Tennessee divides fairly neatly into thirds — East, Middle and West — but there is a single theme that stretches from one corner of this long and skinny state to the other: music.
What’s cool is that it’s not just one kind of music. Tennessee’s country music is known around the world, but even that entertainment juggernaut is only one part of a Tennessee music tour. A roll from Bristol to Knoxville to Chattanooga to Nashville to Memphis adds Americana, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll, blues, rock, rockabilly, soul and perhaps a couple of other genres to the mix.
You could do this trip in five days, but why rush? With tunes this good, a Tennessee music tour deserves a full week.
World-famous music venues and attractions are on this itinerary, plus some places that are fairly new or known only to devoted fans. It’s OK to sing along, but do try to stay on key.
Bristol, the Birthplace of Country
Bristol, where the line separating Virginia and Tennessee goes right down the main street, is where today’s commercial country music began. It was the site of the “big bang” that created the country music universe, a 10-day recording session in 1927 when New York producer Ralph Peer sought talent for the new-fangled recorded music industry.
He set up a studio in a hat company building and, in less than two weeks, recorded 76 songs by 19 acts. Some performers became legends, among them Ernest Stoneman; the Carter Family, the First Family of Country Music; and Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music.
Peer’s work became known as the Bristol Sessions, which the Library of Congress declared among the 50 most significant sound recording events in history.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum brings the Bristol Sessions to life. The museum occupies an imposing structure on the Virginia side of the state line just blocks from the recording site on the Tennessee side.
It is high-tech, high-touch and high-emotion. The lush “Bound to Bristol” video sets the stage for displays about the Bristol Sessions personalities, an opportunity to mix a record yourself and a look at an operating radio studio.
While you’re there: As your clients enjoy the museum, walk a block away to the Blackbird Bakery, a Bristol favorite, and load up on apple oatmeal cookies for the ride to Knoxville. Janette Carter, a stalwart of the second generation of the famous Carter family, provided the recipe.
A Blue Plate Special in Knoxville
While you may find a blue plate special at a Knoxville diner, your target here is a live radio show called “Blue Plate Special” on WDVX-FM, a listener-supported community public radio station. It broadcasts Monday through Thursday and again on Saturday from the Knoxville Visitors Center. Fridays are at a bigger venue: Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in the Old City. Attending a “Blue Plate Special” broadcast adds a dose of Appalachia to your tour.
“Our mission is to promote the cultural heritage of the southern Appalachians,” said WDVX operations manager Anne Williams. “Much of our music is traditional country, and we really enjoy promoting musicians.”
Although access is free, the small visitors center venue, with room for about 70 enthusiastic listeners, usually accommodates everyone who is interested. It’s an intimate experience, whether the performer is a singer or a group new to you or a big-name artist such as Marty Stuart, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Chris Stapleton, Rodney Crowell and Sturgill Simpson.
While you’re there: A nice “dessert” after a “Blue Plate Special” performance is the nearby Museum of East Tennessee History, an underappreciated Knoxville attraction. Its signature exhibition, “Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee,” examines everything from the region’s native Cherokees and early European settlers to African Americans’ contributions, the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, World War II’s Manhattan Project and — yes — the origins of country music.
Stop at Songbird Station in Chattanooga
You don’t even have to know how to strum a chord to appreciate Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga.
Songbirds opened in 2017 to display a private individual’s collection of approximately 1,400 instruments. Up to 600 are in the museum at any one time. The focus is on solid body electric guitars, plus some acoustic guitars, banjos and amplifiers. The museum’s story begins in the 1950s with well-known names such as Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker.
Entertainers sometimes help tell a story or offer historical context, but guitars are the stars here. An example is a corner display that features a Fender Stratocaster along with a photo of Buddy Holly and a replica poster advertising his last show, the February 2, 1959, Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa.
“You won’t hear us brag about a player or someone who owned an instrument. We want the guitar to be the show,” said general manager Damien Rogers.
The museum reveals the gradual evolution of electric guitars in shape, decoration, construction and, especially, color. Rogers points to a Gibson Les Paul with a sunburst finish, made only from 1958 to 1960.
“That design didn’t sell all that well, so it’s rare by definition,” Rogers said. “It has become one of the most desired electric guitars in the world.”
While you’re there: Songbirds is in the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo complex and fits nicely on Station Street, an emerging restaurant and entertainment area. Explore the Chattanooga Choo Choo history and perhaps find some live music in the neighborhood. Songbirds itself has a major performance venue.
Nashville, a Music Mecca
Country music is the lifeblood of Nashville tours, and it’s practically a law to attend the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running radio show in the world, which marks its centennial in 2025, and visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. However, music abounds elsewhere.
Only four blocks from the historic Ryman Auditorium, a recommended destination itself, is a gigantic but almost hidden treasure: the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Musicians Hall of Fame honors the unsung heroes of recorded music, the extraordinary musicians who create the audio worlds singers enhance. It is national in scope, spotlighting powerhouse music cities such as Memphis; Los Angeles; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Detroit; and Nashville, of course.
While you’re there: The Time Jumpers is a collection of friends that happen to be among the world’s best studio musicians. Most are unknown outside their own circles, although you may have heard of one member: Vince Gill. The Time Jumpers frequently play on Monday nights at a group-friendly venue called 3rd and Lindsley.
Blues and More in Memphis
Memphis is replete with music and music history — Elvis Presley’s Graceland proves that — and the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum puts everything in perspective. The museum began as a project of the Smithsonian Institution, so it goes deeply into the story of the music Memphis has exported to the world and how Memphis grew as rural populations migrated to the city.
The Rock ’n’ Soul Museum explains how entertainment was often a bridge between black and white cultures and about how country, gospel, soul and rock music are united. Just think of how many styles of music Elvis conquered. He, like the music of Memphis, was as faceted as a finely cut diamond.
A point of trivia: The Rock ’n’ Soul Museum reports that Memphis is in the lyrics of more than 1,000 recorded songs, more than any city in the world.
While you’re there: For a personality-driven experience, check out the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. This is where you can see one-third of Jerry Lee Lewis’ wall-mounted Cadillac El Ballero — a customized El Dorado — and the pink “Funky Chicken” suit and cape Rufus Thomas wore onstage. Where to conclude a Memphis music tour is the challenge, when attractions such as Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Blues Hall of Fame and others clamor for your time.