Music is everywhere in Nashville. It rumbles through loudspeakers as you arrive at the airport and it’s etched below your feet as you stroll along the Music City Walk of Fame. The city’s slogan: “Music Calls Us Home” could not be more fitting. Wherever you go, music is interwoven into every aspect of this musical mecca.
Tennessee’s capital city has long been considered the country musical capital of the world. It’s a place like no other, where neon lights shaped like cowboy boots line the streets, thrift shops attract the crowds and Dolly Parton is seen as royalty. With over 200 venues showcasing musical talent throughout the day and night, it’s clear to see why this city has gained the nickname of “NashVegas.” I arrived in Nashville ready for a country music enlightenment and eager to find out how the city became the star making factory it is today.
Discovering the history of Music City
Understanding how the country music scene developed in Nashville requires a trip back to 1925, when Edwin W. Craig persuaded his father (who was the president of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company) to build a radio station for him in Nashville. On October 5, 1925, WSM-AM was born, with the initials WSM to represent the insurance company’s slogan: “We Shield Millions.” The station’s first country music performer, 78-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson went on air on November 22, 1925 and announced that he was open to requests. This delighted listeners and the station was soon flooded with telegrams. The growing popularity of country music meant that on November 28, 1925, a weekly show was launched called “The Barn Dance.”
Two years after its launch, broadcaster George D. Hay made the following statement on air before The Barn Dance slot: “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely taken from the Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry!’ ” This simple quote made music history and from that point onwards, the Saturday night music show on WSM was forever known as the Grand Ole Opry.
The show gained rapid momentum and soon began broadcasting on television as well as radio. After moving locations several times, 1974 was the year it finally settled at the Grand Ole Opry House in Opryland, nine miles east of downtown Nashville. Amazingly, the Grand Ole Opry is now the longest running live radio show in the world and is still going strong. If you book tickets in advance, you can visit the Grand Ole Opry House and be part of the studio audience at one of the weekly live radio shows. The Grand Ole Opry has gained worldwide recognition and has been the launch pad for nearly every well known artist throughout the history of country music, including legends such as Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.
Another important music venue to visit is the Ryman Auditorium; a National Historic landmark that was voted one of the finest concert venues in the USA. It was built in 1892 by Captain Thomas Ryman, and was originally a church called The Gospel Union Tabernacle. The venue became home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974 and since 1999, the famous radio show has been returning to The Ryman Auditorium on an annual basis during the winter months. The residency usually lasts several months, so be sure to check for tickets if you are visiting at this time of year.
The venue’s nickname is “The Mother Church of Country Music,” and when you enter the auditorium, it is like you are being taken back in time. The building still looks like a church, inside and out, with original solid oak pews and stained glass windows. When music starts playing, you’ll be taken aback by the outstanding acoustics, and many people have described the sound quality as the best they’ve ever heard. Musicians are often known to switch off the amplification during a song to demonstrate the acoustic purity of the room. The venue has hosted some of the best musicians in the world including the likes of James Brown, Van Morrison and Elvis Presley. More recently, headliners have included: R.E.M., Keith Urban and Bruce Springsteen. Tickets are often the hottest in town so if you are planning a visit, it is highly advisable to book well in advance and get on artists’ mailing lists to keep track of pre-sales.
On top of being a concert venue, the Ryman Auditorium is also a museum, open daily either for self-guided tours or guided backstage tours through the dressing rooms, which are named after musical legends who have used them in the past, such as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. To give you a feel for this venue’s rich history, there is also a collection of backstage artifacts such as old line-up posters, costumes and instruments.
If you have visited the famous venues, but want to learn more about over 120 musicians who originated from Nashville, there is only one place to go - The Country Music Hall of Fame. The venue cost 37 million dollars to build and it is well worth spending a day there to absorb the dynamic multi-sensory exhibits. The building is a timeline of country music in the form of a self-guided tour through a three-story building of fascinating exhibits. You’ll see memorabilia such as Elvis’ gold Cadillac, Dolly Parton’s stage outfits and stage props from Taylor Swift’s recent tour. You’ll also be able to hear recordings, watch digitally remastered performances and view personal artifacts such as famous lyrics written on napkins and artists’ most treasured instruments.
The museum also acts as a departure point for tours of the RCA Studio B on Music Row, Nashville’s oldest recording studio which was built in 1957 and re-opened as a museum in 1977. Music has been recorded there by some of America’s biggest stars, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton. The studio also contains Elvis’ favorite piano in the whole world, which the owner refused to sell to him and instead kept it in the studio as a part of history.
Achieving the Authentic Nashville Look
So you’ve visited the famous venues, learned about the stars, now all you need to know is how music has influenced fashion in the city. Nashville is a very laid back place, and the dress code, much like the attitude is undeniably casual. Music City can be seen as having a split personality when it comes to fashion. One side of it clutches on to its country and western roots whilst the other embraces modern trends and takes inspiration from other musical genres. The local style undoubtedly pivots around music, but there’s definitely more to Nashville fashion than the vision of everyone wearing cowboy boots, hats and rhinestone adorned clothing.
Being in Nashville is all about having your own unique style yet remaining open to mixing it with vintage trends. The beauty of Music City is that there is something to appeal everyone’s different budget and taste. From high-end designer shops to second-hand bargain boutiques, you’re never at a loss for new ideas. A lot of people sport a signature vintage item in their outfit, which could be anything from boots to belts to bags to jewellery. If you’re vintage shopping in Nashville, it won’t be long before you find your own signature southern item and maybe even spot a celebrity. The plethora of vintage and thrift stores scattered all over the city helps keep trends from different musical eras alive.
The highest concentration of vintage stores can be found in East Nashville. The Hip Zipper is a good place to start as it is often praised for its hard-to-find items as well as for having a larger section for men and children than most vintage shops. If you want to visit a place that is admired by Elvis Costello, Jack White and The Kings of Leon, you should head to Katy K’s Ranch. It is a quirky shop with a great selection of both new and vintage rockabilly and western wear.
One thing’s for certain about the country music influence on fashion – you can’t walk down the streets of Nashville without seeing someone with a great pair of boots on. If you’re eager to build up your collection of Cowboy Boots, you should check out “Boot Country” on Broadway which has the enticing offer of “Buy One Pair, Get Two Pairs Free.” Just make sure you bring an extra suitcase with you…
Read about Nashville’s different sides with Highbrow & Lowbrow in Downtown Nashville
Go Honky-tonking at the Live Music Bars
One of the best ways to expose yourself to a great variety of musical performances is to go “Honky-tonking,” otherwise known as bar-hopping. Your best option is to head to “The District,” which is the area that covers six blocks of Nashville’s famous nightlife areas on Broadway, Printers Alley and 2nd Avenue. This area has a fantastic selection of shops, bars and restaurants so you can come here any time, day or night, and be sure to find something to keep you entertained.
A good bar to start at if you want a taste of history is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. This is a bar across the alley from The Ryman Auditorium and back in the day when it hosted the Grand Ole Opry, famous artists would sneak out of the stage door and quench their thirst here in between sets. Another great bar is Robert’s Western World – its interior is filled with a huge collection of boots and you can do some country music multi-tasking by buying a pair of boots, sampling a local drink and listening to a band.
If you prefer a larger bar, with an edgier feel that leans more towards rock-country, The Stage is the place for you. You can feel the boot-stomping vibrations as you walk by, and it is hard not to be enticed to go for a spin on the dance floor. The bar has two floors and the walls are decorated with colorful murals of country music legends. A venue which launched the careers of many famous stars, including Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift is The Bluebird Café on Hillsboro Pike. It has been open since the early 1980s and can be a good place for star-spotting in the audience as well as on the stage. It only seats 100 people, but this intimacy adds to the appeal of this popular venue. If you’re undecided about which night to visit, Monday’s open mic night is particularly good for hearing up-and-coming stars.
Wherever you are in Nashville, you can be sure that you’re never far away from great music and a good time. So, grab your boots, let your hair down and get ready to experience southern hospitality at its best.
Gain access to 4 popular attractions with a Nashville Music Attraction Discount Pass
- Alicia Drewnicki