Tennessee’s Music Cities — Nashville & Memphis
Nashville & Memphis Are “Music Cities”
We live in a country so vast in geography, culture, and traditions, it’s as if each region has a fingerprint. In 2021, BNT will tour a few music cities in the U.S. Southeast including Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, where melodies run like a river: deep, continuous, and timeless. Both Nashville and Memphis have “music city” reputations and claim some of the same artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. However, Nashville is largely associated with Country and Bluegrass music. Over Memphis-way, it’s Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. While the two cities share some similar traits as Southern cities, we think you’ll hum a different tune after you visit!
Music is the universal language that more often brings us together than separates.
Music reminds us of our childhood and coming-of-age days, of weddings and funerals, of family and faith—in fact, most people can name song after song that captures pivotal moments in their lives. Songs can root us in a geographical and time era, immortalize events and moments in our country, and unite us in common experiences. In fact, much of a country’s identifying music springs up during challenging times, like war, depression, poverty, and societal struggle. Our songs also serve as a way to shout our love, joy, and celebrations to the world around us. In essence, we all have communicated in some way, at some time, through music.
Musical Giants Leave Big Footprints in Tennessee
One might wonder, “Does the town make the music or does the music make the town?” That’s something we might figure out on tour. On Nashville’s Music Row, the Ryman Theater stage, and along Lower Broad, you can still hear strains of Country giants like Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Sr. & Jr., Willie Nelson, Kris Kristopherson, Reba McIntyre, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride—and of course, Johnny Cash and Elvis. Memphis’s Beale Street and Orpheus Theater are synonymous with musical giants like B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, Etta James, and of course, Johnny Cash and Elvis…Maybe we’ll just call Tennessee the land of the musical giants because the list goes on and on!
While old songs keep us connected to the past, new songs tell our stories—and the stories of our country—as life is unfolding. It’s not just Country and R & B that are rooted in Nashville and Memphis, these cities also have given rise to Gospel, Soul, Jazz, Bluegrass, Contemporary Christian, and Rock & Roll for more than a century. Besides thrumming creative communities, both have the museums, performance venues, and studios to mark the map as must-see destinations. Let’s take a closer look at each city…
Nashville — It Started With A Hymnal Western Harmony
As early as the 1800s, music publishing found a place to bloom in Tennessee. In 1824, the hymnal Western Harmony was published in Nashville. The Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, a historic all-black university in Nashville, traveled the world to raise funds, contributing to the school’s mission of educating former slaves. They earned the distinction of becoming the “first musical act to tour around the world.” This group performed for the Queen of England, who purportedly said they hailed from “Music City.” Maybe she’s the one who first coined the phrase for Nashville?
The Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892 by a former ship captain and originally named “Union Gospel Tabernacle,” opened as the largest auditorium south of the Ohio River and is revered still today for its acoustical sound. A National Historic Landmark, the Ryman has attracted musicians from around the world and across every genre. For a performer, playing their songs on the Ryman stage is a rite of passage. It is often called “The Mother Church of Country Music” in part for its design: low ceilings, convex walls, and long, curving rows of wooden church pews. In fact, when designing the venue, the original architect’s considered evangelists booming out their message to a live audience without the aid of modern “sound.” Today, the Ryman sound has been engineered to protect the integrity of the building while accommodating all types of performing acts.
The Songwriter’s Town
For dreamers yearning to follow in the footsteps of those who have come before, whether they come to Nashville or Memphis, they’ll find big shoes to fill. And yet, songwriters write and artists perform everyday in these cities, even during a pandemic.
In addition to “Music City,” some call Nashville the “Songwriting Capital of the World” where every day songwriters gather together “on the Row” to write songs. Although the city’s architecture has welcomed an explosion of modernity in the past few years with skyscrapers and mid-rises built to accommodate an influx of people, on tree-lined 16th and 17th Avenues, many Music Row’s craftsman bungalows remain intact and occupied with music publishers, recording studios, and entertainment headquarters. Even during the 2020 quarantine, songwriters, who normally meet in person to write, are not dissuaded from chasing the dream and changing the world with a song.
“Now, we meet online on Zoom and FaceTime, but it’s not the same as being in the same room writing a song,” remarked one long-time songwriter from Music Row.
Songwriting is truly a unique art form in Nashville because writers combine their talents in real time “checking their egos at the door,” as they say, while most other art genres are created by individuals and often in seclusion. While 2020 has quieted the breadth of live music temporarily, you will find music playing somewhere at any time of the day, every day.
Memphis – Home of the Blues
Beale Street in downtown Memphis is not only the most famous music street in town, it’s black history is rich. Established in 1841, it “became a thriving area for black commerce and culture around the time of the Civil War.” Yellow fever attacked the city in the 1870s decimating the city’s population, but after Robert Church, a former slave invested in the area, the park named after him at Fourth and Beale “became a gathering center for blues musicians and featured a 2,000-seat auditorium.” From the 1920s to the 1940s, Memphis blues found its sound with Muddy Water, Louis Armstrong, and B.B. King playing on the street. During the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans gathered to “entertain and be entertained, shop, strategize and protest.” Just down the road, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Beale Street’s history makes it a pillar of the *Civil Rights Trail today. Beale Street has been revitalized since those times and is a beacon for travelers who love music, dining, and the arts.
In a way, the music written and performed in these two Tennessee cities tells our collective story of growing up and living life as an American. Embracing moments and setting them to music helps us make sense of our experiences. And every year, millions of travelers visit our “music cities” keeping the songs alive. So, it is no wonder the music our our country is timeless and resonates far beyond the streets of Nashville and Memphis.
*For more on the Civil Rights Trail: https://civilrightstrail.com/attraction/beale-street-historic-district/
Nashville and Memphis Highlights for Music Lovers
Museums: Blues Hall of Fame (421 S. Main Street); Rock and Soul Museum (191 Beale Street); and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Gibson Guitar, Johnny Cash Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, George Jones Museum, Country Music Hall of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Graceland…
Performance Venues: Orpheum Theatre, Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry, Bluebird Cafe, Country Music Hall of Fame, B. B. King’s House of Blues, Rock and Soul Museum…
Studios: Stax Studio, Sun Studio, Third Man Records, Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, House of Davide Studios, RCA Studio B, WSM Radio at Opryland Hotel…
Coming Next on the BNT Travel Blog…
Southeast Series — Nashville & Memphis: Put Your Best Food Forward
Gulf Coast Series — New Orleans & The Gulf Coast: Music & Food
Related BNT Tours & Travel Blogs:
BNT 2021 Tour Preview Season from Tour Director Cindy Wilson