Portrait of the legendary American country and folk group, the Carter Family, in 1941.
Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, Virginia
In the summer of 1927, the Carter Family — Maybelle, Sara and A.P. Carter — traveled the 30-something miles from their home in Hiltons to downtown Bristol, Tennessee, where they participated in what Johnny Cash would later call “the single most important event in the history of country music.” With that first record and songs like “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” and “Single Girl, Married Girl,” the family laid the groundwork for country harmony singing and acoustic guitar playing, inspiring millions. Now this delightful, memory-making destination opens to visitors on Saturday evenings for self-guided tours of A.P. Carter’s artifact-rich cabin as well as concerts at an 800-seat rustic indoor venue.
PHOTO BY: Eli Johnson
Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol, Virginia
Located on the Virginia side of Bristol, a city which straddles that state and Tennessee, the museum offers lively examinations of early country music. It also hosts regular performances and supports the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival.
PHOTO BY: Mark Humphrey/AP/Shutterstock
Grand Ole Opry House, Nashville
The world’s longest-running live radio program, the Grand Ole Opry, makes its home here, and each show is packed with a variety of performers. Visitors can also purchase tour passes to learn more about the iconic venue and the legends who have graced its stage. The Opry moved to this location in 1974 from the historic Ryman Auditorium, which is still open for concerts and for entertaining daytime tours.
PHOTO BY: Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Hayes Carll performs at the Bluebird Cafe during AMERICANAFEST 2019.
The Bluebird Cafe, Nashville
Located in a strip mall, this 90-seat listening room regularly draws some of the finest country songwriters in the world. Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift are among the stars who played the Bluebird in their younger years. The audience is sworn not to secrecy but to silence — you can get tossed for talking during shows.
PHOTO BY: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Singer-songwriter Amanda Shires is joined on stage by Jason Isbell during the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference at the Station Inn.
Station Inn, Nashville
Nearly every famed bluegrass musician, from Bill Monroe to Ricky Skaggs to Alison Krauss, has played this small but hallowed stage. Seating is general admission, and tickets usually are available only at the door on the day of each performance; fans line up as much as 90 minutes before showtime to avoid the dreaded “Sold Out” sign. It’s worth the hassle. On any given night, you’ll hear some of the best acoustic music in Nashville.
PHOTO BY: Shutterstock/Kellee Kovalsky
Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Texas
Built in 1878 in the Hill Country, this is Texas’ oldest dance hall. The schedule features rowdy “Texas country,” along with songwriting greats. Recent performers include Lyle Lovett, Patty Griffin and Ray Wylie Hubbard. It’s a quintessential Texas experience, tucked into a beautiful landscape.
PHOTO BY: Gary Friedman/Getty Images
Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, Bakersfield, California
Owens built this restaurant and performance space as a shrine to the “Bakersfield sound,” which helped transform country music in the 1960s (and also counted Merle Haggard among its practitioners). The menu includes what is purported to be the last meal Owens ate before his 2006 death: Skillet Licker Chicken Fried Steak. That’s not health food, but the music here will sustain body and soul.
PHOTO BY: Jordan Hefler Photography
Red Dragon Listening Room, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
A nonprofit listening room run by a former liquor distributor who lives to hear great music, the Red Dragon is an odd and beguiling space filled with mismatched couches and rows of chairs in front of a homemade-looking stage. But don’t let appearances fool you: Some amazing musicians have played here, including Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark.
PHOTO BY: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville
This massive building boasts the largest collection of country music artifacts in the world. More than a million visitors pass through the museum’s doors each year to view the instruments, outfits and even automobiles on display.
PHOTO BY: Greg Eans/The Messenger-Inquirer/AP
Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Owensboro, Kentucky
Visitors can watch historic film footage, view memorabilia from the likes of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, and even make music on banjos and other instruments. Plus, there’s a theater for concerts.
Peter Cooper is a former music journalist for The Tennessean who now works for the Country Music Hall of Fame.