It’s not your grandfather’s Nashville anymore… or I should say Nashville is a lot different from the way my grandfather described it to me. I grew up hearing stories about the Grand Ole Opry and its legendary performers like Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers, and Johnny Cash. Today’s Nashville, however, is a hip and vibrant city where rock, folk, hipster, and even a world-class symphony truly make it Music City USA.
story+photos: Mary Ann DeSantis
The pounding backbeats emanating from the music venues along Nashville’s “Honky Tonk Highway” reinforce the message that Tennessee’s capital city is no longer just a country music mecca. Today’s stars — such as Kings of Leon, Casey Frazier, and The Black Keys — are attracting a whole new generation. In fact, Music City USA is in the midst of a revival that 12 million visitors discovered last year.
However, it’s more than just the music that brings in visitors of all ages. The arts scene is one of the South’s most outstanding and innovative. Professional and collegiate sports are also a big lure, especially the NHL Predators whose ice hockey games sell out quickly. And if you’ve ever wondered why Nashville is called “the Athens of the South,” just visit any one of its famed educational institutions or historic sites for even more arts and culture.
“Without question, we are considered a creative community and we are nourishing the creative class for the future,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. “People are our greatest asset.”
Knowing where to begin a Nashville visit can be a challenge, especially if time is limited. I grew up in the Bible Belt and in a home filled with country music, so it seemed appropriate that I should first pay homage at the “Mother Church of Country Music” — the Ryman Auditorium and home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974. With so much character, history, and amazing acoustics, it seemed almost sacrilegious to me that the Grand Ole Opry moved to the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center and left the Ryman vacant for 20 years. A major renovation in 1994 brought the former 1890s Union Gospel Tabernacle back to glory, and it now attracts performers like Sheryl Crow, Widespread Panic, Billy Joel, and even stage actor Van Kilmer.
If Ryman Auditorium is the church, then the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is the fellowship hall. Located in downtown Nashville near the Visitors Center, the $37 million facility boasts a collection of 2 million artifacts. Singer/songwriter Vince Gill describes it as “the house that holds all the music.” In addition to handwritten song lyrics that became classics, such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” the museum has an eclectic mix of memorabilia including Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac.
The museum is not just for old-timers either. “We’re getting an influx of younger visitors, especially with the Taylor Swift Education Center here,” says Mick Buck, curatorial director. “The newer stars are also donating or lending memorabilia. It’s funny how we got Kellie Pickler’s costume from the finale of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Her publicist sent an email offering it just as we were getting ready to ask.”
So much of Nashville’s history and reputation rest on the country music industry but the city offers much more — even for visitors who prefer classical jams. The $123 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center is one of North America’s premier concert halls and home to the Grammy Award-winning Nashville Symphony.
And then there is art… Nashville is home to so many world-class museums that it’s hard to do them justice in a few sentences. Not-to-be-missed art facilities include the Frist Center for the Arts, an Art Nouveau architectural wonder that was Nashville’s main U.S. Post Office from 1934 until 1986, and The Parthenon, a full-size replica of Greece’s iconic building that was built in 1897 to symbolized the city’s quest to be the “Athens of the South.” Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art is eight miles west of downtown, but certainly worth the drive. Maxwell House heir and original IBM investor Leslie Cheek built the 1932 Georgian mansion, which houses a permanent art collection. In the spring, more than 50,000 tulips bloom on the 55-acre property.
Nashville’s historical treasures and its new $623 million downtown convention center complex, restaurants, bars, and hotels have transformed the city into a hot travel destination. Budget Travel named it a Top 10 Best Budget Destination and Travel & Leisure named it the No. 1 Friendliest City in the U.S.
“We are certainly in a golden age for the city,” says Spyridon. “The transformation is remarkable, and yet we’re able to hang on to important things like authenticity and history.”