Nashville – a City of Music Museums

Tracey Teo

In “Music City,” as Nashville, Tennessee, is called, live music spills onto the streets round-the-clock. Take a deep dive into the history of the soundtrack of the city with tours of music-themed museums. Not all of them are rooted in country music.

National Museum of African American Music

The new National Museum of African American Music is “Out of Sight,” at least James Brown seems to think so. The Godfather of Soul is larger than life in the Rivers of Rhythm Path, the central gallery, his glitzy, perfectly-pompadoured image projected onto a panoramic installation of screens as he belts out his ‘60s hit, “Out of Sight,” and performs that trademark smooth, gliding footwork.

The 1964 footage is one of several highlights of the 56,000-square-foot museum that opened in January in the heart of the tourist district.

An orientation film in the Roots Theater chronicles the 400-year evolution of Black music in America and documents how it branched off into dozens of genres that include, jazz, blues, hip hop, rap and more. From there, six galleries organized by era detail historical events, such as the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance.

"The museum showcases all genres of African American music and how it became American music,” said John Fleming, a historian and the museum’s director in residence. “For instance, in the R&B gallery, you see how Elvis Presley was influenced by African American singers. One thing I've always emphasized is that African American history is American history, and the same can be said of music."

Deeply rooted in historical research, the museum is educational, but it’s also big on super-fun, interactive exhibits that appeal to everybody from grade schoolers to grandparents.

Think you could be the next big record producer in the music biz? Try mixing your own beats in One Nation Under a Groove, the R&B gallery.

If it’s been a minute since you busted a move, the dance studio offers a digital refresher course. A timeline of popular dances starting with the 1950s allows you to choose your decade.

The Message gallery, with its graffiti and streetwear fashion, is a recreation of the South Bronx of the 1970s, the birthplace of hip hop and rap.  Black kids from the blighted borough used music to rail against social injustices, speaking truth to power long before these genres were commercialized.

More than 1,500 artifacts and memorabilia are on view. Special gems include one of B.B. King’s “Lucille” guitars and a Grammy awarded to the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.

510 Broadway, Nashville, Tennessee. 615-301-8724,

Johnny Cash Museum

You can catch the sound of many musical genres in Nashville, but first and foremost, it’s the epicenter of the country music industry, so it’s no surprise there are many museums that celebrate some of country’s most illustrious artists.  

Start with the Johnny Cash Museum that houses the world’s largest collection of Johnny Cash artifacts and memorabilia. It delves into the life and music of the iconic Man in Black, starting with the singer-song writer’s humble origins in rural Arkansas and following the trajectory of a career that spanned nearly 50 years.

By the time of his death in 2003, Cash was one of the best-selling recording artists of all time (his discography is on exhibit), but he started with Sun Records, the small Memphis label that launched Elvis Presley’s career.

“The Tennessee Two” exhibit shines a light on those early days and features instruments played by his original band members.

Cash was a social justice advocate, a trailblazer who embarked on a prison tour in the 1960s.  The “San Quentin Prison” exhibit comprises a custom blue jumpsuit Cash wore during a rehearsal at the prison and video clips from the concert where his deep, sonorous voice illuminated themes of redemption and sorrow.

Other artifacts include an upright piano owned by Cash’s grandparents and stage costumes worn by his wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash.

119 3rd Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee.

Patsy Cline Museum

The Patsy Cline Museum is in the same building as the Johnny Cash Museum, so you would be “Crazy” to miss this tribute to the legendary Grand Ole Opry star that changed the sound of country music.  The museum traces her career from 1957 when she was catapulted to fame after winning a competition on the TV series “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” by singing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” to her untimely death in a 1963 plane crash when she was only 30.

 In contrast to the predominant honky tonk twang of country music in the ‘50s, Cline had a sophisticated, sultry sound. That vocal prowess made her the first female country music artist to score hits on both the country and pop charts.

A discography exhibit includes her crossover hits “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.”

A collection of colorful performance costumes shows how Cline’s style evolved over time. Early on, she favored fringy cowgirl dresses, but later she chose stylish, form-fitting sheath dresses.  It’s worth noting she was the first woman to wear pants onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.

Other highlights include a recreation of the rec room in the Nashville home she shared with her husband Charlie Dick and years of correspondence with family and friends.

119 3rd Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee.