Kick Up Your Heels in Nashville's Honky Tonk Heaven

Whether you go weak in the knees during the CMAs or you’re here for history, Nashville has a bar to match your “Honky Tonk Attitude.”

When one thinks of Broadway, music likely comes to mind; a production, an evening of entertainment.

Nashville’s version of Broadway isn’t theater, but, as one would expect from the place touting the name “Music City USA,” music is also a vital part of its draw. And not just any music. Country music.

Stroll down Broadway with your eyes closed and you’ll feel as if you’re riding shotgun, sun in your face, as the driver flicks the radio from station to station, snippets of song floating out to meet you. And, knowing Nashville, the songs wafting from Broadway’s buildings are the radio-worthy tunes you’re imagining.

These buildings, both historic fixtures and shiny new structures, house honky tonks. You may recognize the moniker, as it’s been woven into lyrics sung by stars from Hank Williams (“Honky Tonk Blues,” 1952) to Jake Owen (“Down to the Honkytonk,” 2019).

Those who follow Owen’s footsteps will find themselves in an entertaining atmosphere, surrounded by memorabilia, classic country symbols (Western wear, trucks and the like), ice-cold beer, Southern fare and boot-stomping tunes. Despite the honky tonk’s one-time reputation as a ramshackle, rowdy space, in recent years, a new crop of honky tonks has made a mark in downtown, playing off their owners’ brands.

Swanky honky tonks

Ole Red Nashville is one such establishment. Claiming to have invented the “swanky tonk,” Ole Red offers far more than cheap beer. We’re talking a rooftop bar labeled “L.A. meets Lower Broad,” live music chosen by Opry Entertainment and a menu that doesn’t skimp on vegan options. Named after Blake Shelton’s chart-topper, “Ol’ Red,” this venue doesn’t shy away from Shelton; right down to the “Some Beach” cocktail.

Fans who want to spend a day in their favorite band’s boots can head over to FGL House. As with Ole Red, FGL House puts an emphasis on modern music, specifically Florida Georgia Line’s. Whether you choose to hang out in its ’90s pop lounge on basement-level, or on the fourth-floor rooftop, which features live music nightly, you’ll be “Sittin’ Pretty.” Don’t miss the menu, as the salads are bandmates Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard’s go-to, on-tour meals, and the cocktails are mixed with their Old Camp Whiskey.

Sure, Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar features its owner prominently in its name, but one glance at the “Big Green Tractor” over the bar and there’s no question Aldean had a hand in bringing this honky tonk to life. Immersing themselves in the ACM Artist of the Decade’s world, visitors to the patio can find out what Aldean meant when he sang “My Kinda Party” or dig into Momma Aldean’s Peach Cobbler.

Luke's 32 Bridge

Clocking in at 30,000 square feet, Luke’s 32 Bridge is a far cry from the hole-in-the-wall honky tonks of yore. Everything, from the sushi eatery (Luke Bryan’s favorite cuisine) to the “Crash My Party” rooftop bar (one of eight bars on the property) is centered on the singer-songwriter. Grab an alcoholic beverage, such as the aptly named “Drunk on You,” and stake out a spot to hear one of the many live music acts playing throughout the day.

Not many honky tonks can call their stage grandiose, but Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ‘n’ Roll Steakhouse does—and can do so with confidence, as it’s two stories tall. The “Redneck Paradise” invites visitors to rock along to live music, devour one of the steaks that line its menu or kick back and catch a game—screens can be found throughout the five-story structure.

Located in the oldest building on Broadway, and named the No. 1 honky tonk in Nashville by Billboard magazine, AJ’s Good Time Bar has no problem drawing visitors off the street to the stage—whether they’re up there themselves, partaking in nightly karaoke, or singing along with a band while drinking a beer. Alan Jackson’s own memorabilia adorns the wood paneled walls, reminding visitors "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."

While the majority of these fun- and food-filled honky tonks have recently burst onto the scene, one joint promises to walk the line between the new and the historic. Enter Johnny Cash Kitchen and Saloon. Located next to the Johnny Cash Museum, this honky tonk is set to open in summer 2019, serving soul food and embodying the Man in Black’s character.

Historic honky tonks

Spend some time sipping moonshine in Tootsies Orchid Lounge and you’ll feel as though Cash could step through the door at any moment. While only a short jaunt down Broadway, Tootsies is a different type of honky tonk. The historic building is known not for the stars who own the place but those who’ve frequented it because of its legendary status. Tootsies can proudly say Willie Nelson got his first songwriting gig after singing within its purple walls; and high-caliber performers still frequent its stages today.

Stars are also known to take to the stage at The Stage on Broadway; however, part of its claim to fame lies with its artwork: a massive mural and “The Highwaymen” painting, which once belonged to Waylon Jennings.

Music City may sparkle below as you party on a rooftop, but there’s something about grabbing a drink on the ground floor, mere steps from Broadway. Legends Corner fits the bill. Locals and tourists alike spend their evenings dancing in the midst of the countless record covers wallpapering the venue.

Nudie's Honky Tonk

And a trip down Broadway wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Nudie’s, the embodiment of Music City’s honky tonk scene. Located in a 100-year-old, three-story building, it boasts performances by your next favorite artist, Nashville Hot Chicken, and more memorabilia than one can see in a visit—much of it from namesake Nudie Cohn, the designer who outfitted everyone from Elvis Presley to John Wayne.

Branding itself a true Nashville original, Layla’s relies not on fancy fare—although snacks and sandwiches are on the menu—but on another Nashville staple, music, to bring customers through its door. Genres ranging from hillbilly to bluegrass swell to fill the space night after night, drifting up to mingle with the myriad license plates hanging overhead.

Still imagining yourself wandering down Broadway, eyes squeezed shut? If so, with your heightened sense of sound, you may be able to pick another noise out of the mixture of merriment and melody: the buzzing of neon signs. Robert’s Western World’s brightly lit sign, for example, invites honky tonk hoppers to make their way into “Honky Tonk Heaven.”

Before Robert’s was a beloved bar, it was used as an office space for river merchants. From the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s, it was the home of the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar Company. Then, liquor was sold and Western wear lined the walls—the latter two still ring true today, albeit in different forms. Now, visitors can check out its gift shop, admire the decor and wash their fried bologna sandwich down with a PBR. Known as Nashville’s Home of Traditional Country Music, Robert’s Western World is a must-stop for those seeking, well, honky-tonk heaven.

Whether you start your night sipping a themed cocktail paired with a gourmet meal or bellied up to a packed bar, ordering a beer; listening to the newest chart-topper or a tried-and-true tune; surrounded by celebrity or steeped in history, there’s a common denominator: the heart of the honky tonk is country music, as is the heart of Nashville. 

Madison Sullivan
About the author

Madison Sullivan is the Editor of WhereTraveler Charlotte and the WhereTraveler Las Ve...