In order to experience Nashville to the fullest, it is best to have some understanding of the city, its history, and its people. Most newcomers know Nashville simply as “Music City,” but that moniker does not do justice to the city as a whole. A strong country music legacy and the city’s location in the so-called “Buckle of the Bible Belt” have and still do play a strong role in defining the city, but Nashville is growing and redefining itself. Amidst the land of the honky-tonks and recording studios emerged an “Athens of the South.” Today seven universities and two medical schools, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College, ensure Nashville’s standing as a well-respected center for learning and advancement.
Allow the city of Nashville, filled with true Southern hospitality, to aid you in your transition to medical school. First we’ll educate you on the city, then on how to get settled in, and finally about the culture and diversity that Nashville has to offer!
The abundant waterways and fertile soil in the Tennessee Valley have supported human settlements in the area in and around Nashville for millennia. The discovery of human tools, as well as mastodon bones bearing their marks, is evidence that human settlements have existed in Tennessee for at least 15,000 years. By 800 CE to 1500 CE, the people inhabiting Nashville and the surrounding areas had developed complex systems of chiefdoms, religions, farming, and a trading system. Large earthen mounds were constructed during this time and used for religious and ceremonial purposes. Sadly, the mounds that existed in Nashville have been destroyed by development. However, mounds around the area, such as those at Mound Bottom, 23 miles east of Nashville, and Tennessee’s Pinson Mounds State Park and Museum, 130 miles southwest of Nashville, are still well preserved and on display for the public.
The first European explorer to come to what is now Tennessee was the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto, who came in 1540 in search of gold and a sea trading route to China. Upon de Soto’s arrival, Nashville and the state of Tennessee were home to numerous modern Native American tribes that descended from the Mississippians, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Shawnee, and Yuchi. In fact, the name Tennessee comes from the name of a Cherokee town, in what would become southeastern Tennessee, called Tanasi. Following de Soto’s exploration, the French explorer Robert de LaSalle laid claim to Tennessee land in 1682 and established trading posts surrounding the Mississippi River. In 1769, settlers from the English colony of Virginia established the first permanent settlement of European descendants in Tennessee.
Nashville was founded a decade after the first settlement, on Christmas Eve 1779, along the banks of the Cumberland River. Two teams of pioneers set forth from the Carolinas to found the new city. Upon arrival, they immediately began building Fort Nashborough, named for American Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash. A downsized recreation of the fort currently stands on the riverside near the intersection of 1st Avenue and Church Street. Nashville would later serve as a stop on the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokee and other Indians were forcibly removed from their lands and made to move to western states by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Nashville was named the permanent capital of Tennessee in 1843, and soon after played a significant part in the Civil War. Only Virginia was home to more battles and Civil War casualties than the state of Tennessee, which had 38 major battles take place within its boundaries. One of these battles was fought in Nashville, as well as others in the surrounding towns of Murfreesboro, Franklin, Brentwood and others. In February 1862, Nashville became the first state capital to fall to Union troops.
Like many cities, the Civil War steered Nashville in a new direction - a direction looking toward the future and the education of its youth. In a span of 25 years following the war, four colleges were founded, including Vanderbilt University as well as Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, two colleges established for the higher education of African Americans. With the opening of these learning centers, Nashville developed a third prominent nickname, the “Athens of the South,” and the Parthenon was constructed in Centennial Park to honor this name.
The music of Nashville has a colorful history all its own, with diverse roots in country western, gospel, bluegrass, American folk, ragtime, jazz, and blues. Early settlers brought mostly small, transportable instruments with them such as harmonicas, fifes, and fiddles as well as the songs and melodies from their native lands. As was the case in many frontier towns, performing live music was a popular source of entertainment. Davy Crockett, one of Nashville’s most famous sons, was said to have been a great entertainer, telling stories and playing his fiddle for settlers in Nashville in the early 1800s.
In 1824, only 50 years after the founding of the city, the music publishing industry took root with the publication of Western Harmony, a book of hymns and instructions for singing. This book helped shape Nashville as “Music City” and the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” Throughout the 1800s, Nashville’s publishing companies produced national best sellers, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University became the first musical performers to complete an around-the-world tour.
In 1892 the construction of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, later to be known as the Ryman Theater, was completed in downtown Nashville. The perfected acoustics gave the Ryman the nickname the “Carnegie Hall of the South,” and to this day it is still recognized as one of the best concert halls in the country to see live music. The Ryman gained national fame as the home of the Grand Ole Opry Radio Show when it began to air in 1925. Since its beginning, the Grand Ole Opry has broadcasted live country music to the nation every Saturday, and today is among the longest continually-running broadcasts in history.
In the 1950’s, recording studios began to have their heyday in Nashville, including the now famous RCA studios where Elvis recorded over 200 songs, beginning with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Music legend Chet Atkins played a vital role alongside other prominent recording artists and engineers to pioneer the “Nashville Sound,” as heard on so many early rock ‘n’ roll and country recordings. Today over 340 recording studios are listed within 50 miles of Nashville’s city center, with many on 16th and 17th avenues, also known as “Music Row”.
With these now famous roots, Nashville continues to be a hotbed of musical activity. National recording acts and organizations are continually attracted to the music scene in Nashville. In 1961 the Country Music Hall of Fame was founded in downtown, and in 1984, the famed guitar maker, Gibson Guitar Corporation, moved its headquarters to Nashville. The city also is home to its own Nashville Opera and Nashville Symphony, as well as dozens and dozens of rock venues, blues bars, jazz clubs, open mic nights, and old fashioned honky-tonks.
Today, the downtown area is a major tourist attraction, after the renovations of the Ryman Auditorium (the “Mother Church of Country Music”) and “lower” Broadway and 2nd Avenue, attracting many visitors every year. Nashville has several professional sports teams, including the Tennessee Titans (NFL), Nashville Predators (NHL), and the Nashville Sounds (Minor League baseball).
While the music business has made the city famous, printing and publishing is one of Nashville’s biggest industries. There is also a strong insurance and financial community. Tourism and the music industry keep the economy moving, and health care is among the city’s strongest and most well established employers.
The weather in Nashville is temperate with all four seasons well-represented. Summer is usually hot and humid while fall is mild, lasting well into November (average temperature 60.5°F). The leaves change in mid-October turning the Tennessee hills into a sea of color. Winter in Middle Tennessee usually consists of three cool months with rain and wind (average temperature 40.5ºF). It rarely snows and seldom accumulates greater than three or four inches. However, even the mere mention of snow will cause panic, school cancellations, and temporary shortages of bread, water, and milk at the local grocery stores (very amusing for anyone from the North). Roads are not cleared of snow very promptly, so exercise extreme caution while attempting to drive in snow. Spring is long and mild (average temperature 59.5ºF) and generally lasts from March through May.