The so-called Southern Hospitality in Tennessee is no laughing matter.
Within the first five minutes of pulling up to my hotel in Nashville, I was welcomed to “music city” by a toothless smiling busker, handed a bandaid for my blister by a charming passerby, and called ‘mam’ more times than I could count.
While America’s southern state of Tennessee is so much more than its friendly people, the warm and welcoming attitude made visiting some of the world’s most historic and impressive music venues and exhibitions that much more exhilarating.
The only downfall? With so much music history and so many music-related stops on my packed itinerary, it was hard to find enough time to fit in a chinwag with every attentive local who was looking for one.
With that in mind, if you’re looking to explore some of the world’s most iconic music exhibits in Tennessee, you’re going to want to book a chunk of time — and make a serious schedule. These are some of the unmissable places in the state that are drenched with music history.
Graceland is mind bogglingly massive — in both the figurative and literal sense. It’s considered one of America’s most popular tourist attractions, but you’ll also rack up a huge step count while exploring all the Elvis memorabilia.
While the two private planes, plethora of cars, and hundreds of outfits on display are certainly impressive, it’s the house tour that’s hauntingly poignant. When you arrive, you’re given an iPad as your tour guide, voiced by Full House’s John Stamos, and are told anecdotes about each room as you explore The King of Rock’ n’ Roll’s former quarters. With so much of Elvis’ life on display, it comes as an expected comfort that the upstairs section of the house is off-limits to the public — the rockstar was transported to hospital by ambulance after he was found on the floor of his upstairs bathroom at the mansion at 3:30pm on August 16, 1977.
At the end of the house tour, you can visit Elvis’ grave where he’s laid to rest next to his grandmother Minnie Mae, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and his daughter Lisa Marie. Visiting the burial site is an emotional experience, with thousands of letters and fresh flowers scattered over the tombstones.
The world-famous Sun Studios sits on an unassuming corner on Union Ave in Memphis, across from a community college. If you weren’t familiar with the iconic recording studio, it would be easy to pass it off as another hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar. That all changes upon entry.
It’s the studio that launched the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and of course, Elvis Presley. It’s where Presley recorded his first demo — which led to him being discovered by the studio’s owners. Here, you can pose with Presley’s microphone, explore his guitars, and listen to a recording of one of his impromptu jam sessions with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
The Beauty Shop
While much of down-town Memphis has a laid-back, historic feel, some areas of the city have had a modern injection in recent times. One of these areas is Cooper Town, and here sits The Beauty Shop; the very salon where Priscilla Presley religiously went to get her beehive hair-do.
Memphis-native Karen Blockman Carrier is the brainchild behind the now-restaurant, which features booths complete with the actual hooded Belvedere hair dryers that Priscilla once used. The throwback menu includes local favourites like watermelon and wings, or pork and peach, alongside Fifties era cocktails like the Beautini and Pretty in Pink.
The red and white awnings, the retro Coke billboards, and the endless neon signs lining Beale Street can be disorienting. If only for a moment, it’s easy to forget this is not the 1920s.
That feeling amplifies when you enter one of the many live music venues on the strip. You’ll be hard pressed to find a spot that doesn’t have a live blues band belting out classics like “Son of a Preacher Man” or “Shake Rattle and Roll’. But, perhaps the most endearing part of Beale Street is the crowd it draws. Each spot has its own regulars — like BB King’s Blues Club — and among all of them you’ll find a somewhat older couple, swirling around on the dance floor for date night.
Beale Street was officially declared the “Home of the Blues” by an act of Congress in 1977, and it’s not hard to see why. The two block strip draws throngs of crowds who watch skilled street performers by day, and some of the most talented blues bands in the world by night.
Most people know the sign, and they probably know the groundbreaking acts like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs, and Sam & Dave, who recorded at Stax Records. But a visit to the museum, which sits in the place where the studio once stood, is like attending a masterclass in southern soul history.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Stax was the place where many of the world’s best blues, soul, and R&B artists would spend their days smoking cigarettes and exchanging creative ideas, before recording songs that are still legendary to this day.
Inside the museum is Isaac Hayes’ Superfly custom gold-plated 1972 Cadillac; gifted to him as part of his contract negotiations with Stax Records, as well as other monumental artefacts like Tina Turner’s touring outfits, and the original two-track recorder Otis Redding used to make “Mr Pitiful” and “Respect”.
Between Broadway’s all-day live music venues and the cowboy-boot-clad tourists clutching White Claws and roaming the streets, it’s easy to call the famous street a cliché. But, if you embrace Broadway for the trashy fun it is, you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
From sunrise to well after sunset, the energetic street is lit up with honky-tonk after honky-tonk, featuring talented country bands ready to welcome you to the dance floor. You may even stumble across a country music star in waiting. Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Reba McEntire were all discovered while performing on the iconic strip.
When you’re not tapping your feet or sipping on a Bushwacker (a frozen milk cocktail of Kahlua, rum, creme de cacao, and cream of coconut) the rooftop bars are a perfect place to catch the Nashville sun, or watch boozy bachelorette parties roll by in actual tractors.
Princes Hot Chicken
No doubt Nashville is known first and foremost as the capital of country music, but running a close second is its reputation as the home of hot chicken. The city is famous for its spicy poultry, and the locals will tell you the variation of spices mixed into the batter make it far superior to the usual hot sauce scenario common in other chicken hot-spots.
The story goes that Nashville’s take on hot chicken originated back in the 1930s when a scorned Nashville woman suspected her husband Thornton Prince of having an affair, so she sprinkled an unhealthy dose of super spicy seasoning into her chicken batter. The plan backfired; he loved the dish. He went on to share the recipe with friends and family before opening Prince’s Hot Chicken, which remains one of the city’s most popular restaurants.
If you’re looking to try chicken Nashville-style, it’s hard to go past Prince’s. The OG eatery is still in the family, run by the great-niece of Thornton Prince. If you like it hot, or have a death-by-chilli wish, try the ‘XXX Hot’ variation. You’ve been warned.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
It wouldn’t be a trip to the music city without a stop in at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The establishment has collected and preserved some of the most iconic music memorabilia of all time. Entrants can look inside Elvis Presley’s Gold Plated 1960 custom Cadillac complete with a fidget, record player, and rather bulky TV, get up close and personal with the Fender guitar Bob Dylan used on his album Nashville Skyline, and check out the fawn coat Taylor Swift wore on the cover of her album Red.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum also offers tours to the nearby RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and The Everly Brothers have all recorded.
National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM)
Nashville is so much more than country music. The National Museum of African American Music, located smack bang downtown in music city, claims to be the only museum of its kind dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Black music in America.
If you’re the kind of museum-goer looking for an engaging, interactive experience, the National Museum of African American Music fits the brief. The seven section exhibition showcases everything from jazz to gospel to rap, in a hands-on way. You can create your own hip-hop beats and download them to a wristband, learn dance moves from across the decades, or digitally insert yourself into a gospel choir via green screen technology.
The Bluebird Cafe
For many, The Bluebird Cafe is where Taylor Swift was discovered, and made famous by the TV show Nashville, but in reality it’s so much more. The almost-always-booked-out venue is a beloved music institution where songwriters go to share their crafts and be inspired by talented creatives.
It’s not rare to see audience members — or other artists in the cosy twenty table cafe — break down in tears when a songwriter bares their soul in an intense and vulnerable performance. The walls are plastered with posters of performers who have played there; the excited energy in the intimate room is palpable. People don’t come to the Bluebird to catch up with their friends, they come with a passionate and unapologetic love of music.
Getting your hands on a ticket to The Bluebird Cafe is no easy feat. They’re snapped up within minutes of going on sale, usually only a week ahead of the show date. If you can’t get tickets to The Bluebird Cafe then The Listening Room is a great substitute with a similar concept.
This article features in the September 2023 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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