Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Fond Farewell to My Southern Roots Trip

Good-Bye Louisville
Sunday morning after my high school reunion in Louisville, Dan and I met my dad's childhood friend, Jimmy Linehan, for brunch at Winston's, the Sullivan University culinary school restaurant where we had a delightful brunch and caught up on old stories and family news. In 2011, we were the lucky guests for a delicious fine dining experience that Jimmy hosted at Winston's. It was a celebration after the  Kentucky Oaksthe featured fillies' race the day before the Kentucky Derby. That's when the locals turn out in brilliant pink hats, suits, shirts, and ties. Even pink jockey silks and a pink tractor can be seen on the track in support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation's work in breast cancer. Jimmy knew how to end the day in style. What a gracious, generous man whose lifelong pursuit has been the law, and good times with family and friends.

Brother Lary, Benjamin, me, Elisha, Katrine, and Fay

Sunday night after the reunion was the family meetup at Mike Linning's on Cane Run Road, near the Ohio River. The white, screened huts, about the size of a kid's playhouse, are sprinkled around a dirt lot, along with a few dozen picnic tables, to provide the outdoor seating next to an air-conditioned building for the indoor restaurant, family-owned since it opened in 1925. Those huts bring back memories of fried fish dinners with our family of six, in the little house that was just big enough for a table, chairs, and friendly waiter. But they'd never hold the gathering of the clan that my sister-in-law Fay organized for us that night. As my two brothers, their families, and cousins from Louisville and Florida took bench seats around two long picnic tables, the chatter included updates on family news and favorite stories over fish sandwiches, french fries, soft drinks, and beer. With full bellies and lots of hugs, we figured it was the perfect send-off for the remainder of our trip, which would lead us to Cincinnati, the Smokies, and our final destination -- Nashville.

Hello Cincinnati
About 18 months before we arrived, Georgia friends Vicki and Harold moved with daughter Katie to a beautiful piece of property in New Richmond, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. Their lovely brick home is surrounded by several acres of grass, two barns, a pond with ducks, overflowing gardens, a greenhouse, and beautiful pool, patio, and cabana. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are always a treat with Vicki, whose greens, herbs, and other produce are picked fresh from the vegetable patch, and eggs collected warm from the hen house. One of the highlights of our visit was an afternoon stroll along Cincinnati's stunning  Riverfront Park, a major attraction that curves along the Ohio River, from the Reds' Stadium past wide wooden swings, spouting fountains, and metal sculptures and play equipment.

Riverfront Park in Cincinnati
The next morning, it was a  sweet sayonara as we bade farewell to our friends and motored south to Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, which has the highest rate of attendance of all the national parks in the United States. A bumper-to-bumper logjam on a one-way road was all the evidence we needed to testify to the number of people taking a walk in the woods. One waterfall hike and a drive to the mountaintop gave us lots of chances for photos and views. The park's web site claims that The Hunger Games was filmed there. A summer rain and purchases from the crafts show at the convention hall filled our last day in the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg. The next morning we headed west for Nashville.

Nashville Time
They call it "Music City" and there's a reason. From the moment we arrived, we knew we were in the South. Where do you find a circle of next-door-neighbors parked on lawn chairs in the middle of the afternoon for a front yard cocktail hour, with five pairs of feet soaking in a kids' pool while five hands balance beer cans and glasses? We waved and took a quick iPhone photo, with permission, of course, before we checked into our Air BnB room at the historic East Nashville home. The country music vibe came from all directions -- tunes riding the wind from next door's boom box, guitar and concert posters decorating walls throughout the vintage-furnished house, and tourist magazines packed with music venues and hot spots. Our goal: take it all in.

The Grand Ole Opry tickets were burning a hole in Dan's pocket. We started the Nashville experience that night, with  Carrie Underwood as the Grand Ole Opry headliner and anybody's guess on other performers. First, you need to know that Opryland Hotel next door to the Grand Ole Opry is more like a small town, with restaurants, street signs, lush foliage, water features, and stairways and hallways that lead to other hallways where you can easily get lost. We did. Forever fearless, we persevered and found what our hosts back at the Air Bnb house called "the most expensive place in the hotel." Eager to eat and see the show, too, we perched our bums on bar seats at the Old Hickory Steakhouse, sucked an excellent manhattan and cosmo, inhaled the Ceasar salad and appetizers to die for, and tossed a generous tip toward the bartender, who got us in and out in time for the show.

Exile at the Grand Ole Opry
Along the pathway that leads to the entrance of the Grand Ole Opry, a white-suited, rhinestone cowboy appears to direct traffic and pose for pictures. I obliged while Dan snapped. Seated inside, we had a perfect view of the shiny wood stage at the center of a considerable amphitheater hall, with 1,999 seats downstairs and 2,373 seats upstairs. (The Opry's original home at Ryan Auditorium, which we visited on a previous trip to Nashville, remains an active venue that holds 2,373 people.) Here we sat, in hallowed halls that wrote the country music history I'd heard as a kid growing up with uncles who plucked guitars and sang Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Johnny Cash, and so many others. This wasn't the Ryman, but the variety show ambience still signaled the cork was about to pop on a down-home party. Jeannie Seeley was our emcee hostess for the night's show. If you've never seen it, and we hadn't, Opry royalty has a sense of time, place, and importance that's hard to deny. Well into her seventh decade, Jeannie took the stage like it was her living room, and welcomed everyone to a show that dates back to its first performance in a radio studio in 1925 and is still broadcast as the  Opry Radio Show. Gracious, talented, flawless, and heartfelt, Jennie delivered a song that could've been spun in honey, with a gentle touch of twang. Graced by her performance, we settled in for the ride.

From the new acts with Ashley Clark and Logan Brill, to the old-timers like Exile and Ricky Skaggs, we absorbed the music like hikers who'd reached the mountaintop to take in the view. Carrie Underwood was the last act, singing classic numbers like "Jesus Take the Wheel" in a short performance (20-30 minutes) that had the audience begging for more, but that was all we got.  As we filed out of the enormous hall, we had to admit it was the old-timers who got our five star ratings. The whole evening was a bit of hillbilly heaven.

Back at the ranch the next morning, with our lovely host and hostess, we outlined stops for the next two days and called Uber for rides to most of our destinations. Since we'd already visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on our previous trip, we skipped it this time and headed straight for the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville. It didn't compare to Graceland for size and collections, but there was plenty to draw us in. Several napkins and pages were inked or penciled in Johnny's handwriting for songs like Folsom Prison Blues and Drive On, and there were numerous videos that showed Johnny and June performing on TV and at the Grand Ole Opry, mostly familiar tunes that we recognized. Roberts Western World was our stop for authentic country sounds in a honky tonk setting. And there were plenty of places listed in Nashville's trendy restaurant scene that could shake a cocktail as well as the designer chef could cook, decorate, and stack the grub. We majored in happy hours, but ordered meals when the temptation was too strong to leave, like it was at Rolf and Daughters, a trendy, bustling eatery in a light industrial neighborhood near downtown. The Standard was a superb recommendation from our host and hostess. On Rosa Parks Blvd., this is a house turned restaurant with a long history you can read about on their Website. We were completely satiated, sipping cocktails at the elegant downstairs bar and enjoying a tasty selection of delicious appetizers. Other places in our East Nashville neighborhood were perfect for brunch, lunch and breakfast when the mood hit us.

Fully fed and honky-tonked, we left Nashville feeling that it was the perfect ending to a trip that had the explicit goal of a night at the Grand Ole Opry.  But we got so much more, from Memphis on. The music delivered everything I'd hoped for, but the whole experience made the trip unforgettable, launching us into the modern age of AirBnb and Uber!