From its most humble beginnings, Nashville has always been about music. In the late 1700s, passengers looking to settle in the area would be greeted by fiddlers and dancers after safely disembarking from their journey along the Cumberland River. And while that particular practice has long since faded, visitors to Music City are welcomed at the airport by the voices some of the biggest stars in country music: “Hi this is Dave from Lady Antebellum. Welcome to Nashville!” is just one of the many greetings passengers hear over the intercom while heading to baggage claim.
These days, Nashville is still synonymous with music — especially country music — but the city boasts a thriving alt rock and hip-hop scene as well. If you happen to visit Nashville for the popular CMA Music Fest (June 9-12) or perhaps for Bonnaroo (also June 9-12), we’ve got the scoop on where to go to get the most music-related bang for your vacation buck. And here’s a little tidbit for you: Although renowned as a music recording center and tourist destination, Nashville’s largest industry is actually health care, with more than 300 medical centers within city limits. Good to know, in case the party gets out of hand.
Although it continues to battle some image problems (be honest, it’s the hat, right?), country music’s audience is growing by leaps and bounds. Modern country artists are willing to color outside the lines, using electronic beats, amped-up power chords or hip-hop phrasing in their lyrics, and while this is somewhat vexing for traditional country music lovers, it has helped the genre gain a new, younger audience. This, plus the fact that Nashville is home to both Belmont and Vanderbilt University (among others), means you shouldn’t be surprised to see young hipsters rubbing shoulders with more traditional folks while standing in line to the many live music venues along the six block radius that comprises Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville.
Here, music venues are interspersed with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. A quick walk up and down Broadway reveals two things: The myriad of souvenir shops sell pretty much the same things (but who doesn’t want a Johnny Cash t-shirt, Dolly Parton bottle opener or his and hers Waylon and Jessi bath towels?) and the bars and honky-tonks are packed with young music lovers in search of good tunes, a few cold beers and, if they are lucky, a phone number or two.
Live Music Venues
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
Named after singer/comedienne Tootsie Bess who purchased it in 1960, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, or Tootsie’s, is the legendary honky-tonk where many writers — including Roger Miller and Harlan Howard — got their start. It was after a performance at Tootsie’s that Willie Nelson got signed to a publishing deal, while Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare were some of the regulars whose “day at the office” meant writing and singing at Tootsie’s. These days, with live music happening just about every day from the time its doors open at 11 a.m., Tootsie’s is one of the places would-be singers can get a start — and one of the many places along Lower Broadway where tourists mingle with up-and-comers and big name stars trying out new material. Definitely check out Tootsie’s chili and the house brand of apple pie-flavored moonshine.
116 5th Ave North
The original building was designed by architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson in the Late Victorian Gothic Revival style. He completed the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892; 51 years later, it became the home of the Grand Ole Opry. With a rich history of legendary performers (Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline, among others) it wasn’t long before the Opry earned the nickname The Mother Church of Country Music. In 1974, the Opry moved, and the building sat idle for 20 years. With a couple of painstaking (and expensive) facelifts, The Ryman Auditorium opened in 1994 and quickly became the jewel of downtown Nashville, booking artists from Aretha Franklin to Zac Brown, and everyone in between. The Ryman offers daily tours, and their calendar of events can be found here.
Bigger artists might also play at the Bridgestone Arena, the 17,000+ seater that is home to the Nashville Predators hockey team (and where the CMA Awards take place) or Nissan Stadium, the 69,000+ capacity football stadium just over the river, which is home to the Tennessee Titans (and where the CMA Music Fest hosts its nightly shows). Amazingly, all these venues are within walking distance from the heart of downtown, making Nashville one of the most foot-friendly places to enjoy a multitude of musical options.
And if you are willing to veer off the well-worn path of downtown Nashville, there’s plenty more music to be discovered: Out in the West end of Nashville is the legendary Bluebird Cafe, a bustling little cafe that features some of Nashville’s finest songwriters doing “in the round” shows twice a night since it opened in 1982. It was in this 90-seater cafe that both Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks were discovered and most recently, is the venue in which most of the club scenes for the television show Nashville take place. Over in trendy up-and-coming East Nashville, bars such as the 5 Spot and the Basement East play host to a steady stream of alt-country movers and shakers.
Best Eats & Drinks
Pre-show and/or late night drinks can be found just about everywhere along Broadway, including the aforementioned Tootsie’s. But there’s also Robert’s Western World, The Stage, Margaritaville, Bootleggers Inn and at the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street is, erm, the Hard Rock Café. While the Hard Rock might not be quintessentially Nashville, it’s a helpful landmark because from there you can see all the wonderful bars up 2nd Street: The Wildhorse Saloon, The Stillery and B.B. King’s Blues Club, to name a paltry few.
Now, just about all of these places will serve food, albeit some more elaborately than others. That said, here are some places worth hunting out.
Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant
500 Church St
Although there is a random assortment of grocery items for sale on display and stacked neatly on the walls which surround Puckett’s, it is first and foremost a restaurant specializing in down home Southern comfort food such as fried chicken, smoked pork chops (or bologna), fried okra (or pickles), grits and more. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Puckett’s food is as legendary as its hospitality.
There are plenty of places to get a beer in downtown Nashville, but if craft beer is your thing, options are somewhat limited. Broadway Brewhouse is a craft beer lover’s oasis; one of the few downtown eateries that eschews PBR in a can for hoppy, house-made craft beer, which is put front and center on their menu. With plenty of televisions covering a variety of sports, you’d be tempted to think of Broadway Brewhouse as a simple sports bar. Order the succulent fish tacos with a pint of the Brett Saison and you will feel ashamed for thinking something so foolhardy.
Bolton’s Hot Chicken
2309-A Franklin Pike
624 Main St
With two locations in Nashville, Bolton’s Hot Chicken serves up twice as much hot and spicey chicken (or fish) for locals and tourists to enjoy. And when we say hot, we mean eye-watering, mouth burning, steam-coming-out-of-your-ears hot. So hot in fact, Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmerman filmed an episode of Bizarre Foods at the tiny East Nashville store.
Raiding the Racks
What would a place called Music City be without a record store or two? Nashville boasts a number pretty nifty record stores, and most also sell music-related accessories such as books, record player needles, and T-shirts, among other things. Here are some of Nashville’s best:
1604 8th Avenue S.
Grimey’s is open seven days a week and its huge selection of “new and pre-loved” vinyl awaits for you whenever the urge to rifle through the racks hits. Grimey’s Too, located next door, houses an insane amount of music-related books — and a damn fine coffee shop as well. The store has fairly regular in-store appearances; their schedule can be found here. Wander in when time allows, because you will definitely lose track of time with all that’s available to peruse here.
1103 Calvin Avenue
The Groove record store is close to the 5 Points neighborhood in East Nashville, so there are plenty of music-loving hipsters that cram into this renovated house on a daily basis (yes, they are open seven days a week). The store’s backyard hosts live showcases during Record Store Day, the Americana Music Festival and more. In addition, the store sells tickets to a handful of venues in town (such as Mercy Lounge, High Watt and Cannery Ballroom). Grab a beverage from Barista Parlor around the corner and take a load off on the front porch while you look through your purchases.
1313 McGavock Pike
Fond Object is a truly unique place in that it sees itself more as an East Nashville art collective than a straight up record store. Along with the music items (they sell new and used vinyl, CDs and DVDs, various books and magazines), Fond Object also offers vintage clothing, furniture, and assorted collectibles, as well as a custom clothing section and jewelry boutique. In classic Nashville fashion, the store features an outdoor performance venue/movie theater and a rescue petting zoo. Can’t quite get to Nashville? Fond Object has an online store which can be found here.
Other places to buy music include Jack White’s Third Man Records, where you can peruse the vinyl or go into The Third Man Recording Booth, which is actually a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine that can record up to two minutes of audio which is then pressed onto 6-inch phonograph discs. Vinyl Tap is a soon-to-be-opened store in East Nashville where you can sip on craft beer while browsing their selection of new and used vinyl. And if you’re hemmed into the downtown area, there’s always the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. This no-frills shop has all the newest country and bluegrass releases. And the small stage at the back of the store is often used for acoustic store performances.
It goes without saying that Nashville is a top destination for travelers worldwide. Here are a few more things to do in Music City:
- Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
- Tour Music Row and the historic RCA Studio B Recording Studio
- Visit the Parthenon in Centennial Park (a full scale replica of the Parthenon in Greece)
- Ride the General Jackson Showboat
- Take in a show at The Grand Ole Opry