Nashville is well-known for being home to country music royalty and the setting for some of the genre’s most-iconic moments: from standing ovations at the Ryman to one-take studio recordings that topped music charts. But, Nashville is also a town of dreamers. All over the city lies a buzzing creativity; a collaborative, inspiring and authentic place where musicians, artists and makers fill stages, studios, galleries, museums, stores and workshops creating a vibe that sets this city apart.
Museums and Art Galleries
Telling the stories of country music legends past and present, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum displays just a fraction of the 2.5 million artifacts in its collection, such as Dolly Parton’s handwritten lyrics to the hit song “Jolene” and some of Carrie Underwood’s stage costumes. “Music has fuelled an incredible cultural scene in Nashville and is a magnet for soulful people, both on stage and off,” says Peter Cooper, the hall and museum’s senior director, producer and writer.
Over on Music Row, it’s pitch black in the historic RCA Studio B, and an antique store-like scent hovers in the air. Opened in 1957, Studio B is Nashville’s oldest surviving recording studio, where many famous singers have laid down tracks. A studio tour, organized through the museum, starts with the lights off and Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” playing in the background. Presley recorded the track in darkness in Studio B on April 4, 1960, at 4 a.m. Listen closely, and you’ll hear a faint scratch at the end of the song as, rumour has it, Presley bumps his head on the microphone.
Listen to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
More museums in downtown Nashville
Located in a restored 1930s art deco building, formerly a U.S. post office, the Frist hosts new exhibits every six to eight weeks showcasing regional and international artists. We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957-1968 runs until Oct. 14, and is an impactful timeline of black-and-white photographs depicting African American civil rights in Nashville.
Opening in 2019, the museum will be the first of its kind to focus on African American contributions to more than 50 musical genres, and celebrate the faces behind southern gospel, country, jazz and more. Inside, the Rivers of Rhythm Pathway will take visitors on a journey from the time of Southern gospel to modern-day hip hop and blues.
Around 20 art galleries line this one-block historic district in downtown Nashville, which attracts about 1,000 people during its monthly art walk. The Arts Company, a massive contemporary gallery, is the cornerstone of the area, opening in 1996 with the vision of creating a space to exhibit livable, affordable art.
“We’ve [hosted] artists who are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” says owner Anne Brown in her charming southern drawl. “We don’t have to be fancy—that’s Nashville style right there.”
Brown has long been a leader in the movement to revitalize downtown, opening Broadway’s first art gallery, Nashville Arts Gallery, and launching Summer Lights: The Nashville Festival, where Garth Brooks performed on stage for the first time.
The main gallery at The Arts Company, located on the entrance level, shows works by international and local artists that can include sculpture, wood block paintings and colourful photo collages. Upstairs, a staff member will guide you through a labyrinth of art adorned corridors leading to rooms covered in visual art.
Music Venues and Record Stores
Music can be heard beyond Nashville’s Broadway strip in cozy music venues like The Basement, where Metallica once played a surprise show. Upstairs, Grimey’s record store has a new and used album collection so big, it opened a second location, Grimey’s Too, next door. Its storage area is a wonderful mess of turntables, shipping boxes and stacks of CDs and records covering the floor and surrounded by walls taped with weathered concert and music posters.
Each week, Grimey’s hosts free in-store concerts. In March, Grammy-nominated roots singer Kim Richey played songs from her new album, Edgeland, to an intimate and captivated crowd. Richey, a Nashville native since the late 1980s, has written songs for mainstream artists like Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless.
“When I was starting out, we would hear songwriters in the rounds,” says Richey about groups of songwriters coming together to play and tell the stories behind their lyrics. “It was inspiring. That’s the vibe here.”
Watch Kim Richey’s performance of “The Get Together” from her newest album Edgeland, at Grimey’s with local singer-songwriter Mando Saenz.
Video by Alyssa Quirico
On New Year’s Eve 2017, singer-songwriter Joshua Hedley, known locally as “Mr. Jukebox,” stood backstage at the Ryman in his signature brightly coloured, embroidered suit and cowboy hat, trying to calm his nerves. Thirteen years of playing for tips on Music City’s Broadway paled in comparison to his moments-away debut on a stage that had dusted up the soles of some of his biggest idols—Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette—back when the Ryman was home to the Grand Ole Opry show.
“As I stepped out on stage, the stars aligned and everything went off perfectly,” says Hedley, whose sound is described as raw, throwback country.
“Regardless of genre, the best musicians on the planet end up here.”
Known as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman is more than 125 years old. A backstage tour takes you into dressing rooms where country legends Johnny Cash, June Carter and Minnie Pearl prepared to perform. Step out onto the refurbished stage—where contemporary artists such as rocker Jack White have played—and you will see a preserved section of the original Opry stage.
“Nashville isn’t just country music,” says Hedley. “There’s also huge punk and hip-hop communities. Regardless of genre, the best musicians on the planet end up here.”
Watch the video for Joshua Hedley’s debut single, “Mr. Jukebox.”
More live music venues in Nashville
Open seven days a week, this casual spot in The Gulch neighbourhood has been the place to go for true bluegrass and roots music since 1974.
In Midtown, this club puts on rock, rap, punk, metal and DJ shows. Past performers have included The Ramones and Talking Heads.
Tourists flock to this unassuming café in a strip mall to see local songwriters perform “in the round” acoustic shows. Purchase your tickets well in advance.
Head to this downtown bar and grill on Monday nights to catch country music legend Vince Gill’s Nashville band, The Time Jumpers.
Nashville’s local fashion industry was relatively non-existent until denim brand Imogene + Willie launched in 2009, building a small community around the former gas station in the 12 South neighbourhood it turned into its store.
Today, 12 South is brimming with locally owned boutiques, including leather bag maker Ceri Hoover and jewelry designer Judith Bright. Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James explodes with Southern charm, with shoppers perusing racks of dresses and totes while sipping complimentary cups of sweet tea. At White’s Mercantile, owned by the daughter of the legendary Hank Williams Jr., you’ll find made-in-Nashville items such as natural soaps by Thistle Farms and artisan chocolate by Olive and Sinclair.
Nashville has the largest per capita concentration of independent fashion designers outside of New York City and Los Angeles. The Nashville Fashion Alliance, created in 2015, provides support and resources to designers, and are co-founders of the city’s commercial Sewing Training Academy. “Support from other sectors is vital; from arts organizations, the music industry and local businesses,” says NFA CEO Van Tucker. “We are a community that lives by the mantra, ‘A rising tide raises all boats.’”
There’s also Nashville Fashion Week held in March, where you can meet designers and shop their stores in neighbourhoods like East Nashville. You’ll find printed dresses at Amanda Valentine and stone jewelry at Seraphine Design.
Find Nashville Fashion Alliance stores with the #ShopNFAMap
Beneath the soaring ceilings at the back of the Peter Nappi shoe store, a scent of espresso accentuates the scratchy sounds of 20th-century jazz playing on the stereo. Light pours in from floor-to-ceiling windows onto Phillip Nappi’s workstation, covered with glass jars of dye, pliers, blackened sponges and scraps of buttery-soft, sandy-coloured leather. This is where Nappi finishes and dyes many of his shoes—handmade in Italy and Portugal—for clients like Sheryl Crow and Keith Urban.
Opened in 2011, the store is named after Phillip’s grandfather, a shoemaker who the younger Nappi never met, but learned about while tracing his family roots and studying the art of Italian shoe making in Florence, Italy.
Nappi, along with his wife, Dana, originally planned on launching their shoe store in New York City, but decided instead to open it in a restored 19th-century brick-walled pumphouse on a former meatpacking plant in Germantown—Nashville’s oldest neighbourhood. “The generous nature here is immense and is evident by the giving spirit of this city,” says Phillip.
One more must-visit shopping spot in Nashville
Browse shops, cafés, distilleries and more at Marathon Village, set inside 100-year-old brick buildings formerly occupied by a car manufacturer. Do a whisky tasting, feast on handmade marshmallows and shop for retro signs at Antique Archaeology, owned by American Pickers’ Mike Wolfe.
[This story appears in the July 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]
Where to Find Free Music in Nashville (Beyond Broadway)
For music lovers visiting Nashville who want to experience as much live music as possible, and explore some memorable neighbourhoods beyond Broadway, here's a list of venues that offer free admission, including Grimey's New & Preloved Music and The Station Inn.