Nashville: From rhinestones to a president

April 03, 2005|By Tom Uhlenbrock

There's more to Nashville than country music, although it's hard to ignore the city's most famous industry.

I walked into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, seeking a little culture, and came face to face with the late Gram Parson's cream-colored suit decorated with embroidered marijuana leaves. He wore it on the album cover of The Gilded Palace of Sin when he played with the Flying Burrito Brothers back in 1969.

The Frist Center, in a renovated art deco structure built as a post office in 1934, has no permanent art collection but rotates exhibitions. On display until May 1 is the work of Manuel Cuevas, who apprenticed under Nudie Cohn, the Los Angeles tailor who first put rhinestones on clothing - and cars.

Manuel - he's known by his first name - moved to Nashville, where he still has a shop, and created most of the sparkly outfits you see on the country stars. Parsons, who recorded in Nashville, is the musician credited with bringing country to California and inspiring the "country rock" sounds of the Byrds, Eagles, Pure Prairie League and a host of others.

Besides Parsons' suit, the exhibition also has outfits Manuel tailored for Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam and all three stars on the cover of The Trio album - Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. When Bob Dylan played for the Pope, he wore a Manuel suit.

Hatch Show Print on Broadway, in the block east of Honky Tonk Row, also caters to the stars. Hatch has been in business, at seven locations, since 1879, and is one of America's oldest poster shops. The shop walls are papered with ads featuring everybody from Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours to the Beastie Boys.

Hatch does things the old way, working with handset letters and designs on antique letterpresses.

"We're the antithesis of digital design," said shop manager Jim Sherraden. "The computer has been the best thing that ever happened to us. It provided us with our own niche - a handmade, traditional process."

Visitors to the working museum can purchase reprints of old posters, or extras from some of the 600 or so jobs that Hatch still does each year. Muddy Waters and Patsy Cline reprints are $10 each; a "triple Johnny" showing three images of Johnny Cash is $15.

"Today we're doing a Willie Nelson project - seven of his tour posters," Sherraden said. "Preservation through production is our credo."

Driving west on Broadway, past Vanderbilt University, you come to Centennial Park - and the Parthenon. Yes, there is a Parthenon in Nashville, with a 42-foot-tall gilded statue of Athena reigning inside.

The replica of the original building in Greece was built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition to reflect the city's billing as the "Athens of the South." Nashville's Parthenon, which has been restored twice, is the only full-scale replica in existence, and the Athena is the Western Hemisphere's largest indoor statue.

There are two Hermitages in Nashville. The historic Hermitage Hotel is downtown and recently had a $20 million face lift that returned it to its glory as the only five-star hotel in Tennessee. The Capitol Grille in the hotel is the place to be seen by Nashvillians, and the hotel's opulent lobby is worth a visit.

On the outskirts of Nashville is the other Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. The two-story Federal style home is perfectly preserved and open for tours. While the home and its original furnishings are impressive, the real story is the love affair between Jackson and his wife, Rachel.

Jackson built the home for Rachel and once fought a duel in her honor, fatally wounding his opponent. Three weeks before Jackson went to Washington in 1829 as the country's seventh president, his beloved wife died. Jackson went anyway, to help manage his grief, and buried Rachel on the grounds in a mausoleum next to her garden.

When his presidential terms were over in 1837, Jackson returned to the Hermitage, where he could visit the mausoleum each evening. He said of his wife: "Heaven will be no heaven for me, if she is not there."

There is a music connection to Jackson's home. In 1998, a spring tornado destroyed more than 1,200 of the mature trees on the 1,100-acre estate. Using wood from a 200-year-old tulip poplar and a hickory that were downed, Nashville-based Gibson Guitars made 200 collectible guitars, with part of the sale going for landscape restoration.

The guitars have fingerboards with "Old Hickory" inlaid in mother-of-pearl. -

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