CD. Jones compliments Spiral. Jones talks to Nelson. It's all very clubby. The Nashville rock world is a competitive mosh pit of operators. But, as tonight shows, it's also full of co-operators.

As I start toward my car just past midnight, the songs of Spiral and Aklei spin through my head. Across the street, the front door to the Exit/In swings open and the rockaholic riffs of Fountains of Wayne rush into the street, cutting through the breezy Nashville night air and knocking all the other songs right out of my mind.

For a while.

Details: Nashville's Rock Scene

GETTING THERE: Round-trip rates for flights to Nashville (with one to two stops) start at around $200 from BWI, $360 from Dulles and $350 from Reagan National. United flies nonstop from Dulles, and US Airways from National, for $761. There is no direct train service from Washington to Nashville, but you can ride Amtrak's Crescent to Atlanta, then take Amtrak's "thruway service" bus (run by Greyhound) to Nashville; a sample round-trip coach fare in late September is $240.

Bus service via Greyhound takes between 15 and 23 hours and costs $99 to $153 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: Nashville has a wide variety of lodging, from chain motels to luxe hotels. I stayed at the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs (700 Cool Springs Blvd., Franklin, 615-261-6100,, just south of Nashville, with rates starting at $99 double. The hotel has a nice indoor pool and is a short hop into town, but mostly I like it because it's close to my mother's apartment. If you want to bed down in the city, the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway, 615-726-1001, is a spacious, gracious old hotel fashioned from a train station. The vast lobby, with its 65-foot ceiling, is unforgettable. Rates start at $139 double.

WHERE TO EAT: Merchants (401 Broadway), in the old Merchants Hotel that was built more than a century ago, offers haute cuisine at fairly haute prices. Entrees (like pork tenderloin) start at $21. Third & Lindsley (818 Third Ave. S.) is a rocking joint with a blues-lovers' menu of barbecue ribs, red beans and rice, and a New York strip steak for $13.95. Most entrees run $10 and under.

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