For a music lover, there’s no better place to be than Tennessee. Blues, country and rock ’n’ roll all have deep roots in the state, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an aspiring performer who doesn’t dream of taking the stage in front of a Tennessee audience.
From Nashville to Memphis to Knoxville, Tennessee has no shortage of fantastic music venues, so start checking off your concert bucket list with unforgettable musical experiences at these iconic theaters, concert halls and caves (yes, you read that right) around the state.
The Ryman Auditoriumis one of the most prestigious venues in the world, and it has an unparalleled history. The Ryman was the early home of the Grand Ole Opry, and it became the birthplace of bluegrass when banjo player Earl Scruggs joined guitarist and singer Bill Monroe onstage in 1945. Now, the bookings at the Nashville institution encompass all genres from R&B to rock, folk, soul and, of course, country. And they don’t call it the Mother Church of Country Music for nothing: the light streaming through the stained glass windows – not to mention the pews – makes concerts here feel like a transcendent experience.
If the Ryman Auditorium is like going to church, then Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatreis a trip to heaven. Originally built as a “movie palace” in the 1920s and celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2018, the theater went through years of turmoil before reopening in 2005 after a $25 million renovation. The main room is absolutely breathtaking, with a gorgeous Spanish-Moorish interior topped by the Faberge egg-like domed ceiling. The sound is exquisite, whether it’s the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra or the upcoming Big Ears Festival, one of the most adventurous and dynamic music festivals in the U.S.
Country music’s most famous stage also provides some real bang for your buck. As many as eight different acts will grace Nashville's Grand Ole Opryduring each performance. A night at the Opry features established acts, up-and-comers and the occasional superstar appearances from the likes of Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood or Blake Shelton. Make it a full evening with a post-show backstage tour that pulls the curtain behind the venue’s 18 dressing rooms and offers a visit to Studio A, the former home of the television country music classic “Hee Haw.”
They say bluegrass is mountain music, but sometimes you need to go down below. Literally. Bluegrass Underground has hosted countless musical greats in the legendary Volcano Room (shown here), a stone amphitheater more than 300 feet underground. This year, Bluegrass Underground is moving to a new location called The Caverns, situated at the base of Monteagle Mountain near Pelham. The new venue promises an even better subterranean music experience, with more seating and easier ADA accessibility. Don’t miss this chance to get down (way down) in an unforgettable place.
Summer in Memphis is sizzling, thanks to the Southern heat, the city’s famous barbecue spots, and the smooth sounds coming from the more than 50 free concerts held each year at the iconic Levitt Shellin Overton Park. Built as a WPA project in 1936, the clam shell-shaped Levitt played host to one of Elvis Presley’s first concerts in 1954 and currently hosts the best in rock, Americana, jazz and the blues each season. Grab a few barbecue sandwiches to go, throw down a blanket and groove to some choice Memphis soul.
Tivoli Theatre, Chattanooga
From a 1920s “picture palace” to a community showplace for the 21st century, the Tivoli Theatre still offers Chattanoogans the finest in entertainment and cultural events. The Tivoli is the home of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association, and also welcomes a wide variety of touring companies each year. With offerings from blues to bluegrass and classical to country, plus dance, opera and the best of Broadway, the Tivoli is at the center of Chattanooga’s cultural life. Its elegance and intimacy have made it a favorite of audiences and performers alike, including Jason Isbell, Ben Harper and John Prine.
If you’re looking for the next Miranda Lambert or Eric Church, take in an early show at The Bluebird Cafe, a singer-songwriter haven in Nashville. Most shows start at 6 p.m., and the performers play “in the round” to showcase their talents to the audience. The tiny venue always sells out, regardless of who’s playing, so get tickets in advance or line up early to make sure you get a seat.
Located next to the famed Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, Track 29is Chattanooga’s premier concert spot. The 1,800-capacity venue boasts state-of-the-art sound, lighting, VIP boxes and a movable stage that can change the dynamic of the room, making it more intimate for smaller or seated shows. Track 29 has hosted world-famous acts including Jack White, Sufjan Stevens, Girl Talk and The Avett Brothers.
Located in thriving Bristol, The Paramount Center for the Arts was once a gilded ’30s movie palace that was restored in the early 1990s to its original glory. With only 756 seats, the Paramount provides intimate sight lines for the best in local talent – Bristol is the birthplace of country music, after all – along with national touring acts, comedians and Broadway shows.
Declared by an act of Congress as “Home of Blues,” Beale Streetis a historic center for jazz, blues and rock enthusiasts. Here, you can relive the legacy of musical greats like B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters while exploring the district’s more than 25 bars, clubs and restaurants. The nearby Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum brings history to life, while the annual Beale Street Music Festival brings together modern headliners each May for a series of unforgettable performances.