Droves of tourists flock to Nashville each year for the honky-tonks and the cowboy couture shops that line Lower Broadway—and you should check those out. But also set some time aside to hang with the locals and shop for guitars, eat Nashville-style hot chicken, catch an all-star western swing band, and much more. Here are 10 must-see spots off the beaten path.
1. Carter Vintage Guitars
No matter how many of Nashville’s great guitar shops you visit, do not miss Carter Vintage Guitars. The shop is owned by longtime guitar expert (and occasional AG contributor) Walter Carter, who worked for many years at the legendary Gruhn Guitars at 2120 8th Ave. South, another essential place to visit. (Gruhn’s has hosted many of country music’s biggest artists.)
At Carter Vintage Guitars, look for two huge murals: Mother Maybelle Carter overlooking the parking lot and a ’59 Gibson Les Paul painted on the other side. Even if you’re just browsing, owners Walter and Christie Carter are happy to chat and show you the store’s many treasures, including their personal collection of instruments formerly owned by Steve Earle. Keep an eye open for celebrity visitors, too: Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, and Brad Paisley have been known to drop in now and then and pick a little.
2. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
Long before KFC discovered Nashville-style hot chicken, Bolton Polk pioneered this variation on soul food right here in Music City. Bolton Matthews now uses his late uncle’s recipe to bedazzle all who love to feel the burn. There’s nothing fancy about the décor: Drinks are in the cooler, the menu is mounted behind the service counter, furnishings are spare and mismatched. It’s the food that matters here, particularly the fabled, flaming-red chicken, seasoned to various degrees of spiciness. The faint of heart can handle the mildest version. But why not bump it up a few levels? You just might end up gasping for more.
3. Grimey’s New & Preloved Music
When his beloved music venue Crow Bar closed years ago in East Nashville’s bustling Five Points, owner Mike Grimes decided to pursue his true passion by opening a haven for lovers of recorded music. Concert posters blanket the walls inside this handsome converted home, with new and used vinyl and CD releases arranged in a labyrinth of bins, and free in-store shows. You’re sure to find a gem if you consult with the incredibly knowledgeable staff, or look through the display just inside the front door featuring music by local artists. And when you’ve made your selection, savor a cuppa on the deck next door at Frothy Monkey’s.
4. Pinewood Social
Pinewood Social has something for everybody—good food and coffee, airy industrial decor, a view of the Cumberland River, a dipping pool on an open deck, a bocce-ball court, and six vintage wooden bowling alleys. The kitchen stays open from breakfast to late-night and its variations on traditional American fare are always imaginative, delectable, and affordable. If you just want a drink, there’s room at the square bar, where you can quaff a pitcher of beer or sip some of Nashville’s most inventive mixed drinks.
5. The Time Jumpers
It’s Monday night in Nashville, around 8:30, and you’re lucky enough to find an empty stool at the bar inside 3rd and Lindsley. The lights are dim, so you can’t miss the neon beer signs beckoning from above, where balcony seating wraps around most of the room. The room is full—unusual for most venues this early in the week—and includes many music business pros. But Mondays at 3rd and Lindsley are not about working. They’re about sitting back, popping a top, and listening to Nashville’s all-star Western Swing ensemble as it continues its long-running weekly residency. On any given Monday, you’ll find accordionist and keyboardist Jeff Taylor; “Ranger” Doug Green—the country-music historian, raconteur, world-class yodeler, and leader of the celebrated fiddle trio Riders in the Sky; perennial Academy of Country Music award-winner Paul Franklin on steel guitar; and guitar-gods Vince Gill and Andy Reiss.
6. Printer’s Alley
Though not as bawdy as it once was, Printer’s Alley, a one-block strip in downtown Nashville is still rich with history and alive with music. Walk a few steps into the Fleet Street Pub for shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and British beer on tap. Get your hard-rockin’ blues band fix at the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar, at the site that used to be the legendary jazz venue Carousel Club. For a special dinner, head next door to Skull’s Rainbow Room, where live jazz, pricey but ample-and-excellent entrees, and saucy burlesque dancers make it a night to remember.
7. Rhino Booksellers
Unlike any other establishment I’m aware of, Rhino emanates a love for both books and giant, single-horned African beasts. Regular customers include students at the nearby Lipscomb University, but so are local literary aficionados, drawn by the musk of overstocked shelves and comfy chairs. In addition to finding a rare volume (surrounded by stuffed, sculpted, and otherwise manifested rhinos), you’ll likely find founder and owner Fred Koller, one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters. Rhino is also the exclusive Nashville distributor of Republic Guitars and the site of occasional intimate, acoustic jam sessions.
8. The Station Inn
Welcome to bluegrass heaven. This intimate, local favorite serves up hot pizza, cold beer, and world-class bluegrass (which can get pretty darned hot). Bill Monroe played here. So did Peter Rowan, Steve Earle, Bryan Sutton, and Alan Jackson. Tim O’Brien is a regular. So are Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley. Station Inn master J.T. Gray hosts the Sunday-night jam session. The Station Inn was opened in 1974 by a group of six pickers, so you know it’s got soul. Deep in the heart of the historic Gulch district, the Inn these days is surrounded by ale houses, country kitchens, and hipster haunts, as well as the Two Old Hippies guitar store. Drop by for the National Bluegrass Band’s annual show on the night after Thanksgiving and enter for a chance to win a whole ham.
9. Scarritt Bennett Center
Looking for an affordable place to stay? Check out the Scarritt Bennett Center, a nonprofit conference site near Vanderbilt University. More than 125 guest rooms are available at three residence halls in an Ivy League setting, complete with Gothic chapel, green space, and gardens. Furnishings are basic, but comfortable, featuring single beds, fresh linens, and a shared bath between adjoining rooms. Plenty of restaurants serve inexpensive meals nearby, with bars and live music venues keeping the neighborhood busy past midnight seven days a week.
10. Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant
It’s worth the inevitable wait to be seated at Puckett’s. The food is amazing—country breakfasts, barbecue smoked slow over cherry wood, fried green tomatoes, and other Southern staples. Plus, you can purchase and take home an array of seasonings and sauces, from brisket marinade to dry rub. Oh, and some of the best bluegrass and acoustic live music in Music City happens nightly here. While you’re waiting, take a short stroll and see what’s on display in the art galleries that line Fifth Avenue. High culture and down-home delights—what could be better?
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.