Music City Plays On

Nashville strikes the right chord with audiophiles of every genre
Two well-developed myths exist about Nashville. One is that it’s simply a country music town. The other is that everyone who lives there wears cowboy boots. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  
 
The fact is, Nashville is an urban but gracious Southern city that eats, sleeps, and breathes music — all kinds of music. Around every corner and alley, on every stage, and in places in between, music is the common denominator that unifies this capital city of Tennessee. 
 
Country music is undoubtedly the backbone, but Nashville proudly honors and showcases its extraordinary influence in crafting a cross section of sound, including country, rock, gospel, and blues.
 
A Tribute to the Greats
Nashville is surely filled with the weeping ghosts of lost music deals, but the spirit of those who have famously made it here as singers, songwriters, and recording musicians is proudly celebrated.
 
A major attraction to honor those who have paved the way is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is located on the west bank of the Cumberland River. The expansive, 40,000-square-foot building houses historic country video clips and recorded music, dynamic exhibits that include personal items (see over-the-top collections such as Elvis’ solid-gold Cadillac), instruments, costumes, and photographs. The museum holds regular live performances and public programs, and recently opened the $4 million-endowed Taylor Swift Education Center. Be sure to circle the Hall of Fame rotunda honoring the heart and soul of country music during your visit. And look for the architectural symbolism: windows that resemble piano keys and the giant sweeping arch on the right side of the building that juts out like a 1950s Cadillac fin. 
 
Another sightseeing gem — on a different scale — is the Johnny Cash Museum, a relative newcomer to the museum scene in Nashville that is getting rave reviews. The small space is in the heart of Nashville and is a moving and comprehensive tribute to the Man in Black. The museum contains never-before-seen historical documents, letters, awards, costumes, and instruments that take visitors on a three-dimensional journey — with interactive technology — through Cash’s life. The memorabilia includes his gold and platinum records, set lists, and some of June Carter’s personal items. If you’re lucky, you might meet a member of Cash’s family or his band members, who often visit the museum.
 
 
A must-stop for music history buffs is the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, which honors talented musicians from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys. Located in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, the museum features exhibits of instruments used by studio musicians who contributed to the greatest recordings of all time.
 
To get a feel for the inner workings of the entertainment industry, visit Nashville’s Music Row, located one mile southwest of downtown. Considered the business hub of country, gospel, and contemporary Christian music, Music Row is filled with record labels, publishing houses, music licensing firms, recording studios, radio stations, and video production facilities. It’s also the historic site of the RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded more than 200 songs, such as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Most of the studio’s equipment is still intact from its recording session heyday, including the soundboard used by Chet Atkins and Elvis’ piano. RCA Studio B is the only recording studio visitors can tour in Nashville.
 
Setting the Stage
You likely can find a place to listen to live music on any given day — or hour — in Nashville; the difficult part is choosing a venue. A good place to start is Nashville’s No. 1 attraction, the Grand Ole Opry. The member-driven Opry is the world’s longest-running, live radio program (Nashville’s 650 AM WSM) featuring country music legends as well as their contemporary counterparts, who take the stage on the same night and perform a variety of musical styles. 
 
The Opry, which typically includes more than eight acts in a show, is broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House, from February to October. From November to January, the Opry returns to its original home, the Ryman Auditorium. The Opry’s Backstage Tour is a behind-the-scenes look at what the stars experience before show time. 
 
The Ryman Auditorium, a National Historic Landmark and home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, is one of the best-known live-performance stages in the world due to its acoustic capabilities and intriguing back story. Artists from every genre have performed at the Ryman, from Hank Williams and Aretha Franklin to Minnie Pearl and Kid Rock. Originally built as a house of worship in 1892, the Ryman is affectionately called the Mother Church of Country Music and is considered the birthplace of bluegrass. Audiences sit in the original pews for all performances at the Ryman, which seats 2,362. On the tour, you can go behind the curtain to see where Patsy Cline and other greats got dressed for their shows. The new Ryman Recording Studio also makes it possible for visitors to record their own CD single right in the auditorium. 
The joke in Nashville is that everyone thinks he or she is a singer/songwriter, but the truth is, the city is a breeding ground for emerging musical talent. So no matter where you turn, you likely will cross paths with someone on the verge of stardom. One such place is the Bluebird Café, featured on ABC’s prime-time show Nashville. Located in a small strip mall outside of downtown Nashville, the 90-seat venue has launched some of the most significant songwriters and artists in the industry. On Monday nights, The Bluebird hosts open mic to give up-and-comers a chance to play their original songs, in an intimate setting, for audiences that may include an influential record producer. This is the place to hear a song for the first time; just ask Garth Brooks. The lines form early for both auditioning talent and audience members, so make reservations to ensure you get a seat. 
 
For a more raucous music experience, wander into one of Nashville’s legendary honky-tonks. Many of the infamous watering holes, such as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Robert’s Western World (yes, you can buy a pair of boots here), Wildhorse Saloon, and Legends Corner, line Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville and feature music from midmorning to late night with no cover charge. This area is a lively party section of Nashville, and it’s not unusual for patrons to rotate between the establishments to sample the diversity of music. Performers play for tips, and sometimes even famous faces drop in unannounced to jam with Nashville’s musicians. 
 
Live from the Hollow
While there is plenty to do in Nashville, within a 30-minute scenic drive outside of the city visitors can sample the tastes and sounds of Tennessee’s down-home lifestyle. In charming hollows, enclaves, and towns, planned and impromptu performances occur in historic theaters, country stores, and off-the-beaten-path establishments. 
 
Just south of Nashville is Leiper’s Fork — a Registered National Historic District and the only historic village on the Tennessee portion of the Natchez Trace — which is a quaint intersection between the past and the present. Most of what happens in Leiper’s Fork occurs on the main thoroughfare. Visitors can shop unique merchants, eat great country food, and rub elbows with world-class artists who appear at such informal music venues as Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, a country store and restaurant that serves up cherry-smoked ribs and Southern fried catfish on mismatched tables and chairs. Expect to dine with a colorful clientele of farmers, songwriters, singers, and music stars, and after the red-checkered tablecloths are cleared, sit back and listen to some of the best organic performances in the Nashville area during open mic nights on Thursdays.
 
Considered a southern suburb of Nashville, Franklin is the home address for many country and crossover music superstars. Outside of the mansion gates, however, this charming destination offers upscale shopping, galleries, dining, and entertainment facilities, and hosts many annual festivals and parades. A showstopper is the recently renovated Franklin Theatre on Main Street, where an eclectic lineup of movies, music, and live theater entertains. The 300-seat retro facility pays homage to the nostalgic era of the 1930s with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems. Franklin also is the location of the Battle of Franklin, one of the worst battles in the Civil War, and marked by historic attractions such as the battle site, Carnton Plantation, and the Carter House.
 
For music lovers, it doesn’t get any better than Nashville — once you’ve visited Music City, it’s easy to sing its praises.