An Alternative Music Guide to Nashville, According to Local Expert Steve Schnur

The iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville has long drawn nightly crowds
The iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville has long drawn nightly crowds | © Robert Alexander / Getty Images
Matt Charlton

Nashville is so much more than country music. It’s a boom town with songwriters, composers and performers moving here in droves because of a strong, supportive community spirit and a buzzing scene. Look beyond the honky-tonks of Broadway, and the imposing Country Music Hall of Fame, and seek an entirely alternative Nashville – a city that effervesces with music and life.

“Unlike any other city in the world, Nashville is, for the most part, a city of musicians,” remarks Steve Schnur, the worldwide executive and president of music for Electronic Arts (EA), known globally as the largest video game producer in the world. He has chosen to call Nashville his home, telling Culture Trip, “[Los Angeles] is actors, New York is everything, London is everything, but Nashville is, bottom line, a city of musicians. Music permeates through everything that happens here.”

Rising through early MTV, and then signing the likes of The Pixies and The Cure, Schnur knows his way around music. Nashville isn’t just Stetsons and slide guitars, according to Schnur – it has an alternative scene, complete with hidden concert halls and dive bars. Here’s his alternative music guide to Nashville.

1. Exit/In

Concert Hall, Music Venue

Located on Elliston Place near Centennial Park and Vanderbilt University, Exit/In is a 200-capacity venue that gained its reputation in the 1970s as a place where something wild would happen almost every night. Legend has it that American actor Steve Martin once led the entire crowd outside and down the road to buy them all a hamburger. “It’s the alternative to everything else in town,” according to Schnur. Right next to the front door is a list of big-name musicians who’ve played at the venue, including Tom Petty and BB King.

2. Santa’s Pub

Bar, Cocktails, Beer

Nashville Business Exteriors
© Terry Wyatt / Getty Images

Teased by Schnur as “karaoke with an occasional surprise guest,” Santa’s Pub is an old trailer adorned with festive graffiti and Christmas decor. This no-frills karaoke dive bar will cast you under its spell within minutes of walking in. Known for its cheap beer and relaxed, fun atmosphere, you’ll find a diverse crowd, from bikers to sorority girls.

3. Station Inn

Music Venue

Brennley Brown In Concert - Nashville, TN
© Jason Kempin / Getty Images
This legendary venue lies inside an unassuming building among Downtown Nashville’s artsy area, known as The Gulch. Station Inn has a reputation for being a simple place where the Nashville bluegrass community, a group of local musicians who play the blues, convenes. “From bluegrass to gospel, this venue is still standing, and won’t be bullied among its newly construction neighbors in The Gulch,” Schnur adds. And as with so many unpretentious venues in this city, don’t be surprised to see a platinum-selling artist or two in the crowd, or even on the stage.

4. The Dive Motel

Bar, Cocktails, Beer

Kitsch doesn’t even cover The Dive Motel. Located in the fast-developing district of East Nashville, this multipurpose venue is not only home to motel rooms, which speak of a bygone era of Americana with murals and shag-pile rugs, but as the name suggests, it also houses a dive bar decorated in linoleum, chrome and disco balls. It’s a favorite with Nashville residents.

5. The Bluebird Cafe

Cafe, American, Vegetarian

© Erika Goldring / Getty Images
Make sure you book early at The Bluebird Cafe, as it is “one of the most important and iconic venues in the world,” according to Schnur. This unassuming venue, located in a strip mall on the outskirts of town (only a 20-minute taxi ride from Broadway), is the place where songwriters and musicians come to play stripped-back versions of their music. With old and new tunes, the atmosphere is warm and electric.

6. Third Man Records

Bar, Cocktails, Beer

In 2001, lead singer Jack White from The White Stripes founded his first venue in Detroit. Fast-forward eight years and the second Third Man Records opened its doors in Nashville, located in the hip Gulch district. Meander through its record store, photo studio and the world’s first live venue that records directly to acetate. Tours of the space run on Fridays and Saturdays at 2pm.

7. Ryman Auditorium

Concert Hall, Music Venue

Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee
© Dave Newman / Alamy Stock Photo
The Ryman Auditorium, according to Schnur, is “the best venue in the world, hands down.” Highly valued by the city of Nashville, it has been included in the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the heart of Downtown, this beautiful 2,362-person Victorian-Gothic-style venue has seen performances from musical legends like Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr, Tammy Wynette, Foo Fighters, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Neil Young, Bill Monroe and Patsy Cline. Recently, it branched out and hosted its first-ever hip-hop show, courtesy of Wu-Tang Clan. Musicians have praised the venue’s acoustics, calling them the best in the world.

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