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Tuning into Music City’s many rhythms, past and present, as well as some little-known Charleston connections
Granted, Carrie Underwood aspirations would still be centuries away, but Septima and Henry’s motives weren’t all that different from today’s singer-songwriters who pilgrimage and plant their dreams in Music City, giving Nashville its cool, hungry edge. They were leaving behind high expectations from imposing family legacies (both their fathers signed the Declaration of Independence) and braving the wild frontier to make their own way in the world.
With 20 wagons full of furniture and books, including one cart reserved for the delicate transport of Septima’s beloved gold Italian harp, they trekked for six long weeks through Indian country and over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rugged Smokies before arriving at the Cumberland Plateau. They settled on land Henry had inherited through his father’s Revolutionary War grants, some 73,000 acres in the fledgling state of Tennessee.
A Charlestonian wandering around downtown Nashville today might detect an odd familiarity in the street signs. Just a few blocks south of the bustling business district, Middleton and Rutledge streets intersect down by the Cumberland River, near where the Shelby Avenue pedestrian bridge offers primo city views. At the corner of Rutledge and Lea streets, the east flank of Septima and Henry’s home, Rose Hill, still stands. This once grand estate featured acres of terraced rose gardens, like those at Middleton Place, sweeping down to the river. There, the large Rutledge brood spent time with their close friends Rachel and Andrew Jackson, soon to become the seventh president of the United States, and entertained the Marquis de Lafayette, who spent the night at Rose Hill during his 1825 Tennessee tour.
As prominent citizens of early Nashville, the Rutledges generously used their wealth and influence to promote cultural life in their adopted city. Henry, a lawyer and civic leader, served on the board of trustees of the University of Nashville. Septima and her daughter Mary were early advocates for public education and the forces behind establishing the Nashville Protestant School of Industry for destitute and orphan girls and the Nashville Protestant Orphan Asylum. They were also instrumental in founding Tennessee’s first Episcopal church in 1829, Christ Church (now Christ Church Cathedral), a thriving parish that offers a “Sacred Space for the City Art Series,” which undoubtedly would tickle Septima pink since she helped purchase the church’s first organ from Philadelphia in 1831. A music lover, Septima played harp recitals around town, often accompanying her granddaughter’s vocals.
Rutledge Hill Revival
Fast-forward to 2008: the historic Rutledge Hill neighborhood, with its breathtaking river and downtown views, is once again coming into its own. At the turn of the century, as Nashville grew to the north and west, the elegant 19th-century homes of this former aristocratic hub—such as Rose Hill and the nearby residence of Thomas Green Ryman, the steamboat captain who built the Union Gospel Tabernacle (a.k.a. the legendary Ryman Auditorium)—were largely abandoned. Today, however, you can slip into Andrew Chadwick’s on Rutledge Hill, a new restaurant in an impeccably restored architectural gem where a former Ritz-Carlton chef serves up some of Nashville’s finest cuisine. There’s no sign out front, just plenty of buzz from foodies in the know. Or catch live music at The Rutledge, another new hot spot amidst the city’s many stellar performance venues, giving trusty old standards like 12th and Porter a run for their money.
That’s the beauty of Nashville: You can go almost anywhere and see and hear amazing talent. Sure, there’s the rhinestone hype of the Vince Gills and the Kenny Chesneys, but there’s also the raw spirit of Gillian Welch and John Hiatt. The heart and soul of Nashville is found in the dark corners, in the pull-up-a-barstool joints in up-and-coming areas like Rutledge Hill and East Nashville, as well as on well-worn stages of places like the Bluebird Café and the Station Inn, where songwriters lay it on the line and guitar players strum with all they’ve got. These artists, whether bluegrass or folksy, hard rock or soft croon, are carrying forth the renegade vibe that would make our Septima proud. They aren’t the showboats of the Country Music Awards; many play for dollar tips, and in their own nod to Middleton-Rutledge patriotism, they’re rockin’ the cradle of Americana. Think Robert Plant and Alison Krauss more than Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
More Than Music
The other beauty of Nashville is that it’s so much more than music. Yes, there are the tourist gotta-dos, like a trip to the splashy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which does a surprisingly good job at recounting the evolution of all things country, from homegrown fiddlers to highfalutin megastars. And, of course, the required visit to the Ryman, original home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 and Mecca of pristine acoustics, where faint echoes of Patsy Cline and Bill Monroe still reverberate amidst the old church pews. And, while you’re at it, might as well walk down Broadway and poke your head in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the famed honky-tonk of honky-tonks, just because. But be sure to save some time and energy to explore Nashville’s less twangy side.
Tennessee’s capital is a multifaceted city, and its different layers mix and mingle to create a delicious urban blend of cowboy hats and white collars, students and artists, doctors and organic farmers, with some equestrians and big-name politicians (Frist, Gore, anyone?) thrown in.
Just a few blocks from the mixing and recording studios on Music Row is the heady, impressive Vanderbilt University campus, 333 acres smack in the heart of the city, with excellent graduate programs in medicine, law, business, divinity, education, and music right alongside the undergraduate campus. Vandy’s central location gives the big city a lively yet casual college-town feel, especially just off the campus where 21st Avenue becomes Hillsboro Village, Nashville’s oldest shopping area and a delightfully eclectic antidote to chain store fatigue. Browse art galleries, hang with caffeine-craving students at Fido, and pick-up the schedule at The Belcourt, a 1930s movie house where you can catch art-house films and incredible live music. Also peruse eccentric culinary odds and ends at Davis Cookware & Cutlery Shop; check out the gorgeous guitars at Cotten Music; and shop for funky jewelry (robot earrings, $8), ethnic-inspired clothing, books, ornaments, you name it, at hip Pangaea. You might be tempted by Pancake Pantry’s syrupy kitsch (and yummy pancakes), but don’t leave Hillsboro Village without refueling at Provence Breads and Cafe, a wildly delicious bakery with killer scones.
On the west side of Vanderbilt (an easy stroll across campus), Centennial Park is Nashville’s urban oasis—a sprawling green space showcasing a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Built as a temporary structure for the city’s Centennial Exposition in 1897, the now-permanent Parthenon boasts impressive columns and wide steps, the perfect place for a restful pit stop, but be sure to venture inside and be wowed by the radiant 42-foot-tall Athena. She, too, is an exact replica of the original Greek Athena Parthenos, with a Charleston touch. In 2002, Charleston artist and master gilder Smith Coleman was one of three gilders commissioned to give Athena her delicate 23.75-karat gold-leaf glow. “The experience was amazing,” says Coleman, an admitted country-music junkie who fell in love with Nashville. “What a fabulous opportunity to gild the tallest indoor statue in this hemisphere. I feel like this is my contribution, my legacy.”
A Walk on the Wild Side
To savor Nashville’s natural beauty, tune your GPS to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum, west of downtown out where the lovely mansions of Belle Meade give Nashville an Old South aura. Cheekwood, the Georgian estate of the Cheek family (heirs to Maxwell House coffee), offers 55 acres of stunning landscaped gardens, including a meditative Japanese garden and a formal boxwood garden, and an impressive American and contemporary art collection inside the 30,000-square-foot mansion. And right in Belle Meade’s backyard, the rambling Percy Warner Park is a hilly, wooded treasure trove of hiking, biking, and running paths; scenic overlooks; and horseback riding trails. Every May, it’s home of the Iroquois Steeplechase Horse Race, one of Nashville’s most dapper events.
Closer in to downtown, nature enthusiasts can mosey through the Shelby Bottoms Greenway, a lush 810-acre urban park along the east side of the Cumberland River, with multiuse trails and loads of brilliant bluebirds. And while you’re over in East Nashville, check out the bohemian Five Points (bring an appetite from all that bird-watching) and pick up some healthy fare at the Turnip Truck or treat yourself to dinner at the acclaimed Margot Café.
Now back over the soaring Gateway Bridge and into the heart of Music City, Nashville’s thriving cultural scene is in large part a testament to another transplanted Charleston daughter—Septima Rutledge’s modern-day counterpart if you will—Martha Rivers Ingram, whose vision and passion for the arts is unparalleled. Just four blocks from the Rutledge’s Rose Hill, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), the Frist Visual Arts Center, and the dazzling new Schermerhorn Symphony Center form an arts lover’s trifecta, and Ingram couldn’t be more pleased. “Downtown Nashville is alive and well,” proclaims the chairman and CEO of Ingram Industries and one of the most respected female executives in the nation. “My proudest accomplishment is to have helped transform Nashville from a city with relatively low-level art offerings to an absolutely burgeoning arts scene.”
And quite an accomplishment it has been. In 1972, when Ingram was invited to serve on D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts advisory board, she began envisioning a similar local center for Nashville and pursued her dream for eight years despite considerable resistance. She was the force, vision, and fundraising powerhouse behind TPAC, a three-theater facility across from the State Capitol, home to the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, the Nashville Opera Association, and the Nashville Ballet. Ingram currently serves on the boards of TPAC and all three of its resident arts organizations.
TPAC was also the home for the Nashville Symphony up until a year and a half ago, when the Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened to triumphant acclaim. This world-class facility boasts a high-tech convertible seating system—the 1,844 seats retract into the floor transforming the space from concert hall to ballroom. “It may be the only floor like it in the world,” says Ingram. “The orchestra stage comes out into the room so the music floats over your head. Bright sunlight pours in through windows during daytime performances. It really is dazzling, and it’s been a resounding success,” adds Ingram, who cochaired the Symphony Center capital campaign and notes that the symphony’s budget has risen from $12 million to $30 million since the center opened.
“Nashville today is an incredibly stimulating place to live,” says Ingram, who also serves as chair of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trustees and remains active and involved with her hometown arts scene as the current president of the Board of Directors for Spoleto Festival USA. “The arts strengthen everything. They help attract top professors and students, so now the university is booming, and the business community benefits, and on and on.” And that, too, is the beauty and magic of Music City. It’s what Septima with her golden harp knew; it’s what the dreamy-eyed songwriters playing for their supper know—that a little tune goes a long way.