When someone says “music” and “the South,” do you think of New Orleans jazz, Nashville contemporary country, Elvis’ greatest hits, Kentucky barn dances, Appalachian rhythms? Or do you think of ’70s and ’80s rock?
Just as the first American settlers laid their roots in the South, most major American musical genres have done the same. From one state to the next or even from city to city, groups can experience the evolution of American music from early African tunes to the origins of today’s chart toppers.
Nashville’s musical roots run far, far deeper than the pop country focus of popular television show “Nashville” would lead you to believe. As early as the 1890s, the city was a hotbed of ground-breaking gospel music at the Union Gospel Tabernacle, which went on to house the Grand Ole Opry for 30 years before becoming the Ryman Auditorium, one of the most important music venues in the city today.
The Country Music Hall of Fame peels back these layers, walking visitors through the history of not only country music, but also American music generally.
“It tells the story of America’s music in a chronological fashion, how music came into America and the development of other genres,” said Laurel Bennett, director of tourism sales for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. “A lot of people go into the Hall of Fame skeptical about country music and come out realizing how closely all the different genres are connected and that they are in fact country music fans. Right now they have an exhibit on Bob Dylan.”
An expansion in 2014 catapulted the attraction to the status of the world’s largest museum dedicated to music.
A satellite part of the Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville is RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded more than 200 songs. Today, groups tour the studio and also lay down their own tracks. Bennett recommends groups start there in the morning before touring the Country Music Hall of Fame and wind up at Wildhorse Saloon for lunch and line dancing lessons, where their Studio B recording is debuted to the crowd.
In the evenings, groups can catch a show at the Ryman Auditorium, where the acoustics from the original church’s hardwood floors and stained-glass windows creates a bucket-list performance environment for musicians, or the Grand Ole Opry, where the performance is heightened by the fact that it is a live radio show complete with commercials. Downtown, all of Broadway rocks from 10 a.m. until 3 a.m. at honky-tonk bars. Out of town, groups can have a more tranquil live performance ambiance at the Fontanelle, a restored historic home run by a group of music producers that have filled the space with memorabilia from their chart-topping artists.
Renfro Valley, Kentucky
While country music has become more strongly linked with Tennessee, and Nashville in particular, Kentucky’s Renfro Valley’s country music legacy is matched only by the Grand Ole Opry. “The Renfro Valley Gatherin’,” which started on the airwaves in 1943, is the second-oldest continuously running radio show in the United States after the Opry.
John Lair, a Chicagoan with Kentucky roots who ran the radio show “National Barn Dance,” which inspired the “Grand Ole Opry” show, wanted to host a live barn-dance event to match his immensely popular show. Naysayers told him he’d have to turn the venue back into a tobacco barn because no one would come, but today his entertainment center has grown into a 55-acre campus with shops and restaurants.
Though Nashville is full of urban music venues crowded in on one another, Renfro Valley’s music venues give country music space to breathe, often quite literally. In John Lair’s day, “there’d be some nights where they had 3,000 people here, and they’d open up the sides of the barn,” said Renfro Valley sales and marketing coordinator Jerred Harris.
Groups have a wealth of options to enjoy Renfro Valley’s energetic country music. Thursday through Sunday, groups can enjoy a new show called the “Hazzard County Hoedown,” which “is a tribute to the Dukes with hilarious hijinks with Boss and the Dukes,” said Harris. Friday nights typically feature a major headliner like Trace Adkins, and Saturday holds the Mountain Gospel Jubilee for bluegrass gospel and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance that started it all.
During the day, groups can visit the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame to learn more about the origins of Kentucky country music and the Bittersweet Cabin Village, with transplanted structures dating from the 1700s through World War II, to understand the people who produced the music. The Hall of Fame is open seasonally, and the village is open year-round.