NAVIGATING NASHVILLE'S MUSIC SCENE
A deep-dive into how to find the live music that’s the very best in the Music City
THE SECRET: If you want legit live music in Nashville, think less about the band and more about the stage.
There’s a well-known secret in Nashville music circles: The best shows are the ones that never get advertised. No posters on telephone poles. No names on the marquee. Barely a whisper online. The most electric, can-you-believe-this-is-happening live music moments are the ones that just happen.
It’s a Monday night. Your phone buzzes, and your buddy texts something along the lines of, “You gotta get down to The Basement. Old Crow is playing a secret set and John Prine is going on with them.” These impromptu, unplanned, pinch-me experiences are the enduring magic of the Music City. And they still happen.
The problem, though, is what do you do if you’re not from Nashville and your buddy isn’t the bass player for Margo Price. For travelers especially, finding legit, skin-tingling live music can feel like the blurry late-night neon on Broadway.
The answer is to focus on where you’re seeing the music more than who’s on the bill. From divey jukes to spiffy soundgardens, world-class musicians perform every night of the week in Nashville. Take Brown’s Diner. This greasy burger joint is the perfect example of the kind of unlikely place in Nashville where, on a random Sunday afternoon, you might just hear something remarkable. “There are so many talented people in this town,” longtime bartender Gordie Stewart tells us. “People who don’t have a chance in hell of making the big time in country music are still here doing their thing.”
Another example is The Basement, a few miles east of Brown’s and still tucked under the original home of record store Grimey’s New and Preloved Music. Founder Mike Grimes is full of stories about epic shows at the 200-person venue. “Before Chris Stapleton was selling out Bridgestone Arena,” he says, “he was playing the Basement for five bucks.”
Musician Drew Holcomb calls The Basement a rite of passage as much as it is a venue. “When I moved here 14 years ago, I was dying to play there. Every young artist is," he says. Terry Rickards, the talent buyer at The Basement since 2015, puts it this way: “On special nights, there’s a certain electricity in the room that you can’t help but tell your Uber driver about on the ride home – whether he’s listening or not.”
Hushed electricity (and sometimes the rowdy kind) fills rooms all over Nashville. The Station Inn is a cinderblock grotto of live bluegrass. This is a string music Mecca, whose Sunday night open jams feel like Ralph Stanley’s back porch. Not far away is 3rd and Lindsley, where Sundays mean the live-to-radio Lightning 100 shows (coveted by local artists) and Mondays spotlight the Time Jumpers, a band of high pedigree locals including Vince Gill. Next up is the brotherly venue trio of Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom, and The High Watt, the latter of which provides ground for both local and touring up-and-comers.
Santa’s Pub, a low-slung doublewide known best for late night karaoke, vies for the best house band in town. Santa’s Ice Cold Pickers play every Sunday night at 7pm sharp, and the revolving cast includes, among many, the gent who plays pedal steel for Kacey Musgravesand Kenny Roger’s banjo player. A similar “who’s that on bass?” thing happens at The Bluebird Café, well-known for its nightly circle of #1 hit (but non-celebrity) songsmiths. Yes, it’s very much a destination spot, but as Traci Thomas, manager to Jason Isbell and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, tells it, “There’s something rare inside that room. The song is what’s sacred.”
Traci speaks the truth. No matter the vibe – loud dive bar or dim-lit listening room – Nashville still delivers rare moments of music memory. You just need to be in the room. The right room that is.
WHEN TO GO
Surprisingly, the best nights for music in Nashville are Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. If you happen to be in town, hit these spots for the real thing.
Brown’s Diner at 2102 Blair Blvd: Griddle burgers and a makeshift stage feel right in this rickety barroom.
Santa’s Pub at 2225 Bransford Ave: The Ice Cold Pickers rock the trailer from 7-9pm every Sunday night.
3rd and Lindsley at 818 Third Ave. S: At Lightning 100’s radio show, the opener might just steal the show.
The Bluebird Café at 4104 Hillsboro Rd: Songwriters fly in for open mic night, and Mike Henderson plays at 9pm.
3rd and Lindsley at 818 Third Ave. S: Vince Gill and his Time Jumper buds do their old-timey thing.
The High Watt at 1 Cannery Row: The 8 Off Eighth series gives bands three songs to show their stuff.
The 5 Spot at 1006 Forrest Ave: East Nash songwriter Derek Hoke hosts $2 Tuesdays (cover, beer, hot dog).
American Legion Post 82 at 3204 Gallatin Pike: Honky Tonk Tuesdays with the Cowpokes band.
The Basement at 1604 Eighth Ave. S: Industry showcases early, followed by New Faces series with new acts.