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11 Cool Places in Nashville You Really Must Visit

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Getty Images

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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