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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2011

Nashville bounces back from devastating flood

The city's honky-tonks feature live music day and night.                             The city's honky-tonks feature live music day and night.

NASHVILLE -- This city's recent history has all the makings of a great country song: a fervent love affair, sudden tragedy, an inspiring rescue, and finally, a happy ending.

Long known as the nation's Music City, Nashville is home to countless singer-songwriters and an impressive array of live-music venues, as well as dozens of recording studios and music publishers, which together produce hundreds of songs each year -- and not just country tunes, but rock, gospel, blues, soul, and alternative music as well.

More than 10 million visitors come here annually to see attractions such as the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium, and a number of other places, including the famous honky-tonk saloons along lower Broadway, where plenty of stars got their start.

In early May of last year, however, Music City became Swamp City as the skies opened up, dumping more than a foot of rain on Nashville in just two days. The Cumberland River surged over its banks and flowed through the city, causing billions of dollars in damage.

Now, nearly a year later, there's little evidence of the raging floodwaters. Oh, there's a bronze rail on a wall at the Opry House marking the water level during the flood, and the nearby Opry Mills mall still hasn't reopened, but for the most part, the city has bounced back amazingly well.

Locals say that's a testament to the resilient spirit of the city, as well as the generosity of many of its celebrity residents and headliners. Among those who organized fund-raising concerts after the flood were superstars Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Garth Brooks.

"The flood was devastating, but no one waited for the government to come help us out," said Heather Middleton of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We helped each other, and everybody used it as an opportunity to make things better."

The Grand Ole Opry House is a tourist favorite even when there are no shows going on. The Grand Ole Opry House is a tourist favorite even when there are no shows going on.

We visited the city during the recent Tin Pan South music festival, an annual bash that features hundreds of singer-songwriters performing over five nights at several clubs around town. The venues are intimate, with audiences seated just a few feet from the singers, some of whom had familiar names: Mac Davis, Kenny Loggins, Tom T. Hall, and Crystal Bowersox, to name a few.

But the real thrill comes with listening to people you've never heard of -- but who happen to be the ones who wrote many of the chart-topping songs sung by the superstars.

Among those we saw in three nights of club-hopping were Steve Cropper, co-writer of "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," Jim Peterik ("Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky III and .38 Special's "Rocking into the Night"), Regie Hamm (American Idol's "The Time of My Life"), Wil Nance (Brad Paisley's "She's Everything"), and Karen Staley (Faith Hill's "Take Me as I Am").

One morning we shared coffee with songwriter Billy Montana, who has written country chart-toppers for Sara Evans, Brooks, and Jo Dee Messina. He neatly summed up the challenge of writing music for a living: "Our job is to say something that's been said a million times in a way it's never been said before -- in 3 1/2 minutes."

For visitors to Nashville, there are plenty of all-but-obligatory stops. Among them:

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is packed with artifacts and displays, with current exhibits featuring Tammy Wynette and the Hank Williams family.

The 42-foot-tall gilded statue of Athena is inside Nashville's full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon. The 42-foot-tall gilded statue of Athena is inside Nashville's full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon.

Studio B is Nashville's oldest recording studio and home to hits from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton to Carrie Underwood. Elvis Presley recorded more than 250 songs here, and visitors can play the same piano that Elvis played. (Legend has it that Elvis tried to take it home, but Chet Atkins wouldn't let him.)

Built in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium is a National Historic Landmark known as the "Mother Church of Country Music." Home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 until 1974, it still hosts major concerts, and its remarkable acoustics are said to be second in the world only to the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Grand Ole Opry House, nine miles east of downtown Nashville, has been the home of the weekly radio show since 1974. Closed for five months following last May's flood, it underwent $20 million in renovations before reopening.

The city's honky-tonks, which stayed open throughout the flooding, feature cheap beer, cheerful crowds, and live music every night and most afternoons. Must-sees include Tootsie's, the Stage, and Robert's Western World.

A tribute to the city's other nickname as "the Athens of the South," the Parthenon is the world's only full-size replica of the Parthenon in Greece. Inside is a towering gold-trimmed statue of the goddess Athena, the largest indoor statue in the Western world.

Though it's 75 miles south of Nashville in Lynchburg, Tenn., lots of visitors think it's worth the trip to see the Jack Daniel's Distillery, where they've been making the famous charcoal-filtered whiskey since 1866. Tours are free, but all you get at the end is a shot of lemonade - no whiskey samples, because Lynchburg is in a dry county.

After a four-day visit here, the verdict is clear: In Nashville, the show goes on, come hell or high water.

More info and discounts: Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-657-6910, or www.visitmusiccity.com.

Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer. Contact him at: Kelly.writer@yahoo.com

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