My friend and I had a great time exploring Nashville, Tennessee this past weekend. Our hopes were to find great food, sights, and music, and Music City delivered on all three! For food, Nashville has several options for ordering a classic “meat and three” southern dish, and we ended up at two of them, but we had to laugh when looking at what we consumed over the weekend because instead of the meat plus three sides, we actually ended up doing it backwards with three meats and one side. That’s what happens when you’re a sucker for slow cooked BBQ and you’re with a like-minded friend who is open to sharing a plate with you. As for the music scene, I was blown away by the talent of all the musicians we saw – regardless of their level of fame, from none at all to Opry legends. And when travel guides say the live music is practically 24 hours a day, it is very close to the truth. Regardless of your level of interest in country or bluegrass music, I guarantee you will be entertained. That applies to the other country music-based sights to see in town as well.
From my experience, here are the things you must see or do if you’re ever in town:
Grand Ole Opry
There are two ways to have a Grand Ole Opry experience: go on a tour or go see a show. We were there on a Saturday, so we got to see a show! (Performances are on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays) It was a really fun experience. Prepare for some parking challenges as the Opry is located adjacent to a popular mall with a movie theater, so you have two streams of people vying for the same parking spots. Make sure to get to the Opry at least 15 minutes before showtime so that you won’t miss the Minnie Pearl character and her pre-show comedy act. We weren’t aware of that fact and came too late. A few interesting observations about the Grand Ole Opry. It’s still a radio show on Sirius XM, so the format has not changed since it first aired many years ago. The show is broken up into several segments, each with unique hosts and sponsors, and there are still commercial breaks. Each segment has about two guest performers, in addition to the segment host’s musical comedy bits. There is still a radio announcer too! As for the performers, they can range from long-time Opry members to very popular current country acts. What fascinates me is that all the performers are equalized in both pay and time allowed on stage – about $100 per performance night and 2 songs. The show we saw had mostly older Opry members, including Crystal Gayle, as well as a few younger artists and the recent X Factor winner, Tate Stevens. By the way, if you notice a circle of wood on front center stage in my photos, that wood was taken from the Ryman Auditorium when the show was moved from there in 1974. It was cut from the rear side of the stage where every artist crossed over, not just the stars. When the Grand Ole Opry flooded a few years ago, there was concern that the circle would be destroyed after being under 12 feet of water, but fortunately it was able to be restored.
Originally a church, this treasure of country music history is best known as being the home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from 1943-1974. When the Opry moved to its current home, the Ryman sat unoccupied for 20 years before Emmylou Harris recorded a live album there in 1994, which renewed interest in the building. Gaylord Entertainment renovated the old church, praised for its supreme acoustics, and it is now one of America’s most preferred venues by artists. When we were in town, Fall Out Boy was playing at the Ryman, but it’s much better suited for more acoustic and less electric groups. In the winter months, the Grand Ole Opry returns to the Ryman, its former home, for a run while the Rockettes take over the Opry. There are two options for touring the Ryman – self-guided and backstage. I would suggest shelling out the few extra bucks to take the backstage tour, as it is the only way you will get to see behind the curtain. If you’re a fan of country music or history in general, you are going to like this tour.
Hatch Show Print Shop
Located on Lower Broadway between the honky tonks, Hatch Show Print shop has been providing the concert promotion artwork to the city’s most popular venues since 1879. The posters are still produced using manual printing presses and carved blocks, so no one poster is exactly like another in the run. If you’re looking to purchase a poster of a particular concert, good luck. Most extra posters are gone within a day of the show, save for the less popular artists. The most popular concert bills have been reprinted and are available for sale.
Honky Tonks on Broadway
You can’t walk 10 feet on Lower Broadway without hearing music streaming out a door. Scroll down on this post to the Live Music review for more details.
Country Music Hall of Fame
Once again, you don’t have to be a fan of country music to appreciate what Nashville has to offer. The Country Music Hall of Fame is a repository for instruments and memorabilia of the industry and genre’s greatest stars. You can also see several experimental instruments, like a double bass banjo (The Whomper), as well as Elvis’ “Solid Gold” Cadillac with its 24k gold upholstery, record player, TV, refrigerator, and paint made from crushed diamonds, pearls, and gold dust. We were lucky to stumble upon a banjo demonstration, where I learned about the addition of the 5th string as well as a modification invented by Earl Scruggs to bend strings to re-tune the guitar mid-song.
RCA Studio B
As part of your Country Music Hall of Fame visit, you can opt to add a tour of the famous RCA Studio B. You will select your tour start time when you purchase your package. At your assigned time, you board a bus and travel over to Music Row in the West End. RCA Studio B is best known as the home of Elvis, since he recorded over 200 songs in this studio during his life. Other very famous artists that used the studio include Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, plus many others. The Steinway piano still in the studio today was said to be Elvis’ favorite piano, and you can hear him playing it in several of his album recordings. Yes, if you go on this tour, you can tickle the same keys as Elvis. The studio is still used today for current recording artists.
If you need a break from the tourist parts of town, then go out to Hillsboro Village on 21st Street. Here you will find cute boutiques, like Festivity and Pangaea, and a few restaurants popular with locals and Vanderbilt students. We had two meals at Fido, mainly because of the free wifi but also because was the food good and it’s been known to be a good place to be if you want to bump into Nashville celebrity residents. Of course, we had no such sightings ourselves. We also went to Jackson’s for a late night snack, the famous Pancake Pantry for breakfast, and Sweet CeCe’s for a frozen yogurt treat.
Located in Centennial Park, this exact replica of the famous original building in Athens is Nashville’s biggest “scratch your head” tourist spot. Built in 1897 for the state’s Centennial Exposition, this building now houses an art museum. Note it is closed on Mondays.
Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium
As I mentioned before, the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium are destinations for both a touch of history and for great live music. Check out the schedules for both venues to find upcoming shows.
Honky Tonks: Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge, The Stage, and Robert’s Western World are some of the more famous of these Lower Broadway live music venues. If you head down to this part of town, practically any time of day, you will hear great music coming out the door by local musicians. The crowds are smaller during the day, and there is no cover, so wander around and spend some time in all of the venues that sound good to you! Of course, in addition to the music coming out the door, you will also get a nice whiff of stale beer.
Station Inn: Up the road from the Broadway Honky Tonks on 12th in The Gulch, we went to this bar on Sunday night to catch the Bluegrass Jam. This live music was scheduled to start at 8pm, but we saw that the locals that came to participate started to play a little earlier. After about an hour, there were upwards of 20 people playing various traditional bluegrass instruments: acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, double bass, banjos, accordion, and even a harmonica. It’s best to arrive as close to 8pm as you can, since seating became limited later in the evening. Check out the videos I took!
We tried our best to get a reservation for the Saturday night “in the round” performance while we were in town, but as soon as they went on sale (9am est on the Monday before, FYI), the available seats were gone in a minute or less. The remaining option was to wait in line for a non-reserved spot, but I had heard the lines start forming late afternoon for the first evening performance. Sunday night shows are first come, first served, but again we did not want to wait. I guess this is our excuse to make a return visit to Nashville!
I visit to Nashville is not complete without making the drive to the Loveless Cafe. Note you can call ahead to get on the list. When we got there, it was an up to 2 hour wait. Of course that was Saturday lunchtime. You may fare better on a weekday. If you choose to wait, there are things to keep you busy, including a few shops and several stations of cornhole. We opted to just order takeaway and sit on one of the shaded picnic benches with our meat, biscuits, and sides.
If you’re on Lower Broadway, you would be hardpressed to miss the line streaming out of Jack’s BBQ. The key is to get there when they open. Food is served cafeteria style, so now you know the cause of the slow line. Also, no guarantee seating will be available. To be honest, though, I was not impressed with the meat, the BBQ sauces, and definitely not the sides. Nothing you couldn’t find at any average slow cooked BBQ restaurant.
This is a popular restaurant, so get there early – even on weekdays. I can speak from experience that, even if you end up having to wait, it is worth it! I ordered the sugar and spice pancakes with the cinnamon cream syrup that was amazing – like gingerbread cinnamon rolls. I suspect the cinnamon cream syrup is just confectioner’s sugar with water and cinnamon. My friend ordered the raspberry compote pancakes, which were good but sweet enough to be dessert!
Fido in Hillsboro Village
This popular casual eatery with both locals, students, and celebrity musicians actually has great food. Sandwiches, soups, salads, etc. are on the regular menu, and they also serve a variety of espresso drinks. For anyone sensitive to garlic, consider yourself warned. My turkey pesto and brie sandwich had a lot of garlic in the pesto, then the aioli sauce was pretty garlicky as well. My friend had an eggplant and white bean stack that she enjoyed.
Jackson’s Bar and Bistro in Hillsboro Village
For a late night snack, we were searching for a place with comfortable outdoor seating. While live music would have been ideal, in addition to the outdoor seating, Jackson’s made up for it with their small plates offerings. We ordered the Pimento Cheese and Crostini plate and the Andouille Pups – mini corndogs uisng Louisiana sausage…yum!
I stopped in and got a sampler of four of the cupcake offerings one day. As a confessed cupcake snob, I was not impressed at all. Way too sweet because of the tower of frosting, that also happened to slide off the top of the cupcake while in transport. I was only able to finish my taster slice for each of the flavors, then threw the rest out. I’m very particular about my cupcake to frosting ratio, and Gigi gets a solid F grade. I guess this store is part of a large chain of cupcakes in the U.S., but if you’re going to go with a chain cupcake brand, always choose Crumbs Bakeshop!