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From the pages of I RVing: Summer 2021
Where the South Still Sings

Where the South Still Sings

With live music seven nights a week and the hospitality you’d expect from Nashville, the Grand Ole RV Resort is both a campground and destination for Music City travelers.

There is a restless music inside the human heart. It’s what pushes us out towards the boundary, to discover a world of mystery and melody. To make our own way through purple mountains and across fruited plains. Like a pulse that runs through every wanderer, this music has been playing a long time in the American South. In 1780, when Tennessee was the edge of the western frontier, Kasper Mansker set out into the territory and established a small, stout fort in the heart of the Cumberland River Basin. His home offered safe lodging for hunters and settlers cut from the same cloth. Hospitality at Mansker’s Station meant that frontier families could find provision and fellowship in the dense forest around the growing town that would become the city of Nashville.

Today, folks may marvel how much has changed. But campers—be they full-timers, snowbirds, or newbies—know better: There are places where you can still hear the music. From the cockpits of their rigs, they play the highway like a fiddle in search of the perfect tune. And, twelve miles north of Nashville, there is a campground for them where the music still plays every night less than a hundred yards from the shallow, sonorous waters of Mansker Creek.

A Taste of Southern Hospitality

The Grand Ole RV Resort is easy to find. Pull off I-65 at exit 97 in Tennessee, along US Route 41, and the campground will stand prominent: a large, brick-red building trimmed with white pillars that prop up a wraparound porch full of rockers. Tommy Cunningham, a retired custom home builder, bought an old campground in 2012, reestablished it, and built the resort himself—with, he declares, the help of his guardian angel. Tommy figured if the economy was good, people would be travelling; and if the economy took a turn for the worse, people might trade homes for RVs. Either way, they’d need a place to stay—an observation worthy of Kasper Mansker.

The campground is a family business. His daughter Tammy and son Tommy manage the outside; his daughter Sue Richardson manages the office and takes care of the customers. Just inside the doors, she works behind a small register with the kitchen behind her. In the morning, folks walk up the porch and step into the diner to get breakfast. Then they’ll stock up on supplies from the general store, check out, or just make conversation. The Grand Ole RV Resort’s sign says that visitors “Arrive as Guests, Leave as Family.” And a quick talk with Sue, whether she’s getting you settled on the campground or just stopping by to check on your breakfast, gives guests the hospitality you’d expect from Nashville.

Sue swings by a customer’s table, where two mouth-watering plates stacked with omelets, hash browns, and fresh tomatoes are caught in the middle of a vanishing act. Sue comments, “The breakfast is awesome isn’t it?!” It is indeed, nod the guests. In fact, it’s so good that it worries the chef, who has come out of the kitchen to chat. With a dash of mischief in his eye, he tells Sue that he doesn’t want word to get out about how good the food is because he doesn’t want more customers. “Well, I do!” shouts Sue, jumping in with a laugh. The chef then acknowledges with a soft but sincere pride that their breakfast is the best thing you can find outside a Nashville home (and maybe within one). Even as he speaks, the bright, nodding smiles of the customers—still eating—offer a testimony of their own.

The front door kicks open. A tall, relaxed camper walks in, swivels into a backwards-facing chair, and looks directly at Sue.

"I hear if I come sweet talk ya that I might get things," he says with a wry smile.

"Oh, no! Who told that lie?!" Sue fires back, happy to mix a little humor with business, before asking, "How can I help you?" She walks him to the register so he can check out and get his family back on the road by lunch. After he cashes out, he walks out with the ease he came in with, as Sue calls over his shoulder, "Take your time."

The guest half turns back, laughs, and winks to the chef before hitting the door, "You’re right! She is nice," giving every indication this was not his first time talking with the chef. It is dialogue characteristic of family, where each exchange is just a continuation. There’s a word for that: relationship.

What Brings You to Nashville

While the atmosphere at the Grand Ole RV Resort may feel like family, the business is built to meet customer needs. The campground offers 140 campsites with full hookups for their campers—water, electric, and sewage. In fact, they offer everything from Wi-Fi to dog sitters to RV maintenance and repair. Because you never know what a camper might need when they pull-in off the road.

Of course, there are different kinds of campers. Taking a note from Mark Twain, you might call them Sawyers and Finns, with the difference being the duration of the stay. Like Tom Sawyer, certain campers are looking for a quick adventure or getaway, to shake things up, and to get back home in the nick of time with a story worth telling. But full-timers are more like Huckleberry Finn, who see travel and adventure as a way life and their RV as their home. But whether you’re a Sawyer or a Finn doesn’t matter much to the Grand Ole RV Resort: The campground provides each a great launching point into the city of Nashville.

Tucked into the fold of the Cumberland River’s arm, this Athens of the South is prime territory for adventure. By day, sunlight pours into the open streets where smoky barbeque joints and a burgeoning scene of breweries invite. Signs up and down the street bear the titles of country songs, like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, and pulse with the soft reverb of music playing inside. Legacy-rich buildings are right next door. Just beside the distinct pink (or are they purple?) walls of Tootsie’s, a celebrated Nashville honky tonk, the Ryman Auditorium of Grand-Ole-Opry fame is still open, where legends like Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash all performed. South of Broadway on 5th Avenue, the more modern Country Music Hall of Fame, with its great, rising curvature, is a better symbol of Nashville’s present: where old and new live comfortably side-by-side, like two generations of family.

After hours, folks pour into the song-filled night down Broadway’s oh-so-walkable street that runs like a river of sound, faces, and dazzling light. Later you can branch onto Second Avenue to escape the crowd and listen to the sound of live music slipping from the honky tonks and bars that run down the entire street. There are plenty to tuck into for a beer and a song—assuming, of course, you’ve already been to Tootsie’s.

As a growing city, Nashville has bright, new parts that are also blossoming up, like the Gulch, Five Points in East Nashville, and 12 South. But downtown is old Nashville, where warmth and familiarity come quickly, even to the traveler.

FOOD

Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

410 4th Ave S
Nashville, TN 37201

Taste the smoke-seared flavors of West-Tennessee whole hog BBQ, fresh from the pit daily.

DRINKS

Southern Grist Brewing Company

1201 Porter Rd
Nashville, TN 37206

Enjoy craft beer right in the taproom with East Nashville artisans.

SIGHTS

Country Music Hall of Fame & Musuem

222 5th Ave S
Nashville, TN 37203

Explore the country music legends, both old and new, who lived the music they sang.

MUSIC

Tootsie's Orchid Lounge

422 Broadway
Nashville, TN 37203

Experience live music at Broadway’s most famous honky tonk.

Live Music at Sunset

It’s the old, true, genuine things about Nashville that make it feel like home. Things like being able to walk into a diner after a long, eventful night and chat with the cook over breakfast. There is a virtue in making music, finding rest, in enjoying life with full-hearted gratitude. The Grand Ole RV Resort offers a place of rest for the weary traveler. On Sunday mornings, a young pastor even travels down from a nearby town to offer a small service on the back porch, with picnic tables open to those looking to come as they are.

At sunset, this is where the music also plays. Every night. The Grand Ole RV Resort offers live music seven nights a week, with local artists on rotation. Sue says it’s perfect for guests who want to experience the charms of Music City without the city crowd.

"People can sit out in their lawn chair with a beer if they want to. We do meals every night. They can definitely experience Nashville here each night without going downtown.

Every single night, musicians like Merna Lewis, "the Barefoot Fiddler," take their place on the back porch where, with hardly an introduction, they begin, letting the music sweep across the campground and make its own announcement. Emerging from a small sea of RVs, campers are drawn from their Jaycos, Denalis, and Airstreams to move toward the music, making their way up the gentle hill where the resort stands tall. Before long, over 30 people have set up in lawn chairs and at picnic tables around the musicians. For good reason. The music is radio quality, tonight featuring sweet-sawing, crowd-drawing fiddle work and baritone-rich singing. The local talent gives credence to Nashville’s reputation: Musicians here are as common as silver in the days of Solomon.

As country music favorites play in the air, the crowd settles in and gets comfortable. A young father listens as he pushes his kids on a nearby swing. An old woman huddles into her lawn chair with a black chihuahua in her lap. The dog's face is so whitened from age you could mistake it for a pocket beagle. After the first hour, a new couple arrives late and settles at a back table but catch the eye of the vocalist, Mark Whitehead.

"Hello in the back!"

The couple smile and wave shyly, then Mark turns back to the music. As it often goes, songs start with stories from the road, mentions of old friends from towns like Amarillo, and absurd questions, like "Is it alright if I do a Merle Haggard song?" (It's always OK to do Merle here.) People come and go at their leisure, but the music stays and fills the campground for two hours with almost-too-perfect lyrics like, "Down this road there’s always one more city, the highway is my home."

Sunset’s blue sky turns gold over the wooded western horizon till the whole lawn is gilded with dusk. With music that takes travelers to some distant place that the soul is always searching out. Here on the green grass in that dying light, in the soft shadow of the Grand Ole RV Resort, the work of a master builder is complete—a place of fellowship found in the places we meet, in the music we make, in the moments we have. Taking us to a place where we can both know and be known.

Maybe, at one time, that was found at a frontier fort, the pages of a celebrated novel, or the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. But tonight, it’s the musical twilight of the Grand Ole Resort.

The Barefoot Fiddler

Merna Lewis is a force behind the fiddle. Since moving to Nashville in 2003, she’s been a fixture in the Nashville honky tonk bars and a regular at the Grand Ole Resort.

Follow her on Facebook
@TheBarefootFiddler

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