Standing at the back of the Ryman Auditorium, I find myself tearing up in front of a display honoring Patsy Cline. When I was a toddler, we lived next door to her. Whenever she came over, she’d flick her red, white and blue cigarette lighter that played Dixie for me. She recorded my late father Bob Montgomery’s song “Back in Baby’s Arms.” The next display is on Marty Robbins, who Dad produced later in his career.
I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., with parents in the music business — Dad, who got his start as a teen with Buddy Holly and went on to have 60-year career as a songwriter, producer, publisher and music label executive, and Mom who was a background singer for Elvis, Bob Dylan and a host of others. I worked as a teen and after college for Dad’s publishing company on Music Row and had access to the recording studios, listening parties, guitar pulls and industry showcases where you could hear the latest.
On my most recent visit to my hometown, I’m proud to see that you no longer need to be an insider to fully enjoy Nashville’s vibrant music scene and learn the rich history behind the many genres of music coming out of it. Lonely Planet just named Nashville to its 2016 Best in Travel: Top 10 Cities in the World, the only one in the U.S. to make the list.
Nashville’s always been a friendly town, but now visitors are treated like a back-door neighbor, welcome any time. Signage shaped like guitar picks make it easy to find one of the 150+ live music venues, and major expansions of its music museums and the opening of new ones hit the right notes in telling its story.
The meticulously-restored Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, unveiled a $14 million renovation and expansion last summer, making the entry to the venue easier with a new box office, an expanded lobby and adding an onsite cafe and a multi-media experience that gives you a quick overview of its history. The Ryman tops many artists’ list as a favorite venue to play due to its world-class acoustics. When the Grand Ole Opry returns to the Ryman on Saturday nights during the spring, summer, and fall, do drop in, but get your tickets early.
For many years dressing rooms and space backstage were nonexistent at the Ryman, so Opry regulars like Hank Williams, Lynn Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran, and Roger Miller partied and performed at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge while they waited to go on. Now the action is found on its new rooftop bar where the hottest new classic country acts take the stage, and if you’ve got aspirations of your own, ask about Tootsie’s Honky Tonk Bootcamp.
The Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHOF) recently expanded to the tune of $100 million, adding 210,000 sq. ft. with a new theater, The Taylor Swift Education Center and interactive displays where you can test your talent for costume designing or songwriting. At CMHOF, you can also purchase tickets for a tour of Hatch Show Print, which has done all the letterpress posters for the Grand Ole Opry since its inception, and to RCA’s Studio B (a favorite with Elvis and where my dad produced his hits on Bobby Goldsboro) just a 10-minute bus ride to Music Row.
Last fall the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum (MHFM), which honors world-class musicians not only from Nashville, but from music epicenters around the nation ranging from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Detroit, doubled its space. There I spy a tribute to Corki Casey O’Dell, one of the first women musicians inducted into the MHFM. Corki played rhythm guitar with Duane Eddy and is married to Kenny O’Dell, who wrote “Behind Closed Doors,” the song that put Dad’s House of Gold Music on the map. For those who want the story behind the music, it’s not to be missed.
Plan to spend at least an hour at the Johnny Cash Museum, where you’ll get to know the Man in Black and his diverse interests, including philanthropy to architecture. When Cash’s lakeside rock house was still under construction, Dad took us out to see it, and the unique structure, which was destroyed by fire, is highlighted.
Downtown on Second Avenue in a renovated four-story building is the year-old George Jones Museum, which spotlights Jones’ storied career and includes a restaurant and a rooftop bar where his namesake White Lightning is served. The rebel singer’s music has found a whole new generation of fans thanks to breakout star Chris Stapleton’s revival of his “Tennessee Whiskey.”
If you work up an appetite taking a walk down music memory lane, mosey over to Alan Jackson’s Acme Feed & Seed. The restored 100-year-old, four-story former feed store celebrates its second birthday on July 4. On the lower level, the bustling restaurant serves classic Southern favorites on communal tables made from 400-year-old reclaimed heart of pine. Browse its gift shop, featuring locally made items from craftspeople and artists, while you wait. On its main stage, you’ll hear a wide range of genres from big band, reggae, blues, rock, country, electronic, gospel, funk and more. Thursday nights its talented 10-piece house band the Music City Toppers, featuring some of Nashville’s best musicians, takes the stage. Jackson has been known to pop in as well as other artists after playing The Opry or a concert at Bridgestone Arena, both nearby.
Decorated with comfy vintage couches and colorful outsider farm-themed art curated by local artist Sheila B, the second floor sports billiards and a more relaxed feel with intimate performances by singer/songwriters. Tucked in the corner is Sam’s Sushi – Nashville’s sushi master answer to New York City’s Soup Nazi. The third floor is reserved for ticketed concerts.
My favorite sunset view of Lower Broadway and the Cumberland River is from Acme’s rooftop lounge. Arrive early because once the sun goes down popular local DJs Rate and Coach spin everything from country rock to classic R&B, and the lounge gets packed. Drinks include a selection of local craft beers and 64 whiskeys. Sundays from 1-5 p.m. is Champagne Jam.
Some of the best new or improved spots to hear live music are in SoBro (South of Broadway). A triple-decker that delivers is on Cannery Row: flagship Mercy Lounge occupies the ground floor. Here you’ll find swiftly rising rock bands, homegrown songwriters and pop acts. Chill in its backroom with pool tables or on its small patio between sets. On the second floor is the 1,100 seat Cannery Ballroom that attracts headliners like Bon Jovi, Adele, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Katy Perry, and John Fogerty. On the top floor perches The High Watt with high ceilings and a city view. It’s a favorite with hipsters and local music lovers who know they’re likely to hear the next big artist here. Next door is Nashville resident Jack White’s Third Man Records, where Neil Young recently recorded, along with White’s tiny shop that sells limited-edition vinyl records.
Better than ever is 3rd & Lindsley with a new layout, new sound system and an expanded stage. A regular act is Tim Akers & The Smoking Section. Akers is Rascal Flatt’s music arranger and a stellar keyboardist. When The Smoking Section is onstage, it is “smoking” just as the name implies. Music icons like Delbert McClinton and Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) sometimes sit in. On Monday nights Vince Gill plays with the Time Jumpers, made up of Nashville session musicians.
Nashville’s hippest new neighborhood The Gulch — home to the mother church of bluegrass The Station Inn — boasts one of my favorite restaurants across the street: The 404 Kitchen. James Beard nominated Chef Matt Bolus presides over the 56-seat restaurant constructed out of a shipping container. His ever-changing menu is based on the best offerings from his local sources. A seat at the bar gets you face-to-face with Travis Brazil, the sommelier/mixologist, known for his Nearest Green, a cocktail made with Tennessee’s Jack Daniels. He’s also notable for his extensive whiskey offerings and his rare and unusual wine list as well as his skill as a storyteller.
I meet Ron Oates, who played piano on and arranged most of my dad’s hit productions, and his wife for dinner at industry favorite The Row Kitchen & Pub. Serving up a heaping helping of Southern comfort food and Music Row’s history, The Row features singer/songwriters playing hour-long sets nightly. Comfortable booths are dedicated to the town’s hit songwriters. If you want to sample the local drink, go for Moonshine Mondays.
Snagging one of the 22 perches at the surprisingly low-key Catbird Seat, Tennessee’s only five-star/five-diamond restaurant, requires planning ahead. Your reward is a front-row seat as its new Executive Chef Ryan Poli and his talented team prepares a 10-course meal — not as daunting as it sounds since each offering provides a few perfect small bites. At the end of the evening, my friend Robert Hicks, best-selling author of “The Widow of the South,” and I agree that our meal there ranks as one of the most memorable of our lives. The speakeasy Patterson House downstairs attracts Nashville’s young and beautiful crowd, and offers one of the town’s most creative craft cocktail menus. Try it while you wait for your seating.
After a late night out on the town, nothing tastes better than brunch. A favorite in the Gulch is Biscuit Love Brunch, which has a ham bar with locally-sourced meats. On the weekends, head to classy Josephine in the vibrant 12 South neighborhood. The Post East, a combination coffee/juice/smoothie bar and bakery in East Nashville, throws a Bluegrass Brunch on Sundays that features some of the best pickers in the area. When I meet my brother singer/songwriter Kevin Montgomery and his friend comedian/Elvis impersonator Gary Jenkins for brunch there, sure enough we see headliners from the Grand Ole Opry the night prior. Like most places, it’s jammed with music lovers, so be sure and arrive early.