Downtown & the Gulch
In addition to the clubs mentioned here, you’ll find tons of small bars along lower Broadway, a teeming, 2-block strip between 4th and 5th avenues, that offer up authentic and not-so-authentic country music in equal measure, all filtered through a neon lens. Increasingly these days you’ll find the real deal tucked in between bars owned by Nashville Bro Country stars including Blake Shelton’s Ole Red, Kid Rock’s “Steakhouse” and, the hellhole that launched a thousand other hellholes, the Florida Georgia Line House. None of these is included in the listings that follow because, honestly, I’d rather die than set foot in any of them. If you think that makes me a pretentious blowhard, you might be right. But also: Ignore me! If these places call out to you, you should absolutely go to them. You might have a down-by-the-creek, mud-on-the-tires, boot-scootin’ good time! I simply cannot recommend them, but there are plenty of places I can recommend.
What the Heck Is a Honky-Tonk Anyway?
The origin of the term honky-tonk is disputed. Its earliest known use in print is from the “Peoria Journal” dated in 1874: "The police spent a busy day today raiding the bagnios and honkytonks." Some say the word was capitalized in such a way that it may have been a proper name which spurned a generic term thereafter. There is also a school of thought that says the sound of the word “honky-tonk” suggests that the term may be an onomatopoeic reference to the loud, boisterous noises made by these establishments. Another theory is that the "tonk" part of the name comes from the brand name of piano made by William Tonk & Bros., an American manufacturer of pianos used to play ragtime, which ultimately evolved into boogie-woogie and eventually hillbilly music. As a style, honky-tonk music typically involves a moderate two-step dance tempo and small ensemble playing loud enough to cut through the noise of small, raucous crowds. Regardless of the origin, pretty much everyone agrees that by the 1950s, honky-tonk music entered its golden age when it was made popular by acts such as George Jones and Hank Williams.
The Origins of the Alley
Founded in 1828, Printers Alley was originally meant to be used as a service entrance for buildings on nearby streets. It quickly filled up with gambling parlors, saloons, and brothels, which were often raided by police only to be back in business a few hours later. At one point, it was also home to the city’s newspaper offices. Starting in the 1940s, musicians began to play here, including Waylon Jennings, the Supremes, Dottie West, and Jimi Hendrix. In 1998, club owner David “Skull” Schulman was robbed and murdered in his nightclub on the street. Schulman was a regular on “Hee Haw” and was often called the “Mayor of Printers Alley.” Ever the character, Skull was known to dye his beloved poodles red and green at Christmas, (one of which he was sent by Elvis) and was often seen walking them on rhinestone leashes down the alley. Today Schulman’s place has been updated and reopened, named in his honor as “Skull’s Rainbow Room,” a vibrant speakeasy-style gathering place where you can hear live piano music, see a burlesque show, and have a steakhouse-quality dinner.
Downtown Sporting Club
A project by the team behind Pinewood Social, the Downtown Sporting Club, slated to open spring 2019, will be a 42,000-square-foot adult playground, complete with coffee house, Airbnb units, a sports bar, and an axe-throwing court. The “Rec Room” will feature a large oval-shaped bar, old-fashioned games, and a screening room with a 13-ft. screen. Airbnb guests will have the option of having the Strategic Hospitality staff curate their whole visit. Located in Pinewood’s former Paradise Park location, downtown on Broadway.
Margaritaville & Music City
While there is no reason to go to Margaritaville in Nashville, there is a tenuous connection of Jimmy Buffett to our city. The singer did, in fact, live here for two unproductive years (his words, not mine). “Couldn’t get nothing recorded,” Buffett said in a 1974 interview. “Got depressed, got pissed off, got divorced, and left. Best move I ever made.” That move, of course, was to Key West, the town that spawned many of his hits and the restaurant chain that owns Nashville’s Broadway location. Real Parrotheads know, however, that Buffett’s biggest connection to Music City is counting Rotier’s French bread cheeseburger as one of his top 10 cheeseburgers. A more legitimate claim, however, comes from a 1973 trip recounted to the “Nashville Scene.” A misunderstanding over who borrowed his rental car led Buffett to disturb a patron of the East Nashville motel where he was staying: Buford Pusser. The onetime Tennessee sheriff—a man who inspired the film “Walking Tall” by waging a one-man war on moonshining, prostitution, and other vices—grew angry when Buffett caused a scene looking for the car. According to sources, Buffett’s last words that night were: “Buford Pusser is gonna whip my ass!”
Best of Both Worlds
If you feel you must see the “Grand Ole Opry” but have been convinced by my admonitions that Opryland isn’t for you, there is a key workaround: From November through January, you can see the Opry in its original home at the Ryman. Every winter the Opry returns to its home from 1943 to 1974, and it’s a fantastic, lesser known way to see the show without making the trek to Opryland.
The Story of the Songbird
Founder Amy Kurland opened the Bluebird Cafe in 1982 as a gourmet restaurant that would occasionally have live music. She added a stage as an afterthought, but soon live music became a regular occurrence. In 1983, Bluebird regular Kathy Mattea landed a record deal, and that started the signing trend. In 1984, Bluebird held its first Writer’s Night, an evening where up-and-coming songwriters play original material with a songwriter who’s had some success. The evening featured Don Schlitz, who had already won a Grammy for writing Kenny Rogers’ song "The Gambler." The 1993 movie “The Thing Called Love,” was written about the Bluebird, and some scenes were shot on location in Nashville; it was River Phoenix’s last complete film. The youngest singer-songwriter to be discovered at the Bluebird Cafe was in 2003: a 14-year-old Taylor Swift.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.