Shawn Poynter/The New York Times
I play trumpet and keyboard in a rock band in Little Rock, Ark. But when I really want to immerse myself in a musical good time, I go to Nashville. Tennessee’s capital city is bursting with new energy, fueled by a music scene that’s livelier than ever — particularly in the summer, when outdoor festivals and concerts are abundant. And tourism has surged in the past several years. The number of visitors in 2015 was 13.5 million, up 3 percent from 2014.
Still, this town’s heart beats on the part of Lower Broadway known as Honky-Tonk Row. The strip throbs with a continuous medley of live music that will make you want to two-step from bar to bar. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western World have been around long enough to gain status as local legends, and they’re still great places to hear authentic country.
Some superstar performers who once played Tootsie’s and other legendary spots are now honored two blocks away in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I watched grainy black-and-white film of Jimmie Rodgers singing “Waiting for a Train” and walked googly-eyed past Elvis Presley’s 1960 Cadillac. The exhibit that stopped me in my tracks, however, was Hank Williams’ pick-worn Martin D-28 acoustic guitar. Man, if that thing could talk.…
You can’t go to Nashville without dropping by the Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892 as a church — and home to the Grand Ole Opry live show and radio broadcast from 1943 to 1974. A major renovation to the building in 2015 added user-friendly amenities such as a quick-service restaurant. But the auditorium itself remains a shrine to an earlier era, with an intimate feeling to the semicircular seating. I sat in one of the original 19th-century church pews for an “Opry Country Classics” show and heard for myself the Ryman’s renowned acoustic excellence, as singer Larry Gatlin introduced a lineup of acts. How sweet my band would sound in this spot!
There’s no denying, though, that my biggest thrill was getting a seat at the Bluebird Cafe. The place was hard to get into even before the TV drama Nashville, canceled by ABC, made it a household name — but it’s still where songwriters (some new, some established) play informally, surrounded by audience members sitting close enough to share a beer. I sure enjoyed mine. I’ll be back for more inspiration soon.
- Buy tickets online for the Grand Ole Opry well before your trip. Do the same for live performances at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s theater.
- Book seats at the Bluebird Cafe up to a week ahead for shows, Tuesday–Saturday. And make reservations on Monday for Friday and Saturday shows.