The next few stops of my USA trip were all about exploring the legacy of American music in cities that birthed or nurtured new genres. Although I don’t listen to that much country music (but I don’t mind it), there’s no denying the significance of Nashville. It’s a city worth exploring, even if it doesn’t sound like your style at first, and I found several non-country music things to see and do. After several stops of only a few nights per city, I was spending a whole week in Nashville, with plenty of time to explore. I travelled by bus from Savannah, with a brief overnight in Atlanta to break up the journey. My accommodation was an Airbnb in East Nashville, which was cheaper than staying downtown. But resulted in a fair amount of time spent on buses and in Ubers getting around!
Country Music Hall of Fame
After dropping my bags at the Airbnb, I jumped on the bus back into the city centre. Having checked out various museums’ opening times in advance, I even booked timed tickets to ensure I didn’t miss out on my first stop. I didn’t want a repeat of the African American Museum in Charleston, which required pre-booked entry! The Country Music Hall of Fame is the largest and most notable museum in Nashville and pretty much a must-do for any tourist. The actual Hall of Fame comes at the end of the visit, as the majority of the building is a museum. It covers country artists from the early origins of the genre, brought forth from African and European folk music, to the biggest modern names in country music today.
I’ll admit, I didn’t recognise a lot of the artists featured, but there were still plenty whose names I knew, if not their songs. The museum runs roughly in chronological order, showing how the genre has evolved over the years and been influenced by other styles. There’s lots of memorabilia, including costumes and instruments that belonged to singers and musicians. Elvis’s Cadillac was a pretty notable inclusion (though I hadn’t been to Graceland yet…)! And of course, a music museum has to let you hear the music, so there are plenty of screens and headphones with options to do just that.
At the end, the actual Hall of Fame is a round room, inscribed with “may the circle be unbroken” overhead and reliefs of the Hall inductees all around the walls. It was kind of interesting to see who was featured in the museum and was or was not an inductee yet!
Hatch Show Print
After exiting the museum (through the gift shop, where I scooped up a Tennessee magnet), I stumbled upon the Hatch Show Print shop. I’d seen it mentioned as a combo ticket option when I’d booked the museum online but didn’t know what it was. It turns out the shop is a Nashville institution that has been around since 1879 and has produced original letterpress art for countless musicians’ concerts. They have huge glass windows, so even if you don’t book the tour, you can still see what’s going on inside. They have a gift shop too, where you can purchase prints of those legendary concert posters. I actually ended up getting a pair of earrings instead though, which are made from upcycled prints. I thought they were a cool little piece of history!
Walk of Fame Park
Outside the building, I crossed the street to the Walk of Fame Park. Much like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, cast your eyes to the ground to find dozens of stars inscribed with famous names in the ground. Of course, this is Nashville, so these are all musicians (though not all country) with connections to the city. Not the same as the Hall of Fame members though! Much like the museum, I recognised some of the names but not others. It’s in a little park as well, which I wandered through as I headed back into the city centre to find a bus back to my studio again.
Downtown Nashville isn’t that big, so I’ll save most of it for the walking tour below, but I passed through it numerous times this week. It also turned out that weekend was the Nashville Stampede and I stopped to watch a little of the rodeo on the big screens outside Bridgestone Arena. After enjoying the Calgary Stampede so much, I might have tried to get tickets had I realised this in advance!
Day Two – Johnny Cash Museum
After a day of work, I had carefully checked to see what was open late on certain days of the week. The Johnny Cash Museum is open until 7pm every day though! I caught the bus into town again and walked past Broadway – more on that later – to a nondescript looking building own a side street. It’s deceptively big inside though, long and narrow! The upper floor is the Patsy Cline Museum, but I really don’t know much about her at all.
My existing knowledge of Johnny Cash started with the movie ‘Walk the Line’ and ended with what I’d seen in the Hall of Fame Museum yesterday. I knew he was very significant during his time though and am familiar with a good handful of songs, so I was intrigued to learn more. It’s a very thorough museum, tracing his life from beginning to end, through every decade and era. They have clips from the movies he was in, items from his lakeside home that tragically burned down, and countless costumes, instruments and albums. It was kind of staggering to truly realise how much music he recorded and how many years his career spanned, right up to his death just a few years ago.
I was also aware he’d faced addiction struggles in the past, which the museum doesn’t shy away from, but shows how he recovered and his dedication to his faith and philanthropy as a result. June Carter features heavily as well of course! While I don’t listen to his music often, I definitely have a renewed respect and appreciation for his career and influence. After a couple of hours exploring thoroughly, I headed back to my AirBnb for dinner in (I need to save money on this trip too!)
Day Three – Centennial Park
This evening I was headed away from downtown Nashville for a change, to see a different area of the city. I took a bus towards Midtown, passing by the pretty buildings of Vanderbilt University. I wandered a little further south to Centennial Park. This wide, grassy space is a popular public park in Nashville, though there was one key feature that had peaked my interest. One of Edinburgh’s most famous sights, which I always delight in explaining to people, is the National Monument. This was our failed attempt at replicating the Parthenon in Athens, as the project ran out of money after constructing just one wall and was never completed. It now bears the nickname “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”! But where we failed, Nashville succeeded, as Centennial Park is home to the world’s only completed exact to-scale replica of the Parthenon. I have to give it to them, it’s pretty impressive!
Meandering a casual route through the park, I people-watched the sports practices going on and admired various angles of the Parthenon. I also found the ‘Taylor Swift bench’ which the city dedicated to her. She featured heavily in the Country Music Hall of Fame too, so you can tell the city is proud of her connections to it. I looped around Lake Watauga and back to the park exit again.
Music Row isn’t far from a here, a street full of record label offices and studios where countless famous artists have recorded. I’d intended to walk there next, but the heat got too much for me to walk any further! I swear, my week in Nashville might have been the hottest week of my whole trip. Instead, I gave up and caught the bus back for the night.
Day Four – East Nashville
My lovely Airbnb host (who I never met but was great via the app) had left a recommendation folder in the room. Since she lives in East Nashville (in the adjoining house), she had plenty of ideas for exploring this neighbourhood, which I decided to check out! Now again, I did struggle a bit walking around in the heat, so I probably didn’t make it as far as I might have otherwise. But from the house, I made my way over to Gallatin Pike, the road with the most shops in the area (the rest is residential). East Nashville is the creative, artsy part of the city and full of craft and vintage shops and independent boutiques to explore!
Hitting up a few places on her list, I started with Old Made Good, home to a very eclectic selection of second hand items. It was a fun place to browse and I actually ended up leaving with some locally made soap, since I was running out anyways! Heading south, I stopped in Sapphire & Sage where I got some pretty crystal earrings and a roll-on perfume with quartz inside. Next door, I couldn’t resist checking out the violently pink A Shop of Things, which has some very unusual and eccentric items. Including a whole display of Barbie-related stuff!
Then, I spent a while browsing both floors of Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. I don’t own a record player (and my word, wouldn’t records be difficult to transport in my luggage!) but it was fun just to look through them and this seems to be a pretty well-known Nashville record store. From there, I was ready to slog back in the heat to retire once more.
Day Five – Grand Ole Opry
Tonight was an exciting one, and a later evening out (at last!). When I mentioned I was going to Nashville, my mum immediately said I had to go to the Grand Ole Opry. She also suggested Bluebird Cafe, which is a tiny venue where up-and-coming artists perform, and already sold out when I checked. The Grand Ole Opry was a safer bet! This is the longest running radio show in America, founded in 1925, with live shows every Tues-Sat. The lineup changes every night, with 6-8 country performers, ranging from newcomers to big, established names.
After arriving at the Opry venue, I grabbed a drink from the bar and took my seat on the benches of the balcony. It became obvious how it was geared to radio, with a host speaking between each act for listeners while they reset the stage, including talking about sponsors and advertisers! The Opry has its own in-house band but some performers bring their own as well. My lineup started with Jeannie Seely who has done a whopping 5,000 Opry shows, more than any other artist!
The other artists that night were Payton Smith, Tyler Rich and Runaway June who all played fairly modern country music. T Graham Brown was more traditional country, Becky Buller plays bluegrass and Mike Snider is an outstanding fiddle player. Then Riders in the Sky closed the night, a group famous for their fringed cowboy outfits, who have been performing for decades. A lot of people my age might recognise them from the Toy Story soundtrack! I think Runaway June might have been my favourite, their songs were very fun. The whole thing was really enjoyable overall and I was glad to get to experience a piece of history like this first-hand!
Downtown Walking Tour
This morning (Friday) kicked off my week off work and I had the full day to explore. Of course, I had passed through downtown several times this week already, but I was taking most of today to explore more thoroughly. Starting with a self-guided audio tour on VoiceMap. While I love an in-person tour, the audio ones are quite good if you want to take breaks and go at your own pace.
The tour started by the Ryman Auditorium – but more on that in a minute – then passed Legend’s Corner, with its iconic mural of famous country singers. It led me down Broadway, which is home to Nashville’s dozens of honky tonks, playing live music (of all genres!) at all hours of the day. The tour explained the history of some of the longest-standing ones, as well as pointing out those owned by contemporary artists, including Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan.
Continuing down Broadway soon took me to the banks of the Cumberland River. There’s a good view of Nissan Stadium from here, home of the Tennessee Titans football team, and the unusual rollercoaster-like sculpture in Cumberland Park. I was guided onto the John Seigenthaler pedestrian bridge, for more riverside and city views. Then I doubled back and headed over past the museums I’d already visited. The tour still had a few more fun facts along the way! It finished up back on Broadway outside Nudie’s another historic honky tonk. Definitely a great overview of the city’s history, both musical and otherwise, in a couple of hours.
Broadway – Honky Tonky Highway
Since I was on Broadway anyways, it was time to actually venture into some of the honky tonks! There were far too many for me to get around them all, so I had to be a little selective. Although, it was also still pretty fun to just walk past them all, listening to the music floating out of the open windows and doors. I also enjoyed people-watching the never-ending stream of pedal taverns going up and down the street, full of groups of drunk partiers, even though it was only early afternoon!
I was ready for lunch so I headed into Miranda Lambert’s Casa Rosa, which is a bar and Mexican-style eatery. There was live music downstairs, but you can only get food upstairs. I was seated at the bar straight away, as usual for a solo traveller. There, I got a plate of tacos and great big frozen margarita – because day drinking seems to be the thing to do in Nashville! The bar has some of Lambert’s costumes and memorabilia, and is also quite heavily pink and feminine in-style. Which I quite appreciated, in contrast to a lot of the more masculine-styled venues!
After lunch, I decided to pop into Tootsie’s Famous Orchid Lounge, which is one of the most legendary venues in Nashville. The exterior has been the same iconic purple since it opened in 1960. Located behind the Ryman, which was once home to the Opry, Tootsie’s quickly became the favourite haunt of performers there after their sets. Spanning three floors, I wove my way through the packed crowds and listened to the live band for a while. It was a bit too jammed for me at that time of day, but cool to visit such a famous location!
Speaking of the Ryman, this was my next destination. While still a live music venue hosting regular concerts, I was going through the day for a tour inside. The Ryman Auditorium is another Nashville legendary venue, both a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark and a National Historic Landmark. Built 130 years ago, it started life as a tabernacle for religious gatherings, but later expanded into hosting all sorts of speakers and singers. The fascinating and incredible Lula Naff took over as manager in 1920 – a rare thing for a woman to have such a role at that time! – and soon started booking famous artists. And in the 1940s, the Ryman became home of the Grand Ole Opry and was firmly established as the Mother Church of Country Music.
Sadly, by the 1970s, the Ryman was no longer suitable to host the Opry and it moved to its current venue. The building sat empty for 20 years and rumours spread it was due to be demolished. However, in a true act of community and solidarity, the musicians of Nashville banded together to save the Ryman and succeeded. Renovations took place and it reopened for concerts in 1994. Now, it has hosted hundreds of famous artists, of all genres, not just country! And is considered one of the best music venues in the world. The tour covered all this history, then lets you wander through the auditorium and see the various display cases of memorabilia from performances here. Even though I didn’t see a show, I could definitely feel its legacy and significance throughout, and I can certainly understand why performances here are so special.
In the late afternoon, it was time for my final activity of the day. As you can tell by now, Nashville is all about music, both past and present! Those honky tonks support dozens of local artists performing covers of every genre. But despite all my solo travel, going out drinking alone in the evening as a solo female is still very daunting. Instead, I’d booked a pub crawl, so a Nashville local could guide us round their favourite bars. He also split us into team for various games throughout, which was good for getting everyone to mingle. And I think the more we drank, the more competitive we got! Most people were couples or larger groups, but there were two other solo travellers (British and German!) so we stuck together most of the night.
The crawl started at Bowie’s and then took us to a few bars on Printer’s Alley. This narrow side street has half a dozen nightlife venues, along with street murals and string lights overhead. It’s a very cool, less-busy alternative to Broadway! In fact, most of the tour was around here and other parts of downtown, with only the final venue, Redneck Riviera, being on Broadway.
The tour only lasted a few hours so myself and my new solo traveller friends decided to stay out a bit longer. We got some food to soak up all the drinks – fried chicken, a Southern staple! – before resuming with a few more Broadway honky tonks. We spent most of the night in Lucky Bastard Saloon, which had a really great live band doing mostly classic singalong pop and rock covers. It was a very late night, but a very fun one and I’m glad I got over my social nerves to take part!
Day Seven – Nashville Farmer’s Market
As was to be expected, the next morning was a very sleepy and hungover one for me. Unfortunately, it was also check-out day, so I had to get up and pack. My host let me store my bags for a few hours though, until my bus that afternoon. I’d exhausted much of downtown by now, so I headed a little further west to see the Tennessee State Capitol building. It’s definitely an impressive piece of architecture and it was peaceful wandering through Victory Park. Although the combination of it being on a hill plus the scorching heat meant I didn’t last long outside.
Down the other side of the hill, I crossed into Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park – what a wordy name! It has various memorials and sculptures about Tennessee’s history and geography to wander past. My destination really though, was the Nashville Farmer’s Market next to it. Part of it is indoor and the fans were a welcome relief from the heat! As well as traditional produce vendors, there are also food stalls and crafty pop-ups, plus a small garden centre. There was certainly a great variety of things to see, and I did a loop of it all, before grabbing a snack and a seat. More to abate the hangover than anything else!
I eventually braved the outdoors again, crossing back into the park. At the far end, I came across the Bicentennial Carillon, a circle of bell towers that periodically chime out melodies. Sadly I didn’t hear one, but it was a really cool idea! I slowly wandered back up the length of the park, to catch the bus and pick up my bags again. Then it was off to the Greyhound bus station and on to another highly musical city – Memphis.
A Week in Nashville
Country music was definitely the overarching theme of my week in Nashville! Although it was nice to have a few other types of activities sprinkled in too. Despite not being a genre I listen to lots of, I can certainly appreciate and respect it and I enjoyed learning about it’s history.
But Nashville isn’t just about the music of its past! Music of all genres is alive and thriving there today, as evidenced by the number of artists who still record in the city and the almost constant live music coming from every corner of downtown. While I’ve been to other cities and destinations and music has played a part in my time there, I think this was the first place I’ve been that revolved around it almost entirely! Even though it was scorching hot the whole time, my week in Nashville was certainly a memorable one.