On any national map of country hot spots, a lot of the roads will lead to Nashville: You’ve got to love a town where stars build museums complete with gift shops to honor themselves, where grave sites and grub joints are as steeped in music history as the Grand Ole Opry, where fans can mingle with singers at theme parks or in their own front yards. But while Nashville may be the center of country’s universe, the concert halls of Branson, Mo., the honky-tonks of Texas, and the other Nashville (in Indiana) are just as hospitable to down-home sounds as Music City. Following is a visitor’s map of the best of Nashville and beyond; after all, it’s a big country.
1. Country Music Hall of Fame
Elvis’ Cadillac, Judds’ dresses, Willie’s bandana, Johnny Cash’s guitars, Opry artifacts, historic hillbilly movies, plus the greatest gift shop on Music Row.
2. Country Music Wax Musuem
The museum has two locations — this one near Opryland, and a matching one in the Music Row district.
3. Kitty Wells Museum
Railroad memorabilia, career artifacts, and lots of kitchen stuff (the Queen of Country can cook).
4. House of Cash
Crammed with Johnny memorabilia, this is the densest country-star museum in town.
5. Twitty City
Conway has a cool mu seum, and his house next door is the only star ‘s home in Nashville that you can actually walk into.
6. Jim Reeves Museum
One of the best. You get not only the usual career memorabilia and plane-crash artifacts but a historic home to boot.
7. Ryman Ausitorium
The ”Mother Church of Country Music.” The Opry was here between 1943 and 1974. You’ll recognize its stage from the movie Sweet Dreams.
8. Columbia/Epic Records
Go to the back parking lot and look up: That exposed bit of curved roof is the last remnant of a Quonset hut, Music Row’s first music building. This studio, now encased in the office building, was host to Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson, and many more.
9. Dolly Parton’s House
A white Tara fantasy. Did you expect anything less?
10. George Jones’ House
Jones has been known to come outside and greet tourists himself.
11. Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter’s House
If the gate’s open, you might be able to glimpse through the windows the Outlaw’s excellent taste in antique furniture.
12. Minnie Pearl’s House
Right next door to the governor’s mansion. Way cool, huh?
13. Tammy Wynette’s House
First Lady Acres even has a place by the gate where you can pull over to take a snapshot.
Theaters, Clubs, Bars, Performance Halls
14. Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa
The quintessential country-dance hall, with a massive, spring-loaded dance floor and history everywhere you look (it was once home base to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys).
15. Crazy Horse Steak House and Saloon, Santa Ana, Calif.
A popular spot for artists on their way up, the Crazy Horse is also a place they come back to after they’ve made it. It’s a friendly, hang-loose joint.
16. Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Tex.
The oldest operating honky-tonk in Texas (opened 1878), Gruene (pronounced ”Green”) Hall isn’t much to look at. The lights are brown with nicotine, and the hardwood dance floor is as unyielding as a cold woman’s heart. But this hall, the site of concerts by everyone from the late Ernest Tubb to George Strait, spins a magic thread between audience and performer.
17. Little Nashville Opry, Nashville, Ind.
Nestled in the woods, the Little Nashville Opry is like a scaled-down version of the Tennessee number. The talent roster is decidedly big name (the likes of Emmylou Harris and George Jones), and with only 2,000 seats and a terrific sound system, this is concertgoing at its best.
18. Branson, Mo.
Lodged in the scenic Ozark Mountains, tiny Branson (pop: 3,700) bills itself as “America’s Country Music Show Capital,” with stars like Roy Clark, Mickey Gilley, Jim Stafford, Willie Nelson, and Ray Stevens owning their own theaters here. Most of these performers can’t remember when they had their last hit record, but the 4 million fans who crowd in to see them couldn’t care less.
19. The Birchmere, Alexandria, Va..
Started 20 years ago primarily as a bluegrass club, the Birchmere has since broadened its scope. But whatever you hear at the Birchmere, from Mary-Chapin Carpenter to the Cajun band Beausoleil, it will be first-rate. The atmosphere is funky folk and, with only 300 seats, intimate.
20. The Buckboard Country Music Showcase, Marietta,Ga.
A civilized place to hear up-and-coming stars such as Hal Ketchum, Pam Tillis, and Collin Raye. The combination club, bar, and small theater (375 seats, with standing room for more) showcases both national and local acts.