No visit to Nashville would be complete without a trip to the honky tonks and dive bars that make up the city’s nightlife. Most of the live music venues are in “The District,” a 20-block area downtown that includes three historic districts that have been the epicenter of Nashville nightlife for decades.
Many of Nashville’s famous nightspots are found on Broadway between First and Fifth avenues—better known as “Honky Tonk Row.” The most famous is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. A local landmark for more than 50 years, Tootsie’s traces its roots to “Mom’s,” where Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline would slip across the alley behind the Ryman for a quick drink between Opry shows. Willie Nelson got his first songwriting contract after a set at Tootsie’s, and Roger Miller supposedly wrote “Dang Me” there. Kris Kristofferson lived upstairs at Tootsie’s at one time. The autographed photos on Tootsie’s “Wall of Fame” bear witness to the stars who continue to visit the Orchid Lounge and sometimes join local bands on Tootsie’s two stages.
A few doors down, The Stage on Broadway offers live country music and plenty of room to dance. It has loads of memorabilia, including guitars, movie posters and vintage ads. The highlight is a huge mural of The Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kristofferson and Nelson) that once belonged to Jennings, as well as a guitar signed by all four.
Country memorabilia is also a key feature at Legends Corner, where album covers and a Johnny Cash guitar surround the tables and dance floor. The Second Fiddle features antique radios and other items of interest. Robert’s Western World not only has a mural of traditional stars like Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline—it’s also a boot store with hundreds of pairs surrounding the dance floor.
While country music dominates those venues, Layla’s Bluegrass Inn offers more: Americana, hillbilly, rockabilly, western and, of course, bluegrass. Tequila Cowboy features country and rock—and has one of the few mechanical bulls in town. Nashville Crossroads mixes Southern rock with its country. Blues and Cajun cuisine are the highlights at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar. Country and rock complement the adult beverage menus at Big Shotz, with a full menu of shots, and the Whiskey Bent Saloon, which spotlights a selection of specialty bourbons. Classic country and rockabilly are the focus at Full Moon Saloon. Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar bills itself as the “Cheers of Nashville,” showcasing local bands and a sunken dance floor.
For some clubs, the venue is as entertaining as the music. Paradise Park Trailer Resort is just what the name implies—a restaurant/bar/club that feels like a trailer park. The lawn chairs, broken-down cars, chandeliers made of tires and the Mullet Wall of Fame let anyone to get in touch with their “inner redneck.” Paradise Park features local musicians and songwriters, drawing locals and tourists to the dance floor.
The carved larger-than-life horses running across the ceiling are a unique touch that makes the Wildhorse Saloon a memorable setting for live music, dining and dancing. The restored warehouse offers 66,000 square feet of space on three floors, and boasts the largest dance floor in the world, covering 4,982 square feet. The venue is owned and operated by Gaylord Entertainment, (Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, WSM Radio and Opryland Hotel). The Wildhorse is frequently used for television productions, and hosts country, rock, pop and hip-hop acts. But the prime focus is country, from the down-home menu to the free line dancing lessons that keep customers on their toes.
While many of the downtown venues are locally owned, there are several chains with a Nashville presence, putting a Music City spin on familiar venues. Hard Rock Café offers 12,000 square feet of space, including a concert venue, plus memorabilia items from Garth Brooks, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jimi Hendrix (who cut his teeth playing in Nashville clubs). One of the newer additions is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which serves up seafood and a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” accompanied by live island music. Coyote Ugly Saloon provides all the glitz of its namesake movie, but this time to a Nashville beat. Next door is B.B. King’s Blues Club, with two stages where bands perform R&B, jazz and blues.
If listening to other singers gives you the urge to croon, Nashville also has a selection of karaoke bars. Several are in Printer’s Alley, including Lonnie’s Western Room & Karaoke Bar, which offers songs in a wide range of musical styles. Buck Wild Saloon spans three stories, including karaoke, live country music and a dance club on different levels. Wanna B’s Karaoke Bar is upstairs over Cadillac Ranch.
While most of the live music is concentrated Downtown, there are other locations outside the main tourist/convention district. In The Gulch, a development less than a mile from Downtown, check out live bluegrass and roots music at the Station Inn. The West End area near Vanderbilt University is home to Exit/In, a legendary rock stage. The area around Opryland Hotel includes Gibson Showcase, an instrument store and performance venue; and Nashville Palace, one of the largest honky tonks in the state.
The music industry has given birth to a unique Nashville feature: clubs where songwriters gather to test out new compositions and share the stories behind their hits. The best-known venue is The Bluebird Café in the Green Hills area. The Bluebird seats 100 diners who can hear live country and acoustic music nightly. It gained fame for its weekend songwriter roundtables during the years The Nashville Network broadcast “Live from the Bluebird Café” here. Reservations are suggested for the weekend shows in which three to four songwriters take turns swapping tales and singing their hits (and misses) in various genres.
However, the Bluebird is not alone in spotlighting songwriters. Pick’s Nashville is located in the Best Western Music Row. Known for years as the Hall of Fame Lounge, Pick’s remains one of the area’s most enduring songwriter showcases. The Douglas Corner Café counts Garth Brooks as an early regular performer. The cafe remains a spot for songwriters and artists to fine-tune the hits of the future and engage in impromptu jams. Other locations that offer regular songwriter shows include the Commodore Lounge at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt and the Listening Room.
The songwriter showcases are not in The District, but all are within a short drive or cab ride from Honky Tonk Row. However, most of the other honky tonks and bars are an easy walking distance from each other in The District. Many clubs open as early as 10:30 am, with closing times typically at 2 am or 3 am. In Nashville, smoking is banned in restaurants but still allowed at bars. As a result, some honky tonks are non-smoking, while others have smoking and non-smoking sections. A number of clubs—particularly the established traditional nightspots—do not have cover charges (although some pass the hat to collect tips for the bands). Dress codes are rare, so come as you are.
Weekends and holidays can be crowded, particularly when Vanderbilt University or one of Nashville’s professional teams has a home game. But no matter how busy the downtown area gets, there are plenty of clubs to choose from. Wherever you go, there is plenty of room to enjoy a cold beer and live music at some of the South’s classic honky tonks.