- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

There is no beach. No theme park. No casino. No Super Bowl. No Mardi Gras. No World Cup.

Nashville tore down its theme park to build - gasp! - a shopping mall.

Yet this central Tennessee city, famous worldwide for its records and rhinestones, is a worthy destination for tourists pinching pennies, recession or not.

There’s plenty of free music plus educational and cultural attractions to fill up a few days without lightening the wallet. You can stay, eat and be entertained at less cost than in many comparable cities.

“We look at it as a value destination,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You can have an instant vacation at minimum expense.”

Nashville has built much of its reputation on fiddles and fringe, marketing itself as “Music City USA.” So check out the cluster of a dozen or so honky-tonks along a three-block stretch of downtown Nashville near the Cumberland River. The beer is cold, the music is loud, and the admission generally is free.

Just walk in, find a table (if there is one), order a brew and have a good time. The only concession to revenue is a tip jar passed around periodically. The especially savvy bars leave it near the door to signal customers coming or going.

“It’s an experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else,” Mr. Spyridon says.

These aren’t just bars run by fly-by-night rubes. Most have been in business several years. One of them - Tootsie’s - even has a public relations firm.

“You get to partying, and pretty soon you’re dancing on the bar,” says Tootsie’s owner Steve Smith.

The most upscale of the businesses is the Wildhorse Saloon, though its Web site doesn’t describe it as a honky-tonk. It’s called (sniff, sniff) “a mecca of entertainment.”

It has 66,000 square feet spread across three levels and has sold about 10 million bottles of beer since opening in 1994.

It costs $4 to $8 to get in, and three on-staff dance instructors give free lessons nightly except for Monday, when the club is closed - possibly to give all involved a chance to recover.

Beer specials at the honky-tonks cost as little as $2.50.

In the heart of the downtown entertainment district, you can request your favorite country song at a Nashville shrine and hear it from a friendly guitarist - for free.

David Andersen performs daily at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, strolling through the atrium to entertain patrons before they pay their $17.95 to enter the museum area.

On his 15-year-old Epiphone wireless guitar, he’ll play just about anything you want to hear: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Spanish Eyes.”

Mr. Andersen politely will ask you to sign his journal, which has helped him keep track of the people he’s met. He says they number more than 1 million.

“I just really enjoy playing these songs and meeting so many people,” he says.

Tickets for the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s legendary country music show, are $38 to $53 for around 2 1/2 hours of performances.

For night owls, the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree is held every Saturday night (actually early Sunday morning) at a theater near the Grand Ole Opry House northeast of downtown. Entertainment is free, with performers such as Michael Martin Murphey, Charlie Louvin and Jack Greene. Gospel music great Dottie Rambo made one of her final appearances on the show last May before she was killed in a May 11 bus wreck.

Nestled between the honky-tonks sits Jack’s Bar-B-Que - and tourists must get some Southern pork barbecue or they’ll remain virgin visitors. A pork-shoulder sandwich, baked beans, coleslaw and tea or a soft drink cost just $8.66. A slice of custardy chess pie or chocolate fudge pie is $2.50.

A few miles away, for another traditional Southern meal, the At the Table cafeteria offers fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoes and hot-water cornbread for a mere $7.25.

Throat need a jolt? Prince’s Hot Fried Chicken Shack 15 minutes north of downtown has been burning mouths since 1945 with its 500,000-volt chicken fried in cast-iron skillets and served with white bread and pickles. Add a couple of sides, and you still can leave (likely steaming) for about $10.

Feeling guilty about honky-tonkin’ and want to get a little culture? The Hermitage, the antebellum home of President Andrew Jackson, is open daily, 12 miles east of downtown. Tours range from $7 to $17.

In Nashville’s midtown area, across from Vanderbilt University in Centennial Park, is the Parthenon, a replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Inside is a re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena and an art museum featuring 63 paintings by 19th- and 20th-century American artists. If you don’t go in, you still can get close to the structure by driving through the 91-acre park. The park has a small lake with reasonably friendly ducks, and it hosts two free craft fairs a year and free musical entertainment on most summer weekends.

“Our arts and cultural offerings are our best-kept secrets,” Mr. Spyridon says.

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