Tennessee is the birthplace for so much great American music and where new sounds are still being crafted. It’s hard to imagine what popular music would be without the influence of the Volunteer State. Here are a few spots where you can experience the best of the old and the new in the state’s three largest cities.
WDVX and the Blue Plate Special
WDVX, an independent public radio station serving the Knoxville area, is the little station that could. Spotlighting regional, national and international roots music, it had humble beginnings in a 14-foot camper stationed at an RV park outside of town and a loyal listenership that loved hearing tunes not ordinarily heard on the radio. Live lunchtime performances called Blue Plate Special were broadcast from the makeshift studio. In 2004, the station set up permanent camp in the brick-and-mortar digs of the Knoxville Visitors Center downtown. The Blue Plate Special now has enough room to accommodate a live studio audience and broadcasts performances by local and touring acts at noon, every day but Sunday. The show has a fun, easygoing vibe and is free to attend. Bring your own lunch to enjoy during the broadcast. 301 S. Gay St. 865-523-7263, www.visitknoxville.com.
Cradle of Country Walking Tour
While at the Knoxville Visitors Center, pick up a map of the Cradle of Country Music walking tour. Long before Nashville became “Music City” and the capital of country music, Knoxville was where hillbilly music came from. The tour covers important people and events dating as far back as the 1880s, long before country had a name, and up to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, with markers at each stop. See the site of theformer record store in Knoxville where an RCA talent scout hunting for new country talent first heard a record by an up-and-comer named Elvis Presley and sent a copy to his bosses in New York. Soon after, Presley became an RCA artist and his records were heard around the world. Another stop is the site of the former Andrew Johnson Hotel (now an office building) where Hank Williams spent the last night of his life. Some speculate Williams may have actually died at the hotel, a theory detailed in the tour literature.
Each spring, WDVX goes back to its roots and stages Camperfest at Dumplin Family Farm in Kodak, Tenn., near Pigeon Forge. This music festival features many WDVX favorites and is open to tent and RV camping. Details on next year’s festival aren’t available yet but will be shared on the station’s website where you can also listen to a live stream of the Blue Plate Special and other programs. 865-544-1029, wdvx.com.
Graceland is much more than just the house where Elvis Presley lived. When the King of Rock ‘n’ roll purchased the 14-acre gated property in 1957, it was a pastoral place in a mostly rural area. Today it is a highway-straddling entertainment complex that includes a museum, exhibition hall, shops, restaurants, a guest house and more in what is now bustling, suburban Memphis. A variety of tours are available, but if you simply want to pay your respects to the King without paying for a tour, visitors are allowed to walk up to Elvis’ grave site free of charge between 7:30-8:30 a.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. And if you want to avoid the $10 parking fee at Graceland, visit Sun Studio first and take the free shuttle across town. 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd. Tours $39-$169. 800-238-2000, www.graceland.com.
Sun Studio is much more than the place where Elvis made his first recordings. It’s where rock was born before Elvis even showed up. The R&B hit “Rocket 88,” recorded at Sun in 1951, is generally considered by historians of the genre to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Later, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins would all record their earliest records in the same one-room studio. Tours are offered at the bottom of the hour daily from 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. And if you’re a musician who wants to shell out the money to record in the legendary studio, Sun is still a working professional studio by night. 706 Union Ave. Tours $14. 800-441-6249, www.sunstudio.com.
The Grand Ole Opry and the “Mother Church”
The Grand Ole Opry is an old-time radio show with a live audience that still operates much as it did in its earliest days when it was at the Ryman Auditorium. A velvet-voiced emcee stands at the side of the stage to introduce the acts and deliver commercial messages from the sponsors, and the music runs the gamut from gospel and bluegrass to classic and pop-infused country. Expect to see newcomers, old hitmakers, current stars and hear lots of down-home humor. The one constant is the laid-back, family-friendly vibe and the smell of popcorn and hot dogs that waft through the air. There’s nothing stuffy about an Opry show. Audience members eat, drink, leave their seats and walk to the front of the stage to take pictures whenever they like. On special occasions, the show returns to the Ryman, known as “the Mother Church of Country Music,” where superstars like Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams were introduced to the world. 2804 Opryland Drive, $40-$99. 800-733-6779, www.opry.com.
The Bluebird Cafe
One of Nashville’s most famous music clubs is also one of its smallest. The 90-seat Bluebird Cafe focuses on singer/songwriters, most of whom work in the country vein, but not all. You’ll also hear folk and acoustic rock/pop styles here, too. This is where Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks were discovered, among other talents. Everyone wants to play the Bluebird on their way up, and many come back to play after they’ve made it. Expect a line at the door (reservations recommended), even on Sundays and Mondays. That’s when the newer talent comes to the club to perform and industry insiders come to discover new talent. 4104 Hillsboro Pike. Free-$20; $10 food/drink minimum per person. 615-383-1461, www.bluebirdcafe.com.