This summer, I started a walking tour of downtown Nashville (walkinnashville.com). After twenty years of writing about music, and interviewing the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, I figured it might be fun to share some of what I’ve learned, along with a few backstage stories.
There are a number of tours on offer in Nashville. Segway tours, redneck comedy tours, Civil War tours. But I think mine may be the only one that’s designed for hardcore music nerds. If you want to hear stories about the time Johnny Cash was banned from the Grand Ole Opry, how Tammy Wynette almost pulled the plug on her biggest hit, or how a Grammy-winning album was once recorded on a downtown sidewalk, then come see me when you’re in Music City.
1. Ryman Auditorium
They call it the “mother church of country music.” And for good reason. Built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, this hallowed hall started out with fire-and-brimstone sermons, then later featured top entertainers (Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn, Enrico Caruso), all on its way to becoming the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Today, it’s one of the top concert venues in the country. Sit in the hundred-year-old oak pews. Enjoy the perfect acoustics. And feel the spirits of Hank, Johnny, Patsy and all the legends who’ve performed there.
2. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
If walls could talk. . . well, in Tootsie’s they almost do. The whole history of country music, from the famous to the almost famous, smiles down from the tattered walls of this honky tonk bar – 8 x 10s, candid photos, bits of napkin with song lyrics. Back in the early 1960s, this place doubled as a songwriting hangout for the likes of Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson. Today, it offers round the clock country music and cold beer.
3. Ernest Tubb Record Shop
When Tubb used to tour around the country in the late 1940s, his fans asked him, “Where can I buy your records? Where can I buy records by Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff?” In response, Tubb decided to open his store that specialized in country and hillbilly music. Sixty-five years later, it’s still going strong. Looking for that hard-to-find George Jones box set, DVDs of The Johnny Cash Show, or Loretta Lynn’s cookbook? Find it here.
4. Hatch Show Print
“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.” That was the slogan of Hatch when they opened in 1879. A hundred and thirty years later, they’ve survived every new technology and trend to stand alone as the world’s best-known letterpress printing shop. They make amazing, one-of-a-kind posters – all hand designed, hand cut, hand inked. And their client list includes everyone from Elvis to Garth Brooks to Ringling Bros. Circus. If you’re looking to bring a true Nashville souvenir back home, you can’t go wrong with a Hatch show print.
5. Printers Alley
Once the heart of Nashville’s red light district, this block-long alley was a burlesque paradise. But it was also a hotbed of great music. Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, George Jones, Roger Miller – they all worked the clubs here. So did a young Jimi Hendrix. And Paul McCartney even wrote a song here. For modern country fans, Printer’s Alley was also where Carrie Underwood shot the video for her number one hit “Before He Cheats.”
6. Chet Atkins Statue
Back in the mid-1950s, country music was under siege by rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. Producer Chet Atkins didn’t see that as a bad thing. As an experiment, he blended elements of both into country and helped forge a new style dubbed “The Nashville Sound.” It saved country music and drew up a blueprint for everything that it’s become. Oh yeah, Atkins was one of the world’s greatest guitar players too. Sit down on the empty stool next to Chet and play guitar with him.
7. The Loveless Café
Biscuits, grits, sweet potato pancakes, country ham. If you’re looking for a traditional southern-style breakfast with big ol’ helpin's, this is the place. Opened in 1951 by Lon and Annie Loveless, the restaurant is a Nashville tradition. And stick around on Wednesday evenings for the variety show Music City Roots, the Lovelesses’ own mini-version of the Opry.
8. Bluebird Café
You know how sometimes in a restaurant or bar you’ll hear a guy or gal with a guitar singing the latest hit by Keith Urban or Lady Antebellum? Well, at the Bluebird, the difference is that the guy or gal will be the one who actually wrote the hit. The Bluebird invented the “writers-in-the-round,” an informal circle with four songwriters taking turns, playing their best tunes to a rapt audience. Look for the bar to be featured heavily in the upcoming ABC-TV show Nashville.
9. Robert’s Western World
If you’re looking to hear authentic honky tonk country, played by some of Nashville’s best musicians, try Robert’s. The sweaty, beer-soaked, good time bar has an historical pedigree too. Back in the 1960s, it was home to the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar company, where the pedal steel guitar (that cryin’, moanin’ instrument that’s an alter ego to all country singers) was first manufactured and sold.
10. Country Music Hall of Fame
“Honor Thy Music” is the museum’s credo. And that means past, present and future. On display, there’s everything from Hank Williams’ guitar to Elvis’s gold Cadillac to Taylor Swift’s latest stage wear. Plus a two-story wall of every gold and platinum country record ever, educational movies, live music and seminars. And as part of the grand tour, you’ll visit the fabled RCA Studio B, where hits like Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” were recorded.
11. Grand Ole Opry
No trip to Nashville would be complete without experiencing the radio show that “made country music famous.” Since 1925, the Opry has been mixing music, comedy skits and live commercials into its down-home Saturday night broadcast. Today, it features contemporary artists like Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley sharing the bill with such legends as Connie Smith, Stonewall Jackson and Little Jimmie Dickens (at 92, the oldest living Opry star).
Note: Many thanks to my friends at mental_floss for letting me do this not-so-thinly veiled commercial for my walking tour. Free tours for y’all!