Destinations Inside Nashville's Music Scene, from a Local Who Knows

by Craig Havighurst | May 23, 2018

All cities evolve, but few cities feel the visceral tug-of-war between the past and the future like Nashville.

Tradition and continuity are in the DNA of this Tennessee city, but the Nashville of the early 2000s understood it had reached a change-or-die moment in its history. The journey to “It City” stature has been exciting and unruly — rich with remaking, renovation and innovation.

The Shelby Bridge, a perfect place to start or end any visit to Music City, is a great example. Twenty years ago, it was an aging iron roadway connecting downtown to East Nashville. After it was converted to a pedestrian bridge with city parks on either side, one could walk from Nissan Stadium (home of Nashville’s professional football team) to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s front door with a dramatic skyline view along the way. It spoke to everything locals and tourists alike love about this city: an embrace of the arts, sports, public space and the Cumberland River, which is the reason there’s even a city of Nashville to begin with.

illustrated map of nashville landmarks

The top landmarks of Nashville are in every article and tour guide. You can’t miss ‘em. Ryman Auditorium is the crown jewel, with a story spanning three centuries and a legacy of history-changing musical presentation that has no peer in the United States. The Grand Ole Opry became a world-famous institution there between 1943 and 1974, and it still plays there in the winter months.

If the Ryman is the mother church of country music, The Bluebird Café is the high temple of songwriting, world-famous even before a certain TV series that shares the city’s name put it back in the spotlight. The Johnny Cash Museum is relatively new, but it’s officially sanctioned by the artist’s estate and has earned a world-class reputation. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is an epic experience, worth at least half a day.

However, ask a local and you’ll be sure to get the inside take on this city’s evolving music scene. Terry Rickards, who books talent for The Basement and The Basement East, is at the vanguard of current Music City taste-making. "In the last few years, East Nashville has really grown up,” Rickards says. “There are more cocktail and fine dining places. We’re fortunate in that we can do local shows that draw hundreds of people here, and we can also do intimate nights with local legends. Nearby, there is the East Room, an Indie rock place and the birthplace of many movements. There is also the Cobra, where you can see somebody spinning vinyl one night and a psych-rock or a country band on another night.”

If the Ryman is the mother church of country music, The Bluebird Café is the high temple of songwriting.
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With so much to choose from, there are plenty of opinions, too. Bluegrass prodigy and Third Man Records artist Lillie Mae Rische took to the local stage with her family at the age 12. Now 26, she and her siblings still play downtown at her favorite honky-tonk Layla’s, owned by Layla Vartanian, which also launched her career.

Rische says, “Lower Broadway is about the musicianship. There is so much incredible talent. It is a huge music family. You don’t play downtown and not know who’s next door. Everybody knows everybody. As for Layla, she is very loyal, and she’s a songwriter herself. She’s established a place that encourages original music and lets people be themselves. And that’s why her bar has the best vibe, is such fun and everybody gravitates there. There are tons of return visitors.” Rische adds, “Just last week we saw a group of guys we know who’ve been coming from Norway for 15 years.”

In taking a lead from the locals, savvy pilgrims should check out some of the lesser-known venues, fixtures, museums and performance spaces that make Nashville a treasure trove for music fans.

Musician's Hall of Fame 

401 Gay Street

This gem hides in plain sight in the lower level of one of Nashville's coolest structures, the 1960s Flying Saucer-style Municipal Auditorium. The focus here is not on the stars but on the working studio and road musicians behind the songs you love. Its various zones focus on iconic studios and studio groups, including Detroit's Motown Funk Brothers, the Los Angeles Wrecking Crew and Nashville's A-Team.

Musicians hall of fame at night

Grimey’s New & Preloved Music/The Basement

1604 1604 8th Avenue South

Upstairs at this historic building, sift through CDs, books, a local artist bin and yard after yard of vinyl at one of the most famous record shops in America. Step out back and downstairs to The Basement, a small room conducive to subtle acoustic music or hearty rock and roll. It’s regarded by many as the best curated club in town for the current and next wave of Nashville talent. The Basement East, a couple miles away (917 Woodland Street), is newer and larger, featuring local and touring cutting-edge acts. Note: Grimey’s is getting set to move to a larger space in East Nashville late in 2018, so check the website before you visit.

Carter Vintage Guitars

625 8th Avenue South

Not as well known as Gruhn Guitars nearby, but arguably less intimidating to the amateur picker, Carter is an enchanting space where it’s not unusual to see world-class musicians playing casually or making videos. After you shop, head across the street to the women-owned, award-winning Jackalope Brewing Co. and tip back some beers. 

The Station Inn

402 12th Avenue South

Bluegrass music was born at the Ryman, but it lives here at this 40-year-old institution. Once it was the lone nightspot in the downtown district called The Gulch. But the neighborhood has grown up around this bunker-like building with glass towers and fancy dining. Yet within is a cozy, neon-lit space with a plywood floor, bar snacks and the most exquisite acoustic music in the world, purveyed nightly. Pop by Sunday for the age-old open bluegrass jam.

Carter is an enchanting space where it’s not unusual to see world-class musicians playing casually or making videos.
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The Local

110 28th Avenue North

Formerly known as The Country, the new name reflects the eclectic, home-grown nature of this tap room and performance space. It's next door to Centennial Park with its century-old replica of the Greek Parthenon. Check the calendar for music, but we'd point you to Country Sunday Nights with Chris Scruggs, whose band of mid-career masters conjures 1940s and 50s country music.

Analog Music and Cocktails

1808 West End Avenue

As new as it is ambitious, the Hutton Hotel did a multi-million-dollar renovation that included the most luxurious, meticulously designed listening room in the city. It's a frequent hot spot for industry-only events so be sure to call ahead to ask about shows that are open to the public.

Rudy’s Jazz Room

809 Gleaves Street

Yes, even Nashville’s jazz is excellent, with tradition and history going back to the 1920s. At last, it has a home in the center city, one that’s cozy and comfortable with good New Orleans-inspired food. With two shows nightly, there’s always someone worth hearing taking the stage. 

View of the stage at the Analog

Chet Atkins Statue/Printer’s Alley

Church Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues North

Get away from the intensity of Broadway on foot and walk a loop connecting several historic sites. Printer’s Alley has a legacy of great live music and food. A block away at 5th Avenue North and Union Street, snap a picture with the life-sized bronze statue of Chet Atkins, the Hall of Fame guitarist and producer who ushered in the Nashville Sound. Two blocks up Union Street at 7th Avenue North is a historic marker at the origin point of WSM, the radio station that started the Grand Ole Opry and made Music City possible.

The 5 Spot

1006 Forrest Avenue

If the spirit and sound of the East Nashville music renaissance lives anywhere, it’s here. The 5 Spot symbolizes Music City's indie country and rock scenes. Of special note are Two Dollar Tuesdays with multi-artist lineups and cheap beer, plus Sunday night's long-running soul music showcase.

When a WSM announcer spontaneously gave Nashville its Music City nickname in 1950, he was talking about all kinds of music, from blues to gospel to pop to country. It’s always been true and today more than ever.

When a WSM announcer gave Nashville its Music City nickname...he was talking about all kinds of music, from blues to gospel to pop to country.
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Craig Havighurst

is a journalist and producer who has chronicled country and roots music in Nashville since 1998. He's host of The String and music news director for WMOT Roots Radio 89.5 FM. He's also the author of 'Air Castle of the South: WSM And The Making of Music City.'