Side Trip: A Guide to Music Valley

There’s more to Music Valley than just tour buses full of retired couples in cowboy boots. Right off of Briley Parkway, between I–65 and I–40, there’s a long strip of land inside the Cumberland River’s first narrow loop on the northeast side of town. This is Music Valley—the old slice of farmland where the Grand Ole Opry settled down for good in 1974. The Opry’s relocation to this sparse site set off a chain reaction of development in the following years—first a theme park (Opryland, which closed in 1997), then a resort, then a monolithic mall, and a hundred little shops, restaurants, and attractions in between. It’s true that most of these things were built to accommodate the Opry’s tourism runoff, and that much of Music Valley still accommodates this crowd today. But there’s an earnestness to Music Valley’s offerings that you won’t find on lower Broadway or Music Row, where country music is a loud, expensive, neon caricature of itself. Music Valley has resisted the influence of new Nashville trends the way that classic country has resisted the influence of pop. Frankly, this isn’t the part of town you come to if you want to wait in line to take an Instagram picture in front of a hip mural. This is where you come if you want to listen to real country music while you take a minute to slow down, stop trying to impress everyone, and eat a fried bologna sandwich, probably next to a retired couple in cowboy boots.

Sights

Gaylord Opryland Resort. Technically the Gaylord Opryland Resort is a hotel and convention center, but it’s worth a visit even if you aren’t staying the night. For one thing, there are 9 acres of gardens inside, all laced with walking paths, fountains, and rivers. These gardens feature more than 50,000 tropical plants, contained within a soaring glass ceiling that lets the sun shine through during the day and reflects a thousand warm twinkle lights at night (particularly at Christmas). Even the locals can’t resist an occasional walk through the immaculately tended branches and waterfalls of the Cascade Atrium—especially when you consider that you can do it with a beer, cocktail, or cup of gelato in hand. There are almost 20 restaurants to choose from if you get hungry, and plenty of kitschy shops if you’re in the market for souvenirs. To avoid the hefty parking fee, it’s recommended that you park next door at the mall and walk over.

Two Rivers Park. This 374-acre park along the Cumberland River has more recreational activities than any other park in Nashville. To name just a few, there’s a skate park, golf course, and small water park called Wave Country, featuring a wave pool and several slides. The Two Rivers Dog Park is one of the largest in the city, and there’s a walking track around the perimeter so you can jog or walk while your dog frolics. The Stones River Greenway is a 10.2-mile paved trail that runs straight through Two Rivers Park, ending in the Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge that leads east across the river to Shelby Bottoms Park. In addition to the natural sights provided by leafy green Tennessee, you may pass a beautiful Italianate mansion on your walk. That’s Two Rivers Mansion, an 1859 plantation home that’s now used as a private venue for weddings and events.

Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store. All the Nashville classics are amassed here at the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store: fringe leather goods, zebra print flasks, cowboy hats, fudge, Goo Goo Clusters, and Donald Trump voodoo dolls. At the back of the general store, buy a ticket and go through the door on your right into the 5,000-square-foot museum. There you’ll find instruments, awards, photos, costumes, and other Willie Nelson memorabilia on display. However, even if you’re not a huge Willie Nelson fan, the “and Friends” part of the “Willie Nelson and Friends Museum” may entice you. There are also memorabilia from the likes of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, and 27 other country music superstars.

Restaurants

Caney Fork River Valley Grille. This is truly the only place in Nashville you can find gator chili, wild elk sliders, or a venison sausage Philly. Though the Caney Fork River Valley Grille is best known for their ribs and catfish, their wild game menu is a must-try for those with a taste for adventure. There’s live music every Friday and Saturday against a backdrop of taxidermy possums, bears, deer, wolves, bobcats, and much more. The indoor catfish pond is especially scenic, if you prefer a livelier view during dinner.

Scoreboard Bar and Grill. Good drink specials, hot chicken, and chill karaoke characterize this sports bar and restaurant. There’s a rustic/modern dissonance here, with old-timey features like log-cabin-style booths and a cigarette vending machine right next to more updated fixtures like pool tables, televisions, and a virtual golfing game. This is a great pick for sports fans especially, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and a menu full of game-day essentials like burgers, wings, and nachos.

Cock of the Walk. This catfish surf ‘n’ turf restaurant has been turning out Nashville’s favorite fried fillets for 36 years. From the rustic wood-paneled walls, to the rows of rocking chairs, to the shrine of signed head shots from country music legends, Cock of the Walk tackles traditional Tennessee cooking in a laid-back family atmosphere. Beyond the obvious steak, catfish, and shrimp mains, they also offer several standout sides like coleslaw, hush puppies, and pickled onions.

Sukho Thai. If you need a break from the nonstop glitter and grit that characterizes most of Music Valley, consider having a tranquil meal at Sukho Thai. Despite the fact that it’s next door to a go-kart track, this place is quite elegant. The carved wooden details, romantic lighting, and peaceful music are calming after a day of honky-tonking, and dishes like the basil lamb will not disappoint.

Bars and Nightlife

The Nashville Palace. If you’re a classic country music fan who laments the day country-pop was ever invented, get yourself to the Nashville Palace as quickly you can. This bar and venue is a country music legend and one of the few places in town that showcases classic country exclusively. They have live music from open to close, and you can order a fried bologna sandwich whenever your heart desires. In the back is a huge dance floor where they have special events and concerts (usually ticketed), but it isn’t uncommon to see a little line dancing or two-stepping on the smaller dance floor in the front room either.

Performing Arts

The General Jackson Showboat. The General Jackson Showboat is a Victorian-style riverboat that cruises down the Cumberland River up to twice a day. On board, there’s a two-story theater that showcases a couple of flashy, choreographed, cheesy but fun contemporary country productions—the “Taste of Tennessee” show, which plays during the midday cruise, and the “Music City Nights” show, which takes place as the sun is setting. Each show comes with a meal, and after the show, you can roam the different decks outside, including a rooftop bar from which you can enjoy views of the sparkling downtown Nashville skyline.

The Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry is the most famous country music show in the world—in fact, it’s the show that made country music famous. They’ve been broadcasting their concerts every week since 1925, making it the longest-running radio broadcast in the United States, and there isn’t a country, bluegrass, or Americana icon who hasn’t performed here. The Opry has been in its current location since 1974, and as such it’s the epicenter around which the rest of Music Valley has rippled out over the years. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of country music, it’s definitely worth a visit for the spectacle of it all. And if attending a live show isn’t enough to scratch the big-hair, sparkly jacket, fiddle-sawing itch, you can take a backstage tour seven days a week to hear more about the history, stars, and stories that make the Grand Ole Opry truly grand.

Nashville Nightlife Dinner Theater. The Nashville Nightlife Dinner Theater is a perfect antidote for when ultra-cool New Nashville starts to take itself too seriously. This place is just unpretentious, good-hearted, country music fun. Join 300 of your closest friends for a buffet-style dinner and an hour and a half of some of Nashville’s most seasoned musicians putting on the best country music variety show in town. The band performs country music through the ages, from Hank Williams to Toby Keith, and you better believe there’s fruit cobbler for dessert.

Texas Troubadour Theater. The Texas Troubadour Theater, named for honky-tonk legend Ernest “Texas Troubadour” Tubb, is home to the famous Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree—the second-longest-running radio show in U.S. history, after the Grand Ole Opry. Though Ernest Tubb himself has since passed on, the Midnite Jamboree still records every Saturday night at 10 pm, and you can be part of the live audience for free. They host a variety of other musical shows throughout the week as well. The theater itself is fashioned to look like the Ryman Auditorium, complete with lofty ceilings and church pews. But the Texas Troubadour’s pews have cushions, which might actually make it a step above the Ryman.

Shopping

Dashwood Vintage and Flora. This amazingly curated boutique specializes in the two things essential to every fashionable home: mid-century furniture and beautiful plants. The offerings here are more vintage than antique—couches, chairs, lamps, tables, and other one-of-a-kind statements pieces from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, all perfectly preserved and irresistibly cool. There are some new items for sale, too, all of which are ethically produced (either American made or, if they’re imported, fair trade). And yes—for any literary buffs who were wondering, the name is in fact a reference to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Jae’s Gem Mine. For something really down to earth, visit Jae’s Gem Mine to learn about the minerals, fossils, and gemstones native to Tennessee and beyond. Their mission is more scientific than metaphysical, though they do sell crystals—as well as gems, minerals, fossils, and even gold. In addition to retail, they’re a full-service rock shop, offering everything from lapidary services (cutting and polishing stones), to geode cracking, to rockhounding classes and trips that take you into nature to find geological treasures of your own. While you’re there, be sure to say hello to the shop dog, whose name is (obviously) Rocky.

Mercantile 615. Half mixed market, half wood shop—the old and new meet in unexpected ways at Mercantile 615. A combination of antique, vintage, repurposed, and new items are arranged into simulated mini-rooms throughout the store, so you can see each unique piece of art and furniture displayed in its proper glory. In the workshop area, there’s an ever-changing roster of classes for those with idle hands: knitting, macramé, furniture painting, hand lettering, watercolor, and more.

Music Valley Antiques and Marketplace. A treasure trove of brass, porcelain, and wood awaits you in this sunny antiques store. Music Valley Antiques and Marketplace combines the selective inventory of a high-end vintage boutique with the prices of a dig-until-you-hit-the-bottom flea market. With books, art, records, clothes, furniture, dishes, vintage toys, exquisite tea sets, and (of course) instruments from over 30 vendors, you’re sure to find at least one thing you didn’t know you couldn’t live without.

Opry Mills. Opry Mills is the be-all end-all of malls in Tennessee. In fact, it’s so gigantic that it has its own exit off of Briley Parkway. There are over 200 stores inside, both outlet and retail, covering every corner of the shopping landscape: shoes, clothes, sporting goods, hunting gear, handbags, and multiple vendors who sell nothing but cowboy boots. And the brands cover just as wide a spectrum, from Coach to Rue21. When you’ve reached your shopping limit, catch a movie at the Regal Cinema 20 and IMAX Theater and enjoy a bottle of Nashville craft beer. For food, Chuy’s Tex-Mex is the best pick for both flavor and value, and the Aquarium Restaurant is an excellent choice if you’re willing to shell out a little more for the dreamy experience of dining surrounded by a 200,000-gallon ocean aquarium.

The Tacky Turtle. This vintage/modern marketplace mash-up is full of surprises—from the moment you walk inside, take a free fortune cookie, and see Ernest Tubb’s tour bus taking up the right quadrant of the store. (It isn’t just for show! You can take a self-guided tour of the honky-tonk legend’s mode of transportation for free.) The shop is divided into booths, similar to an antiques store, and each booth features either new items created by local artists and artisans or carefully selected vintage items. From handmade jewelry and decor to perfectly preserved 1950s box hats and fur muffs, everybody’s taste is covered. In classic Music Valley fashion, you can expect rhinestones and pallet wood to feature prominently.

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