Why Is Nashville Called Music City? 

Because there’s so much music here to hear....

Because there’s so much music here to hear....

Why is Nashville called Music City?

WSM-AM announcer David Cobb christened Nashville “Music City U.S.A.” on the air in 1950. The moniker eventually became Nashville’s de facto trade name, but back when Cobb first coined the term, the city was hardly the exclusive haven of hillbilly singers many historians make it out to be. Just the opposite, Nashville was home to jumping blues, R&B, gospel and pop scenes as well. Over the years everyone from Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan to Yo La Tengo and India.Arie has recorded here.

To varying degrees—and this is Nashville’s long-standing secret—the city’s music scene has always been this diverse. Before World War II, for example, all of the big hotels downtown had in-house dance orchestras, which is where the likes of Dinah Shore and Snooky Lanson got their starts. (Lanson later succeeded Frank Sinatra as the host of Your Hit Parade on nationwide radio.) Jazz flourished as well; future giants like Lil Hardin (who would soon marry and collaborate with Louis Armstrong), bandleader Jimmie Lunceford and trumpeter Doc Cheatham all gigged in Nashville’s clubs before going on to greater fame elsewhere. And all this was more than a half-century after the Fisk Jubilee Singers had first lifted their voices on stages from New York to London and Paris.

Today’s Nashville is little different. Besides country headline-grabbers like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, the city boasts first-rate symphony and chamber orchestras, scores of professional-class church choirs and gospel quartets, a burgeoning hip-hop scene and thriving rock, pop and jazz undergrounds. Even more than New York or Los Angeles, where making music is a relatively small part of the overall fabric of daily life, Nashville’s core identity is that of being a music city, and by no means does that just mean country music.

—Bill Friskics-Warren

Is Opryland the same as the Grand Ole Opry?

Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry share owners (Gaylord Entertaiment) and a common site (65 acres of land just up the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville), but that’s where any similarities between the two entities end. Opryland used to refer to the huge theme park that sat on that acreage from 1972 to 1997, when Gaylord announced that they’d be tearing down the amusement park to build Opry Mills, a giant retail/entertainment complex made up of upscale shops, theaters and eateries. Opryland is also the name of the 614-room, 25-year-old convention hotel that flanks Opry Mills. The millions of tiny lights that illuminate the hotel and its grounds from Thanksgiving to New Year’s are a must-see each holiday season.

Established by the National Life & Casualty company 77 years ago in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry is a national treasure—the longest-running live radio program in the country. The show was known as the WSM Barn Dance in its early years. (WSM, which stood for “We Shield Millions,” the motto of National Life & Casualty, were the call letters on the radio station that broadcast the program.) The Opry had a number of different homes from 1925 to 1943, the year it began its fabled 30-year run at the Ryman Auditorium, to which the show returns from its Opryland location (at the Grand Ole Opry House) for one month each winter.

Over the years, everyone from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks became household names in large part because WSM’s 50,000-watt, clear-channel signal beamed their Opry performances to hundreds of thousands of listeners in 38 states and parts of Canada. Lately, the Opry’s management has been augmenting its lineup of old and new country stars with alternative-leaning acts such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.

—Bill Friskics-Warren

What are honky-tonks and where are the best ones?

Webster’s defines “honky-tonk” as dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music; as cigareets, whuskey and wild, wild women; as rednecks, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer; as guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music—all under one roof. (Well, maybe not the Cadillacs.) Almost all these can be found between Fourth and Fifth avenues in two world-famous Lower Broadway honky-tonks, Robert’s Western Wear and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where the country sound has changed little since Opry stars crisscrossed the back alley from the nearby Ryman Auditorium. If tourists give you hives, check out the wonderful Station Inn at 401 12th Ave. S.—a concrete bunker on the outside, the city’s warmest listening room for bluegrass and stone country on the inside.

—Jim Ridley

Who are the best local DJs?

Are we talking Wolfman Jack-type radio cats, or dance-club mixmasters and beat selectors? If it’s good radio you’re looking for, stay left of the dial, where you’ll find a top-notch jazz station (WMOT-89.5 FM), blessedly eclectic college stations (WFSK-88.1 FM and WRVU-91.1 FM), and a solid NPR affiliate (WPLN-90.3 FM). Elsewhere, the Buzz 102.9 will serve you a starchy meal of Korn and Limp Bizkit, with some cool local bands for dessert. Rap newcomer 101.1 The Beat has made an immediate impact on Nashville listeners, throwing elbows with longtime Music City soul patrol 92Q (92.1 FM). You should also sample Radio Lightning (WRLT-100.1 FM), the city’s surviving adult alternative, which plays anything between the North Mississippi All-Stars and Elvis Costello. (See also What’s on the radio? in I Need Some Culture.)

If it’s block-rocking beats you’re seeking, that’s a whole ’nother story. Ambitious promoters, spinners and fans are starting to make Nashville a link in the nation’s electronic dance music scene, and the visiting talent has raised the bar, so to speak, for Nashville nightlife. At the Tribe, the red-hot new straights-friendly gay club on Church Street, DJ Russell is causing a humpday hullabaloo on Wednesday nights. DJ Viper is everywhere, and turntablist Dr. Obviously has a cult following at the funky Fourth Avenue South coffeehouse-cum-showroom The Muse. The Cantina in Cummins Station has Johny Jackson’s disco-era Soul Satisfaction on Saturdays and its contempo spin-off All Good with DJ Terry Grant on Fridays. On the house-music tip, the Elevator Music Collective DJs, including Mindub and Jolby, put on a cool monthly showcase under the Audity Central banner. Info can be found on the flyer table at Tower Records on West End; you can also listen to 91 Rock for DJ Chek’s Tuesday-night Abstractions show or for DJ Ron’s got-the-hookup beatfest on Saturday evenings.

—Jim Ridley

What local bands are not to be missed?

That’s tough, since “local” includes artists who are pretty much national—folks like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, or even established indie acts such as Lambchop and Josh Rouse. Plus the caliber of musicianship here is unusually, even forbiddingly high. You might as well ask a Manhattanite what local plays you should see. But since you asked, here’s a starter list of 10 Nashville-area artists you should see: the Barber Brothers (twin jazz), Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub (actual country music), Character (multimedia instrumental mayhem), Dave Cloud & the Gospel of Power (?), Chris Crofton & the Alcohol Stuntband (beer-goggle rock), Feable Weiner (like Weezer, only more sociable), Phil Lee (knife-wielding roadhouse madman), The Shazam (Middle Tennessee’s answer to The Move), Swan Dive (classic cocktail-hour pop), Tommy Womack (blue-collar intellectual rock). And that’s just to send you in search of further discovery. If you like those, get ready for Glossary, Green Rode Shotgun, Jack, The Jack Silverman Ordeal, Slack, Starlings, TN....

—Jim Ridley

Where do I play my songs?

Depends. If you’re into power-pop or rock, you’ll probably want to try getting into Daniel Tashian’s popular Monday-night writers’ showcase at 12th & Porter. If you’re a freestyling MC, slam poet or nu-soul vocalist, venues appear fairly often, from Kijiji Coffee House’s weekly open-mic poetry nights to the Black Coffee collective’s performances at the Onyx Room, which boasts a gorgeous view of the downtown Bicentennial Mall. If you’re a country hopeful—and God help you if you are—you can’t throw a capo within five miles of Music Row without clamping down on a writer’s night. The most famous one is at the Bluebird Cafe on Hillsboro Road; by the time your own child is in college, you might get in. If you don’t fit any of those categories, sign up for the monthly bohemian-folk Working Stiff Jamboree, at the awesome tin-roof dive Springwater near Centennial Park, or for the regular writer’s showcase at Guido’s New York Pizzeria across from Vanderbilt. And if you’re one of those sensitive emo-type warblers, go to Riverfront Park, find the pier, and hit your first chord about 20 steps out.

—Jim Ridley

Where do all the songwriters gather?

Working the songwriter nights in Nashville is not unlike baseball’s farm system. Everybody dreams of going to the major leagues, but if you don’t already have a damn good record, it’s AA ball for you. Showing up at the “the bigs,” i.e the Bluebird Cafe, expecting to get a slot is not unlike pulling up to the Yankee’s spring training with your glove in your hand expecting to start in left field. If you’re not already somebody, you’ll have to sign up, try out and wait your turn. Other venues, however, are more accessible. If you fantasize about appearing on CMT, there’s the tried-and-true, I’m-new-in-town country music-oriented writers’ nights such as those at The Broken Spoke and The Hall of Fame lounge. Show up, guitar in hand, be polite, and you’re in. If, however, you’ve got your act together and feel like you’re a little more eclectic than that, give The Basement or Douglas Corner a try—both regularly schedule “writers in the round” events. Last, but by no means least, songstress Cole Slivka regularly hosts ShortSets, a writer’s night at the West End coffeehouse Bean Central. The Monday night event is significant in that Slivka makes a special effort to include newcomers and unknowns, as well as prominent writers, in her lineups.

—Paul Griffith

Is the ’Boro a donkey II?

One of the most important things to know about Nashville’s live music scene is Murfreesboro. For reasons too numerous to go into here, many of the freshest, most unpretentious alternative bands currently making appearances in Music City—jetpack, The Features and Feable Weiner, for example—are associated with the medium-sized hamlet, which is about 30 minutes east of here. Nashville-based pop band The Shazam and rockabilly madmen Those Legendary Shack♦Shakers, however, should also be on your list. If grape-picking dance moves are more your style, then be on the lookout for the following jam bands: Homemade Water, Foggy Bottom, Gran Torino and 9 Miles (a reggae band). Also, for flat-out rock and a hell of a good time, remember that you can’t do much better than Bare Jr. If you swing a dead cat you’ll hit a singer-songwriter around here, but Mindy Smith and Malcolm Holcombe are two you shouldn’t miss. In the bluegrass/old-time category, The Old Crow Medicine Show and Starlings, TN provide a somewhat unrulier interpretation of the region’s indigenous styles. Finally, lest we ignore the kitsch department, there’s The Slow Bar’s ’80s rock impresarios The Guilty Pleasures, who go from Foreigner to Bonnie Tyler with equal bombast.

—Paul Griffith

Where can I go to hear jazz and blues?

Some prime places to hear the city’s finest improvising musicians include Café 123 (123 12th Ave. N.) and F. Scott’s Restaurant & Jazz Club (2110 Crestmoor Drive). F. Scott’s offers jazz every evening, while 123 features such weeknight staples as pianist/journalist Robert L. Doerschuk and guitarist David Andersen, then various performers on weekends.

Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar (220 Printers Alley) won the 2000 Handy Award as National Blues Club of the Year, and brings both topflight national stars and popular regional and local performers. Ed Smith’s Jazz store (265 White Bridge Road) not only includes nearly 100 discs of local jazz artists in his vast inventory, but also presents a weekly concert series that spotlights Nashville musicians. Club Caliente (207 Printers Alley) has become the city’s prime spot for Afro-Latin jazz and salsa on weekends, recently highlighted by the exciting Willie Crespo and his band.

These may be the prime spots, but there are several other places that often book local and national jazz and blues performers. Places on this list include Bean Central (2817 West End Ave.), Windows on the Cumberland (112 2nd Ave.), 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill (816 Third Ave.), Kijiji Coffee House (1413 Jefferson St.), Raz’z Bar & Grill (2241 Murfreesboro Road), Chances Kool Jazz Bar (1003 Thompson Place) and Blues Hideaway (2275 Murfreesboro Road).

—Ron Wynn

Are there any public concerts?

The best things in life are free and there are many free places to be during much of the year around town, but particularly during the summer. (Those doing summer internships or taking classes during the hot months, take note.) Uptown Mix, which runs every Wednesday night July through September at 20th Avenue and Division Street (the gravel lot across from South Street restaurant), is a 21-and-over event and a great draw for music fans or people watchers. Check out www.uptownmix.com for the rest of this year’s schedule. For those who don’t mind getting sweaty for a song or two, there’s Dancin’ in the District. Set on the edge of the Cumberland River at the intersection of First Avenue and Broadway downtown, Dancin’ runs every Thursday night from late May through mid-August and incorporates local acts with great national bands. You’ve just missed the last one, but get a jump on next year at www.dancininthedistrict.com. If you’re more classical than cow punk, both the Blair School of Music (322-7651) and the Nashville Symphony (783-1200) put on great concerts in Centennial Park on West End Avenue throughout the spring and summer. Cowboys and cowgirls have been kicking up their shitkickers Friday and Saturday nights in front of the Grand Old Opry House at Opryland during the Opry Plaza Parties, which ran June 7-Aug. 10. Catch it next year by calling 871-OPRY or visit online at www.opry.com.

—Danny Solomon

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