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11 Cool Places in Nashville You Really Must Visit

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This summer, I started a walking tour of downtown Nashville (walkinnashville.com). After twenty years of writing about music, and interviewing the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, I figured it might be fun to share some of what I’ve learned, along with a few backstage stories.

There are a number of tours on offer in Nashville. Segway tours, redneck comedy tours, Civil War tours. But I think mine may be the only one that’s designed for hardcore music nerds. If you want to hear stories about the time Johnny Cash was banned from the Grand Ole Opry, how Tammy Wynette almost pulled the plug on her biggest hit, or how a Grammy-winning album was once recorded on a downtown sidewalk, then come see me when you’re in Music City.

1. Ryman Auditorium

They call it the “mother church of country music.” And for good reason. Built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, this hallowed hall started out with fire-and-brimstone sermons, then later featured top entertainers (Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn, Enrico Caruso), all on its way to becoming the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Today, it’s one of the top concert venues in the country. Sit in the hundred-year-old oak pews. Enjoy the perfect acoustics. And feel the spirits of Hank, Johnny, Patsy and all the legends who’ve performed there.

2. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge

If walls could talk. . . well, in Tootsie’s they almost do. The whole history of country music, from the famous to the almost famous, smiles down from the tattered walls of this honky tonk bar – 8 x 10s, candid photos, bits of napkin with song lyrics. Back in the early 1960s, this place doubled as a songwriting hangout for the likes of Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson. Today, it offers round the clock country music and cold beer.

3. Ernest Tubb Record Shop

When Tubb used to tour around the country in the late 1940s, his fans asked him, “Where can I buy your records? Where can I buy records by Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff?” In response, Tubb decided to open his store that specialized in country and hillbilly music. Sixty-five years later, it’s still going strong. Looking for that hard-to-find George Jones box set, DVDs of The Johnny Cash Show, or Loretta Lynn’s cookbook? Find it here.

4. Hatch Show Print

“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.” That was the slogan of Hatch when they opened in 1879. A hundred and thirty years later, they’ve survived every new technology and trend to stand alone as the world’s best-known letterpress printing shop. They make amazing, one-of-a-kind posters – all hand designed, hand cut, hand inked. And their client list includes everyone from Elvis to Garth Brooks to Ringling Bros. Circus. If you’re looking to bring a true Nashville souvenir back home, you can’t go wrong with a Hatch show print.

5. Printers Alley

Once the heart of Nashville’s red light district, this block-long alley was a burlesque paradise. But it was also a hotbed of great music. Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, Roger Miller – they all worked the clubs here. So did a young Jimi Hendrix. And Paul McCartney even wrote a song here. For modern country fans, Printer’s Alley was also where Carrie Underwood shot the video for her number one hit “Before He Cheats.”

6. Chet Atkins Statue

Back in the mid-1950s, country music was under siege by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. Producer Chet Atkins didn’t see that as a bad thing. As an experiment, he blended elements of both into country and helped forge a new style dubbed “The Nashville Sound.” It saved country music and drew up a blueprint for everything that it’s become. Oh yeah, Atkins was one of the world’s greatest guitar players too. Sit down on the empty stool next to Chet and play guitar with him.

7. The Loveless Café

Biscuits, grits, sweet potato pancakes, country ham. If you’re looking for a traditional southern-style breakfast with big ol’ helpin's, this is the place. Opened in 1951 by Lon and Annie Loveless, the restaurant is a Nashville tradition. And stick around on Wednesday evenings for the variety show Music City Roots, the Lovelesses’ own mini-version of the Opry.

8. Bluebird Café

You know how sometimes in a restaurant or bar you’ll hear a guy or gal with a guitar singing the latest hit by Keith Urban or Lady Antebellum? Well, at the Bluebird, the difference is that the guy or gal will be the one who actually wrote the hit. The Bluebird invented the “writers-in-the-round,” an informal circle with four songwriters taking turns, playing their best tunes to a rapt audience. Look for the bar to be featured heavily in the upcoming ABC-TV show Nashville.

9. Robert’s Western World

If you’re looking to hear authentic honky tonk country, played by some of Nashville’s best musicians, try Robert’s. The sweaty, beer-soaked, good time bar has an historical pedigree too. Back in the 1960s, it was home to the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar company, where the pedal steel guitar (that cryin’, moanin’ instrument that’s an alter ego to all country singers) was first manufactured and sold.

10. Country Music Hall of Fame

“Honor Thy Music” is the museum’s credo. And that means past, present and future. On display, there’s everything from Hank Williams’ guitar to Elvis’s gold Cadillac to Taylor Swift’s latest stage wear. Plus a two-story wall of every gold and platinum country record ever, educational movies, live music and seminars. And as part of the grand tour, you’ll visit the fabled RCA Studio B, where hits like Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” were recorded.

11. Grand Ole Opry

No trip to Nashville would be complete without experiencing the radio show that “made country music famous.” Since 1925, the Opry has been mixing music, comedy skits and live commercials into its down-home Saturday night broadcast. Today, it features contemporary artists like Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley sharing the bill with such legends as Connie Smith, Stonewall Jackson and Little Jimmie Dickens (at 92, the oldest living Opry star).

Note: Many thanks to my friends at mental_floss for letting me do this not-so-thinly veiled commercial for my walking tour. Free tours for y’all!

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#TBT
Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Animals
Watch a Panda Caretaker Cuddle With Baby Pandas While Dressed Up Like a Panda
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Some people wear suits to work—but at one Chinese nature reserve, a handful of lucky employees get to wear panda suits.

As Travel + Leisure reports, the People's Daily released a video in July of animal caretakers cuddling with baby pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province. The keepers dress in fuzzy black-and-white costumes—a sartorial choice that's equal parts adorable and imperative to the pandas' future success in the wild.

Researchers raise the pandas in captivity with the goal of eventually releasing them into their natural habitat. But according to The Atlantic, human attachment can hamper the pandas' survival chances, plus it can be stressful for the bears to interact with people. To keep the animals calm while acclimating them to forest life, the caretakers disguise their humanness with costumes, and even mask their smell by smearing the suits with panda urine and feces. Meanwhile, other keepers sometimes conceal themselves by dressing up as trees.

Below, you can watch the camouflaged panda caretakers as they cuddle baby pandas:

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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