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February 7, 2009

A stop on the way to Nashville

We left Knoxville a little after 10:15 to drive to Nashville. Our plan was to stop drive a while down I-40 and then stop for a late breakfast. We told Sophie we wanted her to experience a real Tennessee breakfast, and so we stopped at one of our favorite places-- Cracker Barrel.

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Cracker Barrel is a restaurant chain that started in Lebanon, Tennessee (just east of Nashville) in 1969. Their 16th restaurant was located at our exit on I-40, and I can remember eating there with my parents when they came to visit for the 1982 World's Fair. Today there are 592 Cracker Barrel restaurants in 41 US states, almost all of them at interstate exits.

Charley and I really got to like Cracker Barrels when Kelly was young. We liked stopping there on long trips for a good meal, and the restrooms had those fold-out diaper changing tables. We also used their rent-an-audio-book program; you could rent a book for $3 a week and return it to any Cracker Barrel restaurant.

Cracker Barrel serves country-type food that's typical in Tennessee, big portions, and at a very reasonable price. The service is usually friendly and efficient. You can order breakfast at any time of the day, which is what we often do. In winter there's a big blazing fire. I like the shop too and do occasionally find something to buy. Christmas decorations are especially economical. Charley and Kelly like the candy store.

Cracker Barrel trivia: They use 35 million little bottles of maple syrup a year, 6% of the world's pure maple syrup supply. They use 151 million eggs a year. (!!!) And they use 70,000 lbs of flour every day to make their biscuits and dumplings. (Their biscuits are GOOOODDD!) You can read more about Cracker Barrel's history here.

We wanted Sophie to experience another aspect of Tennessee, so we stopped at the Cracker Barrel in Harriman, Tennessee. (This is not far from the big TVA fly-ash spill that happened not long ago.) Although we were only about 40 minutes from Knoxville, we were very much in rural Tennessee.

Charley had an Old Timers breakfast: Scrambled eggs, sausage, hashed-brown casserole, grits, biscuits and gravy. Sophie had a Smokehouse breakfast, all of the above, but without the hashed-browns. I had pecan pancakes with bacon, and Kelly had blueberry pancakes with country ham. I traded Charley some of my pancakes to get one of his biscuits with gravy.

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My high-calorie, high-cholesterol, wonderful Cracker Barrel breakfast

Sophie was impressed that we got endless refills of coffee and diet cokes-- something that doesn't happen in France. She is a tiny woman, but she ate everything, including the biscuits and gravy. She put some of Kelly's blueberry syrup on her grits and then ate them all. And she even had chocolate cobbler for dessert!

While we waited for our food, Kelly showed Sophie how to play the little peg game that's on every table. After we ate, she taught Sophie how to play checkers. They sat in rocking chairs near the remnants of the morning fire to play on a board set up on a big barrel. Kelly won, but Sophie did very well for her first game.

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Sophie and Kelly at Cracker Barrel

Then onward to Nashville!

February 8, 2009

A Night at the Grand Ole Opry

I live in Tennessee, the home of country music. But I always said I didn't like country music. I didn't like the lyrics about tragic life or loneliness or unrepented love or drinking. I didn't like the whiney way most of the people sang. I didn't like their clothes and hair styles, the boots and cowboy hats. I never learned how to do the country two-step. And I never went to the Grand Ole Opry... never thought I wanted to!

Until this weekend.

Our friend Sophie came to stay with us from France. Not knowing much about Tennessee geography, she asked about going to Nashville, which is about 2-1/2 hours west of where we live. This was a good way for our family to experience a bit more of our own state, so I suggested that we go over for the weekend. Sophie ended up getting a good airfare to fly out of Nashville, and I used Marriott points to book two rooms at a Marriott Courtyard for Saturday night. Then I had the idea to get tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. Even though I don't like country music, I thought that if we if we were going to take a foreign friend to Nashville, it would make sense to show her what Nashville is all about.

We had to explain a few things to Sophie. On the drive to Nashville, we told her that "Ole" is a slang way to say "Old" and that "Opry" relates to the word "Opera." She thought "Ole" was pronounced like the spanish word!

Okay. I absolutely loved the Grand Ole Opry. We all did.

The Grand Ole Opry has been going on now for 84 years. It began as a live radio show and is the oldest continuous radio show in the US. Shows are held several days a week in the Grand Ole Opry House (near the Opryland Hotel), where the Opry moved in 1974 after it outgrew the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry House seats 4400 people.

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The complete schedule isn't finalized until a week or two before the show. A few of the more popular performers are announced further in advance. (For example, Carrie Underwood will be there March 7.)

I got the highest priced tickets, $53 each, and we went on Saturday night. The Saturday show runs from 7 to 9 pm, and we arrived a little before 6:30 pm. The theater has a couple levels of seating and is very intimate. Seating is on comfortably padded benches. We were maybe ten rows from the stage. There was kind of a warm-up, with a Minnie Pearl impersonator and a movie about the Grand Old Opry. Then the performance began.

It's kind of a variety show, fast-paced, fun, energizing, and very friendly. You could have a beer or drink at your seat. And you were welcome to take photos (not video) and even go down to the front to take pictures. My photos aren't very good because of the lighting, and I didn't leave my seat to get closer.

The show was broken into four segments. Each segment had a "host" who did the first number and the last of that segment and introduced some of the other performers. There were four performers or groups in each segment, and each sang one or two songs. You could see people mingling around on the side of the stage, and a few performers had family members and friends with them.

Each segment also had a sponsor, and the acts were interspersed with short commercials mostly done by a radio announcer. It really wasn't all that distracting. (One of the sponsors was Cracker Barrel, and I think that was kind of fun for Sophie.)

The music was really varied. There were some old-time country stars (perhaps in their 70's) and also some very contemporary country rock singers and groups. There was a bluegrass band, a family group (The Whites) of a father on piano and three daughters, an old cowboy group called Riders in the Sky, Pam Tillis (daughter of Mel), a pretty young singer that Kelly knew of named Heidi Newfield. A famous woman Opry star named Connie Smith brought out her husband (not on the schedule), another famous country star named Marty Stuart who sang with her. There were even square dancers, doing a very fast and complicated dance. They got a lot of applause.

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My favorite was a singer named Aaron Tippin. He was so energetic and I loved his music. I knew one of his songs-- East Bound and Down-- and sang along to Kelly's shock. (You can listen to it-- the first track-- here, and I've just found out that it was the theme song to "Smokey and the Bandit"-- remember?)

The old cowboys sang "Tumbling Tumbleweed" and ended with "Happy Trails to You." They encouraged everyone to sway and sing along, which of course we did.

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There was something for everyone, people of all ages and interests. Our group varied in age considerably (15, 38, 53 and 63) and we all really enjoyed it.

We will definitely go again, and I would recommend the Grand Ole Opry to anyone who visits Nashville. Even if you don't like country music!

February 9, 2009

The Amazing Opryland Hotel

I posted yesterday about our experience at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, but we did a lot more in Nashville this weekend, and I need a few more posts to tell more about this great city.

We stayed overnight at the Marriott Courtyard near Opryland, arriving about 2 pm Central Time. I've stayed in many Marriott Courtyards for business travel, and they are pretty much all the same. The front desk people at this hotel were very helpful, and it is always nice to have a free hotel! We checked in quickly and decided to drive over to see the Opryland Hotel, about a mile away. The two people at the front desk had warned us that parking at the Opryland Hotel was $18 and recommended that we park at the edge of the Opry Mills parking lot. We only had to walk about five minutes to get to the hotel.

The Opryland Hotel is absolutely amazing!! It's a huge resort/convention hotel (the largest "non-gaming" hotel in the continental US), with nine acres of gardens enclosed in huge atriums. The landscaping was just beautiful! I especially loved the huge orchids.

There are 2,881 guest rooms (including 174 suites), 5 fine dining restaurants, casual dining spots and nightclubs, and 25 shops. Some things we didn't see: a 27,000 square foot spa that we didn't see, a fitness center open 24 hours a day, three swimming pools, and a 600,000 square foot convention center. Wow.

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Kelly and Sophie at the Opryland Hotel

The hotel is organized around four main garden areas: Cascades, the Garden Conservatory, Magnolia (which we really didn't see), and the biggest area, Delta. There is actually a river circling Delta with a riverboat ride.

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In the Cascades

We spent at least an hour at the hotel, wandering through the beautiful gardens. We had drinks at one of the casual eating places overlooking the river.

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Riverboat in the Delta

It's possible to get a room here for less than $200 a night (view to the outside, not into the atrium). I also took a quick look at the packages, and they are offering a package with a Grand Ole Opry ticket for $121/person, plus tax. Their "Romance Package" also looked pretty interesting... champagne and strawberries!

After leaving the Opryland Hotel, we decided to check out Opry Mills. We only had about an hour, as we needed a little time at the hotel to get ready for the Grand Ole Opry. Charley went off with Kelly, and I went with Sophie. Opry Mills has about 200 stores as well as a number of restaurants and a 20-screen Regal Cinema movie theatre. Sophie and I circled the entire complex, and ended up spending about 30 minutes in a Barnes & Noble. I bought Charley and Kelly some candy for Valentine's Day at a Harry and David outlet. We checked out a few other stores, and Sophie found the "Build A Bear" store very interesting. Kelly arrived back at the car with a couple of bags; she found a couple of tops. She loved the shopping there, and I told her I'll bring her back to shop sometime. (Hmmmm... could we stay at the Opryland Hotel??)

February 10, 2009

Sunday in Nashville

We checked out of our hotel at 9:45 am on Sunday and had most of the day to see more of Nashville. It was a beautiful day and we didn't even need to wear jackets! (It was hard to believe that the temperatures had been so cold earlier in the week.)

Our first destination was Centennial Park, a 132 acre city park near Vanderbilt University. The park is dominated by a full-size replica of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The structure was originally built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition. The inside now houses an art museum, but it was closed on Sunday. We walked around the Parthenon and then over to a small lake where lots of Canada geese were swimming and honking.

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We had visited Vanderbilt two years ago when Kelly was inducted into the Duke TIP program. Now we wanted Sophie to see it. The oldest part of the campus is just beautiful, with buildings dating back to 1873. There are over 300 different trees and shrubs on the campus, and it's actually been designated an arboreteum. Vanderbilt is considered one of the top 20 universities in the USA. We will probably come back for a visit as Kelly starts to get serious about colleges.

Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, and the beautiful capitol building sits on a high hill in the downtown area. I've been there before with my Leadership Knoxville class, and we actually sat in the senate chamber in the senators' seats and pretended we were voting on bills. There wasn't anything going on today. Charley found a spot to relax, while Kelly, Sophie and I circled the majestic building. It was built in 1859 and was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War.

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The views from the Capitol were beautiful, in all directions. To the south we looked down Legislative Plaza toward downtown.

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Tennessee had had three US presidents, and all three are recognized on the east side of the capitol. (I'm just sorry that we didn't end up with number 4, Al Gore...)


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Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, was the 7th President

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James K. Polk was the 9th President. He and his wife are buried here. He was Governor of Tennessee before becoming President. He died at age 53, just 103 days after his term ended.

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Andrew Johnson, was the 17th President of the United States, succeeding Abraham Lincoln. He was from Greeneville, Tennessee, where I went to college.

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I was also very interested in this statue of Sergeant Alvin York, the most decorated soldier of World War I and a famous Tennessean. The statue is by Felix de Weldon, who also sculpted the Waving Girl statue in Savannah and the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington DC.

Our next stop was an important one-- lunch! We wanted to eat downtown near the "Music District," the "honky tonk" area of music clubs, restaurants, and shops. We parked on the main street called Broadway and set out on foot. It was very quiet at 11:45 on a Sunday morning. But I imagine it wasn't quiet at all on Saturday night! Charley talked with the woman in the Grey Line bus tour booth, and she recommended an Italian place, part of a small chain, called Demo's. This was an excellent choice: good food, friendly service, and very reasonable prices. I had a sampler of three different pastas, which came with a small salad, less than $9.00.

After Demo's we wandered around a little more, finally going inside a little bar with live music called Tootsies Orchid Lounge. Friends had recommended this to us. It's a tiny place, very rustic, and a band was playing country songs-- definitely a honky-tonk! Charley went up to the counter to order three beers (and a coke for Kelly) and somehow was misunderstood and got three bloody mary's instead. Go figure!

After leaving Tootsie's we walked on down Broadway. There was live music in several places, and also some people playing on the street. We also saw several horse and carriage tours go by.

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The famous people you encounter in Nashville!

We walked past the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a beautiful place with a great schedule of musical events. At that point we could have either gone to the Frist Museum of Art or the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We decided that since we were in Nashville, we would go to the Country Music Hall of Fame. This turned out to be a surprisingly good choice. I hadn't expected to enjoy the Grand Ole Opry, and I hadn't expected to enjoy this either! We spent about two hours in the museum-- it was very interesting.

There is much more to see and do in Nashville. We definitely decided we will come back another time soon.

We dropped Sophie off at the Nashville airport on our way back to Knoxville. The airport is right off I-40 and very easy. We really enjoyed having Sophie with us, and we've invited her to come again on her next trip to the USA. Next time we'd like to do an overnight trip to Asheville, North Carolina.

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Nashville girl!

February 24, 2009

Several Interesting Things You Might Not Know About Knoxville (Part I)

Up until this month, my blogging always focused on our European travels. I know a lot about many places in Europe, especially about Provence. To be honest, I know more about the Luberon than I do about Knoxville, Tennessee, which has been my home for most of my adult life. Last year I did a lot of research on Savannah, Georgia for the Slow Travel Gathering and helped write a whole series of weekly posts about Savannah for the Slow Travel message board. I felt a little embarrassed that I knew much more about another US city where I've never lived than I knew about my own city.

I'm actually a transplant to Knoxville and East Tennessee. I first came to Tennessee from the Baltimore-Washington area when I was 17 years old, to a small college about 70 miles east of Knoxville. Except for a year and a half in Philadelphia for grad school and our 14 months in Europe a few years ago, I've been here ever since. I'm proud of many things about this area, but I've never written much about it.

Earlier this month we hosted our friend Sophie from France and tried to share the best of our city and state with her. In my opinion, Tennessee is often a very misunderstood state, and most people don't know anything about Knoxville at all. So I thought I'd use the next two posts to share some interesting things about my city of Knoxville, Tennessee.

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1. Knoxville was founded in 1786, by James White, who came here from North Carolina. His fort has been restored and sits on a bluff just adjacent to downtown Knoxville. The oldest house in Knoxville is Blount Mansion, which dates to 1792.

2. Knoxville is named for Henry Knox, President George Washington's Secretary of War. (But we have nothing to do with Fort Knox.)

3. During the Civil War, Tennessee seceded from the Union and aligned with the Confederacy, although there were some strong alliances with the Union in East Tennessee. Knoxville was a major trading center of some strategic importance, and several key battles were fought in the Knoxville area. The Union forces defeated the Confederate army at the Battle of Fort Sanders in December 1863 and controlled Knoxville for the rest of the war.

4. Knoxville is situated on the Tennessee River and Fort Loudon Lake. The Tennessee River is formed where the French Broad River and Holston River come together, just east of Knoxville.

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5. Many of Tennessee's rivers were dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during Roosevelt's "New Deal" to stimulate the economy after the depression. As a result, there are many beautiful lakes in this area. There are seven large TVA lakes within 30 minutes or so of Knoxville. The lakes provide some wonderful recreation and scenery but are also used for transportation. TVA corporate headquarters are in Knoxville.

6. There are about 180,000 people in the city of Knoxville, making it the 123rd largest city in the USA and the third largest city in Tennessee. Knoxville is the county seat of Knox County, which has a population of about 420,000. (My address is Knoxville, but I live in the county-- not the city.)

7. The mayor of Knoxville is Bill Haslam, who recently announced that he is running for Governor of Tennessee. He is a down-to-earth guy with a lot of integrity. Bill was a businessman before he entered politics just a few years ago. He is from one of Knoxville's most prominent and philanthropic families.

8. Knoxville is 37 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the US park system (8-10 million visitors annually). The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The park covers 814 square miles and has 800 miles of trails, including a 70 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The highest point is Clingman's Dome at 6,643 feet.

9. The 1982 World's Fair was held in Knoxville and did a lot to help with road construction and redevelopment in the downtown area. There were 11,127,786 visitors. This was the last successful World's Fair in America. The 266 foot Sunsphere was the "theme" structure of the fair and provides a unique element in the Knoxville skyline today.

10. Knoxville is considered the "cradle of country music," and many famous stars such as Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins and the Everly Brothers got their start here. Country western star Hank Williams Sr. spent the last night of his life at the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in downtown Knoxville, dying somewhat mysteriously on December 31, 1952.

February 25, 2009

Several Interesting Things You Might Not Know About Knoxville (Part II)

Here are ten more things you might not know about Knoxville. Come visit us here sometime!

11. Knoxville has been home to several people with literary connections: Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses), poet Nikki Giovanni, James Agee (A Death in the Family), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden). Writer Alex Haley (Roots) moved to the Knoxville area later in his life and was very active in the community. There is a 13-foot, 4,200 pound bronze statue of Alex Haley in a Knoxville park, thought to be the largest statue of an African American in the US.

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12. These famous Knoxvillians have been involved in the world of movies and television: Patricia Neal, Polly Bergen, Quentin Tarantino, John Cullum, David Keith, Brad Renfro, and.... Johnny Knoxville. Tina Wesson, the winner of the second season of Survivor, is from Knoxville. (I met her at a fund raiser and had my picture made with her.) The movie October Sky was filmed in and around Knoxville.

13. The main campus of the University of Tennessee is located in Knoxville. The school was founded in 1794 and today has 26,400 students (20,400 undergraduate and 6,000 graduate). There are 8300 faculty and staff members, one of whom is me. There are over 400 different academic programs. U.S. News and World Report ranks UT Knoxville as 51 among all public universities. They ranked UT's College of Business Administration (where I teach) 24th in the nation among public universities.

14. The UT Football stadium (Neyland Stadium) is one of the largest in America, seating over 104,000 fans. The team is known as the Volunteers, the Vols and also the "Big Orange," and fans come to games dressed in bright orange. Hundreds of fans arrive by boat on the nearby river and are called the "Vol Navy." Peyton Manning was the quarterback of the Vols for four years beginning in 1994.

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15. The University of Tennessee women's basketball team is known as the Lady Vols and is consistently one of the top women's basketball programs in the country. They have won the national title eight times, most recently in 2008. The team has been coached for 25 years by Pat Head Summit, who just won her 1000th game.

16. Knoxville is home to more than 20 museums, including the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. The world's largest basketball (10 tons) is locatd on one end of the building. The most interesting "museum" in this area is the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, which is a living museum showcasing life in this area in pioneer and frontier days.

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17. Knoxville is 20 miles from Oak Ridge, a town built during World War II to develop the atomic bomb that ended the war. Today Oak Ridge is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which employs about 1600 scientists and engineers and is an international center for energy research and development. The laboratory occupies about 58 square miles of U.S. government land.

18. Two-thirds of the US population lives within a day's drive of Knoxville. (See here to see how far you are.) We are located where I-81, I-40 and I-75 come together.

19. The main street of downtown Knoxville is Gay Street. Two beautifully restored historic theaters are located on Gay Street: the Tennessee Theatre (1928) and the Bijou Theatre (1909). There is a real emphasis on downtown revitalization, highlighted by the opening of a very successful Mast General Store on Gay Street a few years ago.

20. Knoxville has a strong and varied economic base. National companies headquartered in this area include: Scripps Networks (HGTV, Food Network); Pilot Corporation (travel centers); Bush Brothers (baked beans); Regal Entertainment (movie theaters); Ruby Tuesday (restaurants) and Clayton Homes (manufactured homes). The boat industry has been a major industry in this area.

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to The Trail's Our Thing in the Tennessee category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Provence is the previous category.

Travel is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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