As soon as you step into town, lilting voices plant feel-good Americana into your soul. This is a state proud of its music—boasted in every voice, every strum, every person who hails from here. “A band” is just as easily a banjo, standup bass, washboard and two sticks as it is guitar, drums and harmonica. Nashville is where they all come together. It’s a town that asks you no questions and makes you no promises. It simply weaves you into the tapestry of its history with gramophone needles and fiddle strings and you feel totally ok about it. Best of all, as far as long weekends go, it’s a quick plane ride away and perfectly manageable in three to four days.
Whether you got into town this morning, or are hitting the street after breakfast, don’t give in to that delayed gratification stuff. Get a rhythm and make right for the place that got it all started.
The House that Chet Built
Studio B is the oldest surviving studio from the city’s golden age. It was started by Chet Atkins (and a little company called RCA) and during its time in operation (1957-1977) more than 1,000 top 10 songs were recorded here. Studio B is an unassuming building anchored on Music Row, which was a residential street until Atkins got there. It’s homey, nevertheless it’s where The King recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and about 250 of his other hits, Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely” and Dolly Parton did “Jolene,” among many, many others. In the 60s, as country was being replaced by rock ‘n’ roll, Atkins started smoothing out country with pop (swapping steel guitars and fiddles for echo, string and choral backgrounds) to create the “Nashville Sound.” Right here. On the way in, touch the plaque to the left of the front door and you can feel the vibrations of 50 years of magic. *Hello, Johnny Cash fans, the Man in Black’s museum is around the corner.
Make the day a “twofer” on the music history tour: The definite next stop should be the Country Music Hall of Fame. The 40,000 square-foot state of the art facility is a well-arranged journey through American musicology tied to Nashville (and not just country). The collection of artifacts spans the decades and genres popular at a given time. The likes of folk music from the British Isles, African Americans toting five-string banjos and the gospel traditions all get their due. The authentic tent show tradition is alive and well with reels of the Blue Ridgers with Cordelia Mayberry harmonicing “Oh Susanna” in gritty 1929 black and white. If you close your eyes, the cacophony of barn raising, minstrel show and ragtime come to you in a way that brings familiar understanding to modern-day blues and the gin swilling sounds of folk-rock.
Note: Start at the top and work your way down. As you step onto the third floor, a wall of old school concert posters hangs high. As you lift your chin to scan them beneath track lights fashioned like old time mics, you will feel proud at the inspired history of our country’s simple, haunting, textured music.
Farther out of town—because the best places are always the roadhouses away from the city lights—is The Loveless Cafe, a down-home oasis of southern cooking on a dark stretch of highway. Think wood everything and checkered tablecloths. Out back in the barn they stage the Music City Roots show, taped live for broadcast (which means the acts have to be super good, and they are). About 100 chairs sit beneath exposed rafters and strands of bare bulbs. The honest picking of singer-songwriters both new and known, intimately sharing their truths, lies, hopes and romances are on stage. You will live a good happy life in the span of one night here. Owner Todd Mayo says, “It’s derivative of A Prairie Home Companion, derivative of the Opry, derivative of the Saturday night barn dance,” and he ain’t lying—it’s all of that, just for you.
Late night, the bars will call. And you should answer. You’re here for music and that’s where it is. 2nd Avenue is the row of venues that will make for condensed, easy carousing. It is an old warehouse district that is thee nightspot. Expect this to have the grandeur and wow of a true southern city and yet all the sweet and easy appeal of backcountry. Example: When the Wild Horse Saloon opened in the 90s, the city had Reba McEntire drive a herd of cattle up 2nd Avenue to commemorate the moment. Exactly.
After a night of going nuts, you should sleep in. Roll out of the hotel and make for Germantown. This cache of restored Victorians is the city’s oldest neighborhood and has a terrific handful of eateries. Not least of which is Sky Blue Cafe where you can have breakfast and lunch at the same time (don’t call it brunch). If your timing is good, you’re in town during Oktoberfest and you probably won’t want to leave this neck of the woods. You’d be right, too.
Whenever you press on, you’ll pass “Hell’s Half Acre,” the Bicentennial Mall consisting of park, memorial columns and plenty of historic morsels. Looking for some good ol’ country camp? Fontanel Mansion is the former home of Barbara Mandrell (less than 30 minutes from downtown). It’s a 27,000 square-foot log cabin she designed and built with her husband Ken Dudney. They hired the architect who built the Country Music Hall of Fame, pulled in 112 trucks of logs and established a place harmonizing family and woodsy nature. A tour of the sprawling home is a step back into early 80s country music glam—equal parts homey southern hospitality and shiny showbiz. At the foot of the 136 acres is Woods Amphitheater, a natural outdoor concert area and three hiking trails serve the crunchier music lovers.
Back in town, there’s only one thing to do: Get back to the honky tonks. Around the corner from 2nd Ave is Printers Alley. As the name suggests, it’s where printers and publishers used to headquarter. During prohibition it became the place for speakeasies, which eventually turned into legit bars. It’s probably the only street in the country where Hendrix and the Mandrell sisters could have played at the same time.
Three for the money
It’s day three and you’re slowing down—all this honky-tonking is taking its toll on your Yankee sensibilities. A quiet morning in Centennial Park might do the trick. It was started in the late 1800s as part of the movement to claim Nashville as “Athens of the South.” There is a lake and reflecting pool, a garden that dates to 1922, the original Chattanooga Choo Choo engine car and an exact replica of the Parthenon (within 1/16”). Bring your blanket.
As you regain your stamina, it’s time for a cultural retreat. Frist Center for the Visual Arts is Nashville’s most popular architectural landmark. Built in 1934 as a post office, it is a beauty: Classical exterior, art deco interior, resplendent in glass and aluminum. It is now, proudly, an exhibition and educational center displaying compelling works. Afterward, keep with the theme and see what’s happening at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The neoclassical concert hall opened in September 2006 and is a gem of a place to catch a glorious act. This writer had the rare occasion to see “saxophone colossus” Sonny Rollins blowing his tenor sax, but Chris Isaak, Al Green and Gilberto Gil, along with the ubiquitous symphonic and classical jazz performances, are already on the calendar for this fall. Chances are there’s something happening at the Ryman Auditorium, too. Being there is living a piece of a legend (especially if you’re there in October and happen to catch the annual Americana Music Awards). In 1925, the WSM Saturday night radio show became a sensation. At its center was a little lady who went by Minnie Pearl (stage name).
The Grand Ole Opry swept the nation and in 1943, it dropped anchor at the Ryman Auditorium, which was until then the Union Gospel Tabernacle—proof that gospel and Americana are twins. Before Sarah Cannon passed away, she trained an assistant in all the nuances of her Minnie Pearl character so the legacy would continue. Today, the Opry is broadcast out of Opryland, on the fringe of town, and Minnie is still part of the show.
Can’t help yourself and need more music? The legendary Bluebird Cafe awaits. It’s an authentic listening room: Small, tight, raw and oh so fine. Think of this as a no-frills joint in some anonymous strip mall with nondescript furniture to match (it is). Except the legends all play here—on their way up, at the top and sometimes, even on their way down. If you do nothing else while in town, this will be enough. It’s where you’ll find the songs. The ones you’ve been looking for.
If a song can change your life, then Nashville is your place to be born again, again and again. It’s the songwriting capital of the world, and every moment unfolds in the gin gang notes. The rich tapestry of our country—music and spirit—is sewn together by the patchwork gathered here. And in a moment, you become a stitch in the quilt. Nashville is special because it’s a friendly, open, shared community. Maybe because there are 1.3 million people in this city and almost at all times, 1.2 million of them are singing and strumming. It’s the songwriting process incarnate. Two guys flopped on couches in tight quarters just working out some themes. They’re looking for the song. The one that will guide them forever. They’re moving for the music with the rush of the Cumberland. You might not meet them in the studio, but you’ll feel it. Just like the town—open, moving toward the music.
The Elvis Factor
RCA signed Elvis in 1955. By 1956, he was their biggest moneymaker. In 1957, Studio B opened. Elvis would continue to record there to the tune of 250 songs (half his repertoire). During that same time, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, The Everly Brothers and countless others recorded there. Elvis would show up around 9 or 10pm, hang out, get food, warm up with gospel songs on the piano with The Jordanaires around him and then get cracking on recordings until 4 or 5am. By coincidence, Studio B closed the day after The King died.
Coming of age in the 1930s, this music was the domain of stringbands. Earl Scruggs and other inspired players stuck to conservative themes lyrically, but were adventurous musically, blending provincial Appalachia with sexy hot jazz.
This steel and fiddle style music was the child of down and dirty roadside musicians in the 1930s. Daddy Hank Williams and others developed the genre as the crossroads of spiritual dislocation and high kicking barn dances on Saturday nights. The central instrument for many was a player piano with tacks on the backs of the hammers, which became known as a honky tonk piano.
If you happen to be coming around with the kiddies, the Gaylord Opryland resort might be worth a slot on the itinerary. The holidays here are a 2 million-light extravaganza replete with Rockettes, ice buildings, themed shows, a 25-minute walk thru exhibit, a 1950s holly jolly town, gingerbread demos and meet and greets with DreamWorks characters.
City House Nashville—Germantown
The Catbird Seat—Midtown
Farmers Market—adjacent to Bicentennial Park
Holland House—Five Points
Eastland Ave—East Nashville
Downtown Clarksville: A significant part of the Civil War, the little town is experiencing quite the revival. It’s the place to go for an up-market lunch that still feels down-home. Shop for antiques, stroll the galleries, visit the historic landmarks and museums, and breathe in the 1850s architecture.
A few hours in East Nashville and 12 South will lend you a glance at an eclectic antebellum neighborhood rich with artsy shops, vintage offerings, eateries, coffeehouses and wine bars. It’s one of the few places in town to find gourmet popsicles.
Marathon Village: In 1986 the area was converted from dilapidated row houses to art galleries, vintage shops and a spirits distillery.
Franklin: a sweet old town made new with the influx of music celebs (Tim Mcgraw lives here). It’s a walkable half day among shops peddling new and old, while taking in the 1799 streetscape that got a facelift in the 1980s. Must try: H.R.H. Dumplin’s are a delicious amalgam of granny smith apples, pastry crust, pastry juice, cinnamon and yum. Those, and the white meat chicken dumplings, are cooked up by 76-year-old Chrissy. She also dishes country wisdom: Do you want to talk to the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s going on?
Nashville Live Music Guide: Search by date, venue, neighborhood and, very cool, if you take a picture of a building, the app will tell you all about it (like when it was built, notable residents and significant occurrences). It’s updated by nowplayingnashville.com (in case you don’t download).