Venue Explorer: Nashville
Nashville is known first and foremost as the home and heart of country music, and there’s no question that if you want to catch some of the greatest country artists on the planet, this is your ideal destination. But the town historically known as Music City is a hotbed of more than just one core genre of music. From the smallest clubs to the biggest arenas and amphitheaters, Nashville is a place where you can catch cutting-edge indie and alternative acts, classic rock superstars, and hip-hop heroes — as well as all things Americana.
Nashville Music & Sports Venues
Known to NHL fans as the home of The Nashville Predators, the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville first opened its doors in 1996. Since then, in addition to Predators games, the venue has hosted college basketball, rodeo, boxing, and wrestling, and was the site of the 2016 NHL All-Star game and three games of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. Of course, being located in Music City, the Bridgestone has some heavy musical history as well. The Arena can hold up to 20,000 people for concerts. And while plenty of country music acts and fans come through, you can find all kinds of music there. You could hear Loretta Lynn at the Bridgestone one night and Kiss the next — or possibly P!nk or Godsmack. In its Music City Theater configuration, the Bridgestone transforms into a 5,145-seater that’s just right for musical theater performances.
Alongside the Cumberland River, in a Metro Riverfront Park spot that’s about as picturesque as you could ask for, Ascend Amphitheater has been in operation since 2015, when it kicked off with a bang by hosting a pair of sold-out concerts by Eric Church. Able to hold a total of 6,800 people (between assigned seating and the lawn), the venue has presented concerts by some of the biggest acts in the world, from all across the stylistic spectrum. This being Nashville, naturally country has been well represented by the likes of Alan Jackson, Chris Stapleton, and even megastar Garth Brooks. Rockers and pop stars from ZZ Top and the Goo Goo Dolls to Janet Jackson and Meghan Trainor have also graced its stage, making it one of the best music venues in Nashville.
There are larger Nashville venues than the Ryman Auditorium, but none more iconic. Now officially recognized as a national historic landmark, it opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, but the building that came to be known as the Mother Church of Country Music was always used for entertainment in addition to religious services. After the 1904 death of Thomas Ryman, the businessman largely responsible for its existence, the Tabernacle was renamed for him. The Ryman is best known for hosting the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, but it fell into disuse for years after that, until renovation efforts began in the late ’80s. The world met the new Ryman in the ’90s, and additional work was done in the 2010s. Today, the Ryman holds more than 2,300 people, and in addition to presenting shows by contemporary country stars like Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves, it also features indie poppers like Jenny Lewis, classic rockers like John Mellencamp, and such standup comedy talents as Jim Jefferies and Tom Segura.
When it comes to the best music venues in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry House is second only to the Ryman Auditorium, which is fitting, since it was built to be the Ryman’s successor. After it was decided that the Grand Ole Opry needed a larger, more modernized home than the Ryman, the Opry House was erected in 1974 for the purpose. A part of the original Ryman stage was incorporated into the Opry House and remains a tribute to the former today. With a capacity of more than 4,300, it’s been the home of the Opry ever since, featuring just about every country icon you can think of over the years. But rockers like Alice Cooper and Santana can also be seen there, as well as comedy superstars like Jay Leno and Jeff Foxworthy.
If you’re talking about grand-scale events in Nashville, Nissan Stadium should come immediately to mind. With a capacity of more than 69,000, it’s been playing host to huge concerts as well as all sorts of sports ever since it opened up on the eastern bank of the Cumberland River in 1999 (known as the Adelphia Coliseum at the time). The stadium is the home of both the NFL‘s Tennessee Titans and Tennessee State University’s Tigers, but soccer and motocross are often part of the equation too. And when it comes to concerts, in addition to presenting everybody from Guns N’ Roses to Ed Sheeran, Nissan Stadium is the host of the annual CMA Music Festival, which brings together just about every major name in country music.
When the Exit/In opened back in 1971 with a capacity of about 200, it quickly began to establish a profile directly contrasting its size. The club became a hub for those who were working outside the Music City mainstream at the time, including outlaw country artists, introspective singer-songwriters, and straight-up rockers. From the ’70s on, the Exit/In has been a crucial part of Nashville culture. It even wound up immortalized in film when it was featured as the setting for important scenes in Robert Altman’s influential film Nashville. These days the club is a bit larger — it was revamped in the ’80s and it now holds up to 500 people — though its maverick spirit is very much intact. It concentrates more on alternative/indie rock, pop, and hip-hop these days, but it remains open to everything. In addition to cutting-edge indie rockers, you might catch a show by an Americana artist like Wayne Hancock, dance-music legends such as The Crystal Method, or old-school alternative heroes like Lydia Lunch and Liz Phair.
The original Basement on 8th Ave. South developed into enough of a Nashville institution that an east side annex was needed. That’s how the Basement East on Woodland St. was born in 2015. The Basement East was conceived to be bigger than its sibling venue, and it can hold up to 400 hardy music lovers. The club has the same spirit as the original Basement, which means that it opens its doors to plenty of up-and-coming indie pop and rock artists as well as making room for country and Americana artists. One night you might catch a gang of touring alt rockers and the next you might encounter an outlaw country act like Elizabeth Cook or Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. And in between there are treats such as multi-artist tribute nights honoring Willie Nelson or Elvis Costello — that’s the way the Basement East rolls.
Marathon Music Works is an integral part of the Marathon Village complex of arts and entertainment spaces built where the historic Marathon Motor works stood in the early 20th century. With a standing-room capacity of up to 1,500 people, the venue is known for a fantastically eclectic approach to booking. It’s the kind of place where you can see classic-rock heroes like Ace Frehley or Swedish metal monsters Meshuggah, Americana icon Neko Case or emo legends Taking Back Sunday, or any number of cutting-edge indie rockers on the rise. Before the show you can hit the lounge for an espresso or a tasty bite, but even when you’re in the performance space, you can always toddle to the back of the room, where there’s a cart that serves up tacos, nachos, and suds. For more dedicated drinking, there’s the Music Works’ top-tier bar, William Collier’s.
The Cannery has been entertaining the downtown crowd for a long time, but it has a fascinating history that goes back even further. It was actually built in the 1880s, and starting in the 1950s it was indeed an actual cannery. But it became a go-to spot for country music in the ’70s, and earned a reptuation for presenting the hottest in alternative music over the next couple of decades. With a capacity of 1,000, the Ballroom has hosted Americana acts like the Drive-By Truckers and The Devil Makes Three, indie-poppers Of Montreal and Deerhunter, and old-school alternative icons like Johnny Marr of the Smiths. The Cannery’s little sibling the Mercy Lounge lives upstairs. This 500-capacity club has been in operation since 2003. It’s the kind of place where indie-pop marvel Mac DeMarco might appear one day and hair-metal hero Sebastian Bach may pop up the next. And no matter who’s playing, the booths and pool tables at the back of the Mercy always offer a place to hang out and chill.
The smallest of the trio of clubs occupying the Cannery building, the High Watt has a modest capacity of 225, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. It started doing business inside the Cannery in 2012, and it proudly lays claim to being “the world’s finest dive bar and music venue.” That scrappy spirit is part of what makes the club such a draw for fans of independent music. When the annual Americana Fest hits Nashville, The High Watt is always a key venue, but there’s something exciting going down all year round. Tokyo Police Club and Greta Van Fleet are among the bands who’ve shown up to satisfy the small but hardy crowds that fill the place.
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