NASHVILLE — In his smoky, sultry voice, Tim McGraw welcomed me to Nashville. It didn't matter that it was a recording and that McGraw (as well as George Strait, Blake Shelton and Martina McBride) welcomed everyone flying into Nashville's airport with equal enthusiasm. I felt truly welcomed.
Nashville is a very welcoming city, and particularly so during the holiday season, when Christmas carols are sung with a decided twang; the seraphs are often honky-tonk angels; and if you're in the mood, the eggnog comes with a splash of Jack Daniels.
This is a town that takes its traditions seriously, but never itself. Nashvillians can pull out their poshest duds for Cheekwood Mansion's Swan Ball one night, and then don jeans for a boot-scootin' boogie at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge or Robert's Western Wear the next.
I wasn't in time for the springtime Swan Ball, but I did join the revelers at Tootsie's and Robert's, along with experiencing a host of serious Christmas traditions.
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City of plantations
If you love Southern plantations decked out in holiday finery, Nashville is the place to come. There's a plantation and a holiday tradition to suit every taste.
The circa 1799 Travellers Rest is the oldest home open to the public in Nashville and was built by John Overton, who also was one of the founders of Memphis.
The decorations here are minimalist — a few wreaths in the windows and a scattering of greenery — but they are true to the period. My guide told me that Christmas trees came first to New England from Europe in the early 1800s and gradually made their way south after the Civil War.
The same holiday minimalism is apparent at Nashville's most famous plantation, the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson, although the subdued décor here is for an entirely different reason.
Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel, died just three days before Christmas 1828. This was a house in mourning. Again, true to the times, the Hermitage's holiday decorations consist only of garlands, wreaths and candles throughout the house.
At this National Historic Landmark (the fourth most visited presidential home in America, after the White House, Mount Vernon and Monticello), there is plenty to see even without over-the-top decorations. There's the formal dining room, where Andrew and Rachel entertained dignitaries and Tennessee backwoodsmen alike; Andrew's study and Rachel's garden; and most poignantly, the couple's graves in a serene setting behind the garden.
If the Hermitage is low-key in its holiday traditions, the same can't be said for Belmont Mansion, the 19th-century home of Adelicia Acklin, one of America's wealthiest women and one of Nashville's most colorful characters.
Acklin was left an enormous fortune courtesy of her first husband — a bankroll she zealously guarded by making two succeeding husbands sign a prenuptial agreement. Belmont, built in the 1850s, is a marvel of Victoriana, where during the holidays every room is adorned with garlands, fruit, dried flowers and decorated trees.
Belle Meade, "Queen of Tennessee Plantations," has a direct link to Lexington and the Bluegrass region. Central Tennessee, like Central Kentucky, has vast deposits of calcium-rich limestone beneath the soil, a plus for raising Thoroughbreds.
During the antebellum period, it was Belle Meade that was the leading Thoroughbred farm in America. So much so that its owner, William Giles Harding, wrote a letter to the editor of the American Turf Registry extolling its virtues as a breeding establishment. "Blood stock here is all the go," he wrote. "To be without it is to be out of fashion and destitute of taste."
The Civil War and the accompanying conscription of Belle Meade's Thoroughbreds for use by the cavalry resulted in many of the finest horses being sent to Woodburn Farm in Woodford County for safe keeping, thus giving a boost to Kentucky's own horse industry.
Still, the lineage of Thoroughbreds such as Secretariat, Funny Cide, Barbaro and Smarty Jones can be traced back to Belle Meade breeding stock.
On Mondays and Fridays during the holidays, visitors can opt for a Plantation Culinary Tour, which in addition to the lavishly decorated mansion includes a cooking demonstration and a tasting at Nashville's only winery.
It's not a plantation, but Cheekwood Mansion is a must for those who love elaborate Christmas decorations. The 55-acre estate, formerly the home of the Cheek family of Maxwell House Coffee fame, has an annual Festival of the Holidays, in which rooms feature professionally decorated themed trees. This year's theme is favorite children's Christmas stories.
'A Country Christmas'
You would have to be a real Grinch not to love Gaylord Opryland Resort's "A Country Christmas." It features 2 million twinkling lights, lunch and dinner shows on the General Jackson Showboat as it plies the Cumberland River, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show with the Rockettes, and many other attractions.
You won't want to miss this year's incarnation of ICE!, an interactive winter wonderland of larger-than-life sculptures carved from 2 million pounds of ice. Forty artisans arrived from Harbin, China, several months ago to begin work on "Shrek the Halls," where the films' lovable green ogre, Princess Fiona, Donkey and other characters are depicted in displays of colored ice.
Opryland's "A Country Christmas" will continue through Jan. 1.