Tennessee is one of the country's most visited states for music lovers, and for good reason. From the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol to the one-time home of W.C. Handy in Memphis, Tennessee's musical tradition dates back to the very beginnings of recorded music and beyond. Cities like Memphis and Nashville have multiple options for great live music seven nights a week, and incredible museums like the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum provide plenty of information when you finally wake up. Tennessee is a great destination for any fan of American roots music, and will no doubt leave you tapping your feet and humming along. I'm going to break this post into East, Central and West Tennessee for easy reference. Also, be sure you check out my Spotify playlists for Tennessee HERE and for Memphis HERE. You can also link to the websites of the bars and museums in this post (and all of my posts) by hovering over the name of the place.
East Tennessee Music
Bristol, in the far northeast of the state on the Virginia border, was the location for one of the earliest major recording sessions for a music then called "Hillbilly Music", later re-branded as Country Music. While there were certainly Hillbilly recordings made before the 1927 Bristol Sessions, this event introduced both Jimmie Rogers and The Carter Family, two of the most important and well known acts in the early days of the genre. This story is wonderfully presented in the Birthplace of Country Music museum. Not only does this museum tell the story, but you can listen to every one of those early recordings and see how they influenced both Country Music and music as a whole. If you can time your visit on a Saturday, you can cross over into Virginia and follow the Crooked Road to the Carter Family Fold in Hinton for live bluegrass and old-time music on the Carter Family's historic home. It's a family friendly event, but they do sell soft drinks and snacks.
Johnson City is a fun little town that always seems to have something going on. I really wanted to see a show at the infamous Down Home, but the one playing the night I was there was a little too expensive for me, so I ended up at the Hideaway instead. It was a great little bar with some great local talent playing in a relaxed and smoke-free bar. I really enjoyed it.
Down the way in Knoxville, I found a last-minute ticket to see Stone Temple Pilots at the Mill and Mine. Really one of the better big little venues I've been to, the Mill and Mine is a converted warehouse in downtown Knoxville with great sound and lights and a wonderful outdoor area. While I didn't get there this time through, one of my favorite bars in Knoxville is Preservation Pub, which is also a great music venue. They have live music every night of the week, a great beer selection and even a rooftop deck. It's an eclectic place, and one I have always had a good time at.
Central Tennessee Music
Nashville is called Music City for a reason. With awesome daytime attractions and at least a week's worth of nighttime ones, Nashville is definitely worth a few days of your time. The Country Music Hall of Fame is so much more than just that. With a permanent exhibit that tells the whole story of the genre from its European and African roots to contemporary hit-makers, and temporary exhibits on individual artists and their careers, you can easily spend a whole day here. Be sure you save time to visit historic Studio B though. The "Home of a Thousand Hits" has hosted everyone from Elvis to Dolly Parton, but you can only get in with an upgrade to your Country Music Hall of Fame ticket. The Johnny Cash Museum is definitely worthwhile as well, displaying some intensely personal effects from his life and career. There's also the Musicians Hall of Fame, the Patsy Cline Museum and the George Jones Museum, but I haven't been to these so I can't speak to them. The Ryman Auditorium is referred to as the Mother Church of Country Music, and is open for tours, but I much prefer seeing a show there, or better yet the winter performances of the Grand Ol' Opry which are held in its historic venue. Seeing the Opry, America's longest running radio show (since 1925) is a must if you're in town on a Tuesday or Saturday. You'll see 10 minute sets from legendary artists, old and new and usually some people playing there for the very first time. I've never been to a bad show, but the inside scoop is that the Tuesday shows attract bigger talent because on Saturday they're playing bigger shows. Whether it's in the Ryman in winter or out at Opryland in the summer, it's always a good time.
You can find live music in Nashville all day and all night and it's not hard to find. If you love current, popular country music, the honky-tonks that line Broadway are always fun. I prefer The Stage myself, mostly because it's a little bigger and easier to breath than some of the others and it's been around for a few years. If I'm on Broadway though, you're more likely to find me at either Robert's Western World or Layla's, the two places where you can hear older and more traditional country and bluegrass and less of the Top 40 variety. Leaving Broadway, I have always loved the Station Inn, an old time music hall in the middle of the city. It's a great place to catch a bluegrass show most nights, and has a great, casual atmosphere. I really love seeing songwriters shows when I'm in Nashville, because these are the people actually writing the songs the big stars are recording. They can tell you the real story behind the songs, because they wrote them. Unless you've got connections, you should forget about the Bluebird, which has gotten out of hand since the show Nashville started airing. My current favorites are The Listening Room (up the hill from Broadway) and Bobby's Idle Hour on Music Row. Bobby's is especially great on Wednesdays when Sam Cooper (musical guest on my first Tennessee podcast heard HERE) hosts Sam's Jams from noon to 8pm. It is an amazing way to spend the afternoon. Other great live music venues in Nashville include the Exit/In, The Basement and too many others to list.
Down the road in Franklin, you really have to go to Kimbro's Pickin' Parlor, which after a couple of visits has become one of my favorite little music venues in the state. Good music, great people and a cool atmosphere are always a great recipe for a good time. It's only like 40 minutes from downtown Nashville, and well worth the trip.
West Tennessee Music
Ah, West Tennessee. So much of the soundtrack of my life comes from West Tennessee that it's a place I can go back to over and over again and not get bored. Between Nashville and Memphis, in Jackson, Tennessee, is the wonderfully eclectic International Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Don't go to this museum for the bric-a-brac, although there are some fascinating artifacts there, go for the stories. Henry Harrison, who runs the place, was old friends with Johnny Cash and Elvis and Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips. I can sit and listen to his personal stories of his old friends over and over again. They have live music and dancing on the weekends - it's mostly a group of older people from town, but they're very warm and welcoming.
Memphis is a music Mecca, even more so than Nashville in my humble opinion. During the day, you can visit a lot of music themed spots. Graceland, Elvis' one time home, is obviously the biggest draw. It is well worth a visit if for nothing else than to see how humbly he lived compared to today's stars. The rest of the complex is just okay, but the mansion is all you really need to see. You can also visit Elvis' grave early in the morning - it's open for free for an hour before Graceland opens for tours. The Memphis Rock and Soul Museum off of Beale Street is a wonderful Smithsonian affiliated museum which tells the whole story of Memphis music and is one of my favorites. Featured in my latest podcast (found HERE), Sun Studios is definitely worth a visit. From B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf to Elvis and Johnny Cash, a lot of legendary musicians got their start here with the help of producer Sam Phillips. The tours are short, fun and informative. There is also a free shuttle that runs between these three attractions. STAX Records is another amazing museum, detailing the rise of soul music. While you're in the neighborhood, you can pop over and see Royal Records as well, one time home of Hi Records and such artists as Ann Peebles and Al Green. Last time I was there it was still a working recording studio. Lastly, should check out the Gibson Guitar Factory.
When the sun goes down, the neon lights come on and Memphis starts to really rock. Despite what locals might say, there is nothing wrong with heading down to Beale Street. Beale Street even on a busy night is a far cry from Bourbon Street or Broadway (I like both of those too by the way). If you have come for some old-school music, you can certainly find it almost every night of the week on Beale. For Rock and Roll, I like Jerry Lee Lewis' place. Their house band is a lot of fun, cranking out hits from the old Sun catalog of Rock and Rockabilly. B.B. King's is the place to find soul, R & B and some blues. Blues Hall Juke Joint is a cool little spot to hear some good Delta Blues right there on Beale Street, and is connected to Rum Boogie which also features some great bands. I've also seen great bands at Silky O'Sullivans where you may also find a beer drinking goat. Moving away from the Beale Street corridor, which you definitely should do, you can still find some great live music. Hi-Tone in Mid-Town is a great place to see a show, and they have live music most nights. Lafayette's Music Room on Madison Avenue is another nice place to see a show, and I love the outdoor bar there. For any real Blues fan, a trip to Wild Bill's Juke Joint is a must. Wild Bill's is a great little spot not too far from downtown where everyone is welcome and the music and people are always great. Don't come early, Wild Bill's doesn't get going until after 10pm, and goes LATE into the night. It's also, by far, my favorite place in Memphis. Whatever else you do in Memphis, take a solid afternoon nap and go see some great live music. Memphis is a city with soul, be sure you get out and experience it.
No trip to Tennessee could possibly be complete without seeing at least one show. The things that have happened in Tennessee over the years have shaped the music we listen to today in ways it's hard to imagine until you really start to look into it. Once you do, you'll never think of Tennessee the same way again. Let me know what your favorite venues are either in Tennessee or in your hometown. And get out and see some live music this weekend, you'll be glad you did.