Johnny Lang - Photo by Gary Layda
Johnny Lang - Photo by Gary Layda

History of Live Music

At the turn of the 20th century, Nashville had only 90,000 people but it boasted four big theaters, including the then-new Ryman Auditorium.

(Pictured right:  The Ryman was known as The Carnegie Hall of the South before it became The Mother Church of Country Music.)

During the Depression, speakeasies throbbed with jazz bands and popular orchestras, led by entrepreneurial conductors like Francis Craig and Beasley Smith. When WSM was born in 1925, Smith and Craig were hired to play on the air, and the station – along with WLAC nearby – sent the signal across the country that Nashville had jobs for musicians.

(Pictured left: The Francis Craig Orchestra working with then newcomer Dinah Shore in WSM’s Studio C, home of Noontime Neighbors, Sunday Down South and numerous other live radio shows that reached the whole nation via NBC and other networks.)

Radio was a live medium back then, and the stations sometimes encouraged fans to come see the music made, especially the Grand Ole Opry. The famous show moved out of the WSM studios and into the Hillsboro Theater in 1934, then to a large wooden structure on the East bank of the Cumberland River called the Dixie Tabernacle two years later. That was followed by a turn at War Memorial Auditorium and finally, in 1943, the Opry set up in the Ryman Auditorium where it would remain for thirty years.

(Pictured right: This wood timber building on Fatherland Street in East Nashville was where the Opry first started charging admission and honed its show for a live audience.)

Even as hillbilly music became central to Nashville’s identity and music commerce, a string of clubs on Jefferson Street played host to electrifying rhythm and blues. It’s where Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth and where Etta James Rocked The House on her famous 1964 live recording from the New Era Club. Meanwhile white and black met in Printer’s Alley, where Music Row studio musicians gathered at day’s end to play jazz and rock and roll.

(Pictured left: Etta James - The New Era Club and other Jefferson Street nightclubs were stapes of the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit that provided a web of venues for the likes of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Otis Redding and most other black stars of R&B and blues.)

The Exit/In opened in 1971 and became the first broad-based music club of Nashville’s modern era. It would play host to just about every rock band of note that would come along over the next 40 years. The Station Inn provided a headquarters for bluegrass music a few years later.

What Nashville lacked was big draw for the outside world, and the folks at WSM and the Grand Ole Opry came up with two. In 1972, in cooperation with the Country Music Association, WSM launched Fan Fair, a showcase of the best in country music. It spent a year at the downtown Municipal Auditorium then moved for a decades-long run at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where stages were set up in the middle of the city’s legendary stock car track.

(Pictured right: Fan Fair solidified country music’s reputation as a music format that let the fans get up-close with the stars.)

About the same time, WSM moved the Opry out of downtown to a brand new Grand Ole Opry House northeast of the city. The new 4,000 seat theater sat next to Opryland USA, a sprawling wooded theme park featuring all live music. It became a magnet for families from around the world and for young talent seeking a first job in Music City.

(Pictured left:  The new Grand Ole Opry house became a modern home for the venerable live country music show but also the soundstage hub of a huge production operation that brought big events to Nashville.)

Downtown’s music scene faded in the 1970s but came blazing back in the 1990s with the historic run of BR549 at Robert’s Western World and the revival of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

Also revitalized, the Ryman Auditorium. It had been simply worn out when the Opry left in the 70s and it sat largely unused until the mid 90s when it was fully renovated. For the first time in its life it had central heat and air and proper dressing rooms. Now it’s one of the most celebrated live venues in the world.

(Pictured right: O Brother Where Art Thou Poster - Among the many remarkable shows hosted at the Ryman in the past 15 years, few were more consequential than the first show featuring the music from the forthcoming motion picture O Brother, Where Art Thou? It brought together Nashville’s leading roots musicians and culminated in a soundtrack album that sold 7 million copies and earned Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.)

Just out the Ryman’s doors, Lower Broadway and Second Ave. rival Beale Street in Memphis or Sixth Street in Austin for quality and quantity of live music in a few blocks’ walk, while the city’s many other venues – The Basement, Mercy Lounge, Rocketown, 3rd & Lindsley, Douglas Corner, the Bluebird Café and others – offer difficult choices night after night.

(Pictured left: CMT Awards - Also in the heart of downtown is Bridgestone Arena, built in 1996 with sports and live music in mind. The dramatic modern structure on Lower Broadway has hosted numerous shows by superstars, as well as the CMA and CMT Awards.)

It’s a player’s town, and a fan’s town too.