I set out to write about Nashville nightlife—the five best places to listen to live music—thinking it was going to be quick and easy. I’d spend 30 minutes in front of a computer and be finished. That was the farthest thing from the truth. The more musicians and songwriters I spoke with, the more apparent it became that ranking live music establishments in Nashville was next to impossible. There are just too many that could be ranked #1 and all for different reasons.
Nashville is “Music City,” not “country music city”— rock/pop legends like Kid Rock, Jack White and The Black Keys among others choose to call Nashville a home.
So instead of ranking from one to five the top places to experience the sound of Nashville, I’ll do my best to blueprint HOW to enjoy a night or two of live music that you will not soon forget.
To start, check out who is performing at the Ryman Auditorium, the epicenter of live music in downtown Nashville.
Located just off Broadway and five blocks up from the Cumberland River, the Ryman Auditorium is still the place to hear live music according to Grand Ole Opry member, ERIE Customer and founding member of Diamond Rio, Dana Williams. It was once the home of the Grand Ole Opry, from 1943-1974, and it is to country artists what Fenway Park is to Major League Baseball players—a place that’s an honor to play. With several events scheduled each month, it’s fairly easy to grab a show at this 2,300-seat, intimate setting whenever you're in town.
If you miss attending a main event at the Ryman, still plan to check out this part of town, known as Honky Tonk Heaven. The Auditorium has spawned several offspring venues through the years that are within walking distance from the mother hall. One is the famous Tootsies Orchid Lounge, just across the alley from The Ryman’s back door. Ryman performers have frequented this little joint for decades following their shows, and their visits are a huge part of the photo wallpapered establishment’s personality. Tootsies’ downstairs is a sweet spot for great live music and the upstairs is a niche for a possible brush with fame after the Ryman has closed for the evening.
Practically next door to Tootsies is The Stage on Broadway. Although it may not share the history of Tootsies, it is popular, spacious and full of great young musical talent. Also, you can’t visit Tootsies and The Stage without dropping into one of Nashville’s favorites, Legends Corner, completing the lower Broadway “Honky Tonk Trifecta.”
If you like blues, head over to Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar on Printers Alley. Just a few blocks northwest from lower Broad, it’s well worth the short walk to hear some of Nashville’s best blues options. It’s a small place with big sound and is perfect for those who like it turned up. YouTube “Bourbon Street Blues Stacy Mitchhart” for a taste of this corner of town. (It’s a go-to place for myself and fellow ERIE Agents after regional meetings.)
A cheap taxi cab fare away from the lower Broadway nightlife is another very special spot among Nashville musicians. It lies in the middle of a trendy area referred to as The Gulch. If bluegrass is your thing (and even if it’s not), put The Station Inn on your don't-miss list. It’s not uncommon for Nashville musicians to bring their guitars and mandolins on their nights in town just to jam with songwriting institutions like Larry Cordle, who appears there every Monday night. You will need to plan for this one—seating can go fast. Check out www.stationinn.com for more information.
If a quiet, tea room environment appeals to your listening fancy, head to Bluebird Café.
This world renowned venue is steeped in country and pop music success. From Kathy Mattea to Taylor Swift, big stars’ careers have been born here since it opened in 1982. The fireball shooting crowd will feel a bit out of place here and may even be asked to enjoy their live music elsewhere—which is what makes it great for the laid back, serious listeners. It’s so popular, though, that online reservations are required: www.bluebirdcafe.com
Nashville has many ways and places to take in great live music. So if you're traveling I-65 to the pristine beaches of Florida or I-40 to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, or maybe you just like to travel like this ERIE agent, one thing is for sure: You need to stop in one of our country’s favorite places for live music … Nashville. See y'all soon.