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.
A park with song-themed rides — like ”The Wabash Cannonball” — and numerous stage shows that serve as a training center for Broadway talent (Cynthia Rhodes and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are both Opryland graduates).
22. The Nashville Palace
Randy Travis flipped burgers in the kitchen. Ricky Van Shelton was discovered here singing. Highway 101’s Nikki Nelson was a waitress.
23. Grand Ole Opry
Home to the longest-running radio show in the world (going since 1925).
24. Starwood Amphitheatre
Tennessee’s biggest concert venue, where Hank Williams Jr. throws his May birthday bashes and Charlie Daniels stages his Volunteer Jam shows.
25.Billy Bob’s Texas, Fort Worth, Tex.
The urban cowboy is alive and well at the world’s largest honky-tonk. The folks at Billy Bob’s will be insulted if you ask about the mechanical bulls — they’ve got real ones. Now in its 11th year, the club books stars such as Alabama, Lorrie Morgan, and the Texas Tornados.
The hippest music-industry club in Nashville. Reservations are essential, even for the lowliest writers’ nights.
27. The Stagecoach
Greatest hillbilly house band in Nashville. Stars’ sidemen and recording musicians sit in. Everyone dances.
28. Grizzly Rose, Denver
Do they two-step in Denver? (Does it snow in the Rockies?) This dance hall books everyone from the Marshall Tucker Band to Sawyer Brown. Big stage, fine acoustics, and a laid-back attitude.
29. The Station Inn
A bluegrass mecca. The pickin’ is so hot here, you’ll melt. Historic posters on the walls, too.
30. Tennessee State Fairgrounds
Kiss the earth: site of Fan Fair since 1982, this year from June 8 through 14. 31. Springwater
Eloquent in its charming dinginess, this roadside tavern is where Steve Earle and many other scruffy pickers cut their teeth.
32. The Palomino, N. Hollywood, Calif.
Tuesday is country night at this venerable old rock club, which means that Ronnie Mack’s got his Barn Dance going, and anybody from progressive country singer Rosie Flores to rockabilly wonder Ray Campi might show up.
33. Marty Robbins’ Grave
Brenda Lee sang at the funeral. All of Nashville wept when the Opry’s greatest showman died in 1982.
34. Mt. Olivet Cemetery
Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright courted among the tombstones at the top of this fabulous city overlook. Hall of Famer Fred Rose and other Nashville music pioneers are buried here.
35. Spring Hill Cemetery
Roy Acuff, 88, already has a star’s spot picked out right at the entrance, and the stone is carved with a fiddle. Also home to Keith Whitley’s grave, a reminder of the dark side of country stardom.
Hotels, Shopping Areas
36. Opryland Hotel
A must-see. One lobby has murals of Nashville history; another, cascading waterfalls, a merry-go-round bar and a Liberace-costumed harpist; a third, a jungle the size of a football field.
37. Ernest Tubb Record Shop
Part of Coal Miner’s Daughter was shot here. The longtime site of radio’s ”Midnight Jamboree” exudes history. The single best spot in the world to shop for country records, songbooks, and videos. Also essential are the ”I’m Walking the Floor Over You” welcome mats.
38. Brown’s Diner
Sit at the bar for a burger and a brew, and you just might find yourself next to Don Everly or John Prine, both of whom frequent this fine greasy spoon.
39. Pancake Pantry
This is the ”power breakfast” place for Music Row’s movers and shakers.
40. Faison’s Yummy Cuisine
Good wine list. Stars to glimpse.
41. The Nashville Nertwork
One of the best places to catch a star is at the daily TV tapings here. More tapings take place at Jim Owens Entertainment on McGavock Street on Music Row. You’re invited.
All the great powers of Nashville show biz packed into one 10- block district — record companies, booking agencies, stars’ offices, etc. You will also find the Mandrell, Waylon, Elvis, and Hank museums, along with the best souvenir shops. Items of interest: the Hank Williams musical figurine that plays “Your Cheatin’ Heart (the Hank Jr. figure plays “Family Tradition”), from the Hank Williams Jr. Shop; the ”Love Me Tender” shampoo from the Elvis gift shop; and the guitar nail clippers and guitar hairbrush from the Country Music Mall. Conway Twitty’s store has the Twitty Bird tote bag you’ll need to carry everything else. All locations are in the Nashville area unless otherwise noted.