Well this road trip has had its ups and downs, but today was a screaming roller coaster. Started off the day at The 21C Museum Hotel where I dined on eggs benedict with gritcakes. We drove around through the boutiquey neighborhood of East Market Street, but as it was Sunday, most shops were closed. Besides, we were itching to get on the road.
I had inserted a stopover in Bardstown, an epicenter of Kentucky bourbon, on the way to Mammoth Caves National Park and then Nashville. We passed through mile after miler of the ultra hip, arty and funky Louisville, and on through the famed rolling hills and limestone crags of central Kentucky.
Bardstown itself is a quaint village whose downtown seems the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street. Minus about forty percent of the tackiness. We went to Heaven Hill Distillery and Bourbon Heritage Center, a museum on the campus where they make and bottle brands such as Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, and Fighting Cock. I finally learned what makes bourbon bourbon, and was more than a little surprised to learn that the whole enterprise was started in the post-Prohibition era by several brothers named Shapiro. Of course, they hired a master distiller by the name of Beam to produce their liquor, but nevertheless, it was seemingly a Jewish operation from the start. Who knew?
We then drove to Mammoth Cave National Park, only to be turned away do largely to a shoddy NPS website, a byzantine system of scheduled tours and odd hours, and a ranger who was one of the most snide people I’ve ever encountered. Suffice it to say 2:58 p.m. was not early enough to make it to the self-guided tour, which closes at 3:00 and apparently requires more than just one’s self.
Feeling discouraged, frustrated, angry, and a bit humiliated, I sulked the rest of the way to Nashville. The park was open for another two or three hours, but we just couldn’t get in. We won’t be seeing it again. It’s pretty poorly run, with a main ranger’s desk like a box office, where you buy tickets for various themed tours. In the visitor center you learn very little about the caves themselves; it’s all just a sales job, with a lot of bored-looking park rangers milling about. GRRRRRRR.
My meltdown continued as I checked us in to the hotel and tried to figure out a place to go for dinner. Our worldly possessions were being delivered that day in Raleigh, and I was also fretting about the condition of our belongings and our new, unseen house. Luckily I have a wonderful new friend and classmate who has been squatting on our house and overseeing our utility installation and receiving our truckload o’ crap for us. Honestly, judging from some of the calls I got, it seems we really have no idea what our house looks like. I thought we had a pretty good idea of it from the photos, but turns out we don’t even know which of the two rooms is the master bedroom, or that there are three rooms, not two. And the movers had to rent a U-Haul to fit on our street. And they had to ask for a ride.
In any event, my anger and frustration had calmed into a bleary-eyed moroseness. I was trying earnestly to lift my spirits. When asked, two people had immediately recommended a restaurant called Sambuca for dinner. It’s just a quick drive from our downtown hotel, in an area known as “The Gulch.” A word to all conceirges out there: if a guest asks you for a recommendation, warn them if the place you are recommending is (a) expensive, and (b) has live music every night as part of their schtick. We were seated in a frigid dining area in front of a stage. I was already feeling glum. Though we were set to go see some music after dinner, all I wanted was a quiet, authentic Tennessee meal. Luckily the band, called the Dean Martinis, was relatively mellow and ho-hum. The food was uninspired too, and I couldn’t imagine what the fuss was about. A standard list of salads, pizzas, steaks, and seafood with no discernible, unifying theme or style other than what I call “Tacoma upscale.” I’ll leave it at that. Oh: they also neglected to bring Angie a spoon with her soup, and it took a good while to get their attention again once the music started. Our waiter was deeply stoned, though we were warned in advance that they do things slower in the south. Also, in my foul mood, I had failed to read the menu closely. I had chosen an inexpensive pizza, but didn’t see that it was laden with smoked gouda, a cheese I detest.
I grumpily picked at my pizza while Angie waited for her spoon. We slipped out of there afterwards, mid-song, to head across the street to The Station Inn where the music would be. Things got better from there.
After a pitcher of Bud, a much-improved basic mini-pizza, some good conversation with a friendly local at the live bluegrass jam session that at one point swelled to about twenty participants, my spirits had lifted considerably. I’m sure it also helped that back at Sambuca I had downed a bottle of Dos Perros brown ale and two Makers Mark & Cokes in quick succession. And that the music here was absolutely delightful.
When we left, I was in such a better mood I didn’t want to return yet to the hotel. It was only ten o’clock. My friend Will — who is from Nashville and was actually one of the Sambuca recommenders — had also suggested stopping off at a place on Broadway called Robert’s Western World. I know Will fairly well and his recommendations seldom are wrong, so we decided to give this one a chance.
There’s a four-block stretch of Broadway that’s lit up as if it were Bourbon Street thinking it was the Strip in Vegas. Robert’s Western World is a former cowboy-wear outfitter turned music venue. Sunday night featured the house band, which can best be described as damn rollicking. They played Country & Western and Bluegrass covers, with lots of Johnny Cash and even a little Buck Owens.
The singer/guitarist looked like a cross between Ben Kingsley and canned tuna. But in a good way. He was energetic and charismatic. The lead guitarist looked like a cross between the singer from Goo Goo Dolls and Jack Black, with a self-satisfied and slightly dazed pallor. But man could he shred. Oh! and the bassist! The upright bassist looked like David Copperfield, or like thre character Boyd Crowder from Justified. Holy effin’ smokes, he was good. He wailed on that thing, playing slap bass like he was Les Claypool on crack. And he sang just like Johnny Cash. Okay, so I just threw a lot of celebrity comparisons together, but whatever, it works, nu?
We ordered up some bottles of Budweiser and enjoyed the raucous show. People of all ages danced and hooted. A trio of young cowboys behind us drank Coronas and appeared to be authentic Tennesseans until they opened their mouths. Turns out they were Swiss, on a cross-country road trip from Vegas to Chicago by way of New Orleans, or something like that.
All in all, a good evening. We went back to the hotel sleepy and satisfied, with our ears still ringing with song.