Live From American Duchess: Is Nashville the Next Great American River Cruise Home Port?

December 7, 2017
American Duchess

Short answer: Yes. And that's good news, as Nashville is popping up on American river cruise itineraries more often.

The Music City and Tennessee's state capitol is an occasional homeport for American Duchess, the newest paddlewheel from American Queen Steamboat Company, as well as some itineraries for American Cruise Lines. Its location on the Cumberland River gives it easy access to the Ohio River, to visit quaint small towns like Paducah, and the Mississippi River, where vessels can head south to other famous music towns like Memphis or New Orleans, or north to St. Louis.

We just spent a day and evening in Nashville before setting sail on American Duchess.  Here's what impressed us about the city – and has made us excited for our return at the end of the week.

The Sights

The Cumberland River cuts through Nashville, and with a picturesque skyline—that served as the obvious inspiration for the lauded Johnny Cash-Bob Dylan album Nashville Skyline—the city presents itself well. River cruises dock at Riverfront Park at the foot of Broadway, a street lined with restaurants, bars, and, most importantly, honkytonks. It seems every bar, boot shop, and boutique has a neon sign out front, adding a charming bit of yesteryear kitsch to the city's first impression. There's a full-scale replica of the Parthenon near the antebellum state capitol building, murals scattered throughout town, and if that's not enough, walk across the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge and take that postcard-perfect shot of the ship in port. It's all easy to explore on foot, on the Music City Hop (a $35 guided bus tour of the city stopping at 16 spots around town), or with a tour group as part of your cruise.

The stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee

The Sounds

It's Nashville, the epicenter for country music, so you'll hear plenty of steel guitars and baritone voices, but the city draws musicians of nearly every stripe. Americana, blues, and bluegrass are popular genres at venues around town (and there are plenty of those, but more on that later). Don't be surprised to hear jazz, rockabilly, straight up rock and roll, even a little Allman Brothers-esque psychedelic rock. If you're in the market for heavy metal, hip-hop, or electronic dance music, the choices are slimmer, but still there.

There are musicians on every corner, and along Broadway, these buskers compete with bars and honkytonks where singer-songwriters, duos, and full bands play at all hours of the day. Posters and playbills litter the windows announcing upcoming acts from familiar names, names you'll know in a few short months, and stunning musicians you've never heard of.

If you're here for the pros, the Grand Ole Opry is a must; shows take place four or five nights a week (they add a mid-week show in summer) at the downtown Ryman Auditorium and at the Grand Ole Opry just outside of downtown. Along the Honky Tonk Highway, you have legendary venues like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Layla's Bluegrass Inn, and Robert's Western World.

The Food

The food? In Nashville? Yes, the food. Nashville is an under-the-radar foodie town. Sure, people know Nashville Hot Chicken—fried chicken that's got quite the kick—especially from Hattie B's and Prince's Hot Chicken, and when you come to town you have to try it (word of advice: start on the mild end of the hot chicken spectrum). But there's more to Nashville than just this. The South Carolina award-winning powerhouse Husk opened here, and their menu of upscale and reimagined Southern cuisine goes well with the live music they host in the restaurant. Places like Biscuit Love dish up granny's classics but also some edgier flavors and toppings to a variety of biscuits (and let's face it, what's more southern than a biscuit? Not much). There are Barbecue or Bar-B-Que or BBQ restaurants all over town, and at a place like Martin's Bar-B-Que you can get a taste of the style here (it's good, with a sweet and tangy sauce and the right amount of smoke in each bite). Add to that the regional food hall ACME Feed and Seed (conveniently just across the street from Riverfront Park), where you can get your fill of good drinks, Southern classics, barbecue, even sushi.

Music City Walk of Fame Park.

The History

When you see the sign for Ernest Tubb Record Shop, you'll remember: this town has a long tale to tell in the music world and an even longer history when it comes to, well, history. Ryman Auditorium—the Mother Church of Country Music—has hosted shows since 1892; The Johnny Cash Museum tells the story of The Man in Black from his start in the 1950s to his posthumous albums released in the 2010s; and The Patsy Cline Museum tells her story start to finish.

Then there's the Country Music Hall of Fame; the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, where an exhibit on the Grammys puts the songs and artists you love into perspective; and the Music City Walk of Fame Park. The Historic RCA Studio B is a sight; it's the place where Elvis recorded more than 260 songs, and artists like Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, and The Everly Brothers (to name a few) recorded hit after hit.

It's not all musical history though. Civil War battlefields and battle sites—The Carter House, Fort Negley, Historic Carnton Plantation and Historic Travellers Rest Plantation—give you a look at the story of the first Southern state capitol to fall during the Civil War.

The Ease of it All

Nashville is an easy city to get to. The airport is a quick ride from downtown, the highways that pass through and around town are easy to navigate, and the city itself is easy to get around. That makes Nashville the perfect spot to extend your cruise by making a long weekend here. Hotels downtown come in a range of prices, and the array of bed and breakfast and Airbnb offerings make for great alternatives. Plan your extended stay around a concert, NHL or NFL game, one of the many seasonal festivals, or just because you want to. International non-stop flights make it accessible for Europeans too.

All in all, Nashville makes a lovely bookend for an American river cruise that focuses on history, food and music. We predict that as Baby Boomers continue eyeing river cruises close to home, Nashville will become a major draw for those who want a few days of live music and fun before they sail.

--By Jason Frye, Cruise Critic contributor