Tennessee Music History Destinations
In Tennessee, nearly every city, town and hamlet has a musical connection and a story to tell. Perhaps that’s why some people say the soundtrack of America was made in Tennessee. Read on to explore some locations with historical musical significance throughout the state.
Second only to the White House, Graceland is the most-visited residence in the country. Purchased by Elvis Presley in 1957, it was his home until his death 20 years later. In 1982, it was opened to the public, and more than 20 million people have visited since. In 2017 it was expanded to include Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a 200,000-square-foot exhibition space, museum and automobile collection. There’s also a new 450-room hotel and performance venue. Elvis and the cultural upheaval he inspired cannot be fully comprehended without a visit.
The most hallowed venue in soul music, in Memphis, Stax Museum of American Soul Music was the home of Stax Records – the record company and studio where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and many others recorded. The building was rebuilt in 2003 precisely to scale on the same site and expanded to include more than 2,000 exhibits from soul music’s golden era. Interactive exhibits, movies and galleries complete the experience. Plus, like other museums in Tennessee, dancing is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!
Hit the road for a drive to Camden. An engraved boulder marks the site where a small plane carrying Patsy Cline, two of her co-stars and her manager crashed on March 5, 1963. The site includes an interactive kiosk and a gazebo with seating. The lack of grandeur and scale makes the site more affecting, and the rural stillness provides an opportunity for reflection. For a deeper dive into her life, visit The Patsy Cline Museum in Nashville.
The one-room schoolhouse that Tina Turner once attended now houses some of her memorabilia and allows you to explore what learning was like for African-American students in the 1940s. The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville also features Rockabilly King Carl Perkins and others artists from the western part of the state. Visitors will also want to pop in the John Adam Estes Home, the small house where blues legend “Sleepy” John Estes spent his last years, the West Tennessee Cotton Museum, the Felsenthal Collection (more than 800 pieces of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, the Hatchie River Museum and a gift shop selling regionally made items.
Chartered in 1964 and opened three years later, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum in downtown Nashville is the world’s largest music museum: more than 350,000 square feet of galleries, archival storage, theaters, education centers and retail space. The Hall of Fame also embraces RCA’s Historic Studio B over on Music Row and Hatch Show Print. There are special events almost daily and ever-changing exhibits.
The 90 seats in Nashville’s The Bluebird Cafe were usually filled even before the venue became world-famous, first in a movie, “The Thing Called Love,” and then, of course, as one of the recurring sets for the hit TV series, “Nashville.” Artists discovered there include Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift. Songwriters, known as the “heroes behind the hits,” have premiered some of the best-known country songs of recent times during the Bluebird’s legendary “in the round” nights. Founded in 1982 as a restaurant (hence the name), it is now run by the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Instead of taking Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis, try the old route, Highway 100. Stop in Centerville, hometown of country music’s best-loved comedian, Minnie Pearl , who was born there in 1912. In 2017, sculptor Ricky Pittman crafted an 8-foot bust of Minnie made entirely of chicken wire, including the $1.98 price tag on her floral hat. It sits out front of city hall and begs for a photograph.
In the mid-1960s, Loretta Lynn bought an antebellum mansion and most of the surrounding township in Hurricane Mills. She built a recreation complex to house her personal museum, the collection of dolls that fans have given her through the years, a Native American museum in homage to her Cherokee ancestry, the Grist Mill Museum and a reconstructed frontier homestead. There are trail rides, music events, hiking, camping, water sports – even an annual yoga retreat.
It was here in 1927, at the urging of “Pop” Stoneman, Ralph Peer conducted recordings in which country music foundational artists, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, were discovered. Johnny Cash called the Bristol Sessions “the single most important event in the history of country music.” Later, the sessions became known as The Big Bang of Country Music. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, affiliated with the Smithsonian, tells the story. Year-round events, including the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, keep traditional music alive in northeast Tennessee.
A museum and live performance space, Songbirds Guitar Museum is on the grounds of the Chattanooga Choo Choo in the city’s lively downtown hub. A guitar oriented, pop culture museum, Songbirds has a vast collection of rare, vintage instruments. Its permanent and revolving exhibits take you from early blues through gospel, soul and R&B to rock ’n’ roll. You can actually play some of the most iconic instruments in music history … and be professionally filmed so that everyone will have to believe you. It’s not just guitars; it’s all fretted instruments. And it’s not just exhibits; it’s live events, too.
Eighty miles from Nashville and 50 from Chattanooga, near the base of Monteagle Mountain in Pelham, sits one of the newest performance venues in the country. One of the oldest, too! Set in a cave, The Caverns hosts the PBS series “Bluegrass Underground,” and slants its year-round roster toward bluegrass and roots music. Acoustics and lighting are first-rate. The weather is always the same (it can be a bit chilly in the cave) and, with seating limited to 750, all sight lines are good.
Cleveland is in the heart of the Ocoee Region, an area rich in traditional crafts and music. The Museum Center at 5ive Points in Cleveland’s Five Points neighborhood includes regional crafts on exhibit and for sale together with live music events. It also features a permanent exhibition devoted to the “Red-Back Hymnal,” originally published by the Church of God, but now regarded as Southern worship’s foremost hymnal. First printed in Cleveland in 1951, it is now used worldwide.
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