Nights are a breeze in Nashville.
After-dark revelry is plentiful at the city’s many honky tonks and bars, where great music spills out onto the sidewalks of Lower Broadway, and restaurants offer everything from such Southern delights as hot chicken and BBQ to fine dining.
For those eager to learn more about the city’s signature export of country music — the sound that gave Tennessee’s capital its nickname Music City — there are two excellent spots to occupy the days as well, with exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum. And, like most places in Nashville, the two downtown attractions are conveniently located within steps of each other right off the honky-tonk strip of Lower Broadway. Wear your comfortable shoes because these are establishments where it is very easy to linger.
COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
As Nashville has grown and the genre has gained in popularity, so too the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has undergone a dramatic expansion in the last four years, adding a whopping 210,000 square feet to its previous footprint of 140,000. So if you’ve visited before and enjoyed the museum’s core, permanent exhibit about the history of the music, the new spaces and rotating exhibits are worth a second look.
“Back and up,” says hall and museum director Kyle Young with a chuckle, of how the building grew to accommodate a host of fresh attractions, including the state-of-the-art, 800-seat CMA Theater, the Taylor Swift Education Center, the famed letterpress operation Hatch Show Print, an event hall, and 10,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to interactive galleries. The latter two include exhibits that offer the chance to write a tune and put the spotlight on contemporary artists that one day might take up residence in the dramatic rotunda, where all of the inductees’ plaques are hung in a circle.
Swift may have gone pop, but before she shook off country, she gave $4 million to fund the Education Center, which is now the first things visitors see.
The vibrant space, with walls covered with art made by the students who come to study here, reflects Swift’s cheery image.
“We’ve had a long relationship with Taylor,” says Young, who says Swift’s first public performance in Nashville was out on the museum’s plaza. “Last year, 75,000 students participated in various education programs, and we’ve gotten seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts to start distance learning, so it’s a growing area for us.” Various programs are offered for toddlers to teens and include an “instrument petting zoo” for little ones and a “words and music” class where older kids get to hear their lyrics put to music by a professional songwriter.
Swift’s center is adjacent to another new space where short-term exhibits focusing on one artist or theme will be featured. (During our trip, artifacts — from golf clubs to guitars — associated with the great Glen Campbell were highlighted.)
The CMA Theater, a gleaming, acoustically pristine space that resembles a miniature Carnegie Hall, will host performances and conversations with the museum’s artists-in-residence and the museum’s annual induction ceremony. It supplements a 200-seat space on the ground floor that hosts performances and songwriter Q&As, which take place regularly on Saturdays. One highlight of our visit was a performance by Luke Laird and Barry Dean, who told the stories behind songs they’ve written, including Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking” (Dean) and “Shut Up Train” (Laird).
“We thought if we could have great venues for live stuff to happen, we could engage the artists,” says Young. “And now we have some 300 odd programs a year that are live that run the gamut from Reba [McEntire] sitting in the CMA Theater full of school kids [for a program] called All Access, just giving advice and answering questions, to Alan Jackson doing an artist-in-residence.”
The ground floor is the new home to Hatch Show Print, whose distinctive letterpress posters have announced events and concerts of all genres since 1879. “You can walk in there and be a band that’s brand new and get a poster done, or you can be Springsteen and approach us, so it’s just all over the board,” says Young.
Since moving from its storefront on Broadway, the shop is now set up so that visitors and students can actually watch as the orders are filled, draft their own creations, and tour an adjacent gallery of famous prints.
Young is an enthusiastic steward of the museum and a huge country music fan who admits to occasional giddiness when meeting artists. “My gosh, they changed my life,” he says of meeting Gregg Allman, who played the All for the Hall benefit concert for the museum in 2013. “They were doing an acoustic version of ‘Midnight Rider’ in the dressing room and it was . . . my gosh.” Young has grown right alongside the museum, having started over 35 years ago, when it was still located on Music Row.
“There was an ad in the paper for selling tickets at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I applied and I got it,” says Young, who has watched the museum grow from 20 employees and gross revenues of $1.4 million, to 300 and $33 million. “I thought it would be a good summer job.”
THE JOHNNY CASH MUSEUM
Just a few short blocks away is the house that the Man in Black built.
Opened in May 2013 by Bill Miller, the Johnny Cash Museum may be more modest in size than its neighbor attraction, as it focuses on one titanic artist, but its scope, collection, and presentation are impressive.
It is also truly exhaustive. Visitors can acquaint themselves with every facet of Cash’s epic career at kiosks that offer songs and classic and rare video performances for every decade from the ’60s to the 2000s. There are exhibits centered around his childhood, his stint in the armed forces, his marriage to June Carter Cash, his film career, his awards, his television show, and even his ad campaigns. (Apparently, Cash put his trust, and his feet, in Acme Boots.) Cash (1932-2003) was also a gifted sketch artist, and several of those are on display.
The current centerpiece at the museum is its first temporary exhibit, “The Legends of Sun Records,” which will run for 18 months and features artifacts that spotlight Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and drummer W. S. Holland, including a signed copy of the famed “Million Dollar Quartet” photo.
The tour may start off with his trademark greeting — “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash” — but by the time you’ve made your way to the gift shop, you will have learned why the man was a legend.