As a Brit, I feel like no other country welcomes me as warmly as the USA. It must be my accent.
But touching down in Nashville Tennessee, after the first direct flight from London Heathrow to BNA Nashville Airport with British Airways takes warm welcomes to a new level.
Here, I’m greeted with a truly epic fanfare. As a guitarist serenades me through the terminal, I’m handed a goodie bag containing local produce, fresh socks, and even a country music mixtape.
Music is the theme of this article, and rightly so, for everywhere one goes in ‘Music City’ (that’s the name Queen Victoria is said to have given to Nashville), one is bound to encounter it in some form or another. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘honky-tonk’ bars along Broadway, the central strip running through downtown Nashville.
Take Tootsie’s (tootsies.net), for example. Its three floors each point toward a grand stage, upon which a different band or musician plays each night. Nashville has always been a magnet for singer-songwriters, from Elvis to Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton to Taylor Swift. Many of them still take to the stage at Tootsie’s to play an impromptu set now and then.
Along Broadway, the true legends of Nashville are immortalised in the city’s endless list of museums.
The Johnny Cash Museum (johnnycashmuseum.com; admission $22.95/£17 + tax) is a worthwhile visit, as is the Patsy Cline Museum next door (patsymuseum.com; $19.95/£15 + tax). These are not just museums about the people, but about the place that made them. As I peruse the incredible displays, I start to understand the uniqueness of Nashville.
The true magnitude of the city’s relationship with music is revealed in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (countrymusichalloffame.org; admission from $27.95/£21 + tax) – not only in its extensive collection, but in the building itself, which benefitted from a $100 million extension in 2014. Viewed from the front, it looks like a set of piano keys, while from above it forms the shape of a bass clef.
If, like me, you’re not entirely au fait with the story of country music, this a great place to start your tour of Nashville. Look out for Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac limousine and the Rotunda, modelled after the WSM radio tower, which contains the hard-earned plaques of Hall of Fame inductees.
A new museum is never more than a stone’s throw away in Nashville, and on the other side of Broadway is one of exceptional quality.
Newly opened in 2021, the National Museum of African American Music (nmaam.org; admission from $24.95/£19 + tax) is an interactive journey like no other. Touchscreen visualisations help visitors build connections between black musicians through the ages, learning who influenced who, and how genres from jazz to hip-hop evolved as a result. Apart from being a crucial history lesson, this is without doubt the most fun I have ever had in a museum, with the chance to participate in a rap battle being my personal highlight.
All these locations orbit the monumental Ryman Auditorium, the so-called ‘Soul of Nashville’ and original home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show, which is credited with popularising the sound of country music across the USA (ryman.com; admission from $26/£19 + tax).
A visually astounding presentation welcomes my tour group to this church-turned-theatre, regaling me with tales of how the Grand Ole Opry came and went, and how the auditorium itself was saved from the brink by the musicians who owed their careers to this building.
Nowadays, the show is broadcast from its own home on the outskirts of Nashville, the purpose-built Grand Ole Opry House. Taking place before a live studio audience of 4,400 people, visitors are invited to watch this breathtaking show on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (opry.com; tickets from $39/£30 + tax, depending on availability). You never know who might take to the stage just a few feet in front of you – I am lucky enough to catch country legends Don Schlitz and Randy Travis.
If the Grand Ole Opry is Nashville’s most bombastic tribute to country music, the Bluebird Cafe is surely its most humble (bluebirdcafe.com). Approaching its 40th anniversary in 2022, the intimate but hallowed stage within this otherwise unremarkable building has played host to some of the most important singer-songwriters in music history – not least Taylor Swift, who caught the attention of Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta in this very room.
I arrive to watch a session played by Nashville legends Marv Green, Leslie Satcher and Tony Arata. What, I ask them, makes the Bluebird Cafe so special to singer-songwriters like them?
“For us, it’s that one touchstone you can always go to,” explains Arata.
“And it’s the spirit that’s in this room,” Satcher continues. “A million stories have happened in this teeny, little room – things you just can’t explain.”
“You can actually take yourself back in time when you come here,” adds Green.
I have to agree. Forty years of musical energy seems to bounce off these four walls, which are decorated with the signed portraits of musicians who have played here before. No wonder the Bluebird Cafe has become a pilgrimage for music lovers around the world.
Beyond music, Nashville has plenty to offer in terms of food and drink, too. An emerging culinary scene has seen the likes of Henrietta Red (henriettared.com; mains from $12/£9) and Roze Pony (rozepony.com; mains from $19/£14) spring up in recent years.
The cool and quirky Henrietta Red, brainchild of Julia Sullivan, serves up delicious, avant-garde seafood – a special mention must go to the red snapper crudo. Roze Pony, meanwhile, offers brunch and dinner in a light and spacious cafe where the air is rich with inspiration – I think I even spot someone penning the lyrics to their next hit song.
Across town, beer lovers will delight in Tennessee Brew Works (tnbrew.com; beers from $6.25/£5). This is home brewing writ large – their industrial-style taproom inside an old printing press is the perfect place for an off-Broadway knees-up.
Prefer cider? Then Diskin Cider, Nashville’s first craft cider brewery, is the place to be (diskincider.com; four-taster flight from $15/£11). As well as an eclectic and lovingly-made array of ciders on tap, this space acts as a linchpin for the community, hosting everything from writers’ nights to drag queen brunches.
Perhaps these queens are kitted out by Andrew Clancey at Any Old Iron (anyoldiron.us). This British designer’s sequin-rich aesthetic is so ostentatious, it’s made his store on Music Row a Nashville destination in its own right. Keep an eye peeled for his fabulous facemasks (from $30/£22 + tax).
So how to sum up a city like Nashville? Let’s try this: picture a place where the hot-to-trot unironically strut from dive bars to fancy restaurants in cowboy boots and Stetson hats; where acoustic guitar melodies waft out of every doorway; and where the roar of the local football stadium sends the city into a frenzy every weekend.
If you can imagine that, all that’s left is to get yourself to Nashville and discover this swingin’ city for yourself.
British Airways (britishairways.com/nashville) flies direct from London Heathrow to Nashville. Prices start from £447 return.
W Nashville (marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/bnawn-w-nashville)offers rooms from $365/£275 and Grand Hyatt Nashville (hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/tennessee/grand-hyatt-nashville/bnarn) offers rooms from $240/£179.
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