Don’t just stick to the obvious haunts — Music City offers all manner of eats and treats off the beaten path.
There is so much to see, hear, and do every year during the CMA Music Festival in Nashville that, whether you’re a seasoned regular or a first-time participant, you may think there’s little time for anything that isn’t accessible with a four-day festival ticket. But trust us, there are scads of other things to enjoy while you’re in Music City for the June 8 – 11 festivities. Here are a few suggestions.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum always has an exceptional array of exhibits timed for display during the CMA Music Festival. This year, the lineup includes career-spanning tributes to Charlie Daniels, Zac Brown Band, and the Southern country-rock group Alabama. But the main attraction remains, for the third consecutive year, Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, an exhaustive and extraordinary assemblage of items that collectively documents that epochal period in the 1960s and ’70s when artists of all stripes — including Joan Baez, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and The Byrds — were drawn to Nashville and other parts of Tennessee to record with an amazing crew of local session musicians.
The influx reached flood level thanks in large part to the close friendship and creative collaborations of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who repeatedly joined forces in various mediums — Cash sang “Girl From the North Country” with Dylan on the latter’s 1969 Nashville Skyline album and earned a Grammy Award for writing the LP’s liner notes; Dylan later appeared on the premiere episode of The Johnny Cash Show on ABC — thereby calling attention to how easily the seemingly insurmountable gap between different American cultures could be bridged. Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats will keep you away from CMA Fest for the better part of an afternoon, and you’ll wind up treasuring the time as uniquely well spent.
Take a few steps off the Broadway strip, and you’ll find the Johnny Cash Museum, an intimate Mecca for faithful fans of the Man in Black. Tastefully organized and impressively inclusive, the museum has earned the prestigious AAA Gem rating — and raves from Forbes and National Geographic as a must-visit destination — for its collection of artifacts — clothing, posters, rare photos, handwritten notes, informative signs, and more — that trace the life and career of the late, great superstar who cut his first record for Sun Records in 1955 and whose recording of “Guess Things Happen That Way” holds the distinction of being the 10 billionth download on iTunes. Our favorite area in the place: a screening room where visitors can view snippets of Cash’s TV and movie appearances, including the priceless moment when, while hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live, he introduced Elton John while sporting the gaudy attire and feather boa of Captain Fantastic himself.
Just around the corner on Second Avenue North, there’s the George Jones Museum, another celebratory display of smartly curated memorabilia. Many of the exhibits frankly — and affectionately — reference Jones’ lifelong penchant for overindulgence; in one area, prominent display is given to a John Deere lawn mower similar to the one Jones used to ride from his home to a liquor store after concerned family members conspired to hide his car keys. Elsewhere, among the correspondence from Waylon Jennings and other country music contemporaries, there’s a note from a kindred spirit, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, thanking Jones for boosting Richards’ career by inviting him to record the title track of the duets album Burn Your Playhouse Down.
The Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum over at 401 Gay Street casts its net much wider, to present everything from a display of vintage recording devices — including an exceedingly rare Edison phonograph — to musical instruments played by artists during historic recording sessions at Stax, Sun Records, and FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals. But rest assured, country music is well-represented in a Nashville Studio Pickers exhibit dedicated to the likes of Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, and Merle Haggard. Also on view: the brown leather jacket worn by Glen Campbell on the cover of his By the Time I Get to Phoenix LP, the Music Man bass guitar used by E Street Band founding member Garry Tallent during the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. — and a tribute to the Fisk Jubilee Singers that, no kidding, explains how Nashville earned the nickname Music City.
Nashville abounds in world-class restaurants where master chefs — some of them telegenic celebrities — prepare haute cuisine that even the most dedicated country music fans might set aside a night to sample. But when we’re strolling on and around Broadway to enjoy free concerts and other festivities, we’re more likely to drop in to Robert’s Western World for the $5 “Recession Special” — a fried bologna sandwich, chips, and a PBR. (Just in case you’re one of the craft-beer snobs: PBR means Pabst Blue Ribbon.) And if we hit this fabled honky-tonk at just the right time, we’re likely to stick around for a heaping helping of traditional country music or a tasty sampling of Brazilbilly (country with an irresistible Latin flair), performed live on the Western World stage.
Hearty souls with a major jones for cayenne pepper likely will want to try Nashville hot chicken, a Music City specialty that’s guaranteed to leave you grinning (or wincing) and teary-eyed. There are several places in town that serve some variation of the dish — including Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where it originated. But we’ve always been partial to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken — the midtown branch at 112 19th Ave. S. in particular — when we want to flame on and get plucky. But keep in mind before you drive there: The midtown branch has limited parking space available, especially during lunchtime. And be forewarned that Hattie B’s may not be gentle if this is your first time. The behind-the-counter menu offers the choice of “Southern,” “Mild,” “Medium,” “Hot!” “Damn Hot!!” and “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” Order carefully.
If you want a break from the full-throttle bustle of the Broadway area, you can head over to the Nashville Farmers’ Market and savor a cost-conscious meal at one of the varied eateries available there. The possibilities range from Indian to Italian, Korean-style sushi to traditional New Orleans favorites. We’ve always been partial to the Jamaicaway Restaurant, which has been hailed by Guy Fieri on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Food Network program as one of the best places to eat in Music City. You might consider such praise to be hyperbolic, but only until you sample the jerk chicken or curry goat and wash it down with an imported Jamaican soda. (By the way: If you have time to linger before or after dining, head across the street from the farmers market to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the 19-acre Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.)
And when you need to find a place to order a late-night dinner — or a late, late-night breakfast — after an evening of concertgoing and honky-tonking, keep your eyes peeled for Sun Diner, open 24/7 and located next door to the Johnny Cash Museum right off Broadway. As the name would indicate, the décor can be described as a wall-to-wall tribute to Sun Records. The menu includes such standouts as “Love Me” Tenders and “Cry, Cry, Cry” Hot Wings. At 3 a.m., however, you may be more appreciative of another item: Hangover Flatbread.
The 1864 Battle of Franklin, often and aptly described as the bloodiest five hours in Tennessee history, was an unmitigated disaster for the Confederate forces led by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, a near-defeat for the Union troops commanded by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, and a horrific experience for noncombatants caught in the crossfire near the violent clash. (How violent? Confederate casualties — including 14 generals and 60 regimental commanders — numbered more than 7,000.) If you’re a Civil War buff, you should take an afternoon away from Nashville for a drive to nearby Franklin, where The Battle of Franklin Trust offers daily tours of the painstakingly preserved Carnton Plantation, whose main house was commandeered as a field hospital; and The Carter House, where residents were forced to hide in their basement while, on the grounds outside, the clash between armies degenerated into hand-to-hand skirmishes between men brandishing bayonets, rifle butts, picks, and axes. (The stand-alone farm office on the Carter property is said to be the most bullet-damaged building to survive the Civil War).
The tour guides at both locations are thoroughgoing professionals who bring infectious enthusiasm to their running commentaries. And while you’re in the area, you can also visit Lotz House, which continued to serve as a hospital for soldiers on both sides for months after the Battle of Franklin. Consult the Lotz House website for personalized battlefield tours — lotzhouse.com.
If you’ve budgeted only for day passes to Fan Fair X inside the Music City Center, don’t worry: There are free concerts every day on multiple downtown stages, and other free shows inside Fan Fair X (where, we’re not ashamed to admit, we’ve lined up to get autographs from, and photos with, some of our favorites). If you’ve got a little money in your pocket but can’t finagle tickets to the big shows at Nissan Stadium, keep cool — there are plenty of other entertainment opportunities every night in Nashville during CMA Fest. (Actually, there are plenty of other entertainment opportunities every night in Nashville, period. But that’s another story.) If you’ve never made the pilgrimage to the storied Tootsies Orchid Lounge right behind Ryman Auditorium, well, you really should, as long as you don’t mind crowds. But if you’re seeking something a bit more, ahem, family-friendly, keep in mind: Even during the hubbub of CMA Fest, there are programs on tap at Ryman Auditorium itself and, yes, weekend shows at the Grand Ole Opry. The full June 8 – 11 lineups at both venues had not been confirmed at press time, but you can obtain info and make reservations at ryman.com and opry.com.
Go Early, Stay Late
The official start date of the CMA Fest is June 8 — but don’t let anyone tell you that’s when the real festivities begin. The sartorially splendid multi-hyphenate Marty Stuart — singer, songwriter, photographer, and historian par excellence — has established a hot-ticket tradition with Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam, a rambunctious revue always scheduled for the night before the festival commences. Fittingly billed as equal parts country music throw-down and hillbilly homecoming rave-up, the freewheeling event boasts an artful mix of living legends, contemporary artists, and up-and-comers. But don’t expect to know too much about the 16th annual Late Night Jam — slated to start at 10 p.m. June 7 at Ryman Auditorium — in advance of your ticket purchase: Stuart customarily remains circumspect when it comes to announcing just who’s on the bill before showtime. Indeed, every year, he kicks things off by asking the audience, “Do you trust me?” You can always tell which folks seated around you have attended previous Jams: They’re the ones who sound most fervent in their affirmative responses.
Entertainers as diverse as Charley Pride, The Mavericks, Eric Church, The Oak Ridge Boys, Bobby Bare, Jamey Johnson, and Travis Tritt have popped up in recent years and jammed with Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives band until the wee small hours of the morning. And this year? Well, Stuart and his band recently released a terrific new album — Way Out West — so you probably can count on hearing a few cuts from it. After that, it’s all up for grabs. (For additional info, check out martystuart.net.)
And if you plan on staying in Nashville an extra day, consider a trip to The Listening Room Cafe for Song Suffragettes, an entertaining weekly showcase for some of country music's newest and most promising female singer-songwriters. (The show’s slogan — “Let the Girls Play!” — also serves as a mission statement.) Starting at 6 p.m. every Monday, five newcomers share The Listening Room stage for a cabaret-style program that provides the artists an invaluable opportunity to reach a receptive audience — and, not incidentally, gives the audience a chance to possibly catch some stars of tomorrow on the rise. You can appraise some past shows online — yes, you guessed it, Song Suffragettes has its very own YouTube channel — and check out additional info at songsuffragettes.com.
From the May/June 2017 issue.