Tennessee played a central role in the country’s heritage as the main battleground in the western theater of the Civil War, a proving ground for civil rights struggles and as a scene of musical innovation. The Volunteer State divides naturally into three geographic areas: mountainous East Tennessee, the rolling hills and basin of Middle Tennessee, and the low plain of the west.
Tennessee’s two largest cities rank among the country’s most important music centers. Nashville, the state capital, is the historic heart of the nation’s country music (and modern Christian pop and rock) scene, and in the west, Memphis boasts musical shrines such as Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio and Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate.
But it is the serenity of Tennessee’s natural spaces that draws visitors back time and again. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in the southern Appalachians bordering North Carolina, is America’s most visited national park, but many tourists do not stray far from their cars, and its 800 square miles of gently contoured peaks provide hiking and trout fishing, as well peace and solitude for more-energetic visitors.
Among the key attractions in Nashville are the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (222 Fifth Avenue South, Tel.  416-2001) and the historic Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Avenue North, Tel.  889-3060), home to the Grand Ole Opry for 31 years starting in 1943. The museum is fascinating, with a wonderful collection of original sound recordings, photographs and artifacts, including instruments such as Les Paul’s 1941 experimental “Log” electric guitar.
In Memphis, don’t miss the legendary Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue), a National Historic Landmark, where rock ’n’ roll was born in the person of a young Elvis Presley. The studio remains almost exactly as it was when Presley made his first recording for storied owner Sam Phillips (who went on to record Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash). The tour is excellent and full of detailed information, and you can stand in the exact spot — microphone included — where Elvis cut his first record.
Rendezvous (52 South Second Street, Tel.  523-2746), a Memphis institution, serves what many consider to be the best ribs in town. The décor is quirky, but the food is delicious.
The March of the Ducks
If you want to witness one of Memphis’ most celebrated scenes, head to The Peabody hotel (149 Union Avenue, Tel.  529-4000) for the march of the ducks. Each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., they come down a special elevator from their penthouse home and parade along a red carpet to the lobby’s central fountain.