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?"
Bentley chats with the fan but doesn't purchase the $6,000 guitar. Other stars have been more self-indulgent. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top has purchased more than 100 guitars from Gruhn, according to owner and founder George Gruhn. "I've sold at least 50 vintage guitars to Eric Clapton," he adds. "Whenever Eric is in town, he comes and visits."
The staff at the smaller Cotten Music Center in charming Hillsboro Village, southwest of downtown, also sells guitars to the stars, as well as regular folk. "Vince Gill might come in and borrow a mandolin for a recording session," says Roger Milam, a retired lawyer, guitar "hobbyist" and Cotten employee. "Steve Earle comes in. Lyle Lovett is in here a lot."
Gill and wife Amy Grant have been spotted all over Hillsboro, a pretty community with brick sidewalks, used bookshops, independent clothing stores and charming eateries, including the popular Pancake Pantry, where artists from Keith Urban to Natalie Cole have enjoyed hearty breakfasts.
If you sit on the banquette, the tables are so close you're bound to make a new friend. Effervescent vocalist Abby Burke, who recently released "Finally! The Album" featuring the Manly Band, shares the star-spotting lowdown as she finishes her crepes. The trendy Sunset Grill is a "chi-chi restaurant" in Hillsboro, she says, where you can watch posh people "pushing around their nouveau cuisine." Stop into Hillsboro Hardware, she encourages: "You'll see the most amazing people buying duct tape." Better yet, get in line with Bentley's manager, Scott Kernahan, at Fido, a spacious Hillsboro coffee shop where you can order espresso concoctions called "milk bone" and "pink poodle."
Where there is caffeine, there are music people. Near Hillsboro is the elegant, mostly residential Belmont area, home to Bongo Java, another unique coffee shop with an outdoor deck and patio, adjacent to Belmont University. This spot attracts an eclectic crowd, from progressive students to pop stars. Ben Folds, formerly of the band Ben Folds Five, allegedly lives just a few houses away and gets his java fix at the Bongo, along with Tonic front man Emerson Hart.
"I couldn't live in L.A. anymore," says Hart, sucking down an iced coffee on the patio, aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes from the morning sun. Hart lives nearby with his wife in a Queen Anne-style house and is working on a solo album. In Los Angeles, he says, "there was no relaxing; there was stress. . . . I have a freedom [in Nashville] that I can create."
When Hart first moved into the Belmont neighborhood, a teenage fan camped out on his front lawn -- highly suspicious to Hart's genteel neighbors. But few people bother him when he's at his favorite eateries, such as Brown's Diner, where he chomps on "the best burgers," he says. On the outside, Brown's looks as chic as a trailer. On the inside, Hart says, "it's smoky, old-timers are at the bar, Hank Williams is on the jukebox -- it's like a time warp."
The Elliston Place Soda Shop is another celebrity hideout. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it serves "the best fried chicken," Hart reports, and the milkshakes are a must. The Soda Shop is a "meat-and-three," one of those Southern institutions where you choose a meat and three vegetable sides for little more than $6. "I love that they consider macaroni a vegetable," Hart says with a chuckle. "A meal there costs me an extra five miles on the treadmill, but it's worth it."
Arnold's Country Kitchen is one of Bentley's favorite meat-and-threes. Near Music Row, a few streets where studios and record labels are situated, Arnold's doesn't look promising. Food is served cafeteria-style. Plunging his fork into mashed potatoes and green beans, Bentley recalls the demise of a serious relationship, when he lost his appetite and significant weight. The remedy? "I started coming here a lot," he says, now sporting a robust frame.
In addition to co-owner Jack Arnold's down-home cooking, the friendly, longtime staff attracts Bentley, Chet Atkins and John Prine to Arnold's, despite its cosmetic challenges. Most important, it's not on tourist maps. Few taxi drivers and hotel concierges even know Arnold's.
"Don't you change now, Dierks," Arnold's co-owner, Rose Arnold, orders Bentley as he leaves her cinderblock refuge filled with lingering aromas of cornbread and gravy.
"I won't change," he reassures. "If I was going to change, don't you think I already would have?"
Arnold's clearly operates by the same philosophy. That's why the stars keep coming back. After months on the road there is something wonderful and satisfying about predictability -- especially when it's smothered in gravy.
Nicole Cotroneo last wrote for Travel about New York's Upper West Side.
To mingle with music stars in Nashville, it's all about knowing where to go. Here are a few places in Music City where you just might bump into your celebrity crush.
· Arnold's Country Kitchen , 605 Eighth Ave. S., 615-256-4455. Cafeteria food was never this good. Grab a tray and wait for a star to stroll in looking for a rib-sticking midday meal.
· Elliston Place Soda Shop , 2111 Elliston Place, 615-327-1090. An iconic American soda fountain, with everything from Southern comfort food to banana splits.
· Brown's Diner , 2102 Blair Blvd., 615-269- 5509. A dive, but it serves great cheeseburgers.
· Bongo Java , 2007 Belmont Blvd., 615- 385-JAVA. Espresso, food and live shows in an upstairs "theater."
· Fido , 1812 21st Ave., 615-777-FIDO. More spacious than Bongo and more of a restaurant.
· Sunset Grill , 2001 Belcourt Ave., 615-386- 3663. A fairly pricey, award-winning restaurant offering New American cuisine. The hip eatery has minimalist decor and a small outdoor patio.
· The Palm Restaurant , 140 Fifth Ave. S., 615-742-7256. Noted for steak, seafood and Italian specialties and for being the place where celebrities can dine discreetly.
· South Street Restaurant , 907 20th Ave. S., 615-320-5555. The triangular-shaped, open-air eatery is one of Dierks Bentley's favorites, and for good reason. Cool breezes, cold drinks, a friendly staff and good food distinguish this casual eatery built around the trees.
· Pancake Pantry , 1796 21st Ave. S., 615-383-9333. Expect a line for breakfast. It also serves lunch.
· Robert's Western World , 416 Broadway. This honky-tonk was a western apparel store in the '90s, and though it still sells a few pairs of boots, it's more about the booze than the boots.
· Gruhn Guitars , 400 Broadway. This is as much a guitar museum as a retail store, and owner George Gruhn is its historian.
· Cotten Music Center , 1815 21st Ave. S. A smaller neighborhood guitar store with a staff whose kids have grown up with the stars' kids.
· Hatch Show Print , 316 Broadway. If you really want a souvenir, put down the "Nashville Rocks" T-shirt and purchase a piece of living history. The store's motto: "Preservation through production."
STAGE: Performers belt their hearts out on a small raised stage in front of empty beer boxes at Lonnie's Western Room (208 Printer's Alley, 615-251-1122). Even if you don't spot a celebrity, you may find yourself listening to a soon-to-be one.
· Tootsie's Orchid Lounge , 422 Broadway. It's mandatory to have a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer -- the official honky-tonk drink -- at this place, where nearly every name in country music has wet his or her whistle.
· Red Door Saloon , 1816 Division St. It's hard to find and easy to miss, but it's one of the best bars in Nashville and a favorite among music professionals, including Bentley and Keith Urban. Peer through the hole in the floor boards for a bone-chilling surprise in this skeleton-themed establishment.
· Bobby's Idle Hour , 1028 16th Ave. S. You're guaranteed to spot a songwriter, music manager or musician.
CMA MUSIC FESTIVAL: The Country Music Association's CMA Music Festival , formerly known as Fan Fair, is scheduled to take over downtown Nashville June 9-12. The festival includes nightly concerts at the Coliseum (home of the Tennessee Titans) by big-name artists -- Bentley, Lee Ann Womack, Urban, Gretchen Wilson, Kenny Rogers and more -- and daytime shows throughout town. Meet-and-greet sessions allow fans to pose for pictures with their favorite artists, and celebrity musicians are known to pop up on stages during the "After Hours" concerts featuring new and local talent at venues along Lower Broadway and Second Avenue. Ticket information: 800-CMA-FEST, http://www.cmafest.com/ .
INFORMATION: Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau , 800-657-6910, http://www.musiccityusa.com/ .
-- Nicole Cotroneo