A Nashville Mash-Up: Opry, Seabiscuit and Monet

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page P10

The last time I listened to country music was the summer after my senior year of high school, when I worked in a sweatshop in Tyrone, Pa., sewing seams in Big Yank work pants.

Even then, I didn't choose to hear it. Every morning an unseen factory official would drop a needle on a single record and blast it over the loudspeakers all day long; more days than not it was Hank Williams singing "Hey, good lookin'. What you got cookin'? How's about cookin' somethin' up with me-e-e?"

Country was the music of my father, who forbade the rock-and-roll I would sneak out to hear. I'd always felt I was a city girl mistakenly born in rural Pennsylvania. I pitied Laura Ingalls in her little house on the prairie; I wanted to be Eloise and live in the Plaza Hotel.

So what am I doing in Nashville's Grand Ole Opry?

It's a concession to my travel companion, my sister. And as it turns out, I rather enjoy myself. Five bands play in a two-hour show, and just as I start getting bored with one, another takes the stage.

I've never heard of a single one of these performers, but my sister tells me that Josh Turner is huge and that her granddaughter would love a photo. You can walk right to the edge of the stage, so I do. But then I realize I have no idea which one of the band members is Josh. I ask a teenager, who answers, "He's the hot one." I take a guess who is cutest, point and shoot.

The Grand Ole Opry long ago outgrew its home at Ryman Auditorium and has a state-of-the-art performance space on the outskirts of town next to an upscale shopping mall. The Opry's old home downtown is now used more often for rock, jazz and soul than for country music. Upcoming performances include the British rock band the Moody Blues, comedian Jon Stewart and four-time Grammy Award winner Dawn Upshaw, an opera-trained soprano.

In fact, you could easily keep yourself busy for a week in Nashville while avoiding country music altogether, as long as you didn't walk down Broadway after dark. But you wouldn't want to miss that experience even if you're not a fan -- the strip of honky-tonks is lively and fun. We don't even go inside any bars, yet we hear a different band every few steps while enjoying a slow stroll. Reminds me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

My two-night trip this month turned out to be a mix of country and more citified pursuits. I spent part of an afternoon in the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, where the exhibit "Monet to Dali" is featured through June 1. Housed in a beautiful art deco building renovated in 2001, the Frist, rather than holding permanent collections, has shows from around the world, changing exhibits every six to eight weeks.

While I'm hesitant to admit it, my favorite part of the trip is in country territory: an evening at the Bluebird Cafe in a strip mall outside downtown. The tiny cafe, which opened in 1982, is a forum for up-and-coming songwriters. Everyone who is anyone in country music has played the Bluebird, and the names are sufficiently famous that even I have heard of them: Garth Brooks played the open mike there before he was discovered. When Mary Chapin Carpenter played there in 1987, the owner, worried no one would come, booked her with some people then better known. The cafe was also the setting for the 1993 movie "The Thing Called Love," with River Phoenix and Sandra Bullock.

On this night, four singer-songwriters, backed by virtuoso guitarists, take turns playing original songs. I'm blown away by a song Christy Long Hoskins wrote while pregnant, a song that captures the mystery and wonder of carrying a much-anticipated and welcome child: "I long to see who you'll be. What you'll love and all you'll do. Can't wait to know you. Can't wait to look into your eyes. Can't wait to hold you." Although the blue-eyed blonde looks and sounds like a performer, she tells me after the show that she has no ambition toward stardom. Her dream is for someone else to make her songs into hits. She also notes that the competition to play the Bluebird is fierce, and it's humbling to play there.

"Every country star you've ever heard on the radio has played the Bluebird," she says. Referring to the pictures of previous performers that cover the walls, she adds, "The wallpaper is history. When you sit in there, you're sitting in music history."

* * *

Even a drive around town featured a mix of urbane and country. For me, we ride around the campus of Vanderbilt University. For my sister, we ride around an upscale neighborhood that is home to numerous country music stars. If we'd taken a narrated bus tour, we'd know which stars live in which mansions, but never mind, it's a pretty drive. We also manage to cram in visits to the fabulous Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Art Museum, and the historic Belle Meade Plantation, a 19th-century stud farm whose bloodlines led to such legends a Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Barbaro.

Finally, there is no way to avoid it: the Country Music Hall of Fame. Who wants to see the old guitars and costumes of country music stars? My sister.

Actually, I'm amused to see Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac and films showing highlights of the best country music shows. The building is gorgeous, and I love the stations where you can listen to hit records from today and from the distant past.

I can't believe how many of the songs I know, and how many I like, even love. Every word from hundreds of songs suddenly just comes to me. It's almost scary -- what other things are embedded in my brain that I have no idea are there?

I hum my way through the museum, buy a couple of CDs and come to a startling revelation: My God, I'm a country girl.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company