Music City is home to dozens of music venues in the most unlikely places. Nearly every restaurant downtown offers a stage of some sort, mainly for local, unsigned talent. Although you would be surprised at the names of people who got their start in what appears to be a hole-in-the-wall dive or even the A-list artists who will surprise guests from time to time by showing up at some of the smaller venues.
Few Christian artists can sell out Bridgestone Arena, Nashville’s largest indoor music venue. The 20,000-seat arena has hosted sold-out shows for Taylor Swift and Keith Urban to Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry. It’s also the site of Winter Jam each year and other multi-artist extravaganzas like “The Story Tour” or TobyMac’s “Hits Deep Tour.” Casting Crowns, who has played there in the past, is slated to play Bridgestone again this fall. However, aside from Toby and Crowns, few Christian artists have the fan power and the larger production value it takes to play to an arena. Therefore, like in other cities, many Christian artists play in churches—their bread and butter. Rocketown, Michael W. Smith’s inner-city multi-use coffee shop/skate park/event space is also a go-to for Christian artists. Ellie Holcomb, Kari Jobe, Rend Collective, Shawn McDonald and Royal Tailor have all recently performed there.
Lipscomb University’s 5,500-seat Allen Arena is one of the more common event spaces for larger Christian tours. MercyMe, Third Day, Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Sanctus Real and Hillsong United have all performed before capacity crowds there. The GMA Dove Awards were held there last year and will take place in Allen Arena again this fall. A smaller theater at Lipscomb has also been a consistent spot for songwriters like Andrew Peterson, Bebo Norman and Aaron Shust in the past.
While these venues tend to be more functional in size, scope and location for Christian concerts, there are plenty of other venues across town that provide rich history, incredible acoustics and a unique atmosphere that have served as the backdrop for some of the best Christian concerts in Nashville. Here are five of the city’s best venues where faith-based artists have graced the stage:
1. The Ryman Auditorium
It may be the Mother Church of country music, but it’s also hands-down the favorite venue of locals; and it welcomes all genres of music frequently, making for a diverse weekly line-up. Chris Tomlin, Brandon Heath, Mandisa, NEEDTOBREATHE and Steven Curtis Chapman have all headlined there. The Civil Wars gave one of the best performances from The Ryman stage that I’ve ever seen, period. The Ryman was also the venue for the 1st annual K-LOVE Fan Awards. (www.ryman.com)
This dive bar off Elliston has boasted some of the biggest acts in country and rock through the years. The parking is terrible, but the dark, seedy atmosphere is totally rock ’n’ roll. Many of the shows are 18 and up. NEEDTOBREATHE visited the iconic venue during last year’s “Stomping Ground Tour.” Switchfoot gave a memorable performance during their “Hello Hurricane Tour” of 2009 there, which had Jon Foreman climbing up the unsteady balcony steps and high-fiving fans. The Afters, Relient K and others have also played to the small, standing-room-only venue through the years. (www.exitin.com)
3. 3rd & Lindsley
This downtown venue used to be one of the worst live music hubs in all of Nashville. Before the anti-smoking laws, the air was so thick with smoke, you could barely breathe. The awkward layout of the interior with a balcony that took up more room than the seating downstairs made it hard to see; and the food was terrible. Today, the food is still not stellar, but they do at least offer a large menu of fried food options while you wait for the show to begin. (If you want to get a seat at all, you have to arrive before the doors open or at least two hours early.) Fortunately, they remodeled the interior several years ago, opening up the space and giving attendees a better line of sight. They even moved the stage from its cramped corner to the back wall, front and center. Today, it’s actually quite a pleasant place, and unlike most of the smaller venues around town, it has tables and chairs, if you’re lucky enough to snag one. Burlap to Cashmere, Jennifer Knapp, Margaret Becker, Steve Taylor, Sandra McCracken, Jars of Clay and more have played to the intimate room that maxes out at 500 people. I recently caught a fantastic set from JohnnySwim there. The Jonas Brothers even played a showcase there when they signed their original Christian deal, long before anyone knew who they were. (www.3rdandlindsley.com)
4. 12th & Porter
12th & Porter, located on the outskirts of downtown, is technically made up of two music venues, but the semi-open-air front room is confusing, and it’s always hard to know who’s actually playing there. The inner room is small with a long narrow bar snaking down the side wall, taking up half the room. But the lights are bright and every spot offers a good view since the cramped venue is so small. It’s a great place to catch a band before they blow up. Plumb, NEEDTOBREATHE and Colony House are just a few of the artists who have performed at this tucked-away downtown concert venue. (www.12andporter.com)
5. The Bluebird Cafe
The Bluebird Cafe is every bit as nostalgic and intimate as people make it out to be, and the set on ABC’s “Nashville” is a fairly accurate depiction of the place, despite the fact that the replica was built on a soundstage. The tiny historic spot right off Hillsboro Road in the busy, upscale Green Hills neighborhood, seems out of place in a strip mall; but it’s likely to always remain in this hallowed location because many consider its stage sacred. Only 20 tables are inside, requiring reservations months in advance. The tables surround a tiny, yet profound stage that has witnessed the beginnings of some of the most well-known careers in music history. There are also a couple pews in the back that offer first-come, first-serve seating; but good luck snagging those seats. Songwriter rounds with Christian artists happen often, but it’s mostly the singer-songwriters that you’ll find here: Amy Grant, Ian Eskelin, Andrew Peterson, Brandon Heath, Steven Curtis Chapman and Matt Maher, among others. (www.bluebirdcafe.com)
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