Music City’s Must-See Musical Shrines
Wandering through the streets of Nashville, you’ll probably be aware of music in some way, shape, or form everywhere you turn. Wandering through the streets of Nashville, you’ll probably be aware of music in some way, shape, or form everywhere you turn. It could be a recording studio or a juke joint, a guitar store or a record shop, or an impromptu street corner jam session. At any given time, a free outdoor performance is likely to be happening somewhere. (See page 86 for a roundup of the city’s best annual events and festivals.) We say it’s not a complete visit to Nashville without a pilgrimage to one (or all) of these temples of music.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this venue in country music history. According to the theater’s website, “This is the exact spot where bluegrass was born, where Johnny Cash met June Carter…country music found an audience beyond its own back porch, and countless careers took off as deals were signed on napkins and paper scraps backstage.”
Known as the Mother Church of Country Music, this building has always sat on sacred ground. It started life as Union Gospel Tabernacle, built by local businessman Thomas G. Ryman, who was apparently moved by the spirit to do so at an 1885 tent revival meeting. The hall was named for Ryman after his death in 1904.
By the 1920s, evangelical worshippers had been replaced with audiences for acts like Harry Houdini, Roy Rogers, and Mae West. Then came the Grand Ole Opry. Through live radio and TV broadcasts, the Ryman brought everyone from Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl to Johnny Cash and Elvis into homes across the country–and put country music on America’s map.
Today, this hallowed space is revered by artists and audiences alike for its extraordinary acoustics and rich legacy. Visitors can take a backstage tour, see the exhibit, and even record a song (ryman.com/tours).
Grand Ole Opry House
The Grand Ole Opry began in 1925 as a live Saturday-night “barn dance” on local radio station WSM. Within a few years, the show had become so wildly popular that it was heard in about 30 states, drawing crowds into the Nashville studio to watch the live performances. NBC Radio picked up the program for national broadcast in 1939, and that’s when things really took off. By 1943, the show had such a massive live audience that it set up shop at the Ryman.
But the Grand Ole Opry didn’t stop there; it kept on growing and growing. Its namesake theater was built in 1974. Today, the longest-running music broadcast in U.S. history presents an unforgettable cross-generational lineup of old-school legends and rising stars both here and at its “winter home” across town, the Ryman.
When you take a backstage tour (opry.com/backstagetours), don’t be surprised if you feel the presence of Dolly Parton, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, and other members of country music’s royal family.
RCA Studio B
If you’ve ever heard Charley Pride’s Just Between You and Me, Roy Orbison’s Crying, the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown, or Dolly Parton’s Jolene, you’ve experienced just a tiny bit of the magic that came from RCA Studio B. It was here that country music was polished and popularized like never before.
Built in 1957, the facility was the idea of one of RCA’s top country artists, Chet “Mr. Guitar” Atkins, and RCA exec Steve Shoals. (It’s said that the plans were drawn on a napkin.) A few years after construction, sound engineer Bill Porter decided that the space had some acoustical issues. His fixes were cheap but brilliant. Triangle-shaped acoustic panels were hung from the ceiling at different heights. He found the studio’s sonic sweet spots, marked them with “X”s on the floor, and positioned the singers and instrumentalists just so. The difference was amazing!
Those simple innovations, combined with the stylized characteristic of background singers and strings, gave rise to Studio B’s reputation as “the cradle of the Nashville Sound.” The studio is also the birthplace of an important method of chord notation known as the Nashville Number System.
Recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, Studio B helped put Nashville on the map as an international recording center. The roster of titans who have laid down tracks include, in addition to the luminaries mentioned above, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley (he alone recorded more than 200 songs here), Al Hirt, and Floyd Cramer, to name a few.
While Studio B no longer operates as a hit factory, it serves as a classroom where area students learn about sound and recording technology.
Fun fact: According to Dolly Parton, one can still see the spot where she drove into the Studio B building in her rush to get to her very first recording session as an RCA artist. If these walls could speak…