Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace
From a few years ago, me mugging with the bronze buffalo sculpture at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Well, We'll Always Have Nashville: A Boondoggle and a Half to the Music City


I'm not the kind of guy who dwells on the negative. And that's a good thing because, other than the horrendous traffic, there weren't any real negatives on which I could dwell during a recent boondoggle trip to Nashville with fraternity brothers.

If you speak to some of my friends out of my earshot, they may confess to you that I'm more of a glass-is-half-empty sort of guy. I don't think that's entirely true, but I'm no more likely to hold up a mirror to myself than anyone else. That's another way of saying I'm probably not very objective.

Trying to put on a happy face at Biscuit Love.
Nashville as the location for the most recent confab of a bunch of my Fiji fraternity brothers, who collect as a group to catch up and tell each other lies, wasn't really on our radar until six or so months before we descended on Music City. You could argue that I was the instigator behind Nashville as the destination. I love Nashville. First hatched on a visit with my Knoxville-residing fraternity brother, Hal, this trip took shape over the next few months as e-mails crisscrossed the country and we settled on dates, as well as destination.

You might think finding a fitting date would be one of the simpler aspects of planning such a trip, but you would be wrong. Unlike yours truly, some of these eight other guys have real jobs and responsibilities. They must actually plan vacations around the demands of their workload. I know, it makes no sense to me either, but that must be what it's like to be employed. As it turned out, even after a lot of back and forth about dates, one of the guys had to bail at the last minute because of a family emergency. 

Doing a little craft-beer sipping at Yazoo Brewery.
With the dates set, finding a four-night rental became the next hurdle. I had volunteered to oversee the logistics of this trip. But I cheated. Because Nissan's North American headquarters is in the Nashville area, I knew I could call on a few of my PR buddies there to provide some planning support. Having hosted a number of media events in Nashville, at one time or another, they have looked into every venue, restaurant and point of interest within 50 miles of the city. Delegate, delegate, delegate....

Although I knew my Nissan resources would step up with suggestions about where to eat, where to listen to music and so forth, I had to do the heavy lifting when it came to searching out a rental. We started out with nine guys and ultimately needed nine beds. It's one of those Venus-Mars things. Some women apparently feel comfortable sleeping two to a bed in a purely Platonic way. I can't speak for how gay men with no interest in one another feel about sharing a bed, but I can tell you straight guys would rather sleep on the roof rack of their car. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms? No problemo. Sharing a bed? Not just, no, but hell no!

Listening to some music at Second Fiddle.
Of course, we wanted something close to Broadway's honky tonks. And, we wanted a place that wasn't going to set us back to the point the cost dipped into our beverage cash. Well, at least that was the reason I didn't want to spend a lot on lodging.

I searched airbnb.com and vrbo.com. Nine beds, close to Broadway, not too expensive: This was a taller order than anticipated. I finally found two possibilities. The more expensive one was about 3 miles. from downtown and the other about 7. Everyone seemed to be willing to pony up a little extra for the closer house. One of my braver brothers offered to act as treasurer of this aspect of the trip. Contacting the owner, he worked out a deposit and total price. Investment per person was about $330. He personally underwrote the returnable security deposit. This would have been a very dangerous undertaking 25 years ago, but with a bunch of 65-year olds, the only possible reason for the security deposit not to be returned would have been a clogged commode. 

Yeah, I'm not proud, but when in Rome.....
As the date approached, we coordinated flights and driving arrivals. A couple of us drove to Knoxville the day before our Wednesday kick-off day, spent the night with Hal and then drove the leg to Nashville together.

Nissan offered up one of its 12-passenger NV Passenger Vans for our use. This was an ideal transport for moving our group from place to place. It required a bit of time for me to get used to piloting it. Roughly a foot and a half longer than a Chevy Suburban and about as wide, it was a lot of vehicle to hopscotch through Nashville's crowded boulevards. The size was exacerbated by the fact I couldn't see out the rear windows to use the inside rearview mirror with the collection of bucket heads I had to ferry around, forcing me to rely on the huge outboard mirrors. 

The Nissan NV Passenger Van parked in front of our rental house.
I felt like Ralph Kramden as I weaved through the Interstate scrum. Otherwise, the NV was comfortable. Ours was the SL grade with a navigational system, dual-zone climate control, color touchscreen and rearview camera. Surprisingly, its 261-horsepower 4-liter V6 had more than enough grit to haul around this crew – there are a couple of pretty good-size boys in this group. A folding seatback on the fourth-row seat would have been helpful. The three rows of rear seats can be removed piecemeal, but none fold in any way. Upon picking up the three guys who flew in, we had to alley-oop the suitcases over seatbacks for the run to the house.


Nissan's offices are in Franklin, which is roughly 20 miles south of Nashville. One of my Nissan PR buddies offered to drive the van about halfway to Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville. We hooked up, had some terrific BBQ and took possession of the keys. After lunch, two of us headed off to make the airport pickups while the third took the vehicle we came in to buy some groceries. By 4 p.m. all of us, including the last two stragglers driving from Ohio, were gathered at the house.

As pleased as we were with the house itself, the neighborhood was a bit sketchy. Only a few blocks off of I-40, the first couple of blocks between the highway and the house were downright scary. The five of us heading in from the airport were apprehensive to say the least. Let's just say, it would have been easier to locate a crack dealer than a Starbucks. As we closed in on our rental, however, things improved...a little.

Just a little something to sip on in our spare time.
 Things were even better when we lined up all of our whiskeys on the kitchen counter and took stock. It was a fairly impressive and ambitious selection.

From this point forward this merry band will be known as "The Russ Heaps Group."
By the time all hands were on deck and everyone had sorted out who was sleeping where, we didn't have much time for happy hour. A few opened beers, which were consumed as we prepared for dinner. Nissan had arranged for us to attend the weekly live Music City Roots Webcast at The Factory in Franklin. A BBQ dinner was included. Nashville's Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant did the catering and the food was outstanding. 

Somebody gong this sorry SOB.
Four different acts comprised the musical entertainment once the Webcast began. Jim Lauderdale hosted the affair. Two of the groups were actually the same group that replaced one or two people between sets. Although the core of the group seemed talented enough, the front man for the first set – Marty Wilson-Piper – was some washed-up rocker whose claim to fame appeared to be having been booted from several 80's European rock bands that none of us had ever heard of. The selection of music was ridiculous. You'd get a better sound tossing an accordion down a flight of stairs. 

What a welcome relief Beat Root Revival was.
Round 2, featured many of the same players, sans Mr. 80's Rock, but now calling themselves HuDost. I suspect HuDost loosely translates to “Racket to Render Men Sterile.” Its singular claim to fame: It included a young lady guitarist – Christie Lenee – who, during a solo, played the guitar in ways I simply have never seen before. (Click here to see and hear it.) It was almost magical. You'd have to see and hear it to believe it. Half-way through the song, I was kicking myself for not videoing it with my phone. She was about the only bright spot in the first 40 minutes.

Christie Lenee.

Although things did get better, during the first song of the second set, the lead of this iteration of the band made sounds that would shatter a jelly jar. Within three miles of the place there wasn't a dog not howling nor a child not crying. I had to hold back one of my brothers, convinced that doing so would make them stop, from confessing to being the second shooter on the grassy knoll. Eventually they grew weary of vocally waterboarding us and got the hell off the stage. 

The Vietti Chili singers.
Somewhere in the mass hysteria before the third group took the stage, the second-best burst of talent was a guy and two gals singing a jingle for Vietti Chili. It, as it turns out, is one of the sponsors of this Webcast along with Nissan and a couple of other products. I was waiting for someone to pop on stage and begin singing and yodeling about Altima, but, alas, it didn't happen. I'll need to have a word with Nissan's marketing squad. They are missing the boat.

Gabe Dixon knocking it out.
The music and talent took a 180-degree turn for the better when the final two groups arrived. Outrageously good, Beat Root Revival was composed of Brit Ben Jones and Irish Adrea Magee. A couple of guys in our group liked them well enough to purchase their CDs. I downloaded one of their songs upon returning to Greenville. They were followed by an amazing song writer and piano player Gabe Dixon. We all but forgot the teeth-gritting chaos of the first 40 minutes. When Dixon completed his set, all the performers, including Lauderdale, gathered on stage and jammed. That in itself was worth the admission price.

Much ado about nothing.
Our first night passed without incident. Now we were faced with our toughest decision yet: Where to eat breakfast? Somewhere along the line a restaurant called Biscuit Love was suggested for morning vittles. Whether on the Internet or in magazine/newspaper reviews, it was two thumbs up all around for Biscuit Love. We decided everyone couldn't be wrong and took the plunge. Guess what? Everyone can be wrong. Suzuki would still be selling cars in this country if it had had the talent hustling its brand that Biscuit Love apparently has. Located in a trendy area referred to as The Gulch, Biscuit Love is a marketing phenom. 

Don't ask....
Upon arriving at this glorified urban Cracker Barrel at close to 10 a.m., we were met with a 45-minute wait and a line composed of wannabe hipsters and duped tourists winding down the stairs and up the sidewalk. We joined these other fools in line and began shuffling forward. Once in the door, we had to pass by a table brimming over with Biscuit Love-branded kitchen accessories. Had we been so inclined and stupid rich, we could have ponied up $20 for a set of four measuring spoons, $25 for a rolling pin, $27 for a dish towel or $160 for a 10-inch iron skillet. Hey, where's the $30 egg separator?

We placed our order and then searched for a table. Remarkably, we found two four-tops next to one another that we pushed together. Our meals arrived. Other than the Bonuts, some sort of stuffed fried biscuit concoction, which everyone but me in our group raved about, and the Chronic Bacon that even I had to admit was good, everything else was either very mediocre or downright disappointing. 

Attempting to stay warm outside the Sky Blue Cafe.
Breakfast the next two mornings was much, much better. The second morning we decided that because we liked the Puckett's food at The Factory our first night, we'd give its breakfast a try. Our efforts were rewarded with a well-stocked breakfast buffet that was wonderful. Saturday morning we followed another suggestion to the Sky Blue Cafe in East Nashville. The weather had turned a little bleak overnight. We found ourselves with a 35-minute wait that we had to endure stomping our feet to stay warm as we huddled in a nearby doorway hoping for our names to be called. A couple of the guys wandered across the street to a flea market where they offered to buy the coats off the backs of a couple of vendors. After eating, though, we all agreed that knowing how good it was, we would have waited another 30 minutes. Maybe the best breakfast I've ever had.

Funky, indeed.
We filled our days with sightseeing, listening to live music and drinking the occasional beer. Well, maybe more often than occasional. We toured the funky Lane Motor Museum. One afternoon we boarded the hop-on-hop-off Old Town Trolley Tour. We stepped off the trolley three or four times as it wound around the city. 

Mugging it up at Billy's Idle Hour Tavern.
One of the stops was on Music Row where a score or more of music studios are located. The stop was in front of Bobby's Idle Hour Tavern. I dragged our crew off the trolley for a little local color and a much needed adult beverage. It was us, the owner and a young-lady bartender with the obligatory collection of tattoos up and down her arms. What an unexpected hoot. 

The band playing at our Thursday dinner spot.
Friday night several of us made use of Uber and headed to Broadway. Winding up in Layla's, we met up with some of my Nissan pals. One of the bands performing was scheduled to play at Robert's Western World the following afternoon. Like a bunch of groupies, we made it a point to stop in and listen to a couple of sets.
Wasting away in Roberts during our last afternoon.
I lost complete control of the agenda when a few of the guys wanted to drift into a boot store and do a little shopping on Saturday afternoon. Hey, we're Fijis not Chi Omegas! One thing led to another and the first one of us decided to pull the trigger on a pair of Lucchese boots. A few of these guys are wheeler-dealers. As the clerk continued sweetening the pot with discounts as one after another chose a pair, another guy would get serious and begin trying on boots. When the dust had settled, five of them were at the register cashing in on a 40-percent discount. 

A 40-percent discount can move mountains.
I, of course, resisted this bit of mob hysteria. Besides, earlier that morning I had ordered a new video camcorder and had, as they say, shot my wad.

I had to pop out of bed at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning to make the first airport run. By 8:30 a.m. everybody was either at the airport or in a vehicle heading for home. I was able to drop the Nissan van at the airport when I delivered the last two guys to departures. 

Another craft brewery stop.
We had all been a little worried about trying to keep eight guys herded together and agreeing on where to go and what to do. Everyone compromised a little, participating in something (or things) he didn't really want to. It all worked out in the end.

What we did learn is that next to maybe Las Vegas and New Orleans, Nashville is America's favorite location for bachelorette parties. At night a platoon of bouncers is kept occupied tossing drunk female twenty-something pre-wedding partiers out of joints up and down Broadway.

I suspect the bride to be is in white.
In another six months, we'll need to begin thinking about the 2018 gathering. Not for college days alone.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Remember the Ridgeline: A First Drive of Honda's 2017 Pickup in San Antonio


I'm not the kind of guy who dwells on the past, but history does interest me. As a one-time Texan, I'm particularly partial to tales of the Lone Star's yesteryear. So, when Honda included me on its media introduction of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline in San Antonio, I didn't need to give it much thought. They had me at “Ridgeline.” That we were staying at the Grand Hyatt, backing up to San Antonio's River Walk, and a short five minutes by foot from the Alamo only sweetened the deal.

Actually, I did a little lobbying ahead of time to snag a coveted spot on this event. I really wanted an advanced shot to drive this pickup. I liked the previous generation Ridgeline that went the way of Walkmans a couple of years ago. I had no clue what to expect from the latest version. All I had heard – or more accurately seen, if you want to put a fine point on it – is that, rather than the sort of El Camino lines of the first generation truck, the new one would be more traditionally shaped.

Briscoe Art Museum.
I arrived at the hotel late in the afternoon on a May Monday. Not having time to do much more than stow my gear, pull on a pair of cowboy boots and powder my nose before our scheduled departure from the Hyatt to dinner, I settled for a beer in the hospitality suite. Dinner that evening was at the Briscoe Art Museum. Our post-dinner cocktails included a tequila tasting. Just what the doctor ordered. After all, flying all day is thirsty work.

Honda dedicated Tuesday to street and highway driving. After an hour's worth of Ridgeline facts and figures delivered by engineers and product planners responsible for bringing it to market, Honda set us loose in pairs to put 150 or so miles on the truck. Somewhere in the midst of this ride and drive, we were served lunch at Baja BBQ at the Marina at Canyon Lake. My driving partner and I managed to eat and return to our hotel by mid afternoon. Our return was early enough that I was able to strike out on the River Walk bound for the Alamo. 

I hadn't been to this shrine of Texas independence in several years. (Although the debate persists as to exactly how many combatants were involved on both sides, I'll go with the number of defenders quoted at the shrine itself: 189.) The Alamo is where 189 defenders died to give Sam Houston a few extra days to organize and train the army that would ultimately defeat Santa Ana about six weeks later. It has always fascinated me. My interest and respect isn't diminished one teeny bit by the fact that those men were there against orders and almost by accident. That doesn't make them any less brave or their sacrifice any less profound. Knowing that we were going to have dinner on the Alamo grounds that evening, I wanted to check out just how long a walk it was going to be.

Dinner, it turned out, was in a private-function building just to the rear of the Alamo itself. We had drinks in the garden and adjourned inside for vittles. Preceding that, we were treated to a private tour of the chapel, the iconic structure most of us associate with the battle. As is typical with people seeing the Alamo for the first time, those doing so in our group were surprised at the shrine's small stature. On my initial visit, I thought I was admiring a scale model. “Hey, where's the real one?”

In showrooms sometime in June, Ridgeline will surprise most people. It sure did me. With construction that's more car than truck, Honda isn't aiming Ridgeline at traditional-truck buyers. Sure it's sturdy and capable, but it's to pickup trucks what crossovers are to SUVs. Honda is convinced that there is a generation of drivers out there who have been raised in a crossover world and looking for a similar performing pickup.


What will capture most people's attention is Ridgeline's cargo box and dual-action tailgate. As with the previous truck, the tailgate drops down like that of a traditional pickup, but also swings open from the right side allowing for easier access to stuff stowed in the front of the bed. Opening it from the side also gains access to the hidden storage area under the box floor. Large enough to comfortably host an 82-quart cooler, it can hold all manner of stuff you don't want to put into the cab. Honda lines the bed with a very durable composite lining that can take quite a beating without showing any signs of wear and tear. In addition to being 4 inches longer than the cargo box of the previous generation, it's also wide enough between the wheel wells for a standard 4X8 sheet of plywood to lie flat.

Opting for the top-end RTL-E or Black grades gains you Ridgeline's one-of-a-kind cargo-box speaker system, consisting of two audio “exciters” attached behind each bed-liner panel, transforming the panels themselves into speakers. The resulting sound is quite impressive. 


With seven trim levels, Ridgeline pricing spans $30,375 for the entry-level, two-wheel-drive RT to $43,770 for the AWD Black Edition. Honda expects the sweet spot to be the RTL at $33,780 for 2WD and $35,580 for AWD. 

All Ridgelines will derive go from a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. A six-speed automatic transmission sends output to either the front or all the wheels. Ridgeline can carry two passengers and 110 pounds of cargo while towing 5,000 pounds. Because its bones are car like, it maintains solid ride quality over all but the choppiest surfaces. Its AWD system is remarkably capable. We put it through some fairly serious tests on courses at the Rio Cibolo Ranch near San Antonio before flying out on Wednesday. It performed brilliantly. 


Did I mention that Ridgeline has the most passenger space of any midsize pickup? It also has storage under the rear seat sufficiently big to swallow a golf bag.

Fuel economy is pretty decent with a government-estimated 22 mpg in combined driving for the 2WD and 21 mpg for AWD. Honda expects Ridgeline to earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating with its best grade of “Good” across its battery of safety tests. 


Because Honda scheduled our off-road/towing experience for Wednesday, I didn't fly out of San Antonio until nearly dinner time. With the flights and obligatory layover in Atlanta, I didn't arrive home until after 10 p.m. A long day? You bet, but well worth it.

As the truck capital of the world, Texas was an appropriate venue to parade the 2017 Ridgeline in front of the media. It's unlikely die-hard-truck owners will rush out to trade in their F-150 or Silverado for a Ridgeline. Even current owners of midsize trucks might be a tough sell, but certainly first-time truck buyers looking for a multipurpose hauler will give Ridgeline a hard look. And really, that's all Honda thinks it needs.