So you’ve found yourself in Tennessee — the birthplace of Country music and hub for all things honky-tonk.
The problem is, you’re just not that into Country music.
Never fear. This great American state has a rich history of influence on all styles of music — from Blues and Soul to early Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Let’s take a virtual walk through Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville (the biggest music-centric cities topping the charts in Tennessee) and uncover the spots where you’re most likely to find your groove.
Widely known as the home of musical legends like Elvis Presley and B.B. King, Memphis is where many notable artists have gone to find their claim to fame.
Its state border location — and its status as the second largest city in Tennessee — make it a hub for music lovers from Mississippi and Arkansas, too.
The following spots are known for bringing big names from all over the music world to this accessible, thriving city:
Memphis Botanical Garden — The botanical garden in Memphis is more than one of the best exotic preservations in the south. Every year since 2001, the Live at the Garden series has lined up five concerts from top acts in a variety of genres. The Steve Miller Band, Goo Goo Dolls and Lynyrd Skynyrd are just a few of the more rocking names on recent rosters, but the stage has also seen pop performances by Seal, Tony Bennett and Duran Duran.
Levitt Shell — Acclaimed as the place where Elvis Presley got his start, the Levitt Shell is the place to go for a quality show. They present more than 50 free concerts every year, and welcome both nationally and internationally acclaimed musicians to the stage. Check the line-up for stars like Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos, or keep an eye out for more low-key events, like jazz nights in the summer.
Mud Island Amphitheatre — Built into the banks of the mighty Mississippi River stands Mud Island Amphitheatre, where they say every seat is the best in the house. This is because all 5,000 seats are outdoors, and they provide crystal clear views of the stage, the Memphis skyline and the rolling river. You’ll love watching some of the biggest names in music grace the stage, like smooth crooner Norah Jones, rock legends Journey, or pop-punk favorites like Fall Out Boy and 21 Pilots.
With Memphis and Nashville just around the corner from the third largest city in the state, it may be easy to overlook Knoxville — but you won’t need to make that mistake.
It has one of the top 100 radio markets in the country, and is also home to the oldest continuing symphony orchestra in the southeast.
Don’t leave Tennessee without considering these Knoxville hotspots in your lineup:
The Bijou Theatre — Next time you’re in Knoxville, spend a storied night out at the Bijou Theatre, the oldest original surviving theater in East Tennessee, known for having the best sounding space in town. Nowadays, the Bijou’s stage hosts everyone from the Knoxville Opera to indie-pop duo, The xx. For the total experience, pop by The Bistro at the Bijou—one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in town—or pull up to the speakeasy-style bar for vintage cocktails.
Open Chord — Open Chord is one of the best venues in Knoxville for live music. It’s loved for its intimate feel and indie lineup featuring local and nationally recognized bands and singers. They also have a music store, and an on-site, full service café serving beer and coffee, which is a popular meeting ground for musicians and music lovers alike.
Nashville is the largest city in the state, and therefore attracts some of the largest stars in music.
It’s consistently touted as the best place in the country to hear live music of any kind, so you’ll find no shortage of musicians who wouldn’t be caught dead in a honky-tonk.
Here’s how to hit the Music City’s streets without a pair of cowboy boots:
Exit/In — This Nashville joint knows all about the city’s affinity for country—and it doesn’t care. It’s known as one of Jimmy Buffett’s favorite places to perform, since he started there as one of the venue’s first young acts. Today, this hotspot is a haven for rockers, rappers, DJs, metalheads and punks who crowd through the doors to see alternative performers like Avril Lavigne, Say Anything and Death Cab for Cutie.
Mercy Lounge — Mercy Lounge’s stage has been graced by countless modern legends, including Adele, Snoop Dogg, Bon Jovi and The White Stripes. Found on the famed Cannery Row, this happening little lounge has built a reputation for showcasing household names like Katy Perry, and introducing the city to acts like Dr. Dog. Whatever your taste in tunes, you’ll find something to like here.
Ryman Auditorium — Like The Bijou in Memphis, Ryman Auditorium is a major headliner in Tennessee music history. In the 1880s, steamboat captain Tom Ryman built this space to give Reverend Sam Jones superior acoustics for his powerful sermons. Fast-forward to this century, and the yearly lineup includes contemporary performances spanning all genres, from punk-rockers Paramore to folk favorite Bon Iver and indie darling St. Vincent—just to name a handful.
And there you have it… the next time you’re in Tennessee looking for a reprieve from that country twang, you’ll know exactly where to go!
Adam Young is the CEO and founder of Event Tickets Center. He enjoys a wide variety of music, but he especially loves seeking out new and unexpected acts in interesting venues.
I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money — so I write about “outside the box” ideas that most wouldn’t think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed over 10 years before switching gears to pursue activities that I’m truly passionate about. I’ve worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo — to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun & helpful websites).