Prominent musicians play weekly in Nashville, especially local residents like country star Keith Urban. Photo: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Last year I covered Nashville in “Great Urban Weekend Escapes,” my recurring feature here at Forbes.com in which I visit a city that makes an exceptional long weekend vacation. I enjoy Nashville so much that I recently returned to with my wife as part of a lengthy southern road trip, and with several notable new additions to the music, museum, hotel and dining front, it is even better than I remembered.
For a more detailed overview, you can read my original Weekend in Nashville piece, but to recap, the main attractions, many of them musical in nature, are: the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; Grand Ole Opry; live music bars known as Honky Tonks; the nation’s hotbed of delicious neo-Southern gourmet cuisine coupled with the hearty classic Southern staple, “meat and three,” and lodging at the Hermitage, the least well-known and most affordable Forbes 5-Star hotel in the country, a true gem the helps Nashville shine (it’s the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at with cappuccinos, lattes, and the like on the complimentary lobby coffee bar setup each morning).
It’s always fun to take in live music while traveling, and the best known cities for this are all among my favorites, Austin, Memphis and New Orleans, but in my opinion Nashville is the very best, because it has all types of music and so many venues that are open all day, typically from about eleven in the morning until the wee hours. Instead of waiting until nighttime and going out after dinner, you can simply drop into any of dozens of Nashville Honky Tonks, have a drink and listen to tomorrow’s stars in the late morning, mid-afternoon, before or after dinner, or late night. Most Honky Tonks serve food, so you can do live music for lunch or dinner, 7 days a week. I love this accessibility and flexibility.
The Grand Ole Opry, whose weekly live broadcast is the nation’s longest running radio show, since 1925, does many live shows in the downtown Ryman Auditorium, a former church and wonderful venue, but I had never been to the main campus, on the outskirts of the city, until this visit. The huge resort complex includes a shopping and dining mall, hotel, and the Grand Ole Opry House, a vast theater from which the radio show is broadcast. I went to the broadcast show this trip, and this is an absolute must for anyone visiting the city. It’s novel in that it’s live, timed to the minute with commercial breaks between acts, and a typical show presents eight or more artists, individuals or groups, each of whom do a few songs. You don’t have to be a country fan to appreciate this showmanship, and while tickets are very reasonable, from under $30, the shows have big name stars such as Kelly Pickler, the Oak Ridge Boys and Lady Antebellum. It is a fun, unique and audience friendly experience that is extremely well run – after all they’ve been doing it of for almost a century.
Nashville is full of “Honky Tonks,” bars featuring live music all day long and much of the night as well. Photo: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
Back in the city, there are several recent additions to the music scene, most notably the brand new Johnny Cash Museum, which just opened in May 2013 and is a must for fans of the Man in Black, but well worth a visit even if you are just someone like me who enjoyed watching Walk the Line. Officially authorized by the Cash’s estate, the museum features the most comprehensive collection of related artifacts in the world, with 18,000 square feet of memorabilia, interactive exhibits and a 250-seat auditorium, showcasing never before seen historical documents, letters, awards, costumes and instruments. Like so many major Nashville attractions, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, it is in the heart of downtown and easily visited on foot.
Nashville caters to every type of music and the breadth of the recording industry, not just country, and was home to the Musicians Hall of Fame, which closed due to construction on its site. It just reopened as the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in a new location, the bottom level of the Municipal Auditorium. It honors musicians from stars to studio players of all genres, from Hank Williams Sr. to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The exhibit space is divided into “cities” that shaped the history of recorded music (Detroit, Memphis, Nashville, etc.) with the actual instruments the musicians used to record many of their hits. This is also downtown.
On the food front, Nashville has recently opened several notable eateries, including the second outpost of Charleston’s vaunted Husk, which was named the nation’s best new restaurant in 2011 by Bon Appetit magazine. Husk Nashville has the same modern Southern cuisine with a heavy emphasis on local and meticulously sourced products. Husk’s award winning chef Sean Brock is also known for his extensive research into the history of Southern cuisine and using largely forgotten traditional ingredients. Another contemporary Nashville eatery I really enjoyed was The Southern Steak & Oyster which has a raw bar, open wood fire grill in back with delicious dry aged steaks from a local natural grass-fed farm, upscale takes on regional classics such as hot chicken, gumbo, barbecue shrimp, and probably the best burger in Nashville, the Southern Burger, with grass fed beef, pimento cheese, jalapeno bacon and fried onions, served with sweet potato fries. Yum!
One other big change was the 2013 opening of the huge downtown Omni Nashville hotel. Not only does this add much-needed rooms to the walking friendly core of the city, but it provides a new and much larger home for Nashville’s famous printer, Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest working letterpress shops in America, since 1879, now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. The new Hatch has an open-to-the-public workshop, an expanded gallery and a lot more shopping for one of the most unique art forms in the country. The Omni also has notable new food and beverage offerings, including a “Biscuit Bar,” a selection of homemade biscuits with sweet and savory toppings, at the Kitchen Notes restaurant, and 21 Tennessee whiskeys for pairing with Southern fare, plus live music from local artists, in Barlines.
For more information on lodging, dining and attractions, see the city’s official tourism website, VisitMusicCity.com.