Nashville has always had deep musical roots. Legendary hunter, politician, storyteller and frontiersman Davy Crockett—a noted Tennessean, was also known for his fiddle playing.
In the 1800s, the town became a center for music publishing. The Fisk Jubilee Singers completed the first known around-the-world music tour, which helped Nashville’s historically-black Fisk University fund the education of freed slaves after the Civil War. In the early 1900s, the Grand Ole Opry solidified Nashville’s place in music history.
Today, thousands of songwriters from every genre come to “Music City” for inspiration and a chance to be discovered, which means you can hear top-notch crooners every day of the week in this town. Here, a few of our favorite Nashville music venues.
Grand Ole Opry House
You can’t talk about Nashville’s music scene without paying homage to the Grand Ole Opry. What began as a “radio barn dance” 90 years ago has become the longest-running radio broadcast in U.S. history. Unlike a typical concert with one opening act and one headliner, an Opry show presents at least eight artists at each show, allowing the audience to sample several artists’ musical styles. Performances always include a mix of country legends—think big-name stars like Clint Black, Trace Adkins, Charlie Daniels and Emmylou Harris—along with lesser-known (but equally talented) and younger, up-and-coming artists.
For a truly energizing and unique perspective of this classic Nashville experience, spring for the VIP tour. You’ll get to hang out backstage before the show, enjoy the Green Room, and watch the night’s first performance from the most famous stage in Music City. Then, an Opry guide will personally escort you to your seats to enjoy the rest of the show. 2804 Opryland Dr., Nashville, opry.com
Before the Grand Ole Opry found its current home at the Opry House (nine miles east of downtown) it was held at Ryman Auditorium. But this building had a long and storied history long before the Opry. It opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernackle, a place where citizens could attend large-scale church revivals. The first event to sell out the venue was a lecture by Helen Keller in 1913.
Over the next hundred years, the Ryman was used for everything from private events to filming Hollywood movies, and eventually fell into disrepair. During the ‘90s, the building underwent a massive renovation. All of the original wooden church pews were restored, and modern amenities (like air conditioning) were added to transform the historic building into a high-tech concert hall. The sound produced here is crisp and clear, and the craftsmanship of the architecture and décor is impressive indeed.
Check the Ryman’s schedule for a steady stream of A-list acts. Since 1999, the Opry has returned to Ryman Auditorium during the winter, from November through January—the perfect opportunity to experience two Nashville icons at once. 116 Fifth Avenue North, Nashville,
Tennessee Performing Arts Center
Many people come to Nashville to get down and dirty in the honky-tonks on Broadway, but don’t overlook it as a classy cultural hub as well. Tennessee Performing Arts Center is the anchor of Nashville’s downtown arts scene. Here, you can see a wide variety of theatrical performances, but most are music-centered in some way. The center is home base for the Nashville Opera, the Nashville Ballet and the Music City Drum and Bugle Corps, a “professional” marching band comprised of high school and college students ages 16–21.
The center also attracts renowned Broadway touring companies. For an upscale night on the town, have dinner and drinks at nearby Capitol Grille inside the ornate Hermitage Hotel (half a block away) before the show. 505 Deaderick St, Nashville, tpac.org
For a more intimate Nashville music experience, head for the Bluebird Café. Don’t let the location in an unassuming strip mall fool you: many a country music legend started out here. Country music stars Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift were both discovered at the Bluebird; the latter when she was just 15 years old.
Though it’s gained notoriety due to the cable television show “Nashville,” the venue has done a good job retaining the warm, modest atmosphere that made it famous. Songwriters must audition for a few coveted spots where they play “in the round” for an audience of just 90 people. On a typical night, three or four artists give acoustic performances, accompanying each other instrumentally, harmonizing, and revealing the inspiration behind their songs.
Note: The Bluebird has a strict “no loud talking” policy during performances. If you want to get rowdy, take it somewhere else. 4104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville.
Nashville has plenty of notable music venues where you’ll find state-of-the-art equipment, ten-dollar cocktails and almost-famous singers. But if you just want to party and drink wine coolers in a dive bar, then Santa’s Pub is the place for you.
A local’s favorite, you have to see this place to believe it. Located in a double-wide trailer (really) on the outskirts of town near the fairgrounds, it’s Christmas year-round inside, complete with multicolored lights, faded decorations and an owner who could be St. Nick’s biker twin. You won’t see any actual instruments—it’s strictly karaoke—but not your run-of-the-mill, words-on-the-screen kind of karaoke. The people are good.
Hipsters mingle with British tourists, college kids chat up an older same-sex couple, locals catch up on neighborhood happenings at the bar. Beers start at two bucks and smoking is not only tolerated, but encouraged. You may not find tomorrow’s country music stars at Santa’s, but you’re guaranteed to find a rockin’ good time. 2225 Bransford Ave., Nashville.