Nashville’s reputation as the home of country music precedes it — legends like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton frequented stages across the city, ultimately creating a permanent niche for both the genre and the town in the national psyche.
This influence continues today, with the city still harboring the most storied stages in country music. Now that Ken Burns’ heralded documentary on country music has landed, here’s our list of unmissable venues for all things country, bluegrass and Americana.
Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry calls itself ‘The Show That Made Country Music Famous,’ and the assertion isn’t far off – the long-running weekly country music show has been around since 1925 and has featured many of the genre’s most well-known artists as members, including Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Trisha Yearwood and more.
The Opry began as a radio show but soon evolved to a live stage show due to its popularity, hopping around town and eventually taking up residence at the Ryman Auditorium for three decades. The show moved to the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974 (though it still has stints at the Ryman from time to time), and since then it has continued to fill seats and keep country music enthusiasts coming from miles around.
Ask anyone from Nashville about their favorite music venues and the Ryman will undoubtedly feature highly on their list. The ‘Mother Church of Country Music’ was originally built as a church in 1890 before becoming a profoundly varied venue hosting presidential addresses, circuses, famous actresses and, of course, country and bluegrass legends such as Earl Scruggs, Charley Pride, Merle Haggard and more. The Grand Ole Opry’s long tenure here established the location as a country music pilgrimage for years to come.
Today, a concert at the Ryman continues to be a spiritual experience – the acoustics are incredible, the space both expansive and intimate at once, and nothing beats the sound of happy patrons drumming on the wooden pews to spur an encore.
Robert’s Western World
Nashville’s Broadway is a dizzying mix of neon and can be hard to navigate for first-timers looking for an authentic music experience. Wade through the bevy of bars belting out 80s and 90s rock hits to find Robert’s Western World, a beacon for country-loving folk looking to cut a rug. True to form, the building was home to a steel guitar company from the 50s to the 80s; in the 90s Robert’s opened first as a Western apparel shop before evolving into the cozy music venue with a short-order counter it is today.
The bar plays host to the best old-school country acts on the Broadway strip, and the small dance floor is frequently filled with diehard enthusiasts who love to move their boots. Get in the thick of it or watch it all from the balcony while chowing down on a fried bologna sandwich.
Set away from Nashville’s dense downtown, the iconic Bluebird Cafe looks humble to outside eyes, but this little listening room has played host to some of country’s songwriting greats. It’s where many artists have been discovered (including Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift), and it’s considered the preeminent place to play for anyone looking to make it in Nashville’s music industry. The venue enforces a quiet policy to keep the focus on the performers, and the Bluebird feels like hallowed ground as a result.
The space only holds 100 people, so tickets sell out quickly and lines get long – plan ahead for this one.
The Gulch area of Nashville is symbolic of the city’s relatively newfound tourism boom – the streets are packed with modern eateries, glitzy hotels and plenty of visitors. Standing alone among the high-rise apartments is the tiny Station Inn, a holdout from Nashville’s long musical tradition housed in a squat stone building, rebellious in its simplicity.
The Station Inn’s stage features bluegrass, country, roots and Americana music, and big names like Bill Monroe have made appearances in the coffee-house-like venue. The free Bluegrass Jams on Sundays are a local favorite.
Country Music Hall of Fame
If you’re looking to take a deep dive into the history of country music, the Country Music Hall of Fame is your best bet. The extensive collections housed here cover the course of the genre’s development, the birth of Nashville’s legacy as Music City and country music’s contemporary trajectory in rare detail. The HOF is home to a number of rare audio recordings as well as a film theater and performance stage; check the event calendar to see what’s playing.
Acme Feed & Seed: A more recent addition to the music scene on lower Broadway, Acme offers up a genuine good time. The first floor houses the establishment’s southern-style restaurant and its ‘funkytonk’ stage, routinely playing host to local country bands; if you’re looking for a change of pace, travel to the second floor for tasty sushi and then head to the rooftop for a club-like atmosphere with great views of the river and downtown.
The Listening Room Café: The Bluebird may hold the city’s most famous songwriter nights, but it’s not the only listening room in town. This appropriately named establishment is located a stone’s throw from the heart of the city and regularly showcases local talent during intimate songwriter nights. Plus, there’s an on-site restaurant if you’re feeling peckish.