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VOL. 43 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 31, 2019

Get out! Want to avoid the CMA Fest invasion? We’ve got some great short-drive getaways

By Tom Wood

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It’s been just five weeks since the record-breaking NFL Draft and its horde of fans – 600,000 strong over three days – took control of downtown Nashville.

And in just a few days, a swarm of CMA Fest country music fans – who averaged a record-setting 88,500 fans to ticketed and free events each day of the 2018 event – will once again descend on downtown Nashville like the invasion of electric scooters.

CMA Fest (June 6-10) will then be followed by Bonnaroo (June 13-16). And while that festival is 60 miles down I-24 in Manchester, many of the 80,000 or so Bonnaroonies will be using Nashville’s roads and airport to get in and out. Many will extend their stays and enjoy all that Music City has to offer.

So, if you like jam-packed, can’t-breathe crowds squeezed into every nook and cranny of Lower Broadway streets and clubs, if you like being part of the scene, if you like the fact that the NFL Draft accounted for a record $133 million in direct spending in Nashville and set another record with overall economic impact of $224 million, then you’re probably already shaping the brim of your cowboy hat and polishing your boot-scooting skills, eager to head back downtown for the June 6-9 CMA Fest.

But if you’re claustrophobic or suffering from a fear of crowds (that’s enochlophobia, BTW), still miffed about increased traffic, ticked about not being able to get a table at your favorite restaurant or – insert favorite grumbles here – the Ledger only one piece of advice.


Hit the road. A four-day weekend getaway from Music City is what you need, though you may want to take off the whole week. Your blood pressure will drop while visitors dance the nights away and spend their money while you’re gone.

It’s a win-win!

Take what “Condé Nast Traveler’’ contributing editor Mark Ellwood described as a “microvacation” on a recent “CBS This Morning” appearance.

“I think, often, this is a little bit like tapas for travel. It’s a small-plate trend,” Ellwood explained. “So, basically, a long weekend, you go somewhere nearby, somewhere you’re really familiar with. But these microvacations, you’re like, ‘Oh, I can get three-, four-hours (away), maybe on a direct flight that didn’t used to exist. There are a lot more connections, so it’s widening your options.”

Good advice, but it probably won’t fly on such short notice here – not with thousands of people from around the globe winging toward Nashville.

No. if you’re gonna get out of Nashville for CMA Fest, the family car is still your best bet. Pick a direction. A three- to six-hour trek will get you pretty far removed from Music City.

Go to …

I quickly came up with a list of obvious, popular attractions – Dollywood, Graceland, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga – and called each to find out what’s new for 2019. Then I asked some media friends and a few fellow authors for their go-to, get-out-of-Nashville suggestions for CMA Fest week.

Joe Elmore of "Tennessee Crossroads"

My first call was to Joe Elmore, host of “Tennessee Crossroads” on WNPT-Ch.8. He and his cohorts have traveled the state’s highways and byways since 1987, showcasing people, places of interest, arts and crafts, and food. Joe’s first suggestion was a trip to Centerville.

“That’s kind of a nice day trip … the hometown of Minnie Pearl, and they have a great event on Saturday mornings called ‘The Grinders Switch Music Hour.’ It’s free, it’s a live concert with a bunch of local musicians who play country music,” says Elmore, whose show recently received the 2019 Metro Historical Commission Preservation Award.

“And then just across the street on the court square is Breece’s Café, where we visited about a year or two ago. It’s just a down-home meat-and-three, a Mom ’n’ Pop kind of place. There are a lot of friendly people, and a cool little town square. For sure, it’s going to be a lot quieter than it’s going to be (in Nashville).”

Helen, Georgia

Then I contacted former TV sports and news personality Rudy Kalis, who suggested Lynchburg or Helen, Georgia, a cool little Bavarian-style mountain village about 4½ hours from Nashville.

“It’s in the mountains of northeast Georgia. The buildings are built just like the quaint buildings in Bavaria where I was born. The food is authentic as well. We really loved it,” Kalis says. “We took my parents along on our trip. My dad loved the Bavarian style homes. Reminded him of the “old country,” but he kept trying to find a waiter or store keeper who could actually talk German. He came away full with good German food, but disappointed in not finding an authentic German.”

East is easy

You’ll find plenty of possibilities as you drive I-40 toward North Carolina, notably the Smoky Mountains gateway entertainment strip of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge

But the first stop I’d recommend is Oak Ridge, one of the birthplaces of the Atomic Age and the ultrasecret Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge didn’t exist before 1942 and didn’t appear on maps until 1949.

There are plenty of museums dedicated to exploring the city’s history, notes Oak Ridge historian Ray Smith, who spilled the secrets of the Secret City in the May 24 edition of the Ledger.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of Oak Ridge, there are plenty of options – from the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge to the Department of Energy’s American Museum of Science and Energy and the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association’s Oak Ridge History Museum, from the Oak Ridge International Friendship Bell to the Birth of the City monuments to the Secret City Commemorative Walk – and much more. Check out exploreoakridge.com.

An interesting side trip would be to Petros, where the infamous Brushy Mountain Prison has been turned into a historical attraction. Think of it as the Alcatraz of Tennessee.

Cell Block A at newly opened Brushy Mountain Prison

It’s where James Earl Ray spent the rest of his life following the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, and the website bills the daily prison tours run as ‘the damnation of many an evil man (and) the salvation of a few.’ Go to www.tourbrushy.com.

Sports fans will want to note this one. On June 8, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place in Knoxville. The Class of 2019 includes contributors Joan Cronan, Beth Bass and Nora Lynn Finch; Ticha Penicheiro (international player); Ruth Riley and Valerie Still (players); Carolyn Bush Roddy (veteran player); and AIAW (trailblazers). There’s a free autograph session that morning, but induction-related events are ticketed. Call 865-633-9000.

And then it’s on to that East Tennessee playground, Dollywood, located in Pigeon Forge. It’s also home to Dollywood’s Splash Country, which the Travel Channel recently hailed as No. 3 on its list of 17 top U.S. water parks. There’s also a new $37 million expansion at Dollywood called Wildwood Grove, a six-acre site that is highlighted by the Dragonflier suspended roller coaster. Everything you need to know is at dollywood.com or 1 800 Dollywood.

Dollywood is one of a half-dozen major amusement parks within a four-hour drive of Nashville. Others include:

• Six Flags Over Georgia near Atlanta

• Holiday World (formerly known as Santa Claus Land) in Indiana

• Beech Bend Park and Splash Lagoon in Bowling Green

• Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville

• Lake Winnepesaukah Park near Chattanooga

The Gatlinburg SkyBridge recently opened and provides a scenic 680-foot walk above Gatlinburg with a glass portion in the middle.

But back to the Smokies, a shopping/entertainment paradise. You’ll want to visit the Gatlinburg Skylift Park, home to the new SkyBridge, which at 680 feet is billed as North America’s longest pedestrian simple suspension bridge. It opened May 17. Go to www.gatlinburgskylift.com.

“We are the longest-running attraction in town, having opened (the skylift park) in 1954; this is our 65th year of operation,” says Marcus Watson, marketing coordinator. “So we’re both the oldest and the newest.”

If those just-a-swinging bridges are your thing, check out the ones at Rock City in Chattanooga, Sevierville and Townsend.

Of course you’ll need a place to stay in the Smokies, and there’s a wide array of accommodations from campgrounds to cabins to motels and upscale hotels.

“My husband and I go to the Simple Pleasures cabin in Sevierville at least once a year,” says Nashville author Jaden Terrell, a hiking and outdoors enthusiast who will be one of 40-plus authors featured at the June 1-2 Franklin Book Festival.

“The view is beautiful, and sitting on the porch swing while drinking coffee and watching the sun rise over the mountains is the perfect way to start the day,” she adds. “It’s a great romantic getaway (mimosas in the hot tub!), but would also be a terrific artist’s or writer’s retreat.”

Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol

Elmore also shared his fondness for the northeast corner of Tennessee bordering Virginia.

“Bristol is a jewel,” he says. “We went there a few years ago to The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which is pretty ostentatious and pretty neat. There was a big-shot producer from New York that came in there and recorded the Carter Family and all kinds of artists that had never been heard of before, except for live.

“Tennessee Ernie Ford’s honored in that place (along with) Jimmie Rodgers, and it’s a pretty good attraction. They’ve done a first-class job with that.

“That’s on the Tennessee side, but on the Virginia side of the same town – you know, you can have one foot in one state and one in the other – but there’s a place called the Burger Bar. I’ve got to say it’s probably one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life. And the shakes were equally great.

“But legend has it that (Burger Bar) was the last place that Hank Williams Sr. stopped at on his fatal ride to the concert he never made it back when he died (Jan. 1, 1953 in Oak Hills, West Virginia). A young couple owns it now and they have a very friendly staff, and it’s really old-timey.”

More in Memphis

Loretta Lynn’s Ranch

If you choose to head west on I-40, first check out Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills and the nearby Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. There’s camping and cabins available. Go to www.lorettalynnranch.net.

It’s a little off the beaten path, but “Crossroads’’ host Elmore suggests a trip to Shiloh National Military Park and other historic battlefields in the area – and then suggested another of his favorite restaurants.

“Next to Shiloh is a place called Hagy’s Catfish Hotel. It’s right there on the Tennessee River and a great little getaway, definitely away from the noise, and I can’t wait to go back to that place,” Elmore adds

In Memphis, you’ve probably been to Elvis Presley’s Graceland more than once, but they’ve got a new expansion this spring called Graceland Exhibition Center. Details are at www.graceland.com.

The inaugural exhibits include ‘National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers,’ ‘Muhammad Ali: Greatest of All Time,’ and ‘Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum Presents: A Century of the American Motorcycle.’

“It will offer Tennesseans and visitors from around the world even more to experience on the Graceland campus,” says Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “We will be bringing world class exhibitions on a variety of subjects to Memphis for all to enjoy.”

Online sports gambling is about to be legalized in Tennessee, but if you want to do some in person while you’re in Memphis, you could swing down to Tunica or cross the Mississippi River into West Memphis and wager on greyhound racing at the Southland Casino track.

And speaking about the mighty ‘Mississip,’ Texas author Gogi Hale told me about a little trip she recently took on a riverboat cruise. She was especially impressed with the stop at the Vicksburg battle site.

“If you like old-timey music, fine dining and fascinating stops in Southern historical places, a Mississippi River cruise may be right for you,” she says, noting that it was an older crowd (besides her) on the cruise. “The staterooms are large and sitting on our private balcony was a lovely way to unwind as the Mississippi flowed around us.”

In Huntsville, Alabama, of course, there’s the U.S. Space & Rocket Center with plenty of exhibits (they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 lunar landing); golf, fishing and outdoor fun in Muscle Shoals; and plenty more to do if you head toward Birmingham.

I touched bases with Alabama author Jim Nesbitt, who said he yearns to drive the Natchez Trace someday from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. He’s a car buff and loves to visit the car shows.

“Pam and I tool around a lot in the convertible, but we don’t necessarily go anywhere – driving with the top down is the point. What we do a lot of is check out car shows. A good excuse to get out of town, see a small town you’ve never seen before and kick around their courthouse square and see vintage American Iron,” Nesbitt adds.

“One trip we keep threatening to take is back to Tupelo in the convertible, meandering down the Natchez Trace Parkway, to see Elvis’ birthplace, then head on down to Natchez to see those antebellum homes before they fall off the bluff.”

Check out Chattanooga

Well-known for Rock City, Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga is also home to the Tennessee Aquarium. Island Life is the next exhibit, where you’ll meet Leon the Chameleon as well as other forms of life above and below the ocean. Go to tnaqua.org.

“We’re excited for guests to experience these new exhibits. They’ll feel like world travelers while seeing some pretty amazing animals,” explains Thom Demas, the Aquarium’s director of aquatic collections and life support systems. “I think visitors will be amazed by Flashlight Fish, and will love seeing many other species we haven’t exhibited previously. Islands are remarkably diverse locations, and in this gallery, we’re able to tell quite a few of these stories of biodiversity.”

Elmore says they’ve featured the Aquarium several times on the show.

“It’s a real treat and keeps getting better and better. They keep upgrading it and I think it’s one of the best in the South,” Elmore points out. “I know Atlanta has a great one, and of course, there’s the one in Pigeon Forge, one of the Ripley enterprises, and that’s a pretty good deal.”

Sports of sorts

Major league baseball trips are always a treat. But the closest teams to Nashville are mostly on the road during CMA Fest week. So you will indeed have to hop a plane for a microvacation to see your favorite team.

The Atlanta Braves visit the Pittsburgh Pirates June 4-6 and are at the Miami Marlins June 7-9. But if you want to head to Atlanta the following week, the Braves are home June 10-13 vs. the Pirates followed by a home series with the Phillies and Mets.

A trip to St. Louis sounds like a winner. The Cardinals are at home against the Cincinnati Reds on June 4-6, then visit the Chicago Cubs June 7-9. After visiting St. Louis, the Reds visit the Phillies June 7-9.

Now if you want a real baseball getaway, follow your Nashville Sounds to Reno June 4-6, followed by a trip to Tacoma June 7-10.

Golfers might want to hit the Tennessee Golf Trail, notably the Bear Trace Trail, which features three Jack Nicklaus-designed courses – Cumberland Mountain in Crossville, Harrison Bay in Harrison, and Tims Ford in Winchester. Alabama has the Robert Trent Jones Trail.

Buddy Rambo, one of the clerk managers at Tims Ford, says they get a lot of visitors year-round from the Nashville area, not just during CMA Fest.

“It’s sort of a little hidden gem close to Winchester, not far from Lynchburg and Tullahoma, which is 15-20 min. away,” he adds. “We have a lot of people who play golf in the morning and sneak over (to Lynchburg) and do the Jack Daniel’s tour.

Other options

Speaking of sippin’ whiskey, check out Tennessee’s Whiskey Trail (List of stops).

For caving, there’s none better than Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or checkout the Bluegrass Underground shows at the Caverns in Pelham. And for something really different, visit the Bell Witch Cave in Adams.

I asked Elmore if he’d been there, and he said no, but that it was featured on the very first “Tennessee Crossroads” show in October 1987. The reporter of that segment was Jerry Thompson, a revered columnist and one of our longtime friends at The Tennessean.

“Ironically, our very first show back in October 1987, Jerry Thompson – you remember Jerry; he was with us for a couple of years doing stories – well, Jerry did a story on the Bell Witch, and I don’t think we’ve been back since. I guess she scared us away from it,” Elmore notes with a laugh, recalling Thompson, who died in 2000. “Jerry was a great one.”

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