Sooner or later, serious music lovers are bound to make their way to the music-rich state of Tennessee. A musical journey through the Volunteer State provides an in-depth look at more than a century of history that has been captured in iconic tourist attractions that represent a range of genres, so whether you are Elvis Presley’s biggest fan or always singing along to the latest country hits, you’ll come away with a better understanding of what’s behind the sound.
Ryman Auditorium — Nashville
For country music fans, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is practically sacred ground, not because the 125-year-old National Landmark used to be a house of worship, but because of the country music “gods” who have graced the stage.
Known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the iconic venue with its stained-glass windows and pews was home to the “Grand Ole Opry,” the world’s longest-running live radio program, from 1943 until 1974, when it moved to its current location near the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
A self-guided tour offers a peek at the stage where country music legend Hank Williams was called back for a record six encores after singing “Lovesick Blues,” Roy Acuff crooned “Wabash Cannonball,” and a young Loretta Lynn captured the hearts of America with her down-to-earth personality and relatable songs.
A special exhibit, “125 Years of Performance,” chronicles the Ryman’s storied history. Long before it became home to the Opry, the Ryman was a performance venue for some of the nation’s most renowned opera, ballet and theater companies, so the exhibit isn’t focused exclusively on one musical style.
However, if country music is what brings you here, there’s plenty to see, including Kacey Musgraves’ sexy leather dress and Vince Gill’s Gibson guitar that he played as a child.
It’s still possible to see the “Grand Ole Opry” at the Ryman. During the holiday season, the show returns to its former home. The rest of the year, the venue hosts concerts representing a wide range of musical genres.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum — Bristol
At the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, wanna-be stars belt out their favorite tunes in the singalong station, just one of many fun, interactive exhibits.
Nashville may be the Country Music Capital, but the sound originated in the Tennessee-Virginia border town of Bristol. The museum documents the 1927 Bristol Sessions, a series of historic recordings that spawned a multimillion-dollar country music industry.
An orientation film, “Bound to Bristol,” describes how Victor Records producer Ralph Peer came to town hoping to sign Southern musicians and singers for his label. The talent he was looking for showed up in droves.
The Carter Family made its first recordings and quickly became stars in the burgeoning “hillbilly” music industry as it was called then.
Jimmie Rodgers, known as the “Father of Country Music,” got his start at the Bristol Sessions, too. He recorded the sweet yodeling lullaby, “Sleep Baby Sleep,” and other songs.
In 1927, American families were just starting to gather around that newfangled device, the radio, to listen to programs and music. The museum explores how evolving technology, such as the electric microphone, affected the music industry.
“The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge” is a temporary exhibit that looks at the craftsmanship behind the stringed instruments of the region. It closes March 4.
Elvis Presley’s Memphis — Memphis
Elvis Presley fans are all shook up over Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a $45 million, 200,000-square-foot entertainment and exhibit complex that opened in March across from Graceland, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s famous mansion and final resting place.
The cornerstone of the complex is the Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum, a sprawling facility that celebrates Elvis’ music, movies and tours. Several video screens show live concert footage and films, including “Jailhouse Rock,” where a young, sexy Elvis swivels those hips like nobody else.
Elvis’ over-the-top style is almost as legendary as his music. Glitzy jumpsuits sparkle like Christmas lights throughout the exhibit, including the last one he performed in before his death. His iconic gold lame tuxedo custom-made by Nudie Cohn is also there in all its gilded glory. He sported the flashy outfit on the cover of “Elvis Golden Records, Vol. 2.”
Fans admire a Gibson guitar from Elvis’ early TV performances and marvel at the enormous collection of gold and platinum records that seems to go on for miles.
Elvis has left the building for good, but his legacy rocks on.
Dollywood — Pigeon Forge
The hills are alive with the sound of music — Christmas music, that is. Dollywood theme park, nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, stages its annual Smoky Mountain Christmas Celebration in a larger-than-life way with literally millions of glowing Christmas lights and Broadway-caliber holiday productions. Here are a few favorites.
“Christmas in the Smokies,” the longest-running show, is a faith-based musical that features original music as well as some old holiday favorites accompanied by a live orchestra. It’s down-home fun combined with a Christian message about family and the true meaning of Christmas.
Also popular is “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” an endearing tale about how a little girl’s belief in Santa produces a Christmas miracle for her family. Add singing sailors and dancing mice, and you have entertainment that will get the whole family in the Christmas spirit.
Tina Turner Museum — Brownsville
During her heyday, rock legend Tina Turner had the world at her feet, but the Tina Turner Museum is a reminder of her humble roots. Born Anna Mae Bullock, Tina attended grades one through eight at the rural Flagg Grove School in her hometown of Nutbush. The restored, one-room school was moved to Brownsville and is now a museum that houses the largest collection of Tina Turner memorabilia and costumes in the world.
The soul singer was almost as famous for her long, shapely legs as for her rich, gravelly voice, and on display are miniskirts that showed them to full advantage. Fans can admire the dress she wore to the 50th anniversary of the Grammys where she sang a duet with fellow diva Beyoncé. There’s also the sexy, futuristic number she donned onstage at another event when she sang “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”