Rhinestones, tassels, boots so pointy they'll make your toes bleed... what more could you expect from Nashville's monument to the music that made it famous? Well, plenty more, as it turns out. The hall of fame contains some seriously impressive artefacts from musical history, from Bill Monroe's Loar f5 mandolin and Johnny Cash's black suit to Webb Pierce's car, pimped up with silver guns for handles and a buffalo horn on the front. Set across several floors, the hall of fame misses few details as it tells the story of 'hillbilly' music, although their enormous Hank Williams Sr tribute is curiously sketchy on his death. Big, bold, and shameless, this is one heck of a celebration of country music - and you wouldn't have it any other way.
The original home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman is a place of pilgrimage for every country music fan. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see a gig there - so we went one better and got up on stage ourselves. The Ryman tour - a good introduction to the history of country music for those who can only name one Johnny Cash number - concludes at the front of the stalls, where you're invited to get up in front of the mic and pose for a picture. Tip one: you don't need to pay for the 'official' shot, just take your own. Tip two: the guitars are real! So be brave. We got through a verse and a chorus of Rabbit in the Log before shyness overtook us, but where else do you get the chance to really experience the acoustics - and to be the star?
At the Authentic Coffee Co it's not just the beans that are the real thing. There's a jam every week (Friday, last I heard) where some of the best bluegrassers in the wider Tennessee area gather. But the most authentic thing here is the folk. Jeff, his barista-daughter Sierra and his banjo-prodigy son Luke are generous hosts - so generous they opened late one night so we could carry on jamming. And the hazelnut soy latte Jeff knocked up for me? Delicious.
The Biltmore estate is truly one of the most impressive buildings in North Carolina, if not the entire South, and as such it's a must-see. You can't help but be gobsmacked by its ambition, its swagger, and at times gauche mismatching of styles (Hearst Castle it ain't). The Vanderbilts are obviously hugely revered in the area, and every docent in the place seemed primed to give me the sanitised and hagiographic version of its creator, George Vanderbilt III, which left me with a rather unpleasantly feudal taste in my mouth. But if you can hold your nose and pay the extortionate entrance fee, it offers a fascinating insight into the workings of a grand house, and there are some Sargents and Whistler portraits that can literally bring you to a standstill. For better or worse, it's an unforgettable experience.
There's so much good live music in Asheville that the bars can't contain it - I've never been somewhere with such a high quality of street busking (even better than its homophonous sister town, Nashville). Most nights of the week and certainly on the weekends you'll be spoilt for choice, and with the cover charges enticingly low, you can do your own gig crawl. Start out along Biltmore Avenue (home of the famous Orange Peel, above) and meander down its adjoining streets - you'll be able to hear from the pavement what kind of music is going on in each bar, and after that it's up to you.
OK, America has plenty of beautiful little mountain towns. I just happened to catch this one on a quiet, low-season day and I was utterly charmed. The secondhand bookshop was a thing of joy - run by a woman who knew her Dorothy Parker from her Dorothy L Sayers - and the Dripolator coffee shop, above, had a great vibe, with its beaten up sofas and community notices pinned all over the walls. And then there's the mountain views, and the clear air. If you've had a big night out in Asheville, I can't think of a better place to deal with your hangover.
Enjoy being flung around by energetic, enthusiastic partners? You don't? I bet you change your mind when you've tried a contradance. This is folk dancing with vim, vigour and a large application of centrifugal force. The weekly dance at Warren Wilson college takes place in the gym on cold nights, but the evening I went it was in the bandstand, under a mesh of fairy lights. The regulars are generous and newcomers are welcomed - they'll help you pick up the steps, or at least fling you gamely in the right direction. There's a gleefully anarchic feel to the whole evening - Warren Wilson is known as an eccentric place and sure enough, the night I visited there were plenty of men in masks, skirts or even, on one occasion, a pink silk nightgown.
There's music almost every night of the week at the Jack of the Wood, the atmospheric Celtic pub in the centre of Asheville. And arguably the best of the bunch is the Thursday night jam, when some of Appalachia's best bluegrass musicians take to the tiny stage (so small it requires a great degree of shuffling and balancing between them). The last time I was there, Nicky Sanders of The Steep Canyon Rangers was ripping it up on the fiddle. Yeah, he's the guy who plays with Steve Martin - and if you went to one of his usual gigs you'd be paying top dollar and sitting 20 rows back. Here we were right under his nose - and eating delicious burgers and drinking local beer. Oh, and there's no cover charge for the music...
A self-guided tour of the Vanderbilt family's 8,000-acre estate
in Asheville, North Carolina, takes you through gardens bursting with roses and azaleas, and past pools filled with koi and pineapple-scented water lilies. The centerpiece is the 250-room chateau, America's largest privately owned home, completed in 1895. Explore the 10,000-volume, walnut-paneled library, pictured, then visit the Biltmore's Antler Hill Village & Winery to shop for Appalachian crafts and enjoy a complimentary tasting. 1 Lodge St., (800) 411-3812, biltmore.com.
North Carolina native Joe Thrift studied instrument making in Europe before setting up his home workshop in Surry County. Make an appointment to see and play his fiddles and Stradivarius-style violins. (336) 352-4471, josephthriftviolins.com.
The cinnamon buns are legendary, made with the same local organic flour the bakery uses in its pizza dough. The breads, such as spinach-feta and flax-almond, change daily, with vegan and gluten-free varieties on offer. Grilled cheese sandwiches and bagels stuffed with smoked trout make West End popular for breakfast and lunch.
757 Hayward Rd., (828) 252-9378, westendbakery.com.
Félix Meana and Katie Button, veterans of elBulli in Spain, converted Asheville’s former downtown bus depot into a stylish tapas bar. Cúrate means to cure oneself, which diners can do with traditional Spanish dishes such as Catalan sausage bocadillos, codfish salad, and honey-drizzled fried eggplant. 11 Biltmore Ave., (828) 239-2946, curatetapasbar.com.
Opening in August, Starwood’s new Asheville property is a high-tech option in bluegrass country. Amenities include a 24-hour snack pantry, a gym, and a big-screen-appointed lobby. When you’re not exploring the neighborhood art scene, lounge around the modernist outdoor seating area or sip a signature Fiji Lychee cocktail in the W XYZ bar. Doubles from $159, 51 Biltmore Ave., (828) 232-2838, starwoodhotels.com/ alofthotels.
We were just walking up the road, really. We'd been to the tourist information centre, to get our bearings in Knoxville, and we were looking for dinner. Barely two minutes into our walk, we noticed a couple of guys moving sound equipment into a music shop that seemed already plenty full of it. "It's for the gig tonight," one of them explained. "It starts in the radio studio over the road, then it moves here around 8pm."
Intrigued, we dutifully returned after dinner to find the cosy little store humming to the eclectic sounds of roots and rap. Having walked in off the street and settled into one of the two cosy sofas in front of the tiny stage, we were treated to an appearance by (Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist) Layla McCalla, who sang haunting songs inspired by her Haiti heritage. An utterly memorable evening - and Layla later told us it's a regular occurrence. So if you're in...
There are dozens of gigs, every night, in Nashville. But there's only one must-see. Not everyone knows about the Time Jumpers' regular Monday night slot at the Station Inn, but that's a good thing, because it's already a weekly sell out. They are the musicians' musicians - some of the best session players in the business, from Aubrey Haynie to Andy Reiss - and their Western Swing sets are regularly graced by guest stars (in particular the country legend Vince Gill). It's such a hot ticket you have to arrive a couple of hours early to make sure you get in (and get a seat) - otherwise you can do what we did, and come just for the second set, in the hope that some space becomes available. Either way, it's worth it to see, up close, some of the most virtuosic instrumentalists in America, if not the world. If you're lucky you'll see a few famous faces in the audience too.
Walking into this modest little cafe in Belmont felt like walking back in time. Formica tables and booths, no menus but the board above - but if you eat here, you don't need a menu, because the server likely knows your name, your order, and your life history. I ate here the morning before I flew back home to the UK and the combination of crispy bacon, grits, truly strong coffee and my imminent departure made me literally well up. Before I knew it, I was homesick - for the South.
I'd gone purely for the music. Each autumn the Museum of Appalachia hopes the three-day Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a festival that showcases bluegrass and old-time - and mountain crafts. After tasting a little donkey-milled sorghum (sweet, odd aftertaste), I headed to the main exhibition barn to look around. It included an extraordinary number of axes, a huge dead hornet's nest, and the creepy wooden dolls pictured above. I was sold.
The Museum's more than just this indoor collection - it's a whole village of original mountain cabins (Mark Twain's included), schoolhouses, outhouses and even a small wooden chapel where services are still held, and shape notes sung, every week. A fascinating and hands-on insight into the life of the pioneer mountain dwellers. Just keep an eye on those dolls.