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.
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.
Radio was a live medium back then, and the stations sometimes encouraged fans to come to 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.
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.
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 a 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 1978-1981 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.
At 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.
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, is 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.
Just out the Ryman’s doors, Lower Broadway and Second Avenue 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, Rocketown, 3rd & Lindsley, the Bluebird Café, and others – offer difficult choices night after night.
It’s a player’s town, and a fan’s town too.