Correction to This Article
A May 29 Travel article said that country music star Chet Atkins is a patron of Arnold's Country Kitchen in Nashville. Atkins frequented the restaurant before his death in 2001.

Nashville Stars, Ripe for the Pickin'

By Nicole Cotroneo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 29, 2005

A mandolin player with an instrume nt case open at his feet holds court outside Robert's Western World, a bar in downtown Nashville, and flashes a toothless smile when a young, curly-haired man approaches with a warm greeting. It's daytime, yet passing tourists don't notice the two -- or they clutch their change and avert their eyes.

The unruly crown of curls usually gives him away, but this time platinum country artist Dierks Bentley escapes detection as he stops in the middle of the busy Lower Broadway area to address a friend. "Hey, it's Mandolin Mike!" Bentley says, offering the musician his hand.

"Dierks," the player replies, "how ya been, man?"

Before Bentley, 29, landed a recording contract with Capitol Records in 2002, he performed for five years in the smoky bars with the lower address numbers on Broadway, where Mandolin Mike also picked -- still picks -- for tips. While Bentley now lives a nomadic existence touring the country, he can still be found around town, keeping it real with the people in the places that gave him his musical education.

This may be strange outside Nashville. You don't find J. Lo shoe-shopping in the Bronx, or see Will Smith shooting hoops on an urban court in Philly. Unless you have a fat wallet or know someone who knows someone, you usually can't get near a celebrity in Los Angeles or New York. But in Nashville, there are plenty of places where you can queue up behind LeAnn Rimes for a vanilla latte or ask Faith Hill to borrow her salt shaker. You can walk into a guitar shop and catch Vince Gill strumming a six-string for free. Or, on a day like today, spot breakout star Bentley catching up with an old friend. You just have to know the right places to visit.

Tourist-tipsy Lower Broadway isn't where you'd usually spot a celebrity entertainer on his or her down time. Dark, dingy watering holes such as Robert's and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge are wallpapered with celebrity glamour shots, and just as a thief isn't likely to rob a bank where his mug shot is posted, big-name musicians aren't likely to party where their own pictures encourage name-face recognition.

But that's not to say you won't catch "Big Kenny" Alphin and John Rich of the duo Big and Rich hollering into the microphone at Lonnie's Western Room, a gritty karaoke bar, as they did after the Country Music Awards in April. Or Bentley slipping in Tootsie's back door before playing a Tuesday night set for the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman. Or you might spot him guiding a reporter through the places he haunted before his big break, as Bentley is doing on this day.

At 3:30 p.m. on a weekday, musicians are performing in every honky-tonk on Lower Broadway. It's a "lonesome" shift, Bentley notes, when there are few people to applaud and even fewer to fill the tip jars.

While there's still daylight, it's best to stop into Hatch Show Print or Gruhn Guitars, two of the few shops that do not sell Nashville T-shirts on Broadway, and where you may spot a celebrity if it's your lucky day. Bluegrass god Ricky Skaggs, the guys in ZZ Top and even the British rock band Coldplay are all known Hatch art fans.

The young employees and interns aren't flustered when Bentley walks into Hatch; they're too busy getting their elbows into ink as they crank out original prints and restrikes using hand-carved wooden blocks and historic printing presses. Hatch is a working museum owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame that produces show posters for musicians on all levels of the totem pole, from B.B. King to "the bands who eat ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese," notes Hatch manager and author Jim Sherraden. Starting around the turn of the 20th century, Hatch printed posters for Top 20 artists and Grand Ole Opry entertainers when they took their shows on the road.

In a digital age, it's remarkable that celebrities still solicit this traditional form of advertising. "It lends a humanity to their product and sets them apart," reasons Sherraden. "I would think they have a sensitivity to the history of the shop, and they contribute to the history of the place by giving us their business." Indeed, it's true. Back when Bentley was playing bar after bar, he laid down the cash for a few of his own Hatch posters -- although running off computer-generated fliers at Kinko's was far cheaper -- just so he could "share a piece of history with Johnny Cash," he says.

Bentley is finally nabbed at Gruhn, a place of pilgrimage for many guitar enthusiasts. The sunglasses and backward mesh hat can hide his blue eyes and most of the curls, but not his prowess on the guitar. He fishes a pick out of the back pocket of his jeans and kneels to play a gorgeous caramel-colored 1956 Martin D-21 made mostly of Brazilian rosewood, which is now an endangered species and can no longer be harvested for guitar manufacturing. A man in a dress shirt and slacks approaches the musician and says timidly, "Dierks? Hey, man, I love your music. What kind of equipment do you use?"

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