Nashville is "Music City" for more reasons than its famous country roots. I mistakenly assumed country music was all Nashville had to offer when, in fact, Nashville has historically been and still is the city of a diversity of musical tastes.
In this post, I describe a variety of musical options available for exploration when visiting Nashville, Tennessee including several I had the chance to check out with my friends.
From hipster jams and punk rock to honky tonks and symphonies—these are the must-do's for music-loving tourists.
1. Jam to Hipster Rock in East Nashville
East Nashville has become the unofficial hipster neighborhood of Music City.
I had the benefit of staying at an Airbnb a short drive from tons of live music bars and venues, like The Basement East. Headlining acts and local acts perform everything from hip hop to country at the Basement.
An indie rock band with a southern twist called Great Peacock was playing at the Basement my first night in East Nashville. They had great stage presence and mad beard game. Check out this short video I took of them:
New Yorker Tip: If you like their sound and you're in the New York Metro area, Great Peacock are playing at City Winery next Friday (June 17)!
Here are some other East Nashville venues to check out:
The 5 Spot – Rock, pop, jazz, soul, you name the genre and this club probably has a live act playing in its weekly lineup. Check out the popular dance party on Monday night's for a DJ rotation sure to keep you moving all night.
The Family Wash – Find soul, rock, jazz or classic country at this cozy bar with great food. Get there early (before the music starts) to find a seat before the crowd of regulars arrive. The best part is the music is free.
No 308 – The music gets loud at this bar for big dance parties at around 10 or 11 on the weekends.
2. Hit the Honky Tonk Highway
Growing up, I was a total hard-rocker. My first concert was Godsmack and the Deftones, I was obsessed with Marilyn Manson, and the Smashing Pumpkins are still my favorite band to this day.
Since then, my music tastes have evolved considerably. Alas, country music was never a part of that evolution.
And there I found myself in the middle of Honky Tonk Highway.
Honky tonks are a must experience regardless of your like or dislike for country music. They are a staple of Nashville and a necessary cultural experience while in town.
Honky tonks are Music City's answer to a public as hungry for its free country music as it is for its booze. Honky tonks are bars with stages for live musical acts on Broadway in downtown Nashville. Their doors are always open so the music flows out onto the street from 10am to 3am every day.
You'll only have to pay for the booze at these joints. Oh!—and whatever you can manage should go into the tip jar that will be passed around during the shows.
Both had their own vibe going. Robert's had excellent food and awesome cowboy boot decor because it used to be a boot shop! And Layla's had clientele wearing some of the most...I can't quite put my finger on it. Anyway, there was something very southern about the fashion sense in the room and that's the best way I can describe it.
Definitely check out both if you're in town. It's a cultural experience not to be missed.
There are so many Honky Tonks to choose from. Consider these other great ones: Legends Corner, Tootsies Orchid Lounge, The Stage, Wildhorse Saloon, Full Moon Saloon, Nashville Crossroads, Rippy's Smokin' Bar & Grill, The Second Fiddle, The Wheel, Whiskey Bent Saloon.
3. Explore Jack White's Third Man Records
Getting back to my style music, we spent the better part of an afternoon checking out all the retro-cool stuff at Jack White's record store in the Gulch.
My favorite parts were the listening booth, photo booth, and sound booth in the store.
The listening booth was fun to get inside of, shut the door, and pop on headphones for a listen to select artists' records.
The antique, 1940s photo booth seemed to barely work properly—part of the fun!
And for $20, you can record your own track in the sound booth which prints your recording instantly onto an exclusive 6" phonograph disc.
When visiting the store, be sure to take the alleyway to the back of the store to view a gallery and small venue.
This is where Jack White occasionally hosts shows by his label artists.
When you're finished browsing the merch at Third Man, visit some of these great rock/punk/indie spots around Nashville: Exit/In, Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom, 12th & Porter, The End, The Rutledge, and 3rd & Lindsley Bar and Grill.
4. Sign Up at an Open Mic Night
Nashville provides lots of venues where unknown acts, singer songwriters, and first-timers can try out their stuff.
Check out Bluebird Cafe every Monday for Open Mic night. You never know when you'll be listening to the next big star.
Maybe that star is you? You can always put your name down and give live performing a whirl!
You can schedule a performance at the Douglas Corner Cafe which has an open mic night every Tuesday between 1pm and 6pm.
Check out this Nashville Guru post for more open mic options.
5. Visit the Johnny Cash Museum
Walk the line through the history and legacy of Johnny Cash at the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville.
My knowledge of Johnny Cash mostly came from the Hollywood movie. Nevertheless, I really loved this museum. The amount of memorabilia they have is stunning and the opportunity to watch video and listen to tracks is numerous. I learned tons about the man and his music.
Any Johnny Cash fan really cannot miss this place. Just be prepared for the incredibly sad final room where they play the Nine Inch Nails song he covered called "Hurt."
I got all sorts of teary-eyed.
Best part for me? Getting to pose with the man himself! ;)
(For those wondering, it's not a wax figure!)
Elvis Fans Tip: While you're in town, check out the Country Music Hall of Fame, too. I didn't go, but if I did I would go just to take the extra side tour to see Studio B. That's where Elvis recorded more music than anywhere else!
6. Listen to Street Performers on Broadway
Here's one that takes no effort at all! There are street performers all over Nashville and the majority of them hang out around the Broadway area downtown.
Simply go there and you'll see female artists plugged in right on the sidewalk.
You'll see long-haired dudes strumming their acoustic guitars.
And you'll see piano players with Jew-fros.
Okay, so you may not see exactly these people. They were who I saw and they seemed like the perfect street performing archetypes to me!
Don't forget to tip them if you linger for a listen!
7. Test a Guitar at Fanny's in East Nashville
Inspired by all the music and want to start your own band? Start out at Fanny's music store at Five Points in East Nashville. You're bound to find the perfect instrument.
Fanny does more than sell instruments: They do lessons. They do repairs. They have friendly workers like Ellen who will happily chat you up about Nashville, its music, and its people.
Ellen was so cool, I'm going to link to this youtube video I found. She does a weekly "favorite thing" at Fanny's which always includes music and some ridiculously awesome vintage clothing.
You can test out instruments as you browse Fanny's. Just keep in mind there are others walking around the store who may not want to shop to your cacophony!
8. Check Out the Nashville Symphony
I'm a movie soundtrack lover and a former high school band geek. In short, I love myself some orchestrated music.
So I was super excited to find out Nashville has its own Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see them perform, but they do regular shows at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. This Center has other shows, too—140 annual concerts including classical, pop, jazz and family concerts.
In case you think Symphony orchestras are a major yawn—think again!
The Nashville Symphony does awesome tributes and covers of modern day music like their upcoming performance of the Star Trek: Into Darkness score as the movie plays in high-definition behind them. It'll be a wonderful melding of music and nerdom, I'm sure.
9. Dance on a Street Corner
I mentioned it once before, but it's worth mentioning again: Nashville has music pouring out of speakers on street corners around the city.
If you haven't already gotten enough music in your life from this city, you'll get it while you wait to cross the street.
This was such a wonderful, random surprise for us out-of-towners. Keep your ears open for it all over the place. The speaker we found was at the corner of 4th Avenue and Deadrick Street.
Nashville has an eclectic bunch of music options that are so numerous, there's almost too much. It's impossible to see and hear it all especially on a short visit.
My time in Nashville mostly focused on gaining an appreciation for the country classics and acquiring my modern rock fix. But there are tons of places to check out the latest hip hop, jazz, soul, pop, and more.
All in all, Music City truly lives up to its name. If you ever visit, you will most certainly be able to find your favorite genre in the mix.