You know you’ve ‘made it’ in country music if you perform at the Grand Ole Opry, ‘the show that made country music famous’. In ninety years, the concept has gone from radio broadcast to national phenomenon, and is one of Tennessee’s most-visited sights. You can tune in online and listen every week to modern country music. In the day, go for a tour to see its 18 dressing rooms and step onto the stage for yourself. Come evening, book a ticket for the whole family in advance to see a string of live guitar-wielding acts.
Best for: Real stars, and a reverent audience.
Once the host to the Johnny Cash Show and the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium has the best acoustics in the city. A couple of thousand lucky people can cram inside the former tabernacle to listen to a show. Considered the birthplace of bluegrass (it’s where Bill Monroe first struck up on the mandolin) sit on the balcony and drink in the scenery as you listen to big names like Kesha and Harry Styles. This place is still very much a sacred space for music. Especially if you are particularly devout Harry Styles fan.
Best for: Incredible acoustics from all the seats.
Tootsie’s World-Famous Orchid lounge
Purple-painted Tootsie’s is no shrinking violet. Book flights plus a seven night hotel stay from£668 returnBook flights
Did you know?
There are actually two identical Bluebird Cafes. The hit ABC show Nashville filmed their pilot episode in the Bluebird Cafe. When they realised that the series would feature the venue in many of its episodes, the set design team created their own.
Guitar music is embedded in Music City's culture. There's even a tuning technique named after the city. Legends corner is a treasure of a honky tonk. Get over there – book return flights to Nashville from£454 ppBook flights
Be still and listen. Bluebird isn’t a cafe so much as a performance space. Expect cramped, round tables with people crowded round, a narrow stage and an open mic night filled with hopefuls looking for their big break. Made famous by the television show Nashville, it’s had a surge in popularity from both performers eager to sing and music fans keen to listen. Don’t talk during performances, you will be shushed by hardcore fans.
Best for: Getting up close and personal with rising stars.
On Cannery Row, between the Gulch and Downtown, you’ll find a former processing plant that’s the home of the Mercy Lounge. This is a proper gig venue with mostly standing room – and cramped standing room at that. However, it’s full of new artists and tributes to the old, with two venues, a ballroom and a smaller space for in-the-know acts. Some huge performers have come here before, from Adele to Katy Perry.
Best for: Big names in pop, rock and everything in between.
With a name like that, expect crowds. This honky tonk is worth checking out any time of day, despite the many tourists doing the same. Willie Nelson had his big break as a songwriter here, a fact that has made the venue a local legend. There are three floors and multiple acts, including music on the rooftop where you can look out over Broadway. A Nashville stalwart, the beer is expensive but there’s no cover charge for the tunes.
Best for: The stories you’ll tell afterwards.
Honky Tonk Highway
Pop in and out of the many, many bars on Broadway until you find a scene that suits you. This ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ has it all, from A.J.’s Good Time Bar to hillbilly music at Layla’s. Nudie’s Honky Tonk is stuffed with country music memorabilia and if you continue down you’ll get to Lower Broadway. Here, Acme Feed and Seed, which does delicious food with its live music, Tin Roof Broadway and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville all jostle for your attention.
Best for: Choice. If you want to change your evening’s soundtrack, skip tracks by sidling over to the next bar.
Among the most memorable shows at the Grand Ole Opry was the very first, in which Roy Acuff taught Richard Nixon how to yo-yo in front of the audience. And in 1978 Acuff had to get a security guard to give Marty Robbins a parking ticket for driving his custom-made Panther De Ville onto the stage.
Decked out with vinyl sleeves instead of wallpaper, and playing live music from 11am through to the early hours of the morning, you’ll probably clock the oversized guitar first when you arrive at Legends Corner, or the fun country music mural on the side of the building. Inside, look out for seasoned professional Lefty Ferguson playing the first slot of the day on his southpaw guitar.
Best for: The photo ops outside – at the country music mural and by the giant guitar.
This is a proper, grimy venue beneath an indie record store that’s proved so popular they’ve opened The Basement East across the river, too. In the day, browse ‘Grimey’s’ vinyls and ask the staff for their opinions on the new albums. Only over-21s are permitted in the downstairs venue.
Best for: Picking up new vinyl upstairs during the day, then returning later for the evening gig.
The place to go for bluegrass and roots music. Bands with bassists, banjos, mandolins and guitars line up on stage to play together at the Station Inn in the Gulch. Bluegrass defies categorisation and doesn’t have an official definition. You’ll have to go and see it performed for yourself. Catch The Doyle and Debbie Show. The resident duo have fun parodying country styles on stage – it’s a good foil to the more earnest songs you’ll hear elsewhere. You can also go to free bluegrass jam sessions – and play along if you have your guitar.
Best for: Bluegrass and roots played by brilliant musicians.
For hot Nashville and regional artists, as well as international performers, head to 3rd and Lindsley. Catch the Time Jumpers, an ensemble that play straight-up Western Swing. They’ve recorded with Barbara Streisand, Megadeath and Carrie Underwood: something for everyone, then. The kitchen serves the usual American fare. It’s wide and open, so most tables have a good view of the stage, but get there an hour before to bag the best seats in the house.
Best for: Friendly staff, who make you feel welcome before the show.