Music City History
Nashville’s history began more than 200 years ago. Long before the first guitar picker ever moved into town, the settlement of Nashborough - named after Revolutionary War hero General Francis Nash - was being constructed as a fort on the west banks of the Cumberland River in 1779-80. Two groups of pioneer settlers, led by the founding fathers James Robertson and Colonel John Donelson, came by land and by water from Fort Patrick Henry in East Tennessee. James Robertson led a party of men on foot and horseback, arriving on Christmas Day 1779. John Donelson led a flotilla of approximately 30 flatboats, carrying the wives and children of the men who went with Robertson. Traveling a thousand miles and surviving many hazards including Indian attacks, the Donelson party arrived on April 24, 1780, reuniting some 60 families.
Col. Donelson’s daughter Rachel would soon become the wife of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president. Many things had changed within 10 years of settlement. Nashborough underwent a name change and became Nashville. The first school was chartered - Davidson Academy, which remains operational today. Andrew Jackson arrived in town to serve as the public prosecutor, and in 1788 Bob Renfroe opened the first tavern owned and operated by freed African Americans.
In 1796, Tennessee became the 16th state admitted to the Union. With the War of 1812, Tennessee earned its affectionate nickname of the “Volunteer State” by sending hundreds more soldiers to the war than was asked. And soon after, Nashville began to develop its own nicknames. In 1824, the music publishing industry took root with the publication of Western Harmony, a book of hymns and instructions for singing. Unbeknownst at the time, the book helped shape Nashville as “Music City” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”
Andrew Jackson was elected the seventh president in 1828. He built his plantation, The Hermitage, for his beloved wife Rachel. The home and acreage remain today - one of the few presidential homes with a majority of the original furnishings on display.
Nashville was named the permanent capital of Tennessee in 1843, and one year later another Tennessean was elected president - James K. Polk. The year 1845 ushered in the construction of the state capitol building, designed by William Strickland, and the death of Andrew Jackson. Polk died in 1849, only a few years after Jackson’s death, and was buried with his wife on the grounds of the State Capitol. During the Civil War, African-American Nashvillians helped Union troops construct Fort Negley. The partially-restored fort remains today overlooking downtown and is open to the public.
Like many cities, the Civil War steered Nashville in a new direction - a direction looking toward the future and the education of its youth. In a span of 25 years following the war, four colleges were founded including Vanderbilt University as well as Fisk University and Meharry Medical College - colleges established for the higher education of African Americans. With the opening of these learning centers, Nashville developed a third prominent nickname, the “Athens of the South.”
The last decade of the 19th century proved to be an explosive one for many industries. The Ryman Auditorium was constructed originally as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, and today it’s rated as one of the top theaters in the country for performances. Joel Cheek developed the Maxwell House Coffee blend, still going strong 100 years later. Edward Barnard, a local astronomer, discovered the fifth moon of Jupiter. R.H. Boyd founded the National Baptist Publishing Board for the publications of religious materials relevant to the African-American experience. The publishing house is still run by his ancestors. The Tennessee Centennial Exposition was held in 1896 and The Parthenon was constructed in Centennial Park to honor the city’s educational commitment as the “Athens of the South”.
With the turn of the century came the city’s first downtown skyscraper, the first African-American-owned bank - One Cent Savings Bank, the first movie theater and the first Model T Ford in Nashville. Women’s Suffrage campaigns and African American streetcar boycotts took center stage while the world was preparing for its First World War. The Roaring Twenties opened up the doors to music, and with it came the first symphony orchestra and the first show of many for the Grand Ole Opry. The nation slowed down with the Great Depression and waited for relief with President Roosevelt’s New Deal. In Nashville, the Parthenon was re-opened in its permanent form, and the construction of Cheekwood mansion was the city’s largest employer.
The mid 1940s and early 1950s saw a new movement beginning in the music world. The Opry moved downtown to the Ryman and bestowed upon the Ryman its most affectionate nickname, the “Mother Church of Country Music.” Music Row, located on 16th and 17th Avenues South, not far from downtown, began to take shape with the construction of recording studios and record labels. Castle Studio, Nashville’s first recording studio, opened. Capitol Records became the first major company to locate its director of country music to Nashville. And the Country Music Association was founded. Soon the famous RCA Studio B opened its doors on Music Row and instantly became famous under the management of Chet Atkins. Here the “Nashville Sound” was crafted and performers like Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Dolly Parton recorded their chart-topping hits.
The Opry said good-bye to the Ryman in 1974 when it moved to its new home on the Gaylord Opryland complex. It was then that the Ryman fell into misuse and dilapidation, and it wasn’t until 1994 that the Ryman was restored to its grandeur. In 1996, Tennessee celebrated its Bicentennial, and a mall was constructed north of the capitol to mark the tremendous occasion.
In 1968, Dr. Thomas Frist formed a hospital management company in Nashville, Hospital Corporation of America, which is now the largest operator of health care facilities in the world. HCA's presence in Nashville is much of the reason that healthcare is the city's top industry and why it is often called “the Silicon Valley of the healthcare industry.”
With the turn of the 21st century, downtown witnessed a new birth. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum relocated across from the Bridgestone Arena. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened its doors in the former Art Deco U.S. Post Office and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the Nashville Public Library also added to downtown’s charm. Sports fans were pleased when the Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers) moved to town and made their home at LP Field, and the Nashville Predators NHL team moved into Bridgestone Arena. The addition of several mixed-use high rises created a boom in downtown living and shopping, bringing downtown to life.
In recent years, Nashville has seen a surge of growth in the technology industry. Tech companies and entrepreneurs are enticed by Nashville's creative culture and economic growth. In fact, Forbes named Nashville “One of the Top Ten Best Cities for Tech Jobs” in 2013. The music industry has also seen huge advancements in recent years with musicians of all genres creating music in Nashville, making Music City the highest concentration of musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world.
While Nashville will continue to advance and evolve, its rich history will continue to be appreciated, studied, honored, and enjoyed through the stories, buildings and legacies it left for us.
The Belcourt Theatre
2102 Belcourt Ave.
Nashville, TN 37212
Opened in 1925 as the Hillsboro Theatre, the Belcourt originally operated as a silent movie house, boasting the most modern projection equipment and the largest stage in the city. As the community grew, the Belcourt adapted to the new needs of the neighborhood by providing a regular home for two highly successful performance groups in the 1930s: the Children’s Theatre of Nashville (now the longest running children’s theatre in the nation) and the venerable Grand Ole Opry. The Opry’s tenure from 1934 to 1936 shaped the format the radio show still uses today. Because of the intimate size of the room, the Opry began playing early and late shows to accommodate the growing crowd and eventually had to relocate to a larger venue. Today, the Belcourt has returned to its original use as a movie theatre showing classic, unique and challenging fare not previously available in Nashville.
Belle Meade Plantation
110 Leake Ave.
Nashville, TN 37205
Belle Meade Plantation, which includes a 150-year-old antebellum home, tells the history of the Old South from slavery to prosperity to the Civil War. As one of the few homes that can claim to have had a Civil War battle fought on the lawn, Belle Meade captures the essence of life during a tumultuous time. As a tragic reminder of those times, craters embedded in the columns of the front porch mark the explosion of cannon fire at the Harding family’s home.
The Hardings gained notoriety when they constructed Belle Meade as a Thoroughbred nursery. Many famous horses were bred there or can trace their lineage to the farm. Iroquois, arguably the most famous horse bred on the property, is the only American horse to win the English Derby. Both Seabiscuit and War Admiral, as well as Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide, Barbarro and the legendary Secretariat also trace their lineage to Belle Meade.
1900 Belmont Blvd.
Nashville, TN 37212
Home to one of the wealthiest women during the Civil War, Belmont Mansion is a vibrant memorial to the savvy Adelicia Acklen, whose life was filled with romance and tragedy. Determined to save her Mississippi cotton crop from being burned, Acklen conspired with the Union and Confederate armies, convincing both to help ship her cotton down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Even though both armies eventually realized they had been duped, they were unable to stop the shipment of cotton before it sailed to England where Acklen turned a tidy profit of $960,000 in gold.
Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park
600 James Robertson Pkwy
Nashville, TN 37243
Located in the shadow of the Capitol in downtown Nashville, Bicentennial Capitol Mall gives visitors a taste of Tennessee’s history, natural wonders and serves as a lasting monument to Tennessee’s Bicentennial Celebration, which was June 1, 1996. With just a simple walk in the 19-acre park, visitors can experience many facets of Tennessee’s history including a 200-foot granite map of the state, a World War II Memorial, a 95-Bell Carillon, a Pathway of History, and the Rivers of Tennessee Fountains. The 11 planters along the Walkway of Counties show native plant species from different regions of the state. The park features a 2,000-seat amphitheater that provides dramatic views of the Nashville skyline. Composed of terraced lawns, the amphitheater was designed after the Greek theater at Epidaurus. The amphitheater is used for many special events and ceremonies and may be reserved for a fee. Adjacent to the park is the Nashville Farmers’ Market. Open year-round, the market is home to restaurants and shops with a wide variety of offerings and cuisines.
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Dr.
Nashville, TN 37205
Just eight miles southwest of downtown Nashville stands Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art. Cresting the hillside of this 55-acre property is a 1932 Georgian mansion where Cheekwood’s permanent art collection is housed, along with rotating traveling art exhibitions. Exhibits housed in the permanent collection include William Edmondson statues as well as American and contemporary pieces. A coffee bean farmer and investor in a fledgling technology company called IBM, the Cheek family patriarch amassed a fortune during the Great Depression and the family became the largest employer in Nashville at the time. Incorporating many European architecture designs, paintings and furniture, the mansion remains today as it did 70 years ago. Next door to the mansion is a modernized paddock where revolving contemporary art exhibitions are displayed.
Surrounding the mansion are 11 brilliant gardens and a unique Sculpture Trail with artwork created by nationally and internationally-recognized sculptors. The gardens, designed by renowned 1930s landscape architect Bryant Fleming, each represent a particular group of plants or garden style and bloom for a majority of the seasons. The mile-long Sculpture Trail contains 15 different contemporary artistic designs immersed in natural surroundings.
Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum
222 Fifth Ave. S.
Nashville, TN 37203
The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum has been the home of America’s music since its opening in 1967 on Music Row. In May 2001, the museum constructed a $37-million building in downtown Nashville. In 2014, a 210,000-square-foot expansion was added, more than doubling its size to 350,000 square feet of state-of-the-art galleries, archival storage, education classrooms, and special event space. The expansion also includes the 800-seat CMA Theater, the Taylor Swift Education Center and the legendary letterpress operation of Hatch Show Print.
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and called the “Smithsonian of country music” because of its unrivaled collection, the museum boasts a vast collection illustrating country music’s story as told through the years. An immense compilation of historic country video clips, recorded music, dynamic exhibits, and state-of-the-art design create an intimate and interactive experience. The museum also features a regular menu of live performances and public programs, a museum store, live satellite radio broadcasts, on-site dining, and fabulous public spaces all contribute to an extraordinary museum experience.
534 Chestnut St.
Nashville, TN 37203
Fort Negley was the largest and most important fortification built by Union troops occupying Nashville during the Civil War. Built in 1862 on St. Cloud Hill, the complex fort was designed with European features. Using a partial star-shape design, the unique layout of the fort allowed crossfire against the Confederate army.
Intent on keeping control of Nashville because of its important transportation means with river and rail, the Union army constructed the 180,000-square-foot fort covering four acres. Two thousand African-American workers, some slaves and some free blacks, built the fort for the Union army in preparation for the Battle of Nashville. Approximately 800 people died while building the fort. Many more African-American soldiers died during the Battle of Nashville as the Union army would not supply weapons to the black soldiers; therefore, the soldiers and slaves were forced to protect themselves with shovels and picks.
The Fort Negley Visitor Center opened in 2007. Fort Negley is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hatch Show Print
224 Fifth Ave. S.
Nashville, TN 37203
Hatch Show Print®, the iconic letterpress print shop owned and operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, recently moved to a new location at 224 Fifth Avenue South. One of the oldest letterpress poster shops in America, Hatch operates today using the same techniques of the 1800s. Tour the shop to see more than 10,000 wooden typefaces used to create the renowned posters. Hatch became famous by printing the images of country music stars when they performed on the Opry. Today, their clientele has grown to include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Nike, and B.B. King.
The new Hatch Show Print location includes: the Hatch Show Print Production Shop with an 80-foot glass wall (allowing passersby to watch posters roll off the presses), the Hatch Show Print Store, an expanded 1,400-square-foot retail store, Hatch Show Print’s Haley Gallery, a 1,200-square-foot art gallery, which will show and sell re-strikes of historical prints made using wood blocks from the Hatch archive, and the Hatch Show Print Space for Design, a classroom and workshop area that allows participants to learn more through demonstrations, hands-on printing and in-depth programs.
The Hermitage, Home of President Andrew Jackson
4580 Rachel’s Ln.
Nashville, TN 37076
Andrew Jackson built The Hermitage for his beloved wife, Rachel. Today, the antebellum plantation resides on almost 1,100 acres - all acreage belonging to Jackson 200 years ago. The home itself is a rare treat among presidential homes as over 95 percent of the furnishings are original to the home and to the Jackson family. Even the wallpaper in the grand foyer is authentic.
To the right of the home is Rachel’s private garden, where an acre of trees and flowers still blooms. In the far corner of the garden lie the graves of the Jackson family. Rachel loved the garden so much that she asked to be buried there. And Jackson loved Rachel so much that he asked to be buried beside her in the family mausoleum. Additionally, there is one person buried in the garden that was not part of the Jackson family; Alfred, the house slave, who was born at The Hermitage. After emancipation, he chose to remain on the plantation as a tenant farmer and lived at The Hermitage longer than anyone else, white or black. When The Hermitage was opened to the public as a presidential home, Alfred was the first tour guide. When he died in 1901, his funeral was held in the center hall of the mansion, and he was buried in the family garden next to the president.
The grounds of The Hermitage contain replicas of slave cabins, a smokehouse and the first Hermitage home, which is currently being reconstructed. Built in 1804, slaves lived in the two-story farmhouse for 40 years after the second Hermitage was completed. This five-year project is being funded through a $1 million restoration grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under a new project called America’s Historic Places. The Hermitage now offers tours by horse-drawn wagon. This unique tour takes visitors to the First Hermitage where Jackson lived from 1804 to 1821, to the site of the Cotton Gin and Press, to the Field Quarter, and to several archaeological sites associated with slavery and farming.
Historic Printer's Alley
Located between Third and Fourth Ave. from Union to Church St.
Printer's Alley takes its name from its early connection with Nashville's printing and publishing industry. However, in the late 1800s it became part of what was known as “The Men's District.” Many cafes, saloons, gambling halls, and speakeasies sprang up to cater to the men of Nashville's print shops.
The alley became the center of the city's nightlife with nightclubs opening in the 1940s. Musicians like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and Dottie West showcased their talent at the clubs that lined the small alley. Printer's Alley still comes alive at night with neon lights pointing the way to music and entertainment at places like Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, Fiddle and Steel and Lonnie's Western Room.
Historic RCA Studio B
1611 Roy Acuff Pl.
Nashville, TN 37246
Affectionately called “the Home of a Thousand Hits,” RCA Studio B is one of the oldest recording studios in town. Made famous when Elvis Presley recorded more than 250 hits there, the studio opened in 1957 and remained open until the day after Elvis died in 1977 (just a coincidence, by the way). Built by Dan Maddox in 1957, RCA Studio B became known as one of the cradles of the “Nashville Sound.” A style characterized by background vocals and strings, the Nashville sound revived the popularity of country music and helped establish Nashville as an international recording center. Bobby Bare, Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers among others, have all recorded in this historic studio.
Tours of Historic RCA Studio B are available through the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Johnny Cash Museum
119 Third Ave. S.
Nashville, TN 37201
Opened in May 2013, The Johnny Cash Museum is dedicated to the life and music career of the late “Man in Black.” Many never-before-seen historical documents, letters, awards, costumes, and instruments take the visitor on a three-dimensional journey through Johnny Cash’s life with innovative interactions. The collection comes from pieces given from friends, colleagues and family members including his daughters, son and siblings. It features the earliest known Johnny Cash letters and documents as well as the handwritten manuscript to the last song ever written by the prolific songwriter, just days before his passing. Visitors are also given an extensive look into Cash’s non-entertainment related life including his childhood and early adulthood and his service in the United States Air Force.
Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum
417 Fourth Ave. N.
Nashville, TN 37201
The Musicians Hall Of Fame and Museum is the one and only museum in the world that honors the talented studio musicians who played on some of the greatest recordings of all time. The museum is divided into cities that have a rich history of recorded music such as Detroit, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Atlanta who all had musicians talented enough to play any music, regardless of style. These musicians had nicknames like The A-Team, The Memphis Boys, The Swampers, The Funk Brothers, and The Wrecking Crew. Some actually became hit bands themselves, such as Toto and The M.G’s. The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum showcases the very instruments that some of history’s greatest musicians used to record many of these classic hits. The museum will constantly add new exhibits for visitors to enjoy from all genres of music.
The museum gives a nod to its host city’s musical past as well. Nashville is known as the center of country music but not many people know how many other styles of music have been recorded here in the past and now. Songs like “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas, “Heart Of Gold ” by Neil Young and “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan were recorded here in Music City to name a few.
2600 West End Ave.
Nashville, TN 37203
The Parthenon, the world’s only exact replica of the ancient Greek temple, was originally built for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition in 1897 and was reconstructed permanently in 1931. Inside the temple stands the gilded goddess of wisdom, Athena. At 42 feet tall, Athena Parthenos is the western hemisphere’s largest indoor statue. The goddess Nike in Athena’s right hand is six feet tall. Housed in the downstairs gallery is the city’s permanent art collection. Outside the gallery, black and white photographs from the 1897 Centennial Exposition line the walls.
116 Fifth Ave. N.
Nashville, TN 37219
The Ryman Auditorium first opened its doors as a church in 1892 as a vision of Captain Thomas G. Ryman. With the coming of the Grand Ole Opry show in 1943, the Ryman found its identity as the “Mother Church of Country Music.” In 1974, the Opry moved to its current home by the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center and left the Ryman vacant. It was not until 20 years later in 1994 that the Ryman was restored to be the national showplace that it is today. The Ryman has been named “Theater of the Year” by Pollstar four times in the last ten years. Musicians ranging from Roy Acuff and James Brown to Patsy Cline and Sheryl Crow have performed on the Ryman stage, making it a historical as well as a current-day icon for people everywhere.
Tennessee State Capitol
600 Charlotte Ave.
Nashville, TN 37243
The Tennessee State Capitol, one of the oldest working capitols in the nation, stands today much as it did in 1859. The structure was designed by noted Philadelphia architect William Strickland. He considered the Tennessee Capitol to be his crowning achievement. When Strickland died suddenly during construction in 1854, he was buried in the north façade of the building. The grounds of the State Capitol also contain the tombs of President and Mrs. James K. Polk.
Tennessee State Museum
505 Deaderick St.
Nashville, TN 37243
Find art, history and culture at one of the largest museums in the nation. Interpretive exhibits begin 15,000 years ago with prehistoric people and continue through the early 1900s, with special displays of furniture, silver, weapons, quilts, and paintings. The museum’s Civil War holdings of uniforms, battle flags and weapons are among the finest in the nation. Visit the museum’s changing gallery for special exhibitions.
Travellers Rest Plantation
636 Farrell Pkwy
Nashville, TN 37220
Nashville’s oldest historic home, Travellers Rest Plantation, was built in 1799 by Judge John Overton, one of the founding fathers of Memphis. Originally, Travellers Rest was called Golgotha (literally translated to mean “the place of the skull”) because Native American graves were found on the property. Today, lush magnolia trees and boxwood shrubs surround the plantation.
The 4,000-square-foot home was built in six different phases over a period of 50 years by Overton and his family. Called Travellers Rest because of the hospitality shown to travelers, many visitors stayed at the plantation including President Andrew Jackson. Longtime friends, Overton became Jackson’s presidential campaign manager.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE AND SURROUNDING AREAS
Cannonsburgh - A Pioneer Village
312 S. Front St. (Murfreesboro)
Cannonsburgh, the original name of Murfreesboro, is a reconstructed Southern village. It was started in 1974 as an American Revolution Bicentennial project and was dedicated on June 26, 1976, as a living history museum of early Southern life. A gristmill, one-room schoolhouse, town hall, log home, and church are reminders of life in pioneer times. The village houses a large collection of antique farm equipment as well as a general store, museum and blacksmith shop.
1345 Eastern Flank Cir. (Franklin)
On November 30, 1864, the pivotal Battle of Franklin unfolded in the fields near Carnton, the stately home of John and Carrie McGavock. The 2005 best seller The Widow of the South was inspired by Carrie McGavock. In 1866, the McGavocks, concerned about the conditions of the Confederate dead who had been buried in shallow graves where they fell, designated nearly two acres of land near their family cemetery for the re-internment of nearly 1,500 Confederates. Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is a lasting memorial honoring those fallen soldiers, and it is the largest privately-owned military cemetery in the nation. Guided tours of the plantation and its three-story mansion are available.
The Carter House
1140 Columbia Ave. (Franklin)
The Carter House is a non-profit museum and interpretive center dedicated to the late Civil War battle fought in Franklin that has been called “the bloodiest hours of the American Civil War.” While the five-hour battle raged, 23 men, women and children sought refuge in the basement of the Carter House. Like many Civil War homes, the parlor was converted to a Confederate hospital after the battle. The house is now a Registered Historic Landmark.
Historic Mansker’s Station
Frontier Life Center
Moss-Wright Park (Goodlettsville)
Mansker’s Station Frontier Life Center has been called “one of the most outstanding living history attractions in the United States.” With guides in period dress, you’ll experience an authentic forted station, the region’s earliest brick home and living history demonstrations that include a fully-operational blacksmith shop.
Jack Daniel Distillery
182 Lynchburg Highway (Lynchburg)
Jack Daniel Distillery is the oldest registered distillery in the United States and among the most prestigious listed on the national Register of Historic Places. Visitors receive personally-guided tours of the distillery and observe the famous whiskey-making process.
James K. Polk Home
301 W. Seventh St. (Columbia)
The James K. Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia, Tenn. is the only surviving residence of the 11th U.S. President (excluding the White House). The home, built in 1816 by Polk’s father, Samuel, is one of the best examples of Federal-style architecture remaining in Tennessee. Today it houses more than 1,000 objects that belonged to President and Mrs. Polk including furniture, paintings, china, and silver.
Oaklands Historic House Museum
900 N. Maney Ave. (Murfreesboro)
An elegant mansion caught in the crossfire of the Civil War, this nationally-registered historic landmark reflects a time of prosperity in the Old South, as well as the hardships suffered during the Civil War. Oaklands is the premier Italianate house in Rutherford County, and it is listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places both for its architectural significance and its rich historical associations.