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A visit to Nashville, the country-music capital

People didn't stampede to Hollywood in its palmy days for the scenery. Instead, they came by the tour busload to gape at the mansions of the stars, or to wait on tables or pump gas in the hope of becoming stars themselves.

Nashville is like that.

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You can take a Gray Line ``Homes of the Stars'' bus tour here, which, after much folderol, will eventually take you to South Curtiswood Lane, alias Millionaire's Row. A gorgeous place of undulating green acres and low-hanging trees, it makes you crane your neck to catch a flash of long window or a glimpse of stucco, as your guide rattles off names both familiar and not to the uninitiated: Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee, Ronnie Milsap, Tammy Wynette, Minnie Pearl.

Nashville is the third-largest center of the recording industry in the United States, after New York and Los Angeles. Most of the action takes place on Music Row, a neighborhood of modest bungalows of which every fifth one or so is a recording studio.

The city is also, of course, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, where many country superstars got their start. Some stars came here with nothing -- from prison, from rural families of 14 children -- and their stories as well as their singing lure people here.

New residents with stars in their eyes are everywhere. My Gray Line driver estimated that one-third of his cohorts were ``starving musicians.''

Nashville has some nice parks, a chic central core of plazas and tall buildings, and some lovely suburbs -- where the ``Homes of the Stars'' are. It also has its share of unlovely sections. But that's not what people come here for; they come to visit a fantasy.

But visiting a fantasy, as opposed to something solid and specific like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, creates its own problems for the traveler. Nashville is the No. 1 tour bus destination in the country, yet a lot of what's interesting goes on behind the scenes, and the visitor, busy with glossy representations, is unlikely to stumble across it.

One of the less than beautiful sections of the city is an area of much interest for tourists, near the old Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. (The Opry has been moved to the safe and attractive precincts of Opryland, located a few miles outside the city.)

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The outside of the Ryman is brick, with abundant Gothic white trim; it used to be a church. For a small fee you can enter and sit in one of the pews, gaze at the barn backdrop and the fading signs for commercials that hang from the ceiling, and dream about the old days. That was when audiences, fanning themselves with paper fans in the Tennessee heat, listened to the pronouncements of the Solemn Old Judge to Minnie Pearl, who was forever attempting to ``ketch a feller'' in Grinder's Switch, Tenn., or to

the opening night of a Hank Williams or a Dolly Parton.

Around the corner is Tootsie's World Famous Orchid Lounge, which closed recently. Tootsie's back door is right by the back door of the Ryman, which made it convenient for performers to slip in and out. There's a ``for rent'' sign on the Orchid's front now.

Nearby is Printers Alley, where all the tourists go to hear music. There are lots of clubs in Nashville; the town is full of songwriters testing their material, singers trying to make it, etc. The best listings are in the Showcase section of the Sunday Tennessean. The tourist board has a listing labeled ``Nashville at Night,'' which lists clubs but no details about performances. (For this and other travel information, write Tennessee Tourist Development, PO Box 23170, Nashville, Tenn. 37202.)

Actually, there aren't many showcases for the more famous of the Nashville singers. Benny Jaggers, president of the just-opened theme-park, Music Village USA, would like to remedy that. ``Most people think you just come to Nashville, and there's a big auditorium on every corner with Johnny Cash in it,'' says Mr. Jaggers, a genial gospel singer from Kentucky. He is fond of describing each person he works with as ``one of the greatest people I've ever met.''

This summer, Music Village featured Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Conway Twitty performing on midweek evenings. Thus a tourist who spends three nights here has a rare opportunity to hear three big-name performers.

A bonus for fans is Twitty City, Conway Twitty's grand brick white-pillared house, located across from the auditorium. According to Mr. Jaggers, a tourist's chances of actually seeing Mr. Twitty himself are pretty high.

I didn't see him, but Ferlin Husky was standing near the entrance of his ``Wings of a Dove'' museum, also on Music Village grounds, as I went in.

It was Mr. Twitty's night to perform. Music Village has a very nice, very small auditorium. Mr. Twitty is a pleasant, laid-back performer, a kind of working man's Perry Como, who elicited a few shrieks when he led off with his trademark greeting, a husky, ``Hello, darlin'.'' The emphasis is on comfort for fans, who eat, drink, and take flashbulb pictures during the performance.

Then of course there is the Grand Ole Opry, longest continuously running live radio program in the US, now located in a fancy auditorium in Opryland. The Opry is a terrific deal for the money; Grandpa Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens were among the no less than 25 acts featured the night I went. One reason for its popularity is the power of WSM, a station that has a range of 2,000 miles, hitting most of the US. Reserve your tickets in advance; the huge auditorium is crammed every night. Seats are $6-$10.

Opryland is a large, varied, tastefully done theme park, with some musical events. It is like Disneyland minus Mickey Mouse and the gang. Rides range from a beautiful gilded carousel set in a lily pond, to the Grizzly River Rampage, a realistic white water ride from which screams of either terror or joy could be heard for some distance. And there are lots of places to rest and eat such delicacies as strawberries and whipped cream, pizza, old fashioned shakes, and nachos.

While each area of the park has a theme -- the Old West, or the 1950s, or New Orleans -- the overall emphasis is on music, and there is a small theater in each section of the park.

Back in Nashville, don't miss the Country Music Hall of Fame. A lot of this museum is dedicated to giving you an idea of what it means to be a songwriter. Here are original versions of some famous songs, most of them typed on manual typewriters or scrawled on hotel stationery.

And there are some possessions of stars: Elvis Presley's first guitar; and his beat-up old car, which was a contrast to his ``solid-gold Cadillac.'' The Cadillac itself is not gold, but a soft semi-matte white, like a gigantic bulbous pearl. The top opens eerily to reveal a gold-plated black-and-white TV, Elvis's gold-plated comb and brush set, and a big rotating brush for cleaning the King's blue suede shoes, all conveniently located on the back of the front seat. The car is named after his gold record s, which are mounted on the ceiling.

The most touching exhibit was Dolly Parton's ``coat of many colors.'' When Ms. Parton was a little girl from a large, poor family, her mother made some corduroy scraps into a patchwork coat for her, telling her the story of the biblical Joseph and his coat of many colors so she would be proud of it. But the other kids laughed at her. Years later, Ms. Parton used the incident as the basis of a song. So here we have the handsewn coat, a school photo of Dolly taken that day, smiling through her

tears, and the original, scribbled-and-scratched out version of the song.

In the basement of Mandrell Country, a flossy exhibit about Barbara Mandrell's life and career, was my favorite Nashville tourist attraction: a studio where for $10 tourists can ``record'' a country music song on a cassette.

You sit in a sort of closet, visualizing yourself in snakeskin boots, while over your headphones a recording of the song is loud in your ear, making it hard to stray too far from the beaten path.

``We're gonna' be discovered,'' said one of the group of punky looking girls signing up after me. They chose ``Girls Just Want to Have Fun,'' and, as I emerged from my booth, it was being played over the loudspeaker, sounding a little raucous but with a lot of the insouciant bounce of the original.

But this public revelation is not necessary. I slunk over to a tape recorder to listen to my own thin- and earnest-sounding version of ``Amazing Grace,'' a competent band playing briskly in the background, and thought, ``This sounds as good as I ever will. ''

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