On almost any night, the music clubs in Nashville are overflowing with a bobbing, weaving and dancing crowd of locals and visitors, mostly young, who have come out into the soft Tennessee darkness to check out the newest country music, blues, folk or jazz.
Take a walk down lower Broadway, from Seventh Avenue toward the Cumberland River, and the music blasts out of open doorways - not as an assault on the senses but rather as an invitation to passersby to come in and enjoy the camaraderie and Southern hospitality. Old and new bands crank out music for tips, playing for the most appreciative audience east of the Mississippi.
Nashville's nickname, Music City USA, is well deserved - it was here that the Grand Ole Opry radio show was born in the 1920s and where dozens of recording studios still line Record Row, where America's best-known singers and musicians record their latest hits.
There are probably more people working at Vanderbilt Medical Center than there are working in the music industry in Nashville, and the private healthcare business is probably bigger than the music industry in terms of people employed, said Craig Havighurst, a Nashville resident and author of Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City. But if the music industry somehow went into a tailspin, and recording studios folded and young musicians started moving out of town, it really would devastate the character of the city, not to mention a tremendous loss of revenue.
Nashville was settled almost 230 years ago when American colonists arrived in the area on Christmas Eve 1799 and called their riverfront settlement Nashborough, after Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis Nash. Within a few years the town changed its name to Nashville. In 1824 a book of religious hymns and instructions for singing called Western Harmony was published in Nashville, helping the city achieve its first nickname, The Buckle of the Bible Belt.
After the Civil War, four colleges took root in the city, including Vanderbilt University and two well-known African-American institutions, Meharry Medical College and Fisk University. When the Fisk Jubilee singers went on the first around-the-world tour by a musical group, Nashville's worldwide reputation as a music center was solidified.
The city grew quickly during the first half of the 20th century, but it was in the mid-1940s and early 1950s - after the Grand Ole Opry live radio show moved downtown to the Ryman Auditorium - that Nashville found its soul.
The Ryman first opened its doors as a church in 1892, and during the next four decades hosted lots of big-name entertainers, including Enrico Caruso, W. C. Fields, Helen Hayes and Bob Hope, before becoming the new home of the Opry in 1943. It was early radio broadcasts of the Opry on WSM that brought what was often called hillbilly music into the homes and hearts of Middle America.
From the 1950s to the present, Nashville has flourished on the back of its music and recording industry. Singers including Roy Acuff, James Brown, Patsy Cline and Chet Atkins lived in town while recording albums. Elvis Presley recorded Heartbreak Hotel on Record Row here in 1956, the Everly Brothers produced Bye Bye Love in 1957 and Bob Dylan recorded the tracks for Blonde on Blonde here in 1965-66.
Nashville (population 607,000) is still a mecca for country music aficionados and certainly drives a tourism industry that thrives on the city's many country music-related attractions. What has happened to Nashville in the past decade is quite startling, however, beginning in 2001 with the opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in a beautifully restored 1930s Art Deco post office and the 2006 debut of the stunning $123 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
These two architectural icons spurred downtown residential development, with almost 900 condominium units sold in 2008, more than in the five previous years combined. The nat ional economic crisis has caused some condo developers, including the Adelicia in Midtown and the fashionable Encore across from the Schermerhorn, to lower prices in 2009. Others, like the Icon in The Gulch, have maintained their prices, and an additional 400 units are expected to close in 2009 despite the downturn that has hit Nashville's construction and banking business.
New cafés, art galleries and small businesses have opened as well, revitalizing Nashville's city center, enticing suburban families to move back to the city and tempting retirees from colder climates in the North to consider Nashville's new and relatively inexpensive downtown residential housing. A 2008 Forbes survey listed Nashville as the sixth-least-expensive city for owning a home and the 16th-best city in the country for young professionals.
The funded Retail Strategy and Merchandise Mix Plan has identified three areas for extensive retail development: the downtown core, The Gulch district and SoBro (South Broadway area). SunTrust Plaza opened in 2007 with 338,000 square feet of commercial space; Terrazzo in The Gulch has added 75,000 square feet of office, residential and retail space; and The Pinnacle at Symphony Place will add another 520,000 square feet when completed in 2010.
Nashville has no shortage of corporate headquarters, including BellSouth, Caremark, Gaylord Entertainment, Genesco, Nissan Motors USA, Louisiana Pacific and the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Nashville's largest corporate employer. Adding muscle to its lineup of corporate residents is the largest development project in the city: the construction of Music City Center, a $635 million, 1.2 million square-foot convention center scheduled to open in 2013. The convention center project, along with new hotel and office development projects downtown and in suburban areas, is expected to stimulate additional retail opportunities citywide.