Travel Diaries: Exploring Nashville's National Museum of African American Music & Other Historic Sites
Nashville has long been revered as the "Music City" of not just the state of Tennessee, but the USA at large. The buzzing city is well known for housing country music legends (from Dolly Parton to Carrie Underwood) to being the go-to launching pad for rising singers who have dreams of making it big. But country music doesn't serve as the sole backbone of Nashville.
The Music City embodies not just country, but all genres including pop, R&B and blues. And it was Negro spirituals—most notably sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers, a Black a cappella ensemble featuring Fisk University students (the university is the oldest institution for higher education in Nashville), which began in 1871—that sparked the start of the city's musical heritage. The National Museum of African American Music (or NMAAM for short) serves as a visual and educational reminder of the city's roots. The NMAAM, which first broke ground in early 2017 and officially opened in 2021, is not your typical museum. Taking into its celebration of African-American music (including rap, country, soul, jazz, and R&B), the museum is a vibrant and joyfully interactive experience. One can choose to craft their own blues song, partake in a choreography session, curate individual playlists and more. EDITION's own managing editor Bianca Gracie—whose writing foundation is based on the Black music experience—got to enjoy the NMAAM firsthand.
"From production to songwriting to performance to consumption, this country’s musical landscape was formed by a distinct group who created, influenced, and inspired more than 50 genres and subgenres of music. NMAAM’s purpose is to tell the story that has never been told before—one that shares how African Americans play a critical role in shaping our country’s heritage and culture," their website explains. "The museum showcases how today’s artists are connected to the traditions born out of the African American experience through interactive technology, quotes, artifacts, and creative educational programming.
Below, NMAAM's Exhibitions and Collections Manager Katie Rainge-Briggs gives more insight into the museum's significance (and continue reading for Gracie's Nashville's travel picks).
For those who may not know of NMAAM, describe what makes the museum a unique visit.
We are the only museum dedicated to the preservation, education, and celebration of Black music. Interactive galleries that entertain and educate a variety of age groups. Consciously curated galleries, that tell a history of African American music. Highlighting the narratives of the people that create and enjoy African American music.
The museum is super interactive, from making your own blues songs to recording a dance routine. Can you share the importance of having that aspect in relation to Black music?
Black music is a lived experience, and the interaction between performer and audience is central to Black music history. To properly educate the public about this communal, interactive music we must have a museum where patrons are active participants in the exhibitions.
As a music and culture journalist, I left the museum feeling even more inspired to celebrate Black music across the diaspora. What's the key thing that you'd like visitors to take away from their experience?
Visitors should further their ability of Black music to tell a story, build relationships and demonstrate creativity. Museum visitors should further their understanding of American history through the American soundtrack that Black music crafted.
The Fisk Jubilee singers are the basis of Nashville's music heritage, but that fact often gets overshadowed by the now white-led mainstream music scene. What are ways that the city, in general, can continue to uphold and preserve the significance of homegrown Black music (country, blues, rock, pop, etc)?
The support and incorporation of African American cultural institutions in city planning.
While the NMAAM should be on the top of your list of must-see experiences in Nashville, the city is of course home to a variety of sights, treats and eats. Continue reading for EDITION's travel picks:
Germantown Inn: Located in the oldest town in Nashville, the house was purchased in 1847 and the inn opened in 2016. It's the only hotel in the neighborhood and its rooms are named after US presidents.
5th & Taylor: A restaurant featuring an upscale take on down-home food.
Legends Corner: A fun and lighthearted bar with a honky tonk vibe.
Ryman Auditorium: An historic landmark venue that was originally a church in 1892. It's best known for being the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Edessa: A restaurant with deliciously authentic Kurdish/Turkish cuisine.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: A visual journey through country music throughout the decades.
RCA Studio B: Also known as Elvis Presley's recording studio sanctuary, where he recorded 240 songs including the iconic "Heartbreak Hotel".
Grand Ole Opry: The iconic home to the weekly country music concert/radio show.
8th & Roast: An equity-based coffee shop and roastery that roasts all of its beans in-house, built a roasting facility. Owners and childhood friends Q Taylor, Sam and Ed are originally from Memphis but moved to Nashville, and the shop’s been open since 2011. Along with running five locations, 8th & Roast also does non-profit work including consulting and helping out other coffee shops, as well as the Nashville bicycle club (proceeds go to the club where they redesign old bikes). By 2023, there will be a push for more youth mentorship and starting a hospitality group.
Starland Vintage & Unusual: A vintage shop filled with the quirkiest and most unique knickknacks, from the original KISS dolls to elaborate costume jewelry.
Third Man Records: Jack White's business headquarters where he distributes vinyl and merch, as well as record music and host events with local musicians.
Tennessee Brew Works: A brewery that boasts a variety of craft beer as well as a full-service restaurant with sauces containing beer. EDITION's favorite was the "Queen's Legacy" beer, which was made of Caribbean grain and aged in Uncle Nearest whiskey barrels.
Carter Vintage Guitars: A beloved guitar shop co-founded by Christie and Walter Carter in 2012. Boasting an approximate 1300 inventory (banjos, Mandolin, bass, electric, classic), customers include Carlos Santana, Pete Townsend, Chris Stapleton, ZZ Top, and Post Malone. Walter has been in the music business for 25 years, starting out as an author of guitar history which flowed into the opening of the store.
The National Museum of African American Music is located at 510 Broadway Ave, Nashville, TN 37203. It is open Sunday-Monday from 12pm-5pm and Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm.