Traveling east to west (or vice versa), a trip from one end of Tennessee to the other will take about six hours. Musically, however, that same journey through the Volunteer State will take you through centuries of a rich, colorful history that's been captured in some of the most iconic tourist destinations in the entire country. From state-of-the art museums and performance venues to legendary recording studios and a massive theme park founded by one of the world's most famous entertainers, we take a closer look at 10 of Tennessee's most can't-miss destinations.
With a collection that includes more than 2 million artifacts (and counting) encompassing more than a century of country-music history, you'll want to carve out a couple of days to take in everything the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has to offer. Its countless gems run the gamut from Merle Haggard's official pardon signed by Ronald Reagan to a suit worn by Hank Williams to a replica of Taylor Swift's tour bus. The recent 210,000-square-foot expansion more than doubles the museum's size, adding 10,000 square feet of exhibit space, new education, entertainment, retail and event spaces, and the state-of-the-art 800-seat CMA Theater, where special programs featuring artists and songwriters take place throughout the year.
The birthplace of rock & roll. In 1950, Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, a one-room studio, where, in 1954, a young truck driver would change the course of modern music and popular culture. When Elvis Presley's rollicking "That's All Right," backed with a juiced-up version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was released, the floodgates opened wide, with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all part of Sun Studio's golden era. The studio, replete with photos, records and other memorabilia, beautifully captures the past and continues to draw new artists in to record.
It was a mansion fit for a King. OK, so it's no Buckingham Palace, but in March 1957, Elvis Presley purchased this colonial revival-style mansion for $102,500. It's where he lived with wife Priscilla until their divorce in 1967, and where daughter Lisa Marie was born. More than 600,000 people from all over the world make the trek to Graceland annually, some 37 years after Presley's death. From the green shag carpet of the Jungle Room to the dizzying display of gold and platinum records, it's the ultimate rock & roll pilgrimage. Thankyouverymuch.
First opened in 1982, this tiny suburban venue is the spot to check out up-and-coming songwriters, established tunesmiths and special guests. Then along came ABC's Nashville in 2012, which only made it harder to get in to the Bluebird Café. But don't let that deter you! Just sitting in the room where the likes of Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley and Vince Gill were once among the many struggling writers hoping to be discovered may even inspire your own songwriting. Just don't make too much noise or you'll get a stern "shhhh"! That's why it's called a "listening room."
It is one of the newest — and yet most historic — tourist destinations in Tennessee (and Virginia). Although 2014 marks the grand opening of a 24,000-square-foot museum, downtown Bristol (which sits on the border of the two states) was the site of country music's "big bang" in 1927, when Ralph Peer and the Victor Talking Machine Co., produced the first commercial recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, among other acts. The "Bristol Sessions" would form the backbone of modern country music and without them, it's conceivable Nashville would not have become "Music City."
Travel some 70 miles south of Nashville to the small town of McMinnville, Tennessee, (birthplace of country legend Dottie West), then make your way below ground for one of the state's most magnificent natural landmarks. More than 32 miles of caves can be toured today, including spots where saltpeter was mined during the Civil War. For music lovers, however, Cumberland Caverns form the unique backdrop for a music series called "Bluegrass Underground." The monthly program of acoustic music recorded live at Cumberland Caverns airs on PBS stations, Nashville's 650 WSM radio and streaming at WSMonline.
Emmylou Harris once famously said the Ryman Auditorium was full of magical "hillbilly dust," thanks to the 30 years this former church (built as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892) spent as home to country's live Grand Ole Opry radio show. But prior to the Opry, in addition to a religious meeting place, it was a concert hall and theatrical stage that hosted such legendary performers as Charlie Chaplin. Once targeted for demolition, the venue was restored to its former glory has since been the site of concerts by hundreds of acts from Mumford and Sons to Willie Nelson.
In 1986, globally recognized entertainer (and beloved east Tennessee native) Dolly Parton became part owner of the former Silver Dollar City theme park, after which the attraction was rechristened Dollywood. Today, the sprawling complex, which employs more than 3,000 locals, celebrates the music and culture of the state as well as the iconic Parton herself. On-site attractions such as Splash Country and the singer's treasure-filled Chasing Rainbows museum are among the most-visited in the state. In 2011, the park and its star attraction were featured in the award-winning documentary film, Hollywood to Dollywood.
When it comes to American soul music, Stax Records played runner-up to Motown in terms of sales and historical significance, but that's not to say the label's influence on popular culture has been less than phenomenal. What began as a tiny record store inside an old downtown movie theater soon became one of the world's most important recording companies, with Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett and dozens of others gracing its roster. Stax Museum highlights include hundreds of vintage records, classic costumes and instruments, and a cool recreation of Stax Studio A.
One of just six Nashville attractions to earn the prestigious GEM rating from AAA, Forbes and National Geographic have also bestowed special honors on this museum that's a heartwarming and inspirational tribute to the hardscrabble upbringing and meteoric career of the Man in Black. Handwritten letters, song lyrics and numerous items that held special significance for Cash, his wife June Carter Cash and their entire family are housed at the Johnny Cash Museum, and there are several vintage film and TV clips to enjoy as well.