“Roll into town, step off the bus / Shake off the ‘where you came from’ dust / Grab your guitar, walk down the street / Sign says Nashville, Tennessee.” – Jason Aldean
“My friend’s brother has a recording studio and I can stay with her while I’m looking for gigs.” This was the first conversation I heard at the Nashville airport. Ask around and it’s not unusual to find that everyone from your server to your Uber driver is either a songwriter or a musician. Find out what draws them to Nashville with a visit to the SoBro (South of Broadway) district and beyond.
“Sing Me Back Home” – Merle Haggard
Start at the state of the art 350,000 square foot Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Archival videos trace the blending of Irish and English folk music and cowboy ballads that created the classic American country sound. There are extravagantly embroidered stage costumes by tailor-to-the- stars Nudie Cohn; guitars, mandolins and banjos used by many famous musicians like Hank Williams, Ralph Stanley and Jimmie Rodgers; plus cars of the stars like Elvis Presley’s renowned gold Cadillac and Smoky and the Bandit’s 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The new $4-million-dollar Taylor Swift Education Centre takes kids on a quest to discover artists who worked in Nashville including Canadians Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. Sing along in a recording booth, find out who’s hot in country music today then visit the Hall of Fame rotunda. Hundreds of bronze plaques honour country music’s brightest stars.
“If there’s no audience, there just ain’t no show” – Chilliwack
Two additional tours leave from the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Advertising posters for vaudeville, circuses, politicians and musicians have been rolling out of Hatch Show Print presses since 1879. One of America’s oldest working letterpress print shops, Hatch Show Print designs and prints posters for hundreds of contemporary artists from the Beach Boys to Tori Amos. They use the shop’s original “dingbats and wingnuts” (wooden hand carved letters) and run the presses manually, one colour at a time. Lineups at local concerts start hours before a show for a chance to buy one of their limited run posters. Tours begin in the Country Music Hall of Fame lobby and you can make your own souvenir poster, then shop the store for classic reprints.
“It’s Now or Never” – Visit Elvis’ Favorite Studio
A tour of Historic RCA Studio B will whisk you back in time to the place where Chet Atkins took the twang out of country music and replaced it with strings and backup vocals to create the “Nashville sound”. Performers from Elvis to Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson recorded in this studio. There’s a small, blue “x” taped to spot on the floor where Elvis used to stand, and you can have a selfie at the Steinway grand piano where he played gospel music. The studio has been kept in its original condition. The instruments, mixing board and yellowed checkerboard linoleum floor are still in place. It’s also the only recording studio in Nashville that offers tours to the public.
“Down on Music Row, If You Want to be a Star, That’s Where You’ve Got to Go” – Dolly Parton
“Over a hundred people move to Nashville every day and most of them are hoping to work on a hit record,” says Stephanie Layne, a singer-songwriter and a 12- year veteran of the Nashville music scene. She’s also our tour guide for the Studio B tour. “At its peak, there were over a thousand professional studios in Nashville, but with the new recording technology anyone can record in a home studio and Music Row is mainly used by big-name artists.” Not to be confused with the honky-tonks and bars of Lower Broadway, Music Row is all business. Stars enter the offices of recording studios, publishers and video producers through gated entrances. Hardcore fans can take a walking tour through the area with Let’s Go Travelin’ and follow it up with a visit to The GIG, the Gallery of Iconic Guitars at Belmont University. If you’re lucky, Vince Gill or Ricky Skaggs may drop in and play a few tunes on one of the rare guitars or banjos on display.
“Excuse me, Would You Please Pass the Biscuits” – Jimmy Dean
Southern cooking might be the two most mouth-watering words in the English language. Let Walk, Eat Nashville whet your appetite on a three-hour lunch tour to sample everything from a modern twist on comfort food to classic candy bars at five of SoBro’s best dining spots. Pop into The Farm House and enjoy the best local bites of each season. Once you taste a chocolaty cluster from the Goo Goo Shop, you’ll see why they’ve been a famous Tennessee treat for over a century.
On your own for dinner? With over a hundred new restaurants opening up in the past year in Nashville, there’s a lot to choose from besides the traditional “meat and three” sides. Venture out to Folk in East Nashville, one of Bon Appetit’s America’s Best New Restaurants of 2018, for exquisite sharing plates and artisanal pizza. In The Gulch district, head to Little Octopus for a vegan and seafood-driven menu and fresh California style décor. At Nicky’s Coal Fired the Italian menu is made almost entirely in-house with baked bread, creamy gelato and sorbetto, house bar mixes, bitters and syrups and charcuterie. Their pizza is cooked in a four-ton nearly smokeless coal-burning oven. Whatever you do, don’t miss Hattie B’s fried chicken with heat levels that go from no heat “Southern Fried” to five-alarm fire “Shut the Cluck Up!”.
“One year they repossess your truck, and the next you make a couple million bucks” – Jason Aldean
The lure of fame and fortune keeps hope alive for aspiring Nashville artists. Catch the next rising star at places like The Listening Room and the famous Bluebird Cafe. Drop in on a writers’ circle to hear songs and stories of life on the road.
When artists finally hit the big time, you might find them on the stage at the 44,000 seat, state-of-the-art Grand Ole Opry. During the winter months, the Opry moves from its suburban location to its former home in the historic 2,362 seat Ryman Theatre in SoBro. From quiet clubs to the raucous, doors open, neon-lit honky-tonks of Lower Broadway to rooftop bars where DJs spin hip-hop, Nashville has everything a music lover could want.
As my plane touched down in Calgary, a young man reached up and grabbed his guitar case from the overhead bin. Its gold latches were still shining, and the leather was unscarred. It might have been his first trip to Nashville, but it probably wouldn’t be his last. Hopefully, it won’t be mine.
Where to Stay in Nashville
The Westin Nashville: This 27 story LEED certified property that opened in 2016 has a heart of gold that shines in its dedication to international charitable programs. From the shiny silver belt buckle chandelier in the lobby to the over the top glam of the Vegas-style suites, this hotel stays true to local artists and its musical home. The location is perfect – only a two-step from the bright lights of the honky-tonks on Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the stunningly reimagined Frist Art Museum, a former 1930’s deco era main post office. Don’t miss the top floor infinity pool that overlooks the lights of Nashville.
For more information on Nashville, go to VisitMusicCity.com. The writer was a guest of the Nashville CVC. As always, her opinions are her own. For more photographs of Nashville attractions, follow her on Instagram @where.to.lady