Tennessee is long and lean. It is 500 interstate highway miles from Bristol to Memphis, and attractions, memorable meals and surprises are all along the way. Tennessee’s variety is one of its biggest appeals. Here are some ideas.
Grand Ole Opry
Plan now for a big celebration year in Nashville because 2025 will mark the 100th birthday of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry, today available on various media, remains the longest-running radio show in broadcast history. The 50,000-watt voice of WSM Radio keeps a grand tradition alive. For a special treat, book shows at the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House in the suburbs and the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium downtown.
Birthplace of Country Music
Nashville is Music City, but Bristol — a city split between Tennessee and Virginia in the northeast corner of the state — is the “Birthplace of Country Music” because of the 1927 “big bang” that created the commercial country music recording industry. New York record producer Ralph Peer orchestrated a 10-day recording event that became known as the Bristol Sessions. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum explains it all — 76 songs by 19 acts, including the Carter Family, the “First Family of Country Music,” and Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music.”
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis will forever be an illuminating, somber, impactful — even joyful — experience. Its impact is rooted in the fact that this is the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It illuminates the resistance of enslaved people, the restrictions of the Jim Crow era and the seminal moments of the 1960s. Its timelines, photographs, videos, murals, statues and recordings spotlight aspects of American history that should never be forgotten or ignored.
Up and Coming
National Museum of African American Music
Considering Nashville’s deep and interconnected musical roots, it makes sense that the National Museum of African American Music is across the street from the Ryman Auditorium, the “Mother Church of Country Music.” NMAAM (pronounced nay-ma’am) traces the long and powerful impact Black music has had on American culture, starting with the arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619. It offers a grand and entertaining look at American history.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
Time was, no one went to Brushy Mountain willingly. Going there meant being a maximum-security prisoner at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The prison operated from 1896 until 2009 and was grim beyond description. In its early decades, coal mining companies leased its convicts for forced labor. When convict leasing ended, the state used inmates to mine coal. Today, Brushy Mountain is a visitor attraction. Former guards and former inmates tell chilling tales and visitors can dine in a restaurant, attend shows in a concert venue and sip End of the Line Moonshine and other products in a distillery.
Two Extremes at Dollywood
Thrill seekers and relaxers alike have been eager for 2023 at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge. The thrill seekers were rewarded first with the springtime opening of Big Bear Mountain, the theme park’s longest roller coaster (3,990 feet). The $25 million ride is the 12th attraction in the park’s Wildwood Grove section. Its route even includes a pass behind a waterfall. The relaxers look forward to the autumn opening of the 302-room HeartSong Lodge and Resort. It joins the DreamMore Resort for memorable lodging right at the park.
The Tennessean Hotel
When your travelers need pampering and convenience, check in at The Tennessean in Knoxville, an 82-room boutique hotel at the edge of World’s Fair Park and an easy walk from the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Sunsphere, Market Square and two historic theaters — the Tennessee and the Bijou. The hotel’s special touches include nightly turndown, shoeshine service and an electric bike program, according to Robin Holbrook, director of sales and marketing. Check out the adjacent Maker Exchange, a showplace for area artisans. There’s art to buy, as well as spirits and food.
The Peabody Memphis
Legendary, storied, one-of-a-kind, theatrical, just plain fun: All of those descriptions fit The Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, famous for its most photographed guests — well, actually residents — five mallard ducks that parade into and out of the hotel lobby daily while the “King Cotton March” plays and a duckmaster orchestrates the spectacle. Yes, duckmaster is a real job. On top of all that, the 464-room Peabody Hotel puts groups in a prime location to walk to attractions such as Beale Street, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and some of the best barbecue in the South.
The small town of Shelbyville seems an odd location for the longest bar in the world and a restaurant with fancy food until you learn that Humble Baron is part of the Nearest Green Distillery, one of the hottest new names in the spirits industry. Guinness World Records confirms the 518-foot-long bar is the longest anywhere, and patrons swear by menu items such as Nashville hot shrimp and grits and house-made lobster mac and cheese. The distillery, named for the man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, offers a tasty tour.
Atlas Culinary Concepts
The Carrabellos — Justin, a chef, and Corrinne, an educator — are Californians who relocated to Tennessee’s Tri-Cities area to open Atlas Culinary Concepts. They enjoy teaching groups how to make special foods and then shift from the kitchen/classroom to an inviting dining space in a century-old, red-brick warehouse in downtown Kingsport. Justin says lessons in the art of creating sushi rolls have been a hit, as have classes making pizza, flatbreads and stromboli. It’s not the expected Appalachian fare.
Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria
Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria occupies a cavernous building in Knoxville’s historic Old City district. With space for more than 400 guests, it’s a perfect rendezvous point for groups with free time in the Old City or the nearby Market Square. Midday Fridays are a special treat when radio station WDVX renames its “Blue Plate Special” program to “The Big Plate” for live concerts by acts that showcase bluegrass, country, Celtic, folk and other musical styles. Barley’s also has two event spaces that can be booked for groups of 30 and 50.