Ever wondered where Nashville got the nickname “Music City”? I’m a lifelong Tennessean, but until a recent trip east, I figured it was a moniker that had emerged from the Music Row marketing machine. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In 1873, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, fresh from performances at Ulysses S. Grant’s White House, traveled to England where they sang for Queen Victoria. Her Majesty was so impressed with the gospel choir from the first dedicated university for African Americans, she declared that they must be from “America’s Music City.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ decades of touring the world to raise much-needed money for their alma mater was just the beginning of Nashville’s urge to export music to the world. But the real Big Bang for Music City came in 1925, when WSM radio first signed on the air with its weekly radio show WSM Barn Dance. By the time FDR took office in 1933, the show had changed its name to the Grand Ole Opry, and the station had boosted its power to 50,000 watts, making it one of the most powerful radio stations in the world.
It’s hard to overstate the influence the combo of WSM and the Opry have had on both American popular music and the city of Nashville. At a time when household radios were the only entertainment center, WSM came in loud and clear from Portland, Oregon, to Kingston, Jamaica. Standing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville’s oldest music venue and the historic home of the Opry, is to feel the weight of history. Country music was defined by what was allowed on this stage: Hillbilly tunes from Appalachia, high lonesome sounds from the Great Plains and the West, and barroom boogie from Texas cross-pollinated and hybridized here. The entire genre of bluegrass sprang into existence when Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt took the stage together in 1946 and brought the house down.
After the Opry left from the Ryman in the early 1970s, the venue went dark for almost 20 years, narrowly avoiding the wrecking ball until 1992, when Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers braved the deteriorating conditions inside to record a live album, taking advantage of the former church’s all-wood interior’s incredible acoustic properties to create a classic recording that would change the face of downtown Nashville. The Ryman reopened in 1994 with a broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, and today it is one of the country’s premier music venues.
The restoration of the Ryman reversed the trend of inner-city decay that had plagued Nashville since the 1960s. The Nashville skyline is changing rapidly, with slender construction cranes sprouting everywhere like mechanized reeds. The days when Printer’s Alley was a one-stop shop for all manner of vices are a fading memory. Now, the Alley’s most prominent resident is Hotel Indigo, a beautiful, boutique lodging with impeccable service set inside a former bank building.
In the shadow of the Ryman is Broadway’s fabled honky-tonk scene, led by the queen of them all, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where the stars of the Opry would blow off steam and try out new material. Their exploits are chronicled at the nearby Country Music Hall Of Fame, a world-class music museum where Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton are enshrined next to Uncle Dave Macon and Hank Williams. On display for the rest of 2016 on the second floor, which is reserved for rotating and traveling exhibits, there’s a deep dive into Bob Dylan’s trip to Nashville in 1966, where he collaborated with Nashville studio musicians to create the best work of his career: Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline.
From the Hall of Fame, you can catch a bus to RCA Studio B. Despite the fact that Elvis bombed at the Opry, he’s a Country Music Hall of Fame member. If there’s a moment when the Memphis/Nashville rivalry turned ugly, it was when Elvis, fresh recording contract in hand, decamped from the Bluff City to the Music City to record at Studio B. He was not the only person to make world-spanning hits here. More than 1,000 Billboard “Top 100” songs came from this moodily lit room over the years.
Another Memphis-area musician Nashville embraced was Johnny Cash, and the museum dedicated to him is a must-see. Cash transcended rockabilly and country to become a true American icon who never compromised on his music or his commitment to helping the downtrodden. Like many of the businesses downtown, the Johnny Cash Museum is relatively new, and still growing: A new wing with interactive music and video exhibits, including artifacts from Walk The Line, the Cash biopic filmed in Memphis, was added last February.
Downstairs at the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of Nashville’s visual arts institutions is preserved in full working order. Hatch Show Prints started churning out letterpress handbills to promote tent revivals and minstrel shows shortly after Music City got its name. Founder Charles Hatch and his son Will quietly influenced modern graphic design for more than 70 years, and the shop still runs at full capacity, creating much sought-after posters for a star-studded client list. Ironically, the biggest order Hatch ever filled was not for a country act, but for California funk rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Fifth Avenue has become a haven for art galleries. Anne Brown’s maze-like Arts Company brims with works from a variety of local and national artists, all benefitting from the new Nashville real estate boom’s need for fresh wall candy. Tinney Contemporary brings the cutting edge to 5th Avenue, recently hosting an exhibit of a piece by world-famous street artist Banksy.
Now celebrating its fifteenth year, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts is set inside Nashville’s former main post office. The building was built in 1934, and the patron-facing interior is a tour de force of Art Deco detailing. But it’s the art, culture, and design in the galleries that is the Frist Center’s most valuable contribution to the city. The Frist has no permanent collection, but the selection of the traveling exhibits and curation of the shows the Center originates have been nothing short of stellar throughout its short history. The institution’s eclecticism is on display in the shows playing through the fall. Bellissimo! is a stunning collection of ultra-rare Italian cars from the postwar period. These are practical objects — cars have to go, after all — but the sinuous futurism of designers working under the Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati badges have influenced not just automobiles, but furniture, computers, and countless consumer objects. Behind the car collection is a smaller gallery where portraits of impossible worlds created by contemporary American surrealist Inka Essenhigh inspire and baffle in equal measure.
To find the roots of the Nashville art scene, drive down West End through the trendy Gulch neighborhood until you get to Centennial Park. Before it was Music City, Nashville branded itself “The Athens of The South”; in 1897, Nashville celebrated a century of Tennessee statehood by throwing the Centennial Celebration for which the park is named.
The centerpiece of the fair was a life-sized reproduction of the Parthenon. Unlike the one on the Acropolis, the Nashville Parthenon isn’t a ruin. Although it was never intended to be permanent, it captured the imagination of the city, and has been gradually upgraded over the years. The gallery in the lower level houses early American art, but the real attraction is in the main temple space. The centerpiece of the original Parthenon was Athena Parthenos, a monumental statue of Athens’ patron goddess. For almost a century, Nashvillians dreamed of completing their Parthenon with a similar statue. A donation box in the main room collected nickels and dimes from school kids and their parents until, in 1990, enough funds were scraped together to commission Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire to reproduce the work of Athenian sculptor Phidias, circa 430 BCE. Clad in gold, with the head of Medusa on her breastplate, LeQuire’s Athena is the largest indoor sculpture in the Western Hemisphere.
Sweet and Hot
Nashville’s biggest leap forward has been in the culinary realm. No longer a wasteland of chain restaurants, the city now has quality, locally owned eateries for every palate. Tucked away near Vanderbilt University, Chef Brian Lea’s Le Sel offers contemporary takes on French dishes, such as the excellent steak and frittes, prepared with fresh ingredients in an elegant environment. Across town on 12th Avenue South, Urban Grub is the place to go to feast on fresh seafood and oysters and meats of all descriptions, including a “life-changing” pork chop.
If you’re not in the mood for fine dining, there’s plenty else to satisfy your fancy. Craft brews are all the rage and Fat Bottom Brewery’s taproom is the city’s finest beer garden. You can play corn hole in the courtyard, or just dive into their beer selection with a full-spectrum sampler. Just around the corner, the chocolate artisans of Olive and Sinclair will provide you with can’t-miss gifts for the folks back home. Any of their chocolates and confections, made by hand in the back room of their East Nashville storefront, are outstanding, but the sweet and spicy Mexican chocolate bars are the chocolatier’s claim to fame.
Fried chicken, marinated in seasonings and rubbed with a cayanne pepper mixture, is the city’s first bona fide culinary export. Hot chicken originated in East Nashville, and now shops are popping up all over the Southeast, offering many locations to choose from in the city. Hattie B’s has two locations in Nashville and just opened a third in Birmingham, Alabama. There, you can get hot chicken in flavors ranging from mild to obscenely spicy, depending on your level of foolhardiness. Everything, including the mac and cheese, is excellent, but if you’re tempted to go for broke in the heat department, I would recommend investing in a pitcher of beer to quench the fire.
Nashville is still an industry town and hoards of songwriters and pickers still flock to the city hoping to become the next Garth Brooks or Trisha Yearwood. On any given night, you can see them at places like the Bluebird Café or The Listening Room, trying out new material and hoping to catch a break. On weekends, there’s almost always an in-store performance at Third Man Records, Jack White’s shrine to vinyl where recordings of some of the best stock the shelves in the back room.
The real secret of Nashville music is in the players whose names you don’t know, but who lease their chops to the studio to make the big boys sound good. The most fascinating of the city’s many music attractions is the often overlooked Musician’s Hall of Fame, where the names and work of these unsung heroes are brought center stage. There are exhibits dedicated to each of America’s great recording centers, from Sun Studios to Los Angeles and Motown to Muscle Shoals. The centerpiece of the Stax exhibit is Al Jackson Jr.’s drum set, which still bears water damage from the legendary soul studio’s leaky roof.
For something completely different, root out one of the city’s best-kept secrets, the Nashville Jazz Workshop. From the outside, the repurposed industrial space couldn’t look less like a music venue. But the small school has taught young and old, veterans and novices the art of improvisation, and its listening room, set in a former fallout shelter, hosts mind-blowing jazz performances.
Nashville’s most accomplished players call the Schermerhorn Symphony Center home. The Nashville Symphony is one of the most recorded groups of musicians on the planet, playing on countless soundtracks and Grammy-winning recordings, as well as more than 20 albums of their own. The $128 million Schermerhorn seats 1,800 in a design reminiscent of the European halls of yore. Its look may be classical, but the infrastructure is state-of-the-art, with automatically reconfiguring seats and impeccable acoustics.
And finally, there’s, yes, the Grand Ole Opry itself. When it moved from the Ryman in 1974, it relocated to a purpose-built amusement park and showplace called Opryland. The roller coasters and water slides are long gone now, replaced by the massive Gaylord Opryland Hotel, an all-in-one resort that is something like a cruise ship on land. Now in its 90th year, the Opry is still broadcasting every Saturday night. They’ve got the format, a transitional phase between vaudeville and TV variety shows, down to a science, mixing established acts with up-and-comers and interspersing segments with down-home humor. It’s a living piece of musical history, and a unique insight into how Nashville’s music industry conquered the world, one radio set at a time.