Country music heritage streams through Nashville, pouring out of various museums, bars, concert venues and restaurants. In the great temple-like performance space of the Ryman Auditorium, and on the legendary weekly spectacular of the Grand Ole Opry, the genre’s greatest stars have pierced the hearts of Nashville audiences and, subsequently, the country’s: Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson all spring-boarded off the Nashville scene. Alongside these musical pleasures, Nashville has several great and eclectic BBQ restaurants, which work with styles from across the southern States. It’s a city of smoky meat and sincere music, which together make for a gloriously immersive vacation experience.
The piano-themed façade of the Country Music Hall of Fame rises above the west bank of the Cumberland River, and is situated in the heart of Nashville in more ways than one. It is a magnificent shrine to the genre, and its changing exhibitions and hours of archive footage could hold a fan’s attention through days of repeat visits. There are films and photographs from the 1920s on, deep wells of recorded performances reaching back through the decades, and a large library of interviews with all manner of personnel related to the creation of country music. As well as this treasure trove of history, the museum also hosts live music and public programs.
Johnny Cash died in Nashville, aged 71, and several of the sudden swerves that characterized his erratic career took place in the city. It’s an appropriate place, then, to locate the Johnny Cash Museum, which explores the singer’s life and work through an incredible archive of historic materials, including letters, awards, costumes, instruments and handwritten song manuscripts. The museum was put together with the support of Cash’s friends and family, and it has consequently acquired some fascinatingly personal material, including a selection of early letters written by a very young Johnny Cash. Combined with a series of high-tech interactive displays, all this material makes for an utterly engrossing experience.
If you’d prefer a sit-down BBQ experience, perhaps to rest your legs before hitting the dancefloor at the Wildhorse Saloon, then they don’t come much better than Martin’s BBQ Joint. Whole hogs cook above flames in a corner of the bar, suffusing the space with the seductive smells of roast pork. It’s this pork that Martin’s is best for, particularly its hand-pulled pork sandwiches. Another favorite are the Red Neck Tacos, which involve a large slice of cornbread piled with pork, coleslaw, and a spicy BBQ sauce.
It would be simply absurd to visit Nashville without checking out a honky-tonk bar, the type of venue where so many great country musicians first made an impression on the hearts of an audience. The most famous in Nashville is Tootsies Orchid Lounge, an institution in the city for several decades, with an immensely colorful history. In previous decades Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings entertained its patrons, and the bar claims that Willie Nelson was offered his first songwriting gig after performing on one of its stages. Even its previous owner, famously generous Tootsie Bess, has gone down in country music folklore for her habit of giving free food and drink to struggling singers in return for an unconvincingly scribbled IOU. The bar continues to serve simple southern food and host local musicians across its two stages today.
Photo by afagen/Flickr.
The growth of the Grand Ole Opry mirrors Nashville’s development into America’s country music capital. It began as a weekly radio broadcast in 1925, evolving into a weekly stage show which became one of the most iconic events in country music history. At the center of its stage is a circle of dark oak wood where performers stand and sing, in the same spot where many have before – among them country music gods such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells (although Hank Williams was eventually banned from performing for frequent drunkenness). These days there are several performances weekly at the Opry, although Saturday night retains a special aura.
Nashville may be best known for country music, but it also has a string of fantastic BBQ restaurants, drawing on styles and traditions from across the southern States. One of the best is locally loved Hog Heaven, a small over-the-counter joint which has been smoking meat over hickory wood for 25 years. It’s great for the classics – beef brisket, pulled pork, succulent ribs. But it’s particularly famed for its more unique offerings, especially the hand-pulled turkey sandwich, which comes with cheddar cheese in an onion roll, and is slathered in Hog’s gloriously tangy white BBQ sauce.
The great temple-like facade of the Ryman Auditorium speaks of a structure that embodies several aspects of Nashville history. It was built as a tabernacle by a recently converted steamboat captain in the 1880s, the interior was designed to make the preacher’s voice resound as clearly as possible. After its founder’s death it made the easy transition from religion to country music, and was used for Grand Ole Opry performances from 1943 to 1974. Its twin roles are captured in its colloquial title, "the mother church of country music", and it continues to attract the best country music performers today.
The Wildhorse Saloon is a lively entertainment venue situated in an old three-storey warehouse in the center of Nashville. The top two floors house an excellent restaurant, known for its southern BBQ and fried pickles, and the dining area looks down on a stage and dance floor below. The stage hosts frequent live music with, unsurprisingly, a country theme, while free line dancing sweeps across the dance floor several nights of the week. It’s a fast-paced and exhilarating blend of several constituent parts of Nashville culture – just try not to dance too energetically on a full stomach.