The soul of Nashville

From honky tonks and BBQ joints to an array of local businesses, April Waterston discovers what makes the Music City feel so special

It’s as though the stars are descending around me. The sun has all but set and fireflies have joined the festivities at Percy Warner Park. They twinkle above me, flickering to the unmistakable and comfortingly repetitive rhythms of bluegrass music – an appropriately magical end to my first Full Moon Pickin’ Party

Twangs from banjoes, fiddles and steel guitars fill the air from all directions as seasoned musicians and hobbyists alike break off into small groups and jam the night away, stopping only to sample food from a selection of local food trucks. 

A love for bluegrass unites families and friends every full moon throughout the summer – just one of the many reasons music lovers laud Nashville as a bucket-list destination.

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Full-Moon Pickin’ Party at Percy Warner Park, Nashville

The Music City

A visit to RCA Studio B rewards me with a truly unforgettable experience. The boxy concrete building seems unassuming, but my guide is quick to convince me that within its cold exterior is one of the most special places on earth. 

Household names like Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley recorded many of their hits within these four walls I am sat in, contributing to the studio’s moniker, ‘The Home of a Thousand Hits’. An amateur pianist myself, I am offered the chance to play a Steinway grand piano in the corner. Perhaps I’d be less nervous if I hadn’t just been told it was the very same piano I’d heard countless times on many of Elvis’s most iconic tracks – after all, who am I to follow in his footsteps with an off-tempo rendition of chopsticks?  

Although country music has arguably put Nashville on the map, its moniker as ‘The Music City’ embraces far more. 

In 2021 the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) opened its doors, offering an immersive experience celebrating music created, influenced and inspired by African Americans. 

Interactive exhibits explore how artists from all genres have influenced one another through time, covering everyone from Nat King Cole to Beyoncé. 

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The iconic stage at the Ryman Auditorium
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A night at the Grand Ole Opry is a must for any country music fan

A real ‘Opry moment’

The sense of awe I felt at Studio B continues as I visit landmarks like the Ryman Auditorium, highlighting why Nashville remains a Mecca for country fans. The Ryman is steeped with history, a stage idolised by artists across the world. 

Most notably the Ryman is known as the famous former home of The Grand Ole Opry, America’s longest running radio show. Since 1925 the Opry has been showcasing country music’s past, present and future talent. I would not have necessarily considered myself a fan of country music before my night spent at the Opry, but the passion the artists and fans share is contagious. Emotions run high as new acts debut and achieve their dreams, and an overwhelming sense of patriotism and love for both music and the U.S. flows through the audience. This feeling of awe is referred to by some as an ‘Opry moment’.

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Robert’s Western World is a local favourite
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Nashville’s replica of the Greek Parthenon

Southern hospitality

No visit to the Deep South is complete without ample servings of rich, delicious food! With my stomach rumbling, I head to East Nashville and set off on a Walk Eat Nashville Tour. Highlights include The Wild Cow, an entirely vegan eatery, and Joyland, a quirky Japanese fast-food inspired burger joint.

As one may expect, there is no shortage of BBQ joints dotted about the city, with Martin’s Bar-B-Que a local favourite.

The newly-opened Assembly Food Hall near Broadway offers everything from authentic Italian cuisine to bao buns to artisan donuts, accompanied by live entertainment throughout the day. 

As I struggle to choose what to order for lunch, I am told a visit to Nashville is not complete without trying its iconic Hot Chicken – an option not for the faint hearted. “I can’t believe this is only ‘mild’,” my friends say repeatedly, turning deeper and deeper shades of red. It seems being a vegetarian may have worked in my favour this time. 

Local colour

In between exciting evenings spent bar hopping between Honky Tonks along Broadway, cheering for Nashville SC at Geodis Park and sampling my way through the city’s wide selection of bars, and I am grateful for slower days exploring Nashville’s neighbourhoods and independent businesses. 

The West End Neighbourhood is home to Centennial Park and a full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon. Germantown, located just northwest of downtown Nashville, has a number of local eateries including The Cupcake Collection, a family-run bakery founded by Mignon, matriarch of the Francois family. She excitedly tells me how each of her children are involved in the business before offering me a sweet potato cupcake – it’s surprisingly delicious!

For shopping look no further than the 12 South Neighbourhood. Independent boutiques like Emerson Grace and Judith Bright offer stylish clothes and unique handmade jewellery respectively, whilst Imogene + Willie specialises in high-quality, long-lasting denim goods. 

For a city famous for attracting and nurturing some of the biggest names in music history, I am touched by the support it shows to local independent businesses. The people are the soul of Nashville – be they a local entrepreneur or musician waiting for their big break.