It was kind of overwhelming at first. It’s a big city, there’s a lot of traffic, and Broadway (the heart of the music scene) is crazy. We adjusted our expectations, figured out how to get around with minimal stress, and ended up having a blast.
Although Nashville offers more than guitars, banjos, fiddles, and heartful lyrics sung with a Southern twang, the city is undeniably the epicenter of country music. We lured our good friends and fellow full-time travelers, Beth and Perry, to meet up with us (we last saw them in Big Bend National Park) and set out together to immerse ourselves in the full country music experience.
I would never say that I’m a country music fan. But Patsy Cline is one of my all-time favorite vocalists. I get together often to play music with friends when we’re at home in Ashland or on Lopez Island, and “Walkin’ After Midnight” is one of our standards. So is “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. And “Hickory Wind” by Gram Parsons. As I flip through my songbook, I see Alison Krause, Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, Roseanne Cash, The SteelDrivers…apparently I like country music more than I admit.
Some of these artists fall into the category of Americana and contemporary bluegrass, but they’re all country enough to have played at the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable institution that put country music on the map.
The Grand Ole Opry
We kicked off our adventures with a night at the Grand Ole Opry. Founded in 1925, it’s the world’s longest running live radio show, and in between music sets, the announcer hawks everything from cowboy boots to Martha White flour.
From country legends to rising stars, every show is a random assortment of performers. It’s very egalitarian—famous or not, each performer is allotted three songs. We chose that particular evening because The SteelDrivers were playing—they were great. As for the rest, some were very good (Drake White was new to us), some were vintage hokey, and the audience was enthusiastic about it all. It was a fun evening, and we would do it again.
Thanks to excellent advice from blogging friends Laura and Kevin, we knew that all seats at the Opry are good. The theatre is small, the acoustics are superb, and as you can see from the photo above, we had a good view of the stage even though we were way up in the balcony.
The Honky-Tonk District on Broadway
We continued our country music immersion in the Honky Tonk District in downtown Nashville. It’s intense. Bars line both sides of Broadway, live music blares from every venue day and night, and a tidal wave of humanity cruises up and down the street. It’s probably not always that crazed. We happened to be there during the Rock’n’Roll Marathon, which brought more than 30,000 extra people to Nashville the last weekend in April. (Note to self: Check for big events before going to a city.)
We ducked into Robert’s Western World, which is considered the only “real” honky tonk on Broadway (that means traditional country music, no cover charge, and cheap beer). The crowd was friendly and the band was good, although it was hard to hear over the sound of beer bottles shattering as they were tossed into the trash bin.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
We spent the better part of a day at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and it wasn’t enough. But that’s probably because I am easily sidetracked, and there are so many glittery, fun, interesting things to get sidetracked by.
This is the place to experience the history of country music (basically, it’s what happens when you combine Appalachian folk/cowboy/blues/gospel/Irish-Celtic fiddle tunes). Every era of country music is represented, along with every country artist you’ve ever heard of (and many that we hadn’t). The costumes alone are worth the price of admission. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors has been a favorite of country music stars since the mid-1940s, and there are some wild outfits on display.
The Hatch Show Print Shop is in the same complex as the Country Music Museum. It’s one of America’s oldest letterpress shops and has produced most of the posters for the Grand Ole Opry. It would be interesting to take a tour.
Nashville Sights Outside of Downtown
Nashville is a very walkable city, which is always a big plus for us. We spent the better part of a day exploring outside of downtown, making a loop that included Centennial Park, Music Row, and Vanderbilt University.
Centennial Park is beautiful and a great place to start a walking tour. And of course, we wanted to see the Parthenon. It’s a full-scale replica of the original and was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. I’ve been to the Parthenon in Athens, and this one is in much better shape. Which makes sense, considering that it was built about 2500 years later.
Our self-guided walking tour took us to Music Row, a historic district in southwest Nashville where all of the record labels, recording studios, and other businesses that serve the music industry are congregated. There’s not really that much to see, but it made for a good walk and we found some interesting bits of history along the way.
Part of our loop tour included the campus of Vanderbilt University. The campus is recognized as a national arboretum, and it’s a beautiful place to walk.
Nashville is one of the hottest places in the country right now for innovative cuisine. We had a hard time narrowing down our choices but were very happy with delicious meals at both Etch and Adele’s. Both are walking distance from downtown.
There’s a lot more to explore in Nashville, including Ryman Auditorium (home of the original Grand Ole Opry and known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash Museums, the state capitol building, more great food, and more music—we’ll be back!
About the Campground
We stayed at Seven Points COE Campground, about 15 miles east of Nashville. It was a great home base for exploring the city and offered a peaceful place to return to at night (with fireflies!). The park is next to a reservoir, heavily wooded, and the campsites are enormous, shady, and private. Water and electric hookups, bathhouses (we didn’t use them), and decent Verizon. It’s a bargain at $22 a night, and even better at half-price with the Senior Pass.