Back in the 1950s, when Nashville first lay claim to the title of “Music City,” it was on the basis of its recording industry — and particularly Music Row’s RCA Studio B, where more than 35,000 songs (including 240 by Memphis-based Elvis Presley) were recorded between 1957 and 1977. While Nashville is still a recording giant, today it is live music — and not just country — that helped draw a record-breaking 14.5 million visitors in 2017.
But there’s more to Nashville’s surging popularity than just music. The Tennessee state capital — and now its largest city — is also a road-food favorite. Add to that a smattering of historical sites, and there’s more than enough to see, hear and taste over a long weekend in this reasonably priced, chart-topping destination.
Grand Ole Opry
Begun in 1925 as “Barn Dance,” a live, weekly radio broadcast on station WSM, the Grand Ole Opry is still alive and pickin’ 93 years later — and still on WSM, though now four times weekly. Shows, which always feature a variety of artists playing two or three songs each, last two hours, and are held Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in the spacious “new” Grand Ole Opry House in Music Valley (six miles east of downtown), and (until early June) on Thursdays at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s downtown home from 1943 to 1974. Tickets range from $40 to $99. Backstage tours ($25-$27) are available during the day and post-performance.
INFO 800-733-6779, opry.com
Pictured: Jonathan Jackson, left, Clare Bowen, Charles Esten, Maisy Stella and Lennon Stella performing at Grand Ole Opry House.
Nothing epitomizes tourist Nashville more than “Honky Tonk Highway,” the historic four-block stretch of Lower Broadway that is chockablock with western wear emporiums (especially boots), restaurants (especially barbecue) and several dozen well-worn live music halls with neon signs. By day, the fare is generally easy-listening country; by night, foot-stomping Southern rock and western swing. Cover charges are rare, but you are expected to tip the band. Among the most revered venues: Robert’s Western World, pictured, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Legends Corner and The Stage.
For bluegrass, make tracks to The Station Inn in The Gulch neighborhood ($12-$15 covers) while for more intimate and acoustic performances, including songwriters nights, drive out to The Bluebird Cafe or Douglas Corner Cafe.
Plantations and a Parthenon
Nashville’s claim to Old Southdom rests primarily on Belle Meade ($24, 615-356-0501, bellemeadeplantation.com), pictured, an 1820s plantation that bred horses; Travellers Rest ($12, 615-832-8197, travellersrestplantation.org), best known for its role as Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s headquarters in the 1864 Battle of Nashville; and especially The Hermitage ($20, 615-889-2941, thehermitage.com), Andrew Jackson’s cotton plantation and post-White House residence east of town.
For something really old (well, kind of), check out the full-scale replica of the fifth century B.C. Greek Parthenon in Centennial Park, built in 1897 as a tribute to Nashville’s old nickname, “The Athens of the South.” It now doubles as Nashville’s municipal art museum ($6, 615-862-8431, nashville.gov/parks-and-recreation/parthenon
The Belle Meade Plantation on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Relocated from Music Row in 2001 and dramatically expanded in 2014, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s main “Sing Me Back Home” exhibit chronicles the origins, growth and now national reach of country music through artifact-laden exhibits, vintage videos and interactive displays before depositing visitors into the Hall of Fame. Those interested in seeing where many of country’s greatest hits were actually recorded can add a guided tour (an extra $15) of Music Row’s RCA Studio B.
INFO $25.95, 615-416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.org
As the urban legend from Nashville’s African-American community has it, hot chicken was born when an irate girlfriend smeared cayenne pepper paste on her two-timing man’s breakfast. Instead of being chastened, he asked for more. For years just a neighborhood specialty, hot chicken — traditionally marinated in buttermilk and pan-fried before being served on bread with pickles — can now be found all over Middle Tennessee. Among the most routinely accoladed local purveyors are Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Pepperfire in East Nashville and Hattie B’s, pictured, downtown.
Barbecue is the one Southern thing every Northerner understands — and it just tastes better in its natural element, a hickory-smoke-filled, borderline dive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Because Nashville has no hallmark style of its own, partakers have their choice of regional styles: Memphis, Carolina, Texas and North Alabama, with its unique mayonnaise-based white sauce. Among the can’t-miss favorites are Jack’s on Lower Broadway, pictured, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint (downtown), Edley’s on 12th Avenue South, Hog Heaven in Centennial Park and Mission BBQ in Music Valley.
Southern comfort food
No dip into Dixie is complete without tucking into some down-home country cooking, be it of the “meat & three” or family-style variety. Skillet-fried chicken, catfish and pork chops are perennial favorites, especially when accompanied by sides of beans, greens and cornbread, all washed down with tall glasses of sweet tea. Among Nashville’s “premier” establishments are Arnold’s Country Kitchen in the Gulch, Swett’s near Centennial Park and both Monell’s, the original in a Germantown Victorian mansion, the other a mock plantation near the airport. But Music City’s most beloved eatery — even if the standard wait is more than an hour — is the far-flung (20 miles outside town) Loveless Cafe, pictured, home of the South’s best biscuits.
Ending on a (sugar) high note
Nashville’s signature candy, the Goo Goo Cluster, was first produced by the Standard Candy Co. in 1912 by layering milk chocolate and peanuts over a caramel and marshmallow nougat base. Novices and aficionados alike can watch them being made, sample them and stock up at the Goo Goo Shop and Dessert Bar, pictured, downtown (615-490-6685, googoo.com/find/downtown-nashville).
More information about Nashville is available at 800-657-6910 or visitmusiccity.com.