Not into honky-tonks? That’s no problem in Nashville. With more than 150 venues dedicated to hearing live acts, the Tennessee capital gives Austin a run for the label of Live Music Capital of the World. From punk rock to polka, Americana to Afrobeat, here are the musts for getting your groove on.
3rd and Lindsley
This is the best club in Nashville, situated south of Broadway in the appropriately named SoBro neighborhood: Tables fill up the main floor space, but even if you’re standing in the back, no one can spoil your view or your ears. The bookings always feel one notch better than other venues; Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Miranda Lambert have all graced the stage. But the best bang for your buck comes on Monday nights when the Time Jumpers, Nashville’s premier western swing band, plays. 3rdandlindsley.com
Added bonus: 3rd and Lindsley offers a lunch and dinner menu (think burgers and clubs), but if you’re looking for something more Southern and sophisticated, a little place called Husk is two blocks away. You may have heard of it. husknashville.com
The Basement East
The Beast—as it’s known among its East Nashville clientele—is the ultimate rock club: reasonably priced drinks, great sound, and space in which to move, even during sold-out shows. Bookings are all over the place, from an Allman Brothers cover band to highly touted artists like Brent Cobb.
Added bonus: Across town, the Beast’s older but littler brother the Basement sits underneath Grimey’s, Nashville’s seminal record store. thebasementnashville.com
Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar
It’s not all honky-tonks downtown: Just north of Broadway, Bourbon Street—evoking NOLA with beads and wrought-iron balconies—plies the best in local and national blues and R&B acts, from Johnny Rawls to Tab Benoit, along with the occasional jazz show. The atmosphere can feel a bit touristy at times, but the music provides a nice respite from the Sturm und Twang. bourbonstreetbluesandboogiebar.com
Added bonus: If you can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, this spot’s epic blowout and crawfish boil is your best bet.
An elegant ambience—long, pretty wooden tables and a peekaboo window featuring the barrels of house-made vino available on tap—and immaculate sound make the Nashville outpost of this nationwide minichain one of the best places to see singer-songwriter legends such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin. citywinery.com/nashville
Added bonus: Go early and eat a bite. CW’s locally sourced menu featuring the likes of pinot noir–caramelized pork belly and lemon-crusted halibut puts other dinner theaters to shame.
The East Room
This scruffy East Nashville dive draws plenty of rock-and-roll scenesters but has also become the hub of Nashville’s burgeoning stand-up-comedy scene. The comedy shows are usually free, and giggles are guaranteed. facebook.com/TheEastRoom
Added bonus: Nosh beforehand at Marché Artisan Foods, where rustic bistro fare like croque monsieur and mushroom bourguignon is as consistently great as Dolly Parton’s smile. marcheartisanfoods.com
Mercy anchors a live-music multiplex between the Gulch and downtown that also includes the larger Cannery Ballroom and the more intimate High Watt. Formerly a food-processing warehouse in the nineteenth century, the venues offer the most complete cross section of musical genres. Word to the wise: Go with the right-sized, mostly standing-room-only Mercy. mercylounge.com
Added bonus: Quaff a couple of pints just south at Jackalope Brewing Company, one of the few breweries in Nashville founded and run by women. jackalopebrew.com
Recommending a show at this erstwhile place of worship is cliché at this point, but they don’t call the Ryman the Mother Church of Country Music for nothing. Just about everyone you can think of, from the old guard (Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn) to newer favorites (Jason Isbell, St. Paul & the Broken Bones), have graced the stage that once hosted the Grand Ole Opry. Ease into one of the wooden pews—truth told, they’re uncomfortable—and say, “Hallelujah” to the biggest names in Americana, rock, and country. ryman.com
Added bonus: Either before or after the show, hit Robert’s Western World, the only Broadway honky-tonk that passes muster with the locals. robertswesternworld.com
The Station Inn
In this bluegrass nirvana in the Gulch neighborhood, between downtown and Music Row, it doesn’t matter who’s playing—just show up, pay the cover, and find a seat. Advance tickets usually aren’t available, so if it’s a big name (John Prine graced the stage last year), get there early and line up. Music starts at 8:00 p.m. Penny pinching? The Sunday jam is free. stationinn.com
Added bonus: If the weather’s nice, chill out on the porch at nearby Peg Leg Porker with a platter from award-winning pit master Carey Bringle. peglegporker.com