Music City Smackdown: Austin vs. Nashville

(Photos: Jordan Naylor/Getty Images for SXSW; Marko Forsten/Flickr)

Where can a visitor go to enjoy the best music in the world? Is it in the “Music City” of Nashville, the legendary home of country music, the Grand Ole Opry, and a good chunk of the music publishing industry? Or is it in Austin, “the Live Music Capital of the World,” with its more than 250 live music venues, the famed Austin City Limits concert series, the South by Southwest festival, and its diverse local sounds. This week’s smackdown takes a look at the music scene in each town to help you decide who should take the title of best music town and which might make the best visit for you.

The Case for Austin

From bars to buskers, 6th St is the heart of the Austin music scene. (Photo:

We’re pretty sure that the slogan the Live Music Capital of the World says it all. If you want to go to a city to enjoy music, you want to see it live, not stare at the concrete exterior of some corporate music headquarters. Austin does live music like nowhere else: It boasts more than 250 venues ranging from raucous music clubs to old honky-tonks. The Austin City Limits program that helped establish the city as a musical mecca continues to bring big names to town. Austin’s South by Southwest festival doesn’t just showcase the latest trends — it creates them.

Nashville, on the other hand, may be a great place to go if you’re a music copyright attorney looking for a job, but if your definition of a “music city” goes beyond counting the suits sitting in cubicles in a corporate label’s headquarters, then you’re best off heading to Austin.

Yes, Nashville has some live music, but most of it is performed by its legion of underemployed songwriters, for an audience of unemployed songwriters. Imagine rows of live music venues filled with crowds of people, arms folded, analyzing instead of actually enjoying the music. What kind of “music city” has “shhh” signs plastered in its performance venues? If you want a poetry reading, go to the library, not a music bar. “You’re so spooky silent out there, it’s kind of creeping me out,” said one recent Nashville performer during his show.

Related: Which U.S. City Is More Revolutionary?

The Details

The Capitol of Texas in Austin. (Photo: Brian Koprowski/Stocksy)

State capitol: The capitol building’s dome is 15 feet higher than that of the U.S. Capitol.

Population: About 885,000

The University of Texas, Austin brings thousands of college students to the city every year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Student population: University of Texas, Austin has one of the largest student populations in the U.S., with more than 50,000 students, while another 23,000 go to nearby TSU San Marcos.

Number of live music venues: More than 250 venues and probably an equal number of guys out on street corners at any given time playing guitars.

Austin is home to many music festivals, the most famous of which is SXSW. (Photo: Jordan Naylor/Getty Images for SXSW)

Music festivals: Austin’s South by Southwest festival has achieved mythic proportions with its combination of music, art, film, and technology, but music-wise it’s just one in an almost constant series of Austin festivals that includes the Austin City Limits festival and the Fun Fun Fun Fest, as well as Urban, Latino, Reggae, and traditional Americana-themed music festivals. Whereas in Nashville their idea of a big music gathering is a conference room full of licensing attorneys.

Austin loves WIllie Nelson so much that they even named a street after him and commissioned a large public statue in his image. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Austin musicians: Bands and musicians who got their start in Austin or spent time working there include:Willie Nelson (who abandoned uptight Nashville for Austin), a quirky UT freshman named Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lucinda Williams, the Dixie Chicks, Asleep at the Wheel, Shawn Colvin, and Spoon, and even the very non-country Butthole Surfers and Sublime recorded here at the famed Arlyn Studio, which has also recorded everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Wilco, Snoop Dogg, and Phish.

Musical attractions: A museum is for fossils, and Nashville is full of them. Austin’s music-themed attraction is … music. And this is the best place to come listen to some.

Widespread Panic performing at the Moody Theater in 2011. (Photo: Earl McGehee/Flickr)

Big music venues: Austin City Limits shows began in a small performance space on the UT campus in 1974 but now run in the 2,500-seat Moody Theater behind city hall, a venue that also hosts A-list touring bands. The Frank Erwin Center on the UT campus, with a 16,000-seat capacity, holds the arena bands, and the 2,400-seat Dell Hall at the Long Center covers classical, opera, and other non-grunge-type performances.

Cool small venues: The 250-plus live venues in Austin make the town what it is: a diverse, modern, developing scene that just feels more alive than Nashville, with its busloads of tourists from the senior center shuffling into the Opry. And in Austin, people actually rock out to shows, not just sit with arms folded studying like they do in Nashville. A good place to start a music tour is the venerable Continental Club, with its local flavor of country, rockabilly, and swing bands (while upstairs the Gallery hosts a jazzier scene). The Broken Spoke is a true country-and-western dance hall, with two-steppin’ lessons from Wednesday to Saturday. CBoy’s Heart and Soul has eclectic music in a dive-bar setting and the Mohawk has rockin’ live shows in a midsize venue, while the Saxon Pub shows off some great local bands. The row of bars on 6th Street has nearly constant live performances, most with no cover charge.

When in Texas, chowing down on BBQ is a must and in Austin, it’s all about Stubbs. (Photo; Richard Moross/Flickr)

Music with your food: Try some Texas BBQ with your show at Stubbs BBQ, with a small interior stage and a large outdoor concert space; enjoy great Cajun food with some tunes at Evangeline Café; and one-stop shop at the unique Indian restaurant/market/brewpub/music venue that is the Whip In.

Hotel harmonies: Can’t sleep? Pop down to the lounge at places like the Lost Pines Resort outside of town, the venerable Driskill Hotel on 6th Street, or the Hotel Vegas, which is neither a hotel nor in Vegas but rather a great live music venue.

Related: Weird, Wild Stuff to Be Found in Austin

The Case for Nashville

The iconic Broadway strip in Downtown Nashville is full of music shops and honky-tonks. (Photo: Marko Forsten/Flickr)

Austin boasts that it’s the Live Music Capital of the World because it has a ton of bars. Bad news, Austin. There’s more to music than listening to some hack sing from a beer-soaked stool. If you really want to find out something about music — from its history to its future, from the songwriting to production — and also experience some rocking shows of every genre, you have to come to the real Music City. You have to come to Nashville.

People in Austin may decry Nashville as a musical backwater with “just a bunch of banjos and Jesus music,” but the wannabe hipsters sitting in their Texas wasteland don’t know what they’re missing. As one local Nashville musician put it, “Austin is more stuck-up than a seventh-grade cheerleader” about its music scene, when in reality its popular 6th Street music row is just a bunch of venues filled with frat boys doing shots to the background music of tinny cover bands. Nashville can be as cutting-edge as Jack White’s recently launched Third Man Records studio. It can also be as traditional as a band of septuagenarian banjo players at the Grand Ole Opry. And it has everything in between, from rock to classical, jazz, and blues.

Nashville is the center of the music publishing industry, headquarters for ASCAP and BMI. It’s the location for a dozen different recording labels and a host of studios, including Blackbird Studios, whose motto is a very un-Opry “Either You Rock or You Suck.” Once the hits are recorded, Nashville’s United Record Pressing is the biggest producer of vinyl albums in North America.

Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. (Photo: ThinkStock)

State capitol: Built in 1845. Bonus, a replica Parthenon also built in the city.

Population: About 634,000

Vanderbilt University in Nashville (Photo: Beth/Flickr)

Student population: Nashville’s Vanderbilt has more than 12,000 students, which along with 20-plus other universities and colleges in the greater metro area gives it a student population in excess of 74,000.

Number of live music venues: More than 120. Look for a guitar pick outside a building or check out the Nashville’s live music-finder app.

Every June, nearly 100,000 music-lovers head down to Tennessee for Bonnaroo. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images)

Music festivals: “Country Music’s Biggest Party” in the CMA Music Festival, but also the genre-spanning Bonnaroo Music Festival in nearby Manchester.

Taylor Swift, performing here at the 2013 CMA Festival, is one of many musicians to get their start in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Runyon/

Nashville musicians: Bands and musicians who got their start in Nashville or spent time working there include: pretty much every country musician ever, along with Taylor Swift, Kesha, Kings of Leon, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, Tammy Wynette, Bela Fleck, local favorites Sturgill Simpson and Diarrhea Planet, and recent transplants Jack White and the Black Keys.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is home to an extensive collection of Country music memorabilia. (Photo: Country Music Hall of Fame/Facebook)

Musical attractions: Unlike in Austin, there’s something musical to do during the day aside from listening to lousy bands. Nashville is home to the expansive Country Music Hall of Fame, the Musician’s Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum, historic Studio B, Hatch Show Prints, Gruhn Guitars (where the stars shop, with an amazing guitar selection, some selling for more than $100,000), the Willie Nelson Museum (and Austin claims him as their own, ha!), and a host of other shops, studios, and venue tours.

The “Mother Church of Country Music” (Photo: Getty Images)

Big music venues: The Grand Ole Opry House & Ryman Auditorium (“The Mother Church of Country Music”) is the place to catch the best in traditional and new country music (and a few other genres). The Bridgestone Arena hosts big-name touring groups. The Schemerhorn Symphony Center features mostly classical and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center musicals and theater. The town is not just a couple of grampas on their porch with a banjo, as people in Austin might suggest.

The Bluebird is so cool that the ABC show “Nashville” shoots there (Bluebird Cafe/Facebook)

Cool small venues: Way too many to mention here, but Nashville has something for everyone, from the traditional country-and-western scene at honk-tonks up and down the Broadway strip, highlighted by the “hillbilly heaven” of Robert’s Western World, to singer-songwriters performing in an intimate setting at the Bluebird Café (where Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift were discovered). Semi-underground the Basement (beneath Grimey’s record shop) has hosted everyone from popular local bands to Emmylou Harris and Metallica. the Exit/In is a good indy-rock warehouse. On Monday’s hit the popular dance parties at the Five Spot, and for yet another genre, try the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar.

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The famous Hot Chicken at The Row. (Photo: The Row Nashville/Facebook)

Music with your food: The Row Kitchen & Pub offers up some of Nashville’s famous hot chicken along with nightly bands, the Soulshine Pizza Factory has songwriters with your slices, and at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant you can get a bit of everything.

Hotel harmonies: Catch nightly live music in a cool lobby space at Hotel Indigo. The Hutton Hotel has some cool music-themed rooms, and The Gaylord Opryland is a self-contained resort and music venue in itself.

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