Experiencing popular destinations in new ways is challenging. Nashville, Tennessee, however, has so many facets that you may feel like a kid in a candy store. Consider these options next time your group visits Music City.
Applauding Those Musicians
Your favorite singers have public personas, but what about the musicians who backed them in the studio? The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates those unsung heroes. It’s slightly off the beaten path downtown in the aging but quite serviceable Municipal Auditorium.
Nashville’s best studio musicians are honored, but the spotlight also shines on other powerhouse music cities such as Memphis, Tennessee; Los Angeles; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; and Detroit. Guitarist Duane Eddy, one musician who is widely known, explains in an excellent film how supertalented musicians can turn “three minutes in a closed room into a lifetime of memories.” You’ll understand as you hum or sing through every gallery. There’s also an impressive exhibit about the powerful and influential women who shaped Nashville’s music scene.
Hearing world-class musicians is easy in Nashville, particularly at 3rd and Lindsley, a club where the Time Jumpers rule the roost Monday nights. They are 10 top-notch studio musicians who just enjoy playing together. They started gathering at the venerable Station Inn bluegrass joint in 1998. They grew popular, needed more space and garnered Grammy nominations. Members include guitarist “Ranger Doug” Green from Riders in the Sky, steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin, fiddlers Larry Franklin and Joe Spivey, and a budding vocalist and guitar picker named Vince Gill. Cold beer and a good menu are available, too.
Feeding Body and Mind
Two destinations just blocks apart in North Nashville will fill your stomach and expand your mind. Both are underappreciated outside Nashville. They are a soul food restaurant called Swett’s and an unexpected art gallery at Fisk University, a historically black institution founded in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Swett’s exemplifies Nashville meat-and-three restaurants. Debates rage about which restaurant is best dishing up a meat and three vegetables. Swett’s serves down-home country cooking, where macaroni-and-cheese is considered a vegetable. The Swett family fired up the stove in 1954, and family member David Swett loves groups. Mingle with locals — business execs, office workers, construction workers, politicos — in the main room, or pick a private room for 30 or more.
Barely two miles away is the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University. It is housed in the first gymnasium at a black college, but any hint of athletics is long gone. Its fame is in a 4,000-piece collection mostly by African American and African artists, plus an unexpected holding: the 101-piece Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art — Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and more — a gift from Stieglitz’s widow, Georgia O’Keeffe. That collection moves between Fisk and the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s at the Van Vechten in 2020 and 2021.
Another tactic for viewing art is getting a Gray Line hop-on/hop-off trolley for a photo tour of Nashville’s public art. Trolleys will pick you up anywhere in the metro area, and they are more maneuverable than motorcoaches in tight locations. Slip into the Ernest Tubb Record Shop to get a selfie with a bronze statue of the Texas Troubador.
Rolling on Two Wheels
Seeing Nashville from the seat of a bicycle offers a different perspective on Music City. Steve Derse of Bike the Greenway guides groups of up to 20 on multigear hybrid performance bikes through Shelby Bottoms, a nature preserve near downtown, and on routes into the heart of the city.
One popular excursion lasts about two hours, covers about eight miles and includes a specially built bike-and-pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland River near the Grand Ole Opry House. You may get a good photo of the General Jackson showboat from that bridge. Four-hour itineraries take you into the hip East Nashville neighborhood, where you can pause for coffee at the Sky Blue Café, sample artisan chocolates at Sinclair and Olive or get a muffin at Five Daughters Bakery. Pedal a bit farther to slake your thirst at Little Harpeth Brewery.
If your group has members who want to get out on their own, Nashville BCycle has numerous bike racks throughout the center city, in East Nashville, Germantown and elsewhere. A popular area showcases Germantown, the Nashville Farmers’ Market, the state Capitol and Bicentennial Mall State Park, a 19-acre downtown gem that includes a huge in-ground map of Tennessee. Park your bike and figuratively walk from Mountain City to Memphis.
Noshing Through Nashville
Everybody wants a knowledgeable restaurant guide, and Karen-Lee Ryan has made a profession out of being one through her business called Walk Eat Nashville. Ryan and her guides are all food writers or former journalists, so they know their stuff and know how to tell a good tale while on itineraries in Downtown, Midtown and East Nashville.
Tours cover about 1.5 miles in three hours, with tastings in a half-dozen establishments with the benefit of an in-the-know expert. Among the many participating stops are Liberty Common, a Southern brasserie; Green Pheasant,; and Black Rabbit, a Prohibition-era cocktail lounge..
“We love groups,” Ryan said. “We want to customize, so we learn what people already know about Nashville and what they want to learn. Even though we are a food tour, we integrate Nashville’s stories into every tour. The majority of our groups want a downtown experience, so we make sure they eat well and also learn about famous landmarks such as the Ryman Auditorium, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and Lower Broad’s honky tonks. We deliver unscripted talks from professional communicators. That’s what makes it fun.”