Nashville has rightfully earned the moniker “Music City, USA.” With the abundance of musicians living in the area, music aficionados can walk into any dive bar, theater, cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, nightclub, motel, or concert hall on any given night and find live music. While country music is what made Nashville famous, a city does not earn the aforementioned title without a little musical diversity.
One of the early musical landmarks in Nashville was the downtown Bijou Theatre, which was built in 1904 as a playhouse. In the early 1920s, it attracted top blues acts from across the country, including Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. The Del Morocco, Club Baron, Maceo’s, and New Era Club followed the Bijou’s lead and began housing rhythm-and-blues music in the Jefferson Street area in the 1940s. Artists such as B. B. King, Ray Charles, and later, Ike and Tina Turner, graced these stages. Unfortunately, when Interstate 40 cut a path through downtown in the early 1970s, these clubs were all demolished. The Bijou was torn down in 1957 to make way for the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, which still stands today.
Soon after the recognition of blues music in Nashville, country music station WSM premiered WSM Barn Stage on November 28, 1925. Radio personality George Hay was bringing country musicians into his studio every Saturday night. In 1927, Hay and the Barn Stage’s sponsor, National Life Accident Insurance Company, decided to rename the show the “Grand Ole Opry.” The show’s success was staggering, and fans soon began to clamor around the studio to catch glimpses of their favorite artists.
The Grand Ole Opry’s popularity, thanks to artists such as Uncle Dave Macon, soon outgrew the WSM studio and was moved in 1934 to Hillsboro Theater (today known as the Belcourt Theatre) near Vanderbilt University. The intimate setting in the former silent movie house proved too small, so the show moved to Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville in 1936. The Opry stayed on the sawdust floor of the Dixie until it left in 1939 for the War Memorial Auditorium downtown. The Opry’s next move would be a changing point in the musical landscape of the city.
Ryman Auditorium, which opened in 1892 as Union Gospel Tabernacle and was renamed in 1904 after local riverboat magnate Tom Ryman, began housing the Grand Ole Opry in 1943. Artists such as Bob Wills and Hank Williams brought even more fame and attention to the radio broadcasts in the late 1940s. Because of the show’s success, music fans began flocking to Nashville, encouraging even more venues to open.
One such spot was Printer’s Alley, located a few blocks from the Ryman Auditorium between Third and Fourth Avenues. Starting in the 1940s, Printer’s Alley, named after the print companies once located there, became home to a number of bars featuring live music. Country music stalwart Chet Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph cut their teeth at Printer’s Alley. After the city approved liquor by the drink in 1969, the musical venues slowly left and the alley became populated with adult clubs (although Skull’s Rainbow Room did play live music for its exotic dancers). The area was revitalized in 1996 and is now home to Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar and Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, among others.
Perhaps the most famous country music bar in downtown Nashville, Tootsies, opened in 1960 on Broadway. Owner Tootsie Bess bought the space, formerly known as Mom’s, painted the exterior purple, and renamed the venue Tootsies Orchid Lounge. Tootsies became a “green room” of sorts for artists playing the Opry. It has been famously noted that there are thirty-seven steps, via a back alley, between the back door of Tootsies and the Ryman Auditorium.
In 1974, the Opry moved to the Grand Ole Opry House, located on the Cumberland River on the outskirts of town near the Opryland theme park. Music moved away from downtown, and new venues such as Nashville Palace opened near the Opry’s new home. Downtown became a wasteland of adult bookstores and broken-down honky-tonks. Even Tootsies suffered a decline after Tootsie herself passed away in 1978. A hole in Nashville’s musical landscape was created.
With country music moving to the suburbs, different forms of music took charge in Nashville proper. In 1971 Owsley Manier opened Exit/In, located on Elliston Place near Vanderbilt. A variety of artists formerly stifled by the country-music burden played the club. Non-traditional country artists such as John Prine and Jimmy Buffet, comedian Steve Martin, and rock groups like R.E.M. all performed there. It is rumored the club served as an inspiration for Robert Altman’s classic 1975 film Nashville.
Because of country music’s domination (some say strangulation) of the Nashville market, other forms of music were sometimes slow to trickle into the city. One such example was punk rock. Not until 1980 did Nashville have its first punk music club, named Phrank’s. Operated by Rick Champion, the downtown venue was also a hot-dog eatery. The space shut down in November 1980, but in its wake came Cantrell’s, located on Nineteenth Avenue and Broadway in a former Big Boy restaurant where Kris Kristofferson once worked. Owner Terry Cantrell (who has managed Springwater Supper Club & Lounge, a dive venue near Vanderbilt University, since 1976) gave bands like Circle Jerks and Black Flag their first Nashville exposure. The club also facilitated the emergence of one of Nashville’s most influential non-country acts: Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, later renamed Jason and the Scorchers because of the stigma of the city’s name. The band mixed its country swing with screeching punk and became a nationally recognized group in the mid-1980s. The scene at Cantrell’s, however, burned out in 1986.
Other new venues such as the Cannery, 12th & Porter, and 328 Performance Hall also opened in the 1980s and continued to bring rock and alternative forms of music to the city. The Cannery and 12th & Porter have undergone management changes and refurbishing but still remain open today, whereas 328 Performance Hall was demolished in 2002.
In 1992, Revolutions Per Minute, later renamed Lucy’s Record Shop after owner Mary Mancini’s dog, opened its door for the independent music scene on Church Street. Underground acts such as Lambchop and Guided By Voices rocked the tiny space. The shop closed down in 1998, but the idea of fusing a music store with a venue has since been carried on in Nashville by Grimey’s New & Preloved Music on Eighth Avenue.
Away from the seedy underbelly of lower Broadway, country music was still alive within the city limits. A small concrete shell named the Station Inn opened on Twelfth Avenue in 1974, and bluegrass lovers rejoiced. In 1982, Amy Kurland opened the Bluebird Café in a shopping center in the Green Hills area. The Bluebird Café became distinguishable thanks to its “in the round” format. Singer-songwriters sat in a circle, playing only original songs to a hushed crowd. The club popularized such performers as Nanci Griffith, Marshall Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Lucinda Williams. The club was featured in the 1993 film The Thing Called Love. Kurland announced plans to sell the club in 2007.
After Opryland closed in 1997, Nashville’s tourism was in flux. Although the Opry stayed in the Grand Ole Opry House, many country music lovers returned downtown. Honky-tonk owners such as Tootsies’s new proprietor Steve Smith and Robert Wayne Moore of Robert’s Western Wear, a boot store/bar that opened in the 1990s, gave a home to traditional country act BR-549 and convinced patrons Broadway was safe again. Musical venues and new restaurants replaced the street’s adult bookstores. Tourists soon flocked to Legends Corner, The Second Fiddle, and the Stage on Broadway. Ryman Auditorium, after sitting dormant since losing the Opry, was restored in 1994 and became a national institution. Van Morrison, Vince Gill, and Neil Young are among the artists who have helped bring sounds back to the venue’s wooden pews. A bluegrass series helped to make the Ryman a consistent draw during the summer.
The Country Music Hall of Fame moved from its Music Row location to downtown in 2001. The souvenir stores near the former location were gutted, and venues like Tin Roof, a bar where country superstars and the general public intermingle, took their place. Also around this time, East Nashville began a revitalization project and intimate venues such as Radio Café, the 5 Spot, and Family Wash took advantage of the lowered rent costs. Singer-songwriter Todd Snider is among the musicians who frequent this area.
In 2007, venues such as the Mercy Lounge (the top floor of the renovated Cannery Ballroom), 3rd and Lindsley, Exit/In, the Bluebird Café, and City Hall (a fifteen-hundred-seat capacity venue that opened in 2005 in the Gulch district) lead the charge in bringing acts from around the nation to Music City, USA.