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Nashville, Tennessee

Visiting Nashville and the little towns just south of it, you quickly find that country music and down-home cooking are top of mind just about everywhere you go.

Visiting Nashville and the little towns just south of it, you quickly find that country music and down-home cooking are top of mind just about everywhere you go. That became clear on a recent tour of the region when we stopped for dinner one night at Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse & Bakery in the little town of Pottsville, just outside Columbia. Housed in a refurbished general store built in the 1890s, Marcy Jo’s was opened in 2007 by Joey Martin Feek (of husband-and-wife country/bluegrass duo Joey + Rory fame) and her sister-in-law Marcy, who is Rory Lee Feek’s sister.

After devouring a feast of baked pork chops, potatoes, white beans—and, for dessert, pecan sticky buns the size of hubcaps—we enjoyed an intimate acoustic performance by Jason Matthews and Kerry Kurt Phillips, two world-class C&W songwriters. Phillips has written five No. 1 songs, including “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” for George Jones. Matthews’ credits include “Country Man,” a hit for Luke Bryan, and “Must Be Doing Something Right,” a smash for Billy Currington. But it was Jason’s song “For Pete’s Sake” that hit me in the gut that night. The straightforward ditty about a stray mutt named Pete that, after many years of faithful companionship, had to be put down—for Pete’s sake—had my eyes brimming unexpectedly with tears, a reminder of the power of simple country music.

The refurbished Franklin Theatre in Franklin hosts top musical acts.
The refurbished Franklin Theatre in Franklin hosts top musical acts.

That was actually the second time we’d seen Jason on this trip. The previous day he’d also turned up to do a noontime concert for diners at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant in downtown Columbia. Puckett’s, which features live music as well as home-cooked grub like Cajun fried chicken over hot waffles, is owned by entrepreneur Andy Marshall, who has two other Puckett’s outlets, in Franklin and Nashville, as well. Marshall once owned another Puckett’s, in the trendy nearby village called Leiper’s Fork, but he sold that one several years ago.

After Jason finished his performance and sat down at a table with his wife (and manager) Debby—“I’m his pimp,” she joked—I asked him whether he knew he had a hit with “Must Be Doing Something Right” as soon as he wrote it. “I knew it was a worthy song,” he replied. “But I’ve had plenty of worthy songs. It’s a series of miracles to get a No. 1 record.” Although writing country songs is a tough business, he conceded, “this is what I was born to do. I thank God I can get up every day and do it.”

The Nashville area, of course, is replete with hard-working country songwriters, talented musicians—and stars of all stripes. Just about everybody you meet says so. Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman shop at the Whole Foods in Franklin, we were told. Johnny Depp just bought a house here. Amy Grant and Vince Gill are seen out having breakfast. Taylor Swift shops at Opry Mills, a big shopping center hard by the Grand Ole Opry House. Indeed, poking around Leiper’s Fork outside Franklin one evening, the saleswoman at a gift shop told us that we’d just missed Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who’d stopped in and had been “very nice.”

The Grand Ole Opry is a key Nashville attraction.
The Grand Ole Opry is a key Nashville attraction.
Later on, the buzz was that Jessica and Justin might show up for open-mic night at the Leiper Fork Puckett’s. While that didn’t happen, we were treated there to an evening of wonderful down-home food (the cheeseburger cost $4.99, the sweet potato fries, $3.29) and some raucous, first-rate live music. The acts ranged from Jackson Nance, a 14-year-old kid who sounded like an old bluesman, to Mike Pace, a middle-aged guy from down the road who said he’d written a couple of songs for Loretta Lynn. One highlight of the evening was a beautiful duet by the Stella sisters, Lennon and Maisy, who have regular roles on Nashville, the ABC-TV drama that’s filmed around Music City.

That nickname’s apt, because music animates this part of the country. In Franklin, the lovingly restored, Art Deco-era Franklin Theatre touts itself as “the best 300-seat venue for live music in the world.” At the reopened Musician’s Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, you can watch a video of Sam Phillips, the legendary music producer, talking about the first time he saw Johnny Cash. There’s also an interesting (if somewhat cramped) new downtown museum devoted to Cash, just a couple of streets over from the endlessly fascinating Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. I spent a couple of hours at the Hall of Fame, but one could easily while away at least a day at this landmark, there’s so much to see.

Rooms at Nashville's Hutton Hotel offer views of the city.
Rooms at Nashville’s Hutton Hotel offer views of the city.
For top-shelf accommodations, there are really three choices in Nashville proper: a brand-new Omni, the five-diamond Hermitage, and the Hutton. The last’s a sleek boutique hotel, just blocks from Vanderbilt University, boasting city views and granite bathrooms with glass-enclosed rainfall showers. Stepping out of the first-floor elevator on my last morning there, I was surprised to see the entire lobby had been taken over by the cast and crew of Nashville, which was filming for the show’s second season. But, that’s Music City for you.

A version of this story appears in the May-June 2014 issue of D CEO. Trip provided by Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.