— Nashville's "Music City" nickname has always been pronounced with a Southern accent. Nashville is, after all, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the stomping grounds of Hank Williams and a magnet for talented country artists.
But a person can satisfy just about any musical urge in a relatively small area you can cover on foot.
That's how Maureen Ovington figured it. Ovington, of Coloma, Mich., drove down with a couple of friends for some R&R.
"When I started on the road trip, I wanted to hear all country," she said one Friday afternoon at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the downtown honky-tonk that's as good a place as any to kick-start a long weekend. "I said I wanted to see all live bands. Tonight we're seeing blues and rock bands. Tomorrow is country."
She gets it. Most people, though, don't see beyond the old Music City image.
"Still the ‘Hee-Haw' hangover," is how Jason Moon Wilkins puts it.
Wilkins founded the Next Big Nashville, a music festival and conference featuring 200 mostly local bands every October.
"The business side (of the music industry in Nashville) is extremely diverse, and the music is, too," Wilkins said. "I think that's shown now by Jack White, Ben Folds, Kings of Leon (all Nashville-based) and so forth. Sometimes, people don't necessarily associate any of them with the city."
Still, one type of music dominates the three-block strip along Broadway, though you get a taste of Nashville's alternatives. Among the souvenir shops, clothing stores and life-size Elvis statues, you'll find some venues that are a must.
"Tootsie's and Robert's and Layla's Bluegrass Inn, some of those places, they offer something that's pretty rare," Wilkins said. "It goes from just guys who are trying to do their own thing to stars to the working-class musician who has been in Nashville the last half-decade. They go down there either to hone their chops or do it for fun. … That part's really cool."
Let's see for ourselves. Like Maureen Ovington, we start at Tootsie's.
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge: Originally called Mom's, this landmark underwent a name change after being bought by Hattie Louis Tatum Bess, aka "Tootsie," in 1960. "Orchid" was added when, according to legend, an unsupervised worker painted the exterior that color. One legend that's verifiable: Stars from the Grand Ole Opry, then performing across the alley at Ryman Auditorium, would slip in the back door and enjoy a beverage between their Opry sets. Live music starts at 10 every morning and goes till 2:30 a.m. You get the idea.
Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom: This two-room downtown venue, in a renovated 125-year-old building, offers touring indie, rock and underground acts as well as local bands. The downstairs ballroom holds 1,000, the upstairs lounge 500. It's considered one of the best, if not the best, live music bars in town.
Layla's Bluegrass Inn: Just down from Tootsie's, Layla's offers country, rockabilly, Western and other genres on the stage in the front window. Scattered about are the ever-present empty mayonnaise jars for tips. It can get packed, but tables are small, and there's room for dancing.
Robert's Western World: Another classic, Robert's sits next to Layla's. It has a nice beer list, a wall of dollar bills with messages written on them, and plenty of space, which fills up quickly Fridays and Saturdays. At 10 on those nights, owner Jesse Lee Jones' band, Brazilbilly, takes the stage for a four-hour set. They're not to be missed.
12th & Porter: Another downtown favorite of the under-30 crowd, it brings in nationally known groups and locals as well six nights a week. Good sound, excellent place to see a show — and a much-better-than-average menu.
The Second Fiddle: The walls of this roomy bar, between Tootsie's and Layla's, are lined with dozens of old radios and musical instruments, including a guitar signed by Mother Maybelle Carter, among others, and two crossed, full-size bass fiddles over the bar. Again, great music. "You sit back and listen to some of the guys, especially at night, and you wonder why they're not on the road," said guitarist David Lane, who was doing a Sunday-morning shift. "They're better than what you hear on the radio."
The Station Inn: It's not downtown proper, but it's so worth the hike (or short cab ride). For Wilkins' money, this is the best bluegrass in town. "There's nothing to it," he said of the unimposing building on 12th Avenue South, "but it's real. … It's an absolute rite of passage for any serious bluegrass or old-time music player." The seven-nights-a-week schedule packs 'em in. "If you're a bluegrass or acoustic musician — and there are hundreds of them in Nashville — this is their ‘Cheers,'" said bartender Jill Crabtree. "They come in and 25 people know them because bluegrass is such a tight-knit community."
Rocketown: Part concert venue, part indoor skate park, this facility was founded in 1994 by Robert W. Smith to keep kids off the streets. "It's the place for all the emo and hard-core and Christian bands coming through town," Wilkins said. "If you're over 18, you feel old."
Ryman Auditorium: We saved the best for last. Opened in 1892 as a tabernacle, the Ryman featured church services, plays, speeches and performers from Rudolph Valentino to Enrico Caruso. It became "the mother church of country music" after the Grand Ole Opry arrived in 1943. The Opry left in '74, and the glorious building was nearly demolished. But it was saved and renovated to its former glory — perfect acoustics and all — and today hosts concerts for every taste. Even the Opry returns for three months every year. Catch a show there. And take the tour (especially the backstage version; ask for Henry).
If you go
It's a 10-minute, $25 cab ride from Nashville International Airport to downtown.
Layla's Bluegrass Inn, 418 Broadway, laylasbluegrassinn.com
Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom, 1 Cannery Row, mercylounge.com
Robert's Western World, 416 Broadway, robertswesternworld.com
Rocketown, 401 6th Avenue South, rocketown.com
Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Avenue North, ryman.com
The Second Fiddle, 420 Broadway, thesecondfiddle.com