I occasionally host out of towners at my Nashville residence, and more often than not, I’m asked, “What’s fun here?” I never feel like my extemporaneous answer is an accurate representation of what I love about this city. So I decided to make a list.
Absent are big ticket attractions like the Lower Broadway honky-tonks or Bluebird Cafe. These are well represented in your standard city guides, and while they may be fun for first-timers, they get old quick.
On the other hand, I do include other touristy attractions, such as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Ryman Auditorium. This list is motivated less by notoriety and more by originality and fun factor.
I’m writing this list now instead of later because CSICon (Center for Inquiry’s yearly convention) and Geek Media Expo are happening this weekend in Nashville. I wanted to provide attendees a local’s guide to the city. Since this blog is primarily about improvised experimental music, you might not know that I’m a huge science geek and a big fan of Center for Inquiry’s magazines Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer and podcast Point of Inquiry. In fact, CSICon is just about the only thing that would lure me away from the incredibly fun Geek Media Expo. I truly wish I could attend both.
This list is a work in progress, and I’ll continue to update it as I remember old favorites and discover new ones. Feel free to post your favorite places in the comments section. And now, on to the list!
My Favorite Nashville Places: A Local’s Guide for Visitors
A list by Tony Youngblood.
The Belcourt Theatre is bar none my favorite place in Nashville. Why? In a town with a population around a half million, it’s a given that you’re going to have a cool record store, a unique comic book shop, great restaurants, bookstores, and so on. But not many cities the size of Nashville have a cinema half as wonderful as the Belcourt. (I can only think of two that come close: St. Louis’s Tivoli Theatre and Baltimore’s Charles Theatre.)
I could talk about the theatre’s rich history (it opened in 1925 and housed the Grand Ole Opry BEFORE the Ryman), but really, it’s the film programming that sets the Belcourt apart. Sure, many cities have a Landmark-style “independent” theatre that play one or two new release indies a week. But the Belcourt’s film choices are positively inspired. Consider that this week alone, on just two screens, the Belcourt features 21 films, including a live taping of RiffTrax riffing “Birdemic,” seven cult horror films screened back to back, six new documentaries, and two Universal classic monster double features. There’s also a live production of “Rumpelstiltskin,” a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and a viewing party of the third presidential debate hosted by Tennessee politicians. Top that off with at least one Q&A with an actor and at least one live Skype conversation with a director. And that’s just what’s happening Monday, October 22nd through Sunday, October 28th 2012. Last week, they showed the original silent “Phantom of the Opera” with a live score by the Alloy Orchestra. Pick any other week and the programming is just as exceptional.
Gaspar Noé signed the Belcourt’s fire extinguisher. Harmony Korine called it his favorite theatre. I’ve seen more concerts here than I can remember, including Lucinda Williams, Henry Rollins, Iris Dement, Loudon Wainwright and Robyn Hitchcock. And did I mention they have local beers on tap?
With Nashville’s recent national buzz, I’m seeing celebrity “best of” lists crop up everywhere. But everyone seems to overlook our real treasure, a theatre that’s by all rights too good for a town this size. I’d place it in the company of Los Angeles’ New Beverly, New York City’s Film Forum, and Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse.
Belcourt offers free parking in the pay lot adjoining the theatre, however, many people accidentally pay before they discover this. The code to get free parking is printed on the movie ticket. Park your car in the lot, note the parking space number, buy your movie ticket, and then go to the parking lot ticketing machine. Stick the parking ticket in the dashboard of your car, and you’re set.
The Belcourt Theatre is located in Hillsboro Village, a fun neighborhood full of eclectic shops, great restaurants, and art galleries. While you’re there, check out Bosco’s Brewpub (IMHO the best local beer), Taps & Tapas (my favorite veggie burger), The Dog of Nashville (quick service and great veggie hot dogs), Pangaea Boutique, the world famous Pancake Pantry, Bookmanbookwoman used bookstore, and Davis Cookware. Just don’t let the Davis brothers lure you into a conversation. You’ll be there for hours.
Just north of downtown, the Nashville Farmer’s Market is the best place to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. But it’s also teeming with unique restaurants, an international market, a flea market, a gardening store, and a shop that sells hundreds of hot sauce varieties.
Monell’s Restaurant (Germantown location)
At Monell’s, your party is seated is seated right beside other parties at a long bench-style table. Before you can even ask for a menu, a waitress hands you a bucket of Southern-style green beans and tells you to pass it around. Then she hands you a bucket of fried chicken. Then rolls, corn bread, corn, mashed potatoes, turnip greens (you get the idea) until all the bowls have made multiple rounds. Your fellow diners may be strangers at the beginning of the meal, but you’ll be on first name basis by the fourth request to pass the pitcher of sweet tea. Monell’s is a Nashville institution, and you can’t leave town until you’ve experienced it.
Monell’s has four locations, and all are not equal. I recommend the Germantown location, just north of Downtown.
Cafe Coco – Late Night Eats
If you want to grab a bite in Nashville at 2am on a Monday night, you don’t have many options. Luckily, the slim pickings are delicious.
The only 24 hour restaurant worth mentioning is Cafe Coco in the Vanderbilt University area. They serve cafe style food, burgers, and plenty of vegan/vegetarian options. The downside of being the only good 24 hour restaurant in town (and being close to a university) is that the late night lines often go out the door.
Cafe Coco also hosts my favorite open mic night Tuesday and Thursday nights. Unlike the Bluebird and just about every other open mic night in town, you won’t be subjected to bad country song after bad country song. Cafe Coco’s open mic is known for it’s openness to all styles of music and an appealing weirdness that pervades the whole affair. When I first moved to Nashville, I played the Cafe Coco open mic every week and met friends there that I still hang out with. I can’t guarantee you’re going to like every act, but you will be entertained.
Athens Family Restaurant servers Greek and American food 24 hours a day Thursdays through Saturdays. On other nights, they’re open from 7am to 10pm. The place is very popular among the college crowd. Be wary of the vegetarian items on the menu. The last time I was there (which was admittedly a long time ago), the cook told me that almost everything contains chicken broth.
This warehouse-sized used bookstore has to be seen to be believed. If you love the thrill of discovery or just want to kill an afternoon, go to McKay’s. You won’t leave empty handed. Really, it’s HUGE.
Did you know Nashville is the Athens of the South? That moniker inspired the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition to construct a full scale replica of the Athens Parthenon. The 1897 Parthenon was only designed to last the duration of the exposition, but the building was such a hit that the city reconstructed it with permanent materials. The Parthenon is just about the best free activity in Nashville. Countless bad country music videos have been shot among the columns. Inside the Parthenon is a pay museum, which features plastic replicas of the Parthenon Marbles (hey, it’s cheaper than seeing the originals at the British Museum) and a breathtaking 42 foot statue of Athena.
Also, our Parthenon has a roof. Zing!
Very few large scale vinyl record plants still operate in the United States, but Nashville has one of the best. United Records gives tours Fridays at 11am, and you shouldn’t miss it. For one, watching people and machines turn beads of plastic into grooved discs is really fascinating. For two, the plant has history:
When the current URP plant opened in the 1960s, it was a very different time in the South, Nashville included. In the early 60s there were hardly any restaurants or hotels in Nashville that would offer their services to African Americans. With top clients like Vee Jay Records and Motown being run by people of color, the company was in need of accommodations for their clients and created what we now call the “Motown Suite,” an apartment located above the factory. The Motown Suite which is still viewable to guests touring the plant, displays the same furnishings that these execs were offered including a common room with a bar, a turntable, enough seating to entertain guests, a full bathroom, a double occupancy bedroom, a kitchen equipped with an old push button stove and other novel 60’s decor. URP still uses the kitchen as a meeting room, with our staff sitting at the same 60’s dinette set that Motown, Vee Jay and other label executives and artists used.
The Opryland Hotel is kind of like a Las Vegas mega-hotel without the slot machines but with the confusing floor plan. Sure, it’s garish, but it also has beauty. The hotel features four large atriums full of teaming plant life and maze-like passageways. The Cascades atrium even has its own river.
Don’t park in the overpriced Opryland Hotel parking lot. Take the exit for the Opry Mills Mall and park for free near the big Styrofoam boulder. Follow the path to the hotel, and it’s actually a shorter walk than some of the pay lots.
Did you know Nashville was the first U.S. city to legalize prostitution? During the Civil War, so many soldiers were contracting STDs in Union-occupied Nashville that the military decided to license prostitutes in order to enforce bi-weekly medical examinations. That’s just one of the many Civil War factoids you’ll learn at Fort Negley, the largest of the Union-built Nashville forts. The free walking tour takes you to the top of the now-in-ruins hillside fortification. The view is spectacular.
If you absolutely insist on seeing live country music, the Station Inn is the place to do it. The Tuesday night Doyle & Debbieshow always sells out, so make reservations.
Not to be confused with the slightly-more-prestigious Station Inn, the Stadium Inn is a, shall we say, budget hotel with a secret in its basement: a wrestling ring. The Friday night wrestling is as grass roots as it gets. The room is so intimate, you’ll probably get flicked with wrestler sweat. Although the audience is comprised mostly of colorful heavily-accented locals, the hipster crowd also represents, due in part to musician-turned-wrestler Josephus Brody and Stadium-shot music videos from Caitlin Rose and Lambchop.
This indoor climbing facility features over 12,000 square feet of climbing surface on walls 40 feet high. I used to have a membership, and it’s an absolute blast. If you’ve never climbed before, worry not. A first-timer’s package includes a 20 minute introductory class and all the equipment you need. Just be sure to bring a partner, so you can take turns belaying and climbing.
Are you new to Tennessee? If so, let me prepare you for a very peculiar state law that will leave you baffled the first time you go to a liquor store. Alcoholic beverages containing below 5 percent alcohol cannot be sold in the same building as alcoholic beverages containing 5 percent or more alcohol. In practice, this means that liquor stores have a partition in the center and separate doors and registers for the beer side and the liquor side. If you’re a craft beer fan, that means you’ll have to make two purchases: high alcohol beer on one side and low alcohol beer on the other. State law also prohibits the sale of wine in grocery stores. Crazy, I know.
If you’re from a big city, you’ll likely be underwhelmed by Nashville’s beer selection. We can’t get Three Floyds, Bells, Dogfish Head, Lost Abbey, Founders, Goose Island, Russian River, Alesmith, etc. But if you’re from a smaller town (or you just aren’t a beer snob like I am), you’ll be satisfied with what we have. Nashville has several breweries, including Yazoo, Jackalope, and Blackstone. My favorite local beer is made at Bosco’s Brewpub; but unfortunately, you can’t buy Bosco’s beers in stores or other bars.
Nashville has it’s own distillery: Corsair Artisan Distillery, and from what people tell me, the tour is amazing.
The best beer bar by a longshot is The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium located beside the historic Union Station Hotel and the Frist Center.There are well over 60 beers on tap, and that’s just what’s on tap!
The greatest concentration of bars and clubs would be 5 Points in East Nashville. It’s also the best place to go hipster spotting.
The best place to get cocktails is Patterson House, a very un-Nashville bar with speakeasy aspirations. They don’t have a sign, so write down the address. Even their website is an ode to minimalism: http://www.thepattersonnashville.com/
Nashville lacks an art museum with a permanent collection on the level of say, Art Institute of Chicago, but the Frist Center’s weakness is also its strength. The museum’s two floors of exhibition space rotate new exhibits every few months. That means we occasionally get incredible exhibits, such as Chihuly at the First and the current (at the time of this writing) German Expressionism from the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Completed in 1932 by the Cheek family, inventors of Maxwell House coffee, this limestone mansion and sprawling botanical garden makes for a peaceful stroll on a Sunday afternoon. The mansion houses an art gallery with rotating exhibits.
I’m not a fan of modern country music. But luckily, neither is the Country Music Hall of Fame. This massive museum pays homage to real country music, American legends like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, and more. And if you’re a gear head like myself, you’ll also see vintage recording equipment, scuffed-up Martin guitars, Nudie suits, and plenty of memorabilia.
A tour bus departs from the museum hourly for a tour of the legendary RCA Studio B. This is the studio where Elvis cut over 200 records, Don Gibson cut “Oh Lonesome Me,” Dolly Parton cut “I Will Always Love You,” and Roy Orbison cut “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.” Seeing all those vintage Ampex tape recorders got me all tingly inside. The coolest part of the tour is when the guide lets you play the Steinway grand piano heard on so many country hits, including Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.” (If that doesn’t ring a bell, click the link and prepare to say, “Oh that song!”)
Other Nashville Recording Studios
If you’re a recording fan, Nashville is the town for you. There are so many great recording studios here, it’s mind boggling. And most are happy to give you a tour if you call and ask. Some of the studios here include the newly-restored Quonset Hut where Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy” and Bob Dylan recorded “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” Quad Studios where Neil Young recorded “Heart of Gold,” Blackbird Studio where the White Stripes recorded Icky Thump, Oceanway Studios, The Tracking Room, and hundreds more.
Frequently listed among the best independent record shops in the United States, Grimey’s should be the first stop for all you tangible media music fans out there. Below Grimey’s is The Basement, one of the best rock n’ roll music venues in Nashville.
The mother church. Home of the Grand Ole Opry during its golden years. One of the greatest concert venues in the world. The daytime tour is pretty fun and informative, but the best way to see the Ryman is by attending a concert. I’ve seen Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, The Pixies, The Shins, Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, Bright Eyes, Regina Spektor, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and plenty more. The acoustics are great for lower-volume bands, but, contrary to popular opinion, loud rock n’ roll tends to sound muddy and echoey at the Ryman. Bring a pillow or cushion for the unforgiving church pew seating.
Other Places to See Non-Country Music
Most Nashvillians don’t equate Nashville with country. I never see a ten gallon hat unless it’s on a tourist. In fact, we’re starting to become known for our burgeoning garage rock and punk scenes, due in no small part to Jack White and the Black Keys moving here. In 2011, Rolling Stone said our city had the best music scene in the country. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far (better than Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and L.A.?), but it is a great time to be a live music fan in Nashville. Bands like Pujol, Jeff the Brotherhood, Caitlin Rose, The Ettes, Natural Child and Turbo Fruits are breaking into the big time. If you want to see live music while in town, forget the honky-tonks. Instead, check out our emerging rock scene at venues like:
- Brick Factory
- Betty’s Bar & Grill
- Cannery Ballroom
- Dino’s Bar
- The legendary Exit In
- The End
- The Five Spot
- High Watt
- Marathon Music Works
- Mercy Lounge
- The infamous Springwater Supper Club
- The Stone Fox
- The Owl Farm
- Third Man Records
That’s my list for now. Coming soon: Nashville Zoo, Downtown Public Library, 12 South, Zanies Comedy Club, Eastland Avenue, and Hillwood Strike & Spare.