Staplehouse in the Old Fourth Ward has been a tough ticket since Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in America last year. But early birds can get seats at the bar if they’re lucky, and I was. As glib foodies Instagrammed, I hunkered down over crab with kohlrabi and an exquisite chicken liver tart, then stumbled on toward two great bars with peculiar entrances: a parking garage (Ticonderoga Club) and a London-style call box (Red Phone Booth). But I didn’t stay out late, because the next day I was heading to vampire country.
Roughly 30 miles east of Atlanta, Covington is a small town with a robust filming history, hosting productions that include “Friday the 13th,” “Cannonball Run” and “Remember the Titans.” On TV the town has served as the Hazzard County seat (“The Dukes of Hazzard”), Sparta, Ga. (“Heat of the Night”) and Mystic Falls, Va. (“The Vampire Diaries”).
“The Vampire Diaries,” which ended this year, brings Georgia more film and TV tourists than any other title, according to the state’s film office (apparently it’s big in China). In Covington fans can take location tours or eat at the Mystic Grill, a Southern restaurant that brings to life the cafe from the show.
I haven’t seen much “Vampire Diaries” so can’t attest to the grill’s verisimilitude. But as a child of the ’80s, I logged lots of time watching the now deeply problematic General Lee defy gravity on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which shot its first few episodes in Covington before moving to California.
So I made a pilgrimage up Flat Rock Road to the white cinder block building that served as the exterior of the Boar’s Nest, where Daisy Duke slung beers in her namesake micro-shorts.
It now appears to be a church, so I guess there’s hope for us all. Then it was time to head to Nashville.
‘Most People Leave Changed’
As I approached Chattanooga, the rolling Georgia terrain gave way to dramatic vistas of the Appalachian foothills before the highway bent west toward Nashville. In recent years, the country music capital has also become your cool friends’ favorite city, thanks to New South cuisine and a fertile cultural scene. On this trip I was there for the Bluebird.
Since opening in 1982 in a strip mall, the 90-seat Bluebird Cafe has become a favorite spot for the city’s songwriters to play for locals and friends. Then Rayna Jaymes and Juliette Barnes started singing there on “Nashville.”
“Now we have hundreds of people, many who just want to have their picture taken in front of the venue,” said Erika Wollam Nichols, the general manager. “Or they get desperate about trying to get inside, to the point of trying to break the door down, waving $20 bills at me.”
“It gets kind of insane,” she added.
The crowd is now largely tourists inspired by the venue’s regular appearances on “Nashville,” where the fictional country stars extol the venue’s intimacy. (The show is shot on a replica Bluebird set.) The parking lot was thrumming when I got there 30 minutes before showtime, the line for reservation holders like me dwarfed by the serpentine one full of hopefuls angling for a walk-up seat. Inside, a cocoon envelops the space as the night’s acts take their turns.
Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks are among the superstars who were discovered at the Bluebird. The night I was there a young Englishman with a rich, resonant voice named Joe Martin seemed primed for bigger things.
As mawkish as this sounds: The Bluebird is about songs, not stardom — their power to crystallize ephemeral emotions and reach places inside you that don’t see them coming. And the warm aura of the place makes it hard to do anything other than open yourself to them.
“It’s the quintessential listening room,” Monte King, a veteran Bluebird performer, told me before showtime. Later he reduced me to tears with “I Will Always Be Your Dad,” his song about a son who had left home for the Marine Corp.
“Most people leave changed and that’s the best part,” Ms. Wollam Nichols said.
My only other Nashville agenda item was hot chicken, though locals tended to smirk at my request for recommendations. The fiery, cayenne-laden style of yardbird, born in the city, is a foodie obsession.
It may be trendy but I still wanted it. Prince’s, said to be the dish’s birthplace, wasn’t open the next day, so I hit Hattie B’s, an acclaimed newish entry.
Pro tip: Order online and get it to go. But however smug I felt bypassing the line, the tenders cut me down to size. I got the extra hot Shut the Cluck Up flavor — a silly name for some serious chicken that had my head leaking multiple fluids and my mouth burning in delicious agony.
Nashville had made me cry twice in as many days, which felt like enough. So I pointed the car toward New Orleans.