It’s no longer your grandpa’s music city
There’s never been a better time to visit Tennessee’s most talked about, most changed, and, some would say, most beloved city, Nashville. The state’s capital remains a hefty yet reasonable drive from the Grand Strand, though short and cheap non-stop flights now available from Myrtle Beach have renewed visitation to this iconic destination. Nashville is popular with first-time and return visitors alike, including those, like me, who once called the city home.
Though the late 1980s Nashville of my young adulthood was still rough around the edges and in the middle, struggling to pull itself up and out of a national recession, over the next 10 years I would discover a city filled with history, multiculturalism, higher education, delightful rednecks, sanctified church-goers, gospel music of every ilk, political corruption, country music, rock ’n’ roll and endless possibilities.
Today, some 30 years later, Nashville is two decades into a boom that has made international headlines, leading the U.S. in job growth thanks in part to the healthcare industry, engineering and auto industry (Nissan moved its North American Headquarters there in 2011), as well as I.T., publishing, insurance, banking and more. Interestingly, the music business is not a leading employer and never was, though Nashville ranks second behind New York City in music publishing and recording. As recently as August 2018, Nashville was still ranked among the fastest growing large cities in the U.S. with strong wage growth, population gains and a robust economy. With all that new money comes new businesses and new ways to entertain the masses.
Hosting an NFL franchise (the Tennessee Titans), an NHL Hockey team (the Predators) and a Triple-A minor league baseball team (the Nashville Sounds) the city appeals to sports-minded fans, but that’s only a small portion of the fun. Though much has been written about the changing fortunes in music publishing and disappearance of traditional record companies, music is still Nashville’s heart and soul. Six seasons of the nighttime music-related drama Nashville on ABC/CMT helped perpetuate Nashville’s long-running association with music. Several large concert venues, a riverfront outdoor amphitheater and signs that you’re in “Music City” are hard to miss.
The bright neon lights covering downtown’s city streets along the Cumberland River are electric, buzzing testaments to countless honky tonks, each a quirky museum loaded with artifacts from country music’s past and present. Open air self-powered Pedal Pubs loaded with bachelorettes and their rowdy entourages bar hop until the wee hours of the morning every night, year-round. Nashville ranks second only to Las Vegas as a destination for bachelorette parties, and where there’re girls, the boys will follow.
The mostly young bar crowds rule downtown at night, but families, musical history buffs and art lovers ply the city for culture at places like The Frist Art Museum, The Parthenon (the world’s only full size replica of the Greek temple), the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and The Schermerhorn (home of the Nashville Symphony). But nowhere is more visited than downtown’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Originally chartered in 1964, the museum was reimagined from its humble first home in the Music Row neighborhood just outside of downtown to its new home at 222 Fifth Ave. in a 350,000-square-foot super structure that dazzles the eye and the ear. One of the world’s largest repositories of music memorabilia, the fully accredited museum, nicknamed “The Smithsonian of Country Music,” is part research facility and home to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Fans of all styles of music will enjoy spending a full day here. At the museum’s state-of-the-art, 800-seat CMA Theater, showcases, lectures and concerts regularly entertain the crowds, which number more than one million annually.
Just a short Uber ride from Nashville’s jam-packed, high-energy downtown, there are smaller neighborhoods in the city limits (or just outside) with their own charms and appeal.
Neighborhood destinations such as The Gulch feature upscale restaurants, trendy craft cocktail bars and off-beat retail. The Midtown, Vanderbilt University and West End neighborhoods are filled with beautiful old homes, stately mansions, fun eateries and a lot of live rock ’n’ roll, such as on the Rock Block in Elliston Place. Nashville’s oldest neighborhood, Germantown, features restored Victorian-era homes and great restaurants, as well as being right around the corner from Marathon Village, home to Antique Archeology of the famed American Pickers TV show. A shopper’s paradise, Green Hills features an upscale mall and trendy boutique shopping. It is also home to the famed Bluebird Cafe. Enjoy the famous Nashville Hot Chicken almost everywhere, but beware—it’s spiciness is not for the timid.
A Night at the Opry
Beginning in 1925 the original Grand Ole Opry, a one-hour radio “Barn Dance” program, was staged and broadcast from a variety of Nashville locations until, in 1943, it moved to a former church in downtown Nashville named the Ryman Auditorium. Here, legendary and aspiring bluegrass, country and gospel music performers would play for capacity crowds of up to 6,000 and have their music broadcast to 30 states over the high powered radio station WMS-AM and nationally over NBC Radio, helping firmly establishing Nashville as “Music City.”
In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry moved to its current location in north Nashville where it sits adjacent to the Opryland Hotel. Tours and concerts are regularly scheduled for both venues and music historians, as well as casual fans, will not want to miss the opportunity to see and hear current stars and catch the echoes of country music greats still lingering in the rafters.
For decadent, kitschy and altogether remarkable accommodations, consider the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center (colloquially known as the Opryland Hotel), which first opened in 1977. It’s famous for its nearly 3,000 rooms (30th largest hotel in the world), its Victorian-styled indoor gardens, an atrium with some 10,000 tropical plants, a three-story waterfall and indoor river, as well as fine dining, shopping and SoundWaves, an indoor/outdoor waterpark scheduled to open in December 2018.
Just 20 miles south of Nashville, visitors flock to the charming antebellum city of Franklin (founded 1799), which is the home of one of the notoriously bloodiest battles of the U.S. Civil War. Franklin is the County Seat of Williamson County, one of the wealthiest counties per capita in the U.S. The pleasingly preserved downtown comes complete with brick-lined streets, a picture-perfect town square, antique shops, boutiques, fine restaurants, hip craft cocktail bars (check out Gray’s On Main) and a refurbished movie house, The Franklin Theatre (1937). Specializing in re-running Hollywood classics and showcasing live music, the Theatre was restored to its former glory beginning in 2008. The city regularly boasts “Most Livable” status as named by numerous municipal data-crunching websites and publications.
If time allows, the one and a half hour trip between Nashville and Lynchburg, Tennessee, through bucolic hills and hollers, delivers you to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, the one and only home of the world’s best-selling whiskey. The only place you may purchase the “product” in the “dry” Moore County is at the Jack Daniel’s Visitor’s Center. A variety of tours and tastings propel you back to 1875 when Jasper (“Jack”) Daniel first commercially bottled his oak barrel charcoal-drip recipe.
Nashville is an all-American, iconic city enjoying great neighbors and the benefits of modernity combined with the warmth and nostalgia of yesteryear. It’s a getaway for all ages you won’t soon forget.
Photograph courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Felix Mizioznikov; Photographs courtesy of the ryman auditorium; Photograph courtesy of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery