With all due respect to the Ryman, Ascend Amphitheater and other large-scale venues, the raw music spirit that so often characterizes Nashville lives on in the less-visited spots spread throughout the city. These locations usually host local up-and-coming talent, but have also been known to feature well-known headliners.
As a hub for live music of all genres, Nashville offers countless laid-back, casual, and under-the-radar music venues that create a personal listening experience between the audience and the artist. The idea of being in the same room as the performer rather than in the same venue is an under-appreciated draw to many Music City spots. Below are some of the Nashville hot spots that let you get up close and personal to Nashville’s up-and-coming artists.
This world-renowned listening room is, in fact, a café. So if you want to nibble on some baked brie or sip on a cup of coffee while watching the “heroes behind the hits” sing acoustic tunes, Bluebird Café is the place for you. Seating only ninety people, this café sheds any barriers between the musician and the audience. In fact, the performers face each other and the patrons’ tables are located directly on the stage.
Hosting huge songwriting names from all genres such as Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes alongside rookies in such a modest setting encapsulates the beauty of Nashville’s stripped-down music scene. For singers and songwriters, Bluebird Café is the “it” place to be seen and heard. The café has become a Nashville staple and has even appeared on ABC’s hit show Nashville, so make sure to make a reservation a week ahead if you hope to visit.
The Exit/In on Elliston Place is that kid in high school that wore a Rolling Stones t-shirt daily and had a record player before Urban Outfitters started selling them to teeny-boppers. Amongst the honky tonks and twangy acoustics, Exit/In exists as a historic haven for Nashville’s alternative music scene. Artists such as Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, The Talking Heads, and more have graced the Exit/In stage, making it a legendary zone for music lovers. Exit/In also features local bands for many shows.
The standing-only venue is filled on a first-come first-serve basis. Depending on the artist, the venue can fill up, so try to get there at least thirty minutes before the show begins. As the self-proclaimed home for the outsiders in Nashville, Exit/In offers the perfect close-to-campus, go-to spot for alt-music fans.
The Station Inn
If someone tries to tell you that bluegrass music is dead, kindly direct them to The Station Inn on 12th Avenue S. This rustic, hole-in-the-wall listening room for bluegrass music offers a comfortable place to eat and soak in a taste of Appalachia. Sunday night Bluegrass Jam is free, and the Station Inners are always a friendly bunch. Look past the folding chairs and slightly dated decor to hear some of the most authentic bluegrass out there with some no-frill Nashville locals. You definitely won’t find any bachelorette sashes or pedal taverners amidst this audience.
No tickets or reservations can be made, so whoever shows up first gets seated. Also, this venue is 21+ only, but very much worth the wait.
Douglas Corner Café
Serving as a collaborative mixing pot for Nashville singers and songwriters since 1987, Douglas Corner Café gets the creative juices flowing for local acts. It brings Nashvillians together to create and listen to their fellow performers for inspiration and construction. For those of us who are not so musically-minded but still seek out live music, Douglas Corner Café offers a behind-the-scenes place that releases top hits before they even become top hits. Artists like Blake Shelton, Billy Dean, and Garth Brooks have played at the café.
From the outside, it looks plain and slightly worn-down. However, the barren, glitz-free exterior and decor add to the charm. Douglas Corner Café performances are cozy and often not too overcrowded. The acoustics are on-point, and the seating offers a decent view of the musicians from anywhere in the house. While the interior is understated and unassuming, Douglas Corner Café is a low-key place for those seeking quality music from budding artists.
Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar
Laissez les bons temps rouler, and they sure do at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. Who needs Mardi Gras when the music and culture of N’awlins can be found right in Printer’s Alley? PoBoys, Alligator Bites, and Cajun food are available to munch on while getting your live jazz and blues fix all day, every day. A short walk from Downtown Broadway, this bar offers a soulful alternative to the otherwise predominantly country Broadway arena.
The acts here aren’t gimmicky, so real blues and jazz fans won’t leave displeased. Artists like Jimmy Hall, The Nighthawks, and James Brown have performed at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. Tucked into Printer’s Alley (close to everyone’s favorite Karaoke Bar, “Lonnie’s”), the bar’s neon lights and low ceilings create a close-knit, funky vibe that has everyone sipping the NOLA Sweet Tea.
Robert’s Western World
The wild west lives on at Robert’s Western World on Broadway. Just what it sounds like, this bar is THE Honky Tonk on lower Broadway. Robert’s Western World has been a constant in the ever-changing Broadway strip. Bar-goers can count on cheap beer, unbeatable fried bologna sandwiches, and of course, the quintessential live country music that brings aspiring artists and country lovers from around the globe to Nashville.
Autographed photographs of legendary performers and signed cowboy boots line the walls, hinting at just how prevalent and well-known Robert’s Western World has been in the country music scene and giving a distinct western air to the room.