Nashville is famous for its icons, and no one can question Nashville’s role in developing such legendary figures and legendary music. There is, however, an ‘unsung hero’ aspect to the music business that not everyone may know. The performance venues that have quietly housed the legendary stars as they perform their legendary music have become icons in their own right. Here is a sampling of musical landmarks that Nashville is proud to call its own.
Jammed between a hookah lounge and an often-empty restaurant building along Elliston Place is one of Nashville’s landmark musical venues, a little painted-black brick building that bears no resemblance to the world-famous Ryman Auditorium less than two miles away. But the Exit/In, now in its 42nd year, is, in its own way, a landmark, too.
“It has a really important place in rock history in the south,” says Nashville music journalist Brian Mansfield, who writes for USA Today. “You don’t associate it with country music, but I think it’s actually more important in music history than the Station Inn,” Mansfield says. “In the early ‘70s, it was a really important music venue in the south. It was part of an era of your classic rock clubs like The Paradise in Boston, CBGBs in New York, and the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Exit/In was Nashville’s version of that. Billy Joel played there. Johnny Cash played there.”
Indeed they did. And also the Police, R.E.M., Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Muddy Waters, The Allman Brothers, Kings of Leon, Etta James, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Ben Folds, Zac Brown Band, Sheryl Crow, The Talking Heads, Bon Iver, Jason & The Scorchers, Billy Joe Shaver, Imogen Heap, Train, and Waylon Jennings; To name just a few.
Opened in 1971, the Exit/In has survived some hard times. Today the neighborhood is redeveloping, with old buildings being replaced by modern condos. The same thing is happening to “The Gulch,” the downtown neighborhood along the railroad tracks where our next landmark resides. The Station Inn, started in 1974 by a group of local bluegrass musicians, has occupied a homely flat-roofed block structure with a bright red door in The Gulch since 1978. Today, it is surrounded by new high-rise condos, trendy restaurants and hip retailers occupying rehabbed old brick buildings, but it is still serving up the same mix of bluegrass and acoustic music for which it has long been famous. The club, considered a “rite of passage” for any serious bluegrass musician, was recently named by Southern Living magazine as one of the South’s best bars, and live music is on tap every night of the week.
The Station Inn “has been a hotbed of bluegrass and acoustic music in Nashville for decades,” Mansfield says. “It’s a place musicians go to check out other musicians.” Ricky Skaggs has played at the Station Inn, as have Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Reba McEntire. U2 has visited the club. And bluegrass legends like Bobby Osborne and Bill Monroe sometimes dropped by unannounced and sat in with the scheduled band, after playing at the Grand Ole Opry on Friday or Saturday nights. The seats along the back wall at the Station Inn came from Lester Flatt’s tour bus.
“The Station Inn is kind of cool because everything has grown up around it – you’ve got all these huge, brand-new modern buildings around it and then you have this concrete block building that looks like something somebody refused to sell to a developer,” Mansfield says. (Actually, the developers remaking The Gulch have made it clear they want the Station Inn to remain – it’s a key part of the neighborhood’s authenticity and appeal.) “The Station Inn is a great choice for visitors seeking an acoustic music experience in Nashville,” continues Mansfield. “If you want to be tourists but don’t want to look like tourists, that’s where you go.”
Most tourists don’t make it to the Station Inn, as it sits several blocks away from the country music theme-park that is the honky-tonk zone of Lower Broadway and Second Avenue, where several bars like the Wagon Wheel, The Stage, Robert’s Western World, and Bootlegger’s Inn offer live music mostly catering to tourists hoping to hear the latest country hits played live – mostly by cover bands.
Among them is one certified landmark – Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. “Tootsie’s is more part of the Nashville myth than it is an important place to go see a band,” says Mansfield, noting that Tootsie’s primary contribution to the history of country music is as the “back room” for the Grand Ole Opry for all those years the Opry was broadcast live from the Ryman, with which it shares an alley. “Willie Nelson used to drink there. Roger Miller used to drink there. The live music is almost incidental to the history of it as a bar.” In those days, Tootsie’s was a place for Opry performers to relax and have a beer. It also was a hangout for great songwriters. Today, Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe serves a similar role.
The Bluebird Cafe is a real place, faithfully recreated on ABC’s hit primetime soap opera “Nashville.” In a city where even suburban barbecue joints have weekly “Songwriters Nights,” the Bluebird still stands alone as THE place to see top songwriters play their latest creations. Crowds queue outside, hoping for a seat inside the 120-seat storefront club – and, yet, its emergence as a Nashville live music landmark was somewhat accidental.
Opened in mid-1982 in a storefront in the Green Hills neighborhood that previously housed a game room, pizza parlor, sewing machine store, pharmacy, bar, and oriental rug store, the Bluebird was supposed to be a gourmet restaurant with occasional live music. But live music soon became the main draw. In 1983, after playing The Bluebird for just a few months, Kathy Mattea landed a record deal and became a star. Other Bluebird songwriter-performers soon followed her path.
Almost since it opened, The Bluebird “has been songwriters central,” Mansfield says. “You hear stories about Garth Brooks performing there, Taylor Swift performing there, before anyone really knew who they were.” The Bluebird’s landmark status is driven by its reputation as a home for great songwriters.
A world away from the intimate setting of The Bluebird, Bridgestone Arena has nevertheless been transforming Nashville’s live music scene in its own large-scale way for 15 years. The arena was built with the city’s music industry in mind, both with its rehearsal hall and the way the arena functions for concerts and live concert broadcasts. This was done so that it could succeed as a performance venue even if it didn’t attract many sporting events. Today, Bridgestone is one of the busiest arenas in the country, hosting many concerts, live TV music events and sports – including Nashville Predators hockey.
Another institution poised to have a powerful impact upon Nashville’s music scene and upon the city as a whole is the Music City Center, Nashville’s biggest, newest venue. The Country Music Association this year used the Music City Center to rejuvenate the heart of the city’s biggest music festival.
In 1972, the CMA created “Fan Fair” in order to keep music fans from attending the CMA’s annual autumn radio deejay convention. The first Fan Fair, in April of that year, drew 5,000 fans to Municipal Auditorium, where they were treated to 20 hours of live entertainment and 100 exhibit booths, including booths where they could meet artists and get their autographs. Attendance doubled to 10,000 fans at the next Fan Fair in June 1973, and the 1974 edition included performances by Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and Paul McCartney (who, 39 years later, would be back in Tennessee, playing at the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn.).
Fan Fair eventually moved to the Tennessee State fairgrounds, where exhibit and livestock buildings served as home for the artist’s booths and merchandise sales, while the racetrack and grandstands hosted live concerts. In 1996, superstar Garth Brooks autographed his way into Fan Fair legend by staying in his booth signing autographs for 23 hours and 10 minutes without a single break.
In 2001, the CMA moved Fan Fair downtown – and renamed it the CMA Music Festival. The focus shifted to the live music part of the event, with artists performing on stages around downtown. The autograph booths were moved into the Nashville Convention Center.
“The fan exhibit hall became a dying afterthought,” says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation since that year. But this year’s CMA Music Festival debuted “Fan Fair X,” a revitalized version of the Fan Fair experience, hosted in the vast trade show floor of the brand new Music City Center.
Spyridon says it appears that Fan Fair X is “at the forefront of future growth” for the CMA Music Festival, adding that the new convention center has “transformed the fan experience portion of the CMA festival in a positive way.”
The old Nashville Convention Center was a difficult space to host the exhibits and autograph booths. “That building didn’t lend itself to much creativity so there wasn’t much,” says Spyridon. “[The Music City Center] turned everyone’s attitude around – now we have a great opportunity. Indeed, the wide variety of acts – from Lady Antebellum to Duck Dynasty – proves that the CMA Music Festival is ably continuing the long tradition of country music and its support of its fans. “It’s pretty important in the myth of country music that country music artists get more involved with their fans and are more accessible than pop stars – that’s it’s easier to get in close proximity to a Taylor Swift or a Tim McGraw or a Kenny Chesney,” Mansfield says. “You don’t have a lot of the biggest stars going in to sign autographs for hours, but you do have artists who are going to be those big artists in the future, and fans can bond with them.”
This year’s Fan Fair X saw big increases in attendance that “contributed significantly” to the festival’s overall attendance gains this year, the CMA says. The move meant three times the space for Fan Fair’s autographs, photo ops, intimate live music settings and special events – and attendance at this part of the overall festival rose from 44,639 last year to 65,000 this year.
Fan Fair X isn’t the only way the MCC is poised to change the city’s live music scene for the better. The $600 million facility is built to emphasize, enhance and leverage the city’s namesake industry, starting with its name. “It expands our brand and makes a statement about the whole campus – the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Walk of Fame, the Arena. And then there is the songwriters’ presence that now has a home in the building,” Spyridon says.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame is permanently housed in the new convention center. Outside the building, the names of all the Hall of Fame members are engraved along with the title of their signature song in the stone pavers of Songwriters Square at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Demonbreun, and on the stone steps leading from Fifth Avenue up to the interior display.
The overall design of the Music City Center is infused with musical, artistic and architectural touches. And then there is the 57,000-square-foot grand ballroom, which Spyridon describes as “almost a venue unto itself.” Most convention center ballrooms are a basic box with a flat ceiling, but the MCC’s grand ballroom is different. Its non-rectangle shape and distinctive ceiling design visually evokes an acoustic guitar – and contribute to its acoustic quality. The Nashville Symphony, which performs in the acoustically and architecturally amazing Schermerhorn Symphony Center – itself a downtown landmark that hosts performances by artists of a variety of genres – made the first performance in the MCC’s ballroom. They played to a packed house.
Across the river from downtown, LP Field has given the CMA “a way to turn Fan Fair into a nationally televised event,” Mansfield says. The 2-hour televised CMA Music Festival special, in turn, helps the CMA entice more big-name artists to participate in the festival, and the crowds have grown as a result. “The MCC will also bring more visitors, benefitting even the smaller venues like the Lower Broadway honky-tonks and music clubs,” says Spyridon. “We will have a significantly higher number of people in town.”
If these visitors ask Spyridon where they might go for a landmark “Nashville” experience, other than the well-known attractions and venues, what would he say? “The Station Inn, 3rd and Lindsley, Exit/In, 12th & Porter, …the honky-tonks on Lower Broad. On any given night, any one tops the others,” Spyridon affirms.
3rd and Lindsley is a small club on Third Avenue half a mile south of Lower Broadway. It’s a bit of a hike up the hill from the honky-tonks, but the club over the years has earned its place. Known for welcoming acts that tend to cluster around the musical genres of Americana and alternative, it also hosts a wide variety of mainstream country acts as well. The club’s website boasts a long list of great artists who have appeared there, including Train, Wilco, Lady Antebellum, the Zac Brown Band, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Norah Jones, O.A.R., Sheryl Crow, Rodney Crowell, The Fray, Indigo Girls, Bela Fleck, Lucinda Williams, John Butler Trio, Ray LaMontagne, Jason Mraz and more.
12th & Porter is another mainstay of the local live music scene. The club, which occupies a turquoise-painted building behind the loading docks of the local newspaper building, was once voted by Nashville Scene readers as Nashville’s second-based place to hear live music (after the Ryman). Just a few of the artists who have performed there: Keith Urban, Kings of Leon, Ke$ha, Jon Bon Jovi, RunDMC, Vince Gill, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Ben Folds and Steve Earle. Townes Van Zandt’s Live and Obscure was recorded there in 1985. Ryan Adams dropped 12th & Porter’s name in the lyrics of his Demolition record. In August 2005, Neil Young performed an unannounced 45-minute solo show there. It’s Music City moments like that which make a little turquoise building another Nashville musical landmark.