Here’s the story of how I stumbled onto one of the greatest country concerts and a bittersweet trip down memory lane. While listening to the radio in the car, I heard a Spectrum deejay mention something about a tribute concert to Willie Nelson in Nashville over the coming weekend. My dad loved Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, and Freddie Fender. The country station was on in the car and we drove… a lot. Consequently, I heard country music for hours on end traveling and, yeah, by the time I hit my early teens, my dad got to hear me complain about his music for an equal amount of time. Until Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson (Thank you, SNL!), I hadn’t listened to county music since I got my first Walkman, but the country music of the seventies was the soundtrack of my childhood. The memories that the music stirs are of my dad at his prime, when he, like all dads I think, seemed larger than life. The last five or so years of his life were a constant, ever-downward fight against COPD and in between taking him to doctor appointments and the soul-crushing bedside vigil during hospice, I had kind of forgotten how vital and vibrant he had been. Willie Nelson is 85, my dad would have been 84, and I really wanted the chance to see my dad’s favorite singer in concert.
The starts aligned—our biggest weekend plans-buster is the kids’ tournaments and this weekend was the only one without a tournament on the schedule. Add to that our sophomore in college was still home from winter break to mind the house and keep the zoo in line. And, as I reminded my husband, the thirtieth (gulp) anniversary of when we met would be the next weekend and we would be in different states at tournaments (because that is our usual weekend.) So we went to Ticketmaster for resale seats, booked a flight, and a hotel. The only hiccup in our plan was the delivery of the dryer my husband had gotten for himself, because there is no way he has such little sense of self-preservation that he would have admitted to getting me a dryer for Christmas. It was dicey when our delivery slot was 11am-3pm and we had to leave for the airport by 2:30. I walked around the house on Friday morning putting such things into the Universe like, “gosh, I hope our dryer doesn’t come soon,” because, inevitably, our deliveries come at whatever part of the delivery window that is most inconvenient or impossible to meet. Amazingly, our new dryer was installed and ready to go by noon and we had a nice lunch and headed to Music City.
A taxi from the airport to downtown is a flat $25, and we decided to jump right into a waiting cab rather than join the long queue of people waiting to meet their Uber or Lyft drivers in one of several locations. We arrived at the Hermitage Hotel and the hotel is beautiful, a nice combination of historical preservation and updated amenities. The lobby is a great place to lounge and take in the ambience with a fireplace, comfortable seating, and tables. We read the paper with coffee while we waited for housekeeping to finish in our room one morning, and after the concert, we and some of other concert-goers had a night cap near the veranda.
Unlike some other historical hotels, the rooms and marble bathrooms are spacious, including double sink vanities, separate water closet, soaking tub, and separate shower. There are Molton Brown bathroom amenities, robes, slippers, and turndown service with bottled water and cookies. There is a Nespresso machine for coffee, but only powdered creamer-yuck! There was also a mini bar, but I didn’t check it out. What I did check out, however, was the pillow menu! On the shelf in the closet there were 3 pillows to try—buckwheat, memory foam, and, I think latex. There were down pillows on the bed, which had lovely Frette linens on a locally-made mattress. I used a combo of buckwheat, memory foam, and the down pillow.
Our intent as we headed out early Friday evening was to hit Broadway, the main strip of honky tonks. Sometimes we struggle reading maps. Despite the help of both Apple Maps and Google Maps, we missed Broadway, but ended up in Printer’s Alley. We could hear a great band playing at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie bar and ducked in to check it out.
Like everywhere we went in Nashville, there was no cover charge. We sat at the bar and listened to original songs by Jon Roniger and The Good for Nothing Band. Their style is bluesy jazz (I sort of made that up) with a great stage presence and some salty interaction with the audience. Tip: The band will not play Bruce Springsteen because they did not write any Bruce Springsteen, no matter how many times the bachelor party guys in the back request it. At the bar we started with old fashioneds and then had beer. From the kitchen we ordered fries and sweet and spicy “voodoo” chicken, and it was solid bar food.
After tipping the band, we headed out to try once again to find Broadway (apparently whisky helps our navigation skills) and Robert’s Western World. It was packed! We ended up drinking jack and Cokes because we couldn’t get near the main bar and they had set up a satellite cash-only bar with liquor and mixers. Drinks were $9, but tasted like he forgot the Coke. Robert’s, famous for its fried bologna sandwich and a strange adulation for Pabst Blue Ribbon, is a great place for music! The Don Kelley Band, a mainstay at Robert’s, played the kind of country my dad listened to—songs by and about hard-drinking, heartbroken men. A member of the band came through the crowd after every set for tips, and they were worth every penny.
We started Saturday with breakfast at the Capital Grill in our hotel. They have a tasty Southern Benedict with fried green tomatoes and pork belly instead of an English muffin and Canadian ham. I thought I owed my liver an apology so I ordered the green juice—highly recommend it!
While the honky tonks open at 11am with live music, we need a little more dry time and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum. You can visit the museum or the museum and and RCA Studio B. We chose to skip the studio tour, and walked through just the museum. The museum had a lot of outfits, and lots and lots of rhinestones, and instruments. We really enjoyed the special exhibit, “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70’s.” Not only was it the music familiar, but I find it fascinating to have the bits and pieces of childhood memories put into a greater historical context. Then I find it disconcerting that things I remember from my childhood are old enough to be in a museum.
After the museum, we found Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Even though it was afternoon, the place was packed! Like at Robert’s the night before, it was standing room only, but the music was great. The tip bucket came around and for a $20 tip the band played my request of “Luckenback, Texas.” We headed back to the hotel to get ready for the concert.
As a last-minute add-on (way to go Ticketmaster marketing department!) we upgraded our tickets to include the Lexus Lounge at the Bridgestone Arena, mostly because we had never been to the venue and wanted the night to be as stress-free as possible. And we only had to pay for the two of us—usually we never upgrade because it is always price x 6 for our entire family and it is too expensive. With the Lexus Lounge ticket, we had a separate, crowd-free entrance, we breezed through security (we had to wait just long enough for the two men in front of us to cannonball a mini bottle of vodka before going through security to get the the free bar….), and access to a buffet and open bar throughout the event. The buffet was fine (for buffet food) and we certainly did not drink enough to justify even one of the tickets, but it was awesome not to have to wait in any security lines and the hosts on the floor of the lounge were full of helpful advice for us as far as navigating the arena: they advised taking two drinks at a time when you visited the bar so we wouldn’t have to run back and forth during the show. I thought it was a joke, but then I realized everyone really did do that!
We headed to our seats and got an education on how they tape a live show for later broadcast. We were instructed to stand up and clap enthusiastically, then sit politely and clap enthusiastically. I think everyone was taken aback when suddenly Chris Stapleton burst into Whiskey River— there was a moment when the crowd was like, “what? we’re starting?!?”
Lee Ann Womack sang next without introduction, and luckily for us, we were sitting next to a bonafide country music lover and scholar. He kept us informed about the performer, their most interesting fact and the last place he saw them in concert, which we then passed down the row. The hosts got better at announcing who was taking the stage next and it was one thrilling performance and surprise guest after another. Jayme Johnson brought the house down with “Georgia on My Mind” and for me, Sturgill Simpson’s appearance was a thrill. The concert will be broadcast sometime in 2019 on A & E and it’s worth your time.
Sunday morning was planned for another leisurely breakfast at the Capital Grill and a trip to the airport. We took an Uber to the airport and it was speedy and convenient. With the government shutdown and mass call-outs by TSA, we left early to allow extra time through security, but the Nashville airport security lines moved super quickly. My husband wanted a quiet spot to work, so we sent a couple of gates over from our departure gate. At boarding time, we headed to our gate, only to see the next departure on the board and a snaking line from the gate counter. After a panic attack that we had missed our flight’s boarding, we learned that no, even worse, all flights into Dulles had been canceled for the day. By the time I logged into my United app, the only flight with seats available was late Monday afternoon. We briefly debated switching airlines to fly into Reagan National, but worried that that flight would end up cancelling as well and then all the United flights would have been totally booked on Monday and we wouldn’t be able to get until Tuesday. Plus, if it was really snowing that hard at home, would we be able to get a ride share or taxi to take us from one airport to the other to get our car. So we headed back to the Hermitage Hotel. If you are ever in Nashville on the spur of the moment, the Hermitage has a “last-minute” rate whenever they still have rooms available. Luckily, we were able to check in early and then returned to Broadway.
We roamed the entire avenue, almost to the river, and found Acme Feed & Seed for lunch and to listen to music. We both had the Rule the Roost fried chicken sandwich with aioli and fries.
It was flavorful, but definitely not too spicy—I’m pretty sure Chick-fil-A has a spicier chicken sandwich, but it was our least favorite place for music. I get that it was a mellow Sunday afternoon, but the music was definitely more dirgeful hipster than honky tonk or toe-tapping anything. We crossed the street to the river, and then headed back up Broadway and stopped at AJ’s (Alan Jackson’s bar). I didn’t realize it was a celebrity bar because my dad only listened to the old-timers and I can only name a handful of country musicians it from this century. Anna LaPrad was on stage and she performed a nice mix of original songs and requests. I realize that all the bars on Broadway cater to tourists and purists are snickering at me even calling them honky tonks, but this bar, with good music and very attentive bartenders, just felt like it could have been anywhere. The decor was a Disney-curated expression of what a country bar/honky tonk, that had been cleaned up to not offend a soul, would look like.
We returned to Robert’s Western World and were treated to a country music education by Nashville Skyline. They did old, old country, outlaw country, and some blues and rock and roll. We had a great time listening to music and noshing on some onion rings. I gave up on the Jack and Cokes and beers. I don’t drink a lot of soda or beers and the carbonation was killing me. So I owned my out-of-town-wine-drinking-can’t-shoot-whiskey-self and ordered whatever red wine they served at Robert’s. We planned to stay to listen to the Don Kelley band come on at 10pm. Alas, with the bathroom closed for repairs, they had to close the bar early.
With our early evening flight, we were fortunate to get a late check-out and my husband worked remotely and I refereed a who-drank-the-last-of-the-almond-milk melee at home by text. After a room service breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, we had lunch in the Oak Bar at the hotel. It was certainly convenient, and our beef sandwiches were good, but I wouldn’t say it would be a special trip to the hotel for a late lunch. We headed to the airport early, once again breezed through security, and found an empty gate with an outlet so my husband could work. And waited through a few delays until our plane pulled into the gate. And we boarded as soon as the last passenger got off the plane. I figured we had 20 or 30 minutes while they cleaned the plane, but, nope, they started boarding immediately. It turns out the pilot was trying to catch a flight back home at Dulles. We then had the fastest taxiing to our runway, at one point, I swear the plane leaned into the turn. But I wasn’t going to complain. I was ready to go home.
I think two nights of honky tonking are plenty. Friday night and Saturday were fun and exciting, and we did have a good time on Sunday, but with the sleet, drizzle, and windy cold weather, it was too miserable to spend any time outside exploring. I had hit my limit of bar time and somebody had to go get more almond milk.