Tennessee is a state that is rich in musical acts and music tradition. Near the Mississippi River, Memphis became the birthplace of rock and roll and helped give venues for blues artists from the Mississippi Delta region. Nashville became the world’s country music capital, featuring acts that held nationwide and even worldwide acclaim. Music venues, then, are plentiful in Tennessee and picking the 11 best is akin to picking between your favorite albums. They’re all incredible and they all have provided a memorable experience. From large auditoriums to college neighborhood indie bars, here is a list of the 11 best music venues in Tennessee.
Blues City Café, located on Beale Street, is known for its ribs and steaks and general good southern cooking. Along with the Café is the Band Box, which is next door to the restaurant. The live music venue features nightly performers on a small stage, perfect for an intimate show. Past performers include B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert King, R. Kelly, Jack White, and even American Hi-Fi. The brick walls, low lights, and plentiful seating make this venue good for a sit down and listen—a relaxed environment compared to some others on this list.
Ryman Auditorium is known as the “Mother Church of Country Music” and has had its name since 1904. It has been home in intervals to the Grand Ole Opry and has hosted legendary acts from Elvis to Johnny Cash. Today, it is numerous things all at once—a music venue, a recording studio, and a place to tour the history of a legendary building. Of course, it’s called the “Mother Church” for a reason. Seating in the auditorium reflects its original purpose as church pews. The floors are wooden and the acoustics make a performance utterly unforgettable.
Handy Park is a public park located at the intersection of Beale Street and Third Street. The park is named for W.C. Handy, who was known as the “Father of the Blues” and remains one of music’s most influential songwriters. Music events at the park are free and can range from full-on rock shows to more intimate gatherings. There isn’t much seating—grass is always an option—but the atmosphere of the crowd (which on Beale Street varies night to night) makes it an exciting alternative to an indoor venue.
The Concourse is located at the intersection of Blackstock and Western Avenue and remains the premiere location for music shows in Knoxville. The venue is in a large building and retains a club-style feel, with great lights, a wide-open floor, and excellent sound. The prices are reasonable and there are free shows on occasion in partnership with local radio stations. One nice touch is the second-story balcony, which features modern couches suitable for a club venue where you can see the action from up high.
Midtown has a vibrant art and music scene and the mixture of creativity and Memphis grit lead to some of the best venues in this part of town. Hi-Tone puts on hundreds of shows each year, from artists like Broncho to CBDB. There’s a good chance you won’t recognize the name of the band—and that’s half the fun. While a night at the Hi-Tone is always a party, you may walk out with a newfound love of, say, country-western, or reggae. Variety is the key here, along with being a boon to a city trying to build its creativity. The place has a little grit and that’s good too.
This music venue may be one of the most unique you’ve ever heard of. Located 333 feet below the ground, Bluegrass Underground is a series of musical events presented by the PBS affiliate WCTE. According to its website, the series “celebrates the diversity of America’s musical heritage with artists from the full spectrum of genres.” From bluegrass (of course), to Americana, country, soul, blues, and good old rock n’ roll, this place has it all. Described as a “subterranean amphitheater,” located in Cumberland Caverns, this will provide you with an experience unlike any other.
Mercy Lounge is in Nashville’s Historic Cannery Building, which was built in 1883 as a flour mill, and has hosted headline acts like The White Stripes and Katy Perry. The standing-room only capacity is 500, making this an intimate setting for a popular band, and there are pool tables and a patio for smokers. Because this is an old warehouse, Mercy Lounge retains an industrial feel. There is exposed brick, hardwood floors, and high ceilings. It is a great atmosphere for a show and a venue that has seen a dramatic rise in the Nashville music scene.
Newby’s is along Highland Street near the University of Memphis, which makes this a go-to spot for the college crowd. But along with the very handy drink specials and the late-night food comes music and the combination has this among the top music venues in Memphis. As far as quality of the aesthetics, Newby’s ranks high due to the recent renovations to parking and seating, while the stage still has great lighting and the acoustics are solid. The establishment has been around for 40 years and remains a top location near campus.
The Bluebird Café is legendary and unique. Formed in 1982, the venue is intimate—it only has 90 seats. It got its fame for being a performing space for songwriters, or as they like to call them, “The heroes behind the hits.” This has led to many established artists first performing there—Garth Brooks, for instance, before he was “noticed.” There are two shows per night, with songwriters from many different genres, including country, rock, pop and even contemporary Christian hits. On any given night, three or four songwriters might be on-stage, taking turns performing songs they wrote and helping each other with harmonies and instruments.
The Station Inn was opened in 1974 by a group of local bluegrass players, first catering to a college-age crowd around Vanderbilt University. Today, that original ideal is still there. The Station Inn offers the opportunity for promising bluegrass players to showcase their abilities, while hosting performances from top talents in country and rock as well. It’s a laid-back atmosphere with posters of bluegrass festivals hanging on the walls. There’s a jam session that features numerous talented artists playing different instruments and coming and going as they please. The music here is the prime attraction.
The slogan: “Welcome to Hillbilly Heaven.” That alone should prepare you for the country-bluegrass experience that is Robert’s Western World. The bar started as a store selling Western apparel like boots before a reinvention during the 1990s turned it into a honky-tonk, complete with a juke box, PBR, and cigarettes. The walls of the venue today have boots, old music instruments, and old signs, giving Robert’s Western World the feel of a place that simply revels in its identity. With great music and a fun atmosphere, it is a genuine Nashville honky-tonk experience.