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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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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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