These tips will come in handy so that you can afford and enjoy your first trip to the Music City.
This songwriting business has brought me many glorious moments. As thrilling as the big awards and inductions were the personal career milestones: the first time I heard my song on the radio, the first song on the charts, the first Top Ten, the first #1.
Three books to read before going to Nashville
They’re well written, captivating, and even when the subject is food, music is part of the fabric.
Bobby Braddock – A life on Nashville’s Music Row
Covering a songwriter‘s life for 50 years from 1964, this book will vastly improve your education into all Music City matters. You will end up with an imaginary map of all the places where history was made, and an appreciation of the hard work done by the teams behind country stars.
Nashville Food Trucks – by Julie Festa
A great introduction to a tradition that keeps going. See below the pictures I took with the food trucks of 2018.
Nashville Eats – by Jennifer Justus
Every recipe comes with a Nashville playlist and music references.
How to get downtown and where to stay
Nashville is a car city. No streetcars, no subways, no gondola. This is the place with the most parking lots and multistorey car parks you’ll see for the rest of your life.
Visit the Music Row, but stay downtown
You’ll want to walk around the Music Row, the sacred ground of country music publishing and recording. But beware that the neighborhood is eccentric to the downtown core (where most of the attractions are). While walking from the Music Row to downtown is doable (I did it twice, one each way), it is quite a long walk over a highway & train corridor, with the occasional homeless guarding the bridge. It is totally feasible and somehow cheaper to stay in the Music Row, as I did my first night at the Best Western. There is a small strip with live music clubs, but you will have to get downtown to taste Nashville on your first trip there.
For the next few nights I moved into the Westin in the SoBro neighbourhood, a perfect location to enjoy the Nashville skyline, either from your room or from the rooftop lounge. I used my Air Miles to book it.
Music City greeters – free walking tour with a local
I’m all about exploring a new destination at my own pace and without much planning. But a free 2-hour walk with a local is equally exciting and guaranteed to inspire further explorations. Welcome to the Global Greeters movement, where the local branch is supported by the city of Nashville.
Once settled in and ready to explore, just show up at the Bridgestone Arena visitors centre for the free tour.
It starts at 10 AM, goes Wednesday to Saturday, and it’s better to register in advance, as they have a strict policy on the number of participants to a tour (up to six).
My host was David, a congenial storyteller who kindly extended his volunteered time with us in order to complete the tour after a rain interruption. The next few days I would revisit his stories over and over. Thank you, David.
Here are some points that David made during the tour:
- the Honky Tonk row on Broadway (the heart of the party in today’s Nashville) was mostly department stores up to the 1970s, when the commerce started moving in the city outskirts. Historically, this was due to its location by the Cumberland river. Most of the merchandise arrived by boat and got offloaded on 1st Avenue (which was called Front Street), and sold in the front stores of the 2nd Avenue (which was Market Street).
- the area South of Broadway (the SoBro) was revitalized quite recently, in the 2000s. It used to be parking lots and slum not long ago. It includes the Hilton, built to support the flux to the Country Music Hall of Fame; the Walk of Fame, in between the Hilton and the CMHF; the Bridgestone Arena; the Nashville Convention Centre; the Schermerhorn Symphony Center
- the antenna on the Hall of Fame is a replica of the one used by the legendary WSM AM radio station, home of The Grand Ole Opry. Likewise for the one in front of the Bridgestone Arena.
- the roof at the Hall of Fame is shaped after a Cadillac motor car (it all started with The Father of Country Music Jimmie Rogers, listen to “Jimmie the kid”), while the music notes decorating the building are from the “Will the circle be unbroken”
- Jimmi Hendrix has a star on the Music City Walk of Fame. He served in the army one hour North of Nashville, and then for a while lived in the city, where he played the local clubs in his early years (1962-1964)
- we then took in the views from the Pedestrian Bridge, which was originally built to bring traffic from East Nashville and breathe new life into the area south of Broadway. Our tour guide reminded us of the great flood of 2010, when water covered everything all the way to where the visitors centre at Bridgeston Arena is.
- making our way to the heart of the city, we first stopped at the legendary GooGoo for a few sweet moments and a photo op (the water fountain and washrooms are welcome, too).
- we checked the historic Ryman Audiorium and its famous back door leading across the alley to Tootsie’s – used by Grand Ole Opry’s performers in between the sets; Willie Nelson said there’s 17 steps down from Ryman to Tootsie’s…and 38 back.
- we stopped to admire Bernie Taupin’s art decorating the lobby at the magnificent Bobby Hotel (with its famous real-size tour bus on the rooftop lounge)
Nashville’s food trucks
The food trucks line up on a street with a name that you’d better ask a local first before you pronounce it: Deaderick (same goes for another famous one in Nashville , Demonbreun).
On weekdays, they serve the lunch crowd in the business district, a short 5 minute walk north from the craziness on Broadway.
I took these pictures at lunch time on a work day in August 2018.
Speaking of food in Nashville, you can get a history lesson on the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement while enjoying a meat-and-three plus local beer on the original lunch counters at Woolworth.
In Nashville, they print the most Bibles in the world and the main industries are health services and…wait, what?… private prisons. But they call it the Music City for a reason.
The Honky Tonk row
Well, this is the place you want to be for live music, from 10 AM to early morning. The multi-level, all-windows-open honky tonks are lined up on both sides of Broadway, from the Cumberland river to the East to the Fifth Avenue to the West.
There is no cover to enjoy the music, but the honky tonk rule states you will tip the band if you stay, or you else move to the next place.
If you happen to be there on a Friday afternoon, you could enjoy a free live radio show – the Music Row Happy Hour – at the Margaritaville restaurant on Broadway, courtesy of Sirius XM’s Buzz Brainard. The 4-hour show is at 3 PM but people line up a few hours before so they can get in.
As far as my own experience, I loved a Friday late-morning acoustic show with the charismatic Tim Bridges (in duo with another super Tim) at the Legends Corner. The atmosphere was more nostalgic and calm, and I could enjoy the music & cold beer while writing in my travelogue.
Just like the Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan, the Printers Alley has a history where publishing and music entertainment are twins.
It is also the place to experience something other than country, such as jazz, blues, funk or boogie. I spent two great nights at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar.
The requisite Ryman Auditorium concert
While partying on Broadway, you may notice large crowds congregating at the West end of the Honky Tonk row, just behind the purple walls of Tootsie. They’re concert goers to the famous hall on the north east corner of 5th and Broadway.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark, the Auditorium was built as a place for religious services in the 19th century by a Thomas Ryman. The man was the owner of several ‘sinful’ businesses and lost money every time a traveling preacher, Samuel Porter Jones, was in setting tent in town. Ryman turned into a devout Christian after attending – with the intention to hackle – the service of Jones. After that he pledged to build the tabernacle so the people of Nashville could attend large-scale revivals indoors.
While in there listening to Joe Bonamassa I thought that, through the power of music, anyone may experience emotions of the magnitude as of those who moved Ryman to take seven years of his life and a fortune to build it.
A thing to remember is they don’t seem to serve food during concerts, so better fill in before.
Free tours are available if you don’t necessarily want to attend a concert.