Nashville, Tennessee, has a musical history as long as the list of hits that have come out of that city. The music and the artists, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Elvis Presley to Jason Aldean, span decades and genres. It is no wonder Nashville has become known as Music City.
With more than 180 venues, music can be found just about everywhere in Nashville. Great news for someone like me who loves catching live music performances. But on my most recent trip to Nashville last December, I dove a bit deeper into the history of Music City and explored what is known as The Nashville Sound.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
To learn more about the history of Music City, the best place to start is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Known as the “Smithsonian of Country Music”, the museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and interpreting “the evolving history and traditions of country music.” Whatever your feelings are about modern country music (honestly, I’m not a fan), even the most casual music enthusiast will appreciate the museum’s vast collection and dazzling displays. Start with the museum’s core exhibit, Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music. A multi-disciplinary and interactive experience, the journey is a self-guided tour that starts with the genre’s earliest roots and continues through to today’s biggest names in commercial country music, as well as bluegrass and Americana. This last visit was my second to the museum and I still spent most of my time with the Sing Me Back Home exhibit. I especially enjoyed the displays of early instruments (especially banjos) and the archival footage showing people playing those instruments so many years ago.
There is much more history to take in with the museum’s temporary exhibits, many of which focus on specific artists. A few of the current (as of February 2018) temporary exhibits include Dylan, Cash, and The Nashville Cats: A New Music City; Loretta Lynn: Blue Kentucky Girl; and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill: Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man.
I confessed above that I’m not much of a modern country music fan. I prefer more traditional country and Americana/roots rock. Also, I’ve always gravitated toward the singer/songwriter crowd. So, I was very pleased to see appearances at the museum of some of my favorite artists and bands, namely Son Volt and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (you’ll be reading more about Jason Isbell in just a bit). The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum really does a great job of representing the sub-genres of country music from its earliest beginnings to modern day.
Historic RCA Studio B
Away from the Broadway honky-tonks is one of the most important sites in the history of music in Nashville: RCA Studio B. This historic studio on Music Row is also known as the “Home of 1,000 Hits”. Legendary artists like Dolly Parton, The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, and Elvis Presley recorded some of their greatest hits at Studio B. It is also the birthplace of what is known as The Nashville Sound.
RCA Records operated the studio from 1957 to 1977. Songs recorded there during that time included elements that were intended to replace the more traditional sounds of 1940s and 1950s country music. Steel guitars and fiddles were supplanted by “smooth strings and choruses” and background vocals. Music experts and historians differ in opinion on the one song that officially launched The Nashville Sound. But in the mix is one very recognizable song by a music icon: “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley.
Those legendary artists and innovative recording techniques developed at Studio B played a part in establishing Nashville as an international recording center. Today, visitors can tour the historic studio, which has been restored to all its 1970s glory. Some of the same instruments and equipment are still in the studio, including a piano used by Elvis.
Guided tours of Studio B are available only in conjunction with admission to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (adult price, $40.95; youth, $30.95). Round-trip transportation from the museum to Studio B is included.
Modern take on The Nashville Sound
I mentioned above that you’d be reading more about Jason Isbell. The Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter currently sits at the top of my list of favorite artists. I’ve been listening to Jason’s music (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) for a few years now. But it wasn’t until 2017 that he received more mainstream notoriety for his latest album, The Nashville Sound.
The album’s title partially pays homage to the Nashville Sound era, the time when country music had to compete with the booming popularity of early rock & roll. Jason and his band, the 400 Unit, even recorded the album at the same historic RCA Studio that I visited – but in the still operational Studio A, not B. (Visitors to the studio are not allowed to tour Studio A; trust me, I tried.) On the other hand, the title – and especially some of the lyrics contained on the album – seem to be critical of the current state of “the Nashville Sound”. Listeners may also get the impression that Jason really isn’t worried about competing with contemporary country music artists. Instead, he and the 400 Unit are focused on keeping with their own version of the Nashville Sound and winning Grammys along the way.
Earlier in the year, Jason was named the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2017 artist-in-residence. As such, he scheduled three live shows at the museum’s CMA Theater for consecutive weeks in December. In an unexpected turn of events, where stars and planets aligned in my favor, I was able to secure a seat at the last of Jason’s three shows. Jason was scheduled to play with one other member of the 400 Unit – his wife, Amanda Shires, on the fiddle. But they surprised everyone by bringing out onto stage some of Jason’s greatest inspirations who are also some of the biggest names in Americana: Jerry Douglas, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris. It turned out to be a very special night for Jason and everyone on stage, as well as everyone in the sold-out theater. The show brought my whole Nashville Sound experience full circle and it’s a night I won’t soon forget.
If you go…
- Don’t miss Hatch Show Print! One of America’s oldest operating letterpress shops, Hatch Show Print is responsible for those very recognizable concert posters and is now part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Visitors may tour Hatch Show Print to see letterpress printing in action, to learn the history of the shop, and to make their very own print to take home. Tickets for guided tours of Hatch Show Print may be purchased together with museum admission (adults, $40.95; youth, $28.95), or separately (adult, $18.00; youth, $15.00).
- Stay at Hotel Indigo Nashville (301 Union Street). The stylish, printer-themed hotel is housed in a historic bank building in Printer’s Alley. Hotel Indigo Nashville is walking distance from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and several more main Nashville attractions.
Disclosure: My admission to Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, my tour of RCA Studio B, and my ticket to the Jason Isbell concert were provided by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I received a media rate for my one-night stay at Hotel Indigo Nashville. Be assured that all words and opinions contained here are, as always, 100% my own.