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Exploring the Best of Nashville's Honky Tonk Scene

06/01/2015 10:20 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Along Nashville's Division Street, we had our first experience with the type of music bar Nashville refers to as "Honky Tonks."

Historically, honky tonks were rough establishments with music that served alcohol to "working class cliente." Honky tonks were also known for their piano players, dancers and singers and often small bands played at them throughout the United States. In the early days, they also housed prostitution from time-to-time. Today, they're mostly casual joints that play live music and serve drinks.

Within the history and quirkiness of honky tonks scattered throughout Nashville lies everything from country music greats who had embarrassing moments on stage at the beginning of their careers to skeletons in the closet, literally.

The Red Door Saloon apparently has a skeleton in the basement although we didn't verify this with our own eyes when we passed through its doors. We went to the one on Division Street although they have locations in both East and West Nashville where basements in both have remnants of a life or two gone past. Another quirky thing about this place is its jukebox and the bar, which is completely made out of pennies.

Losers and Winners (two separate honky tonk bars which are on the same side of the road near each other on Division Street) were crawling with students and hipsters when we were there on a Friday, our first night in Nashville.

We were there early enough however to avoid a cover charge as most of the live music didn't kick off until 10 pm although truth be told, not every honky tonk bar had live music going strong on a Friday night. Some only had DJ's and others nothing at all but the ambiance of the bar and charm of the booze.

We also briefly went into The Soul Shine (below, a very cool painting on the wall as you entered). because the name just called to me. Also full of hipsters, I couldn't help but feel I was in Portland Oregon for a moment or two. Band members are in their early twenties and the bar felt like it was only settling in to begin their evening at around 11 pm.

It's worth mentioning The Patterson House, also in the area, although we didn't have time to visit. One out-of-towner told me about his 1930's experience there which wasn't on this trip. It is known as the first "speakeasy" and famous here is the bacon-infused Old Fashioned. Yum! I'm trying to imagine sipping this in their dark old world style bar while wearing garb from 70 years ago. Yeah, definitely bliss. It is located on 1711 Division Street.

In East Nashville, there's The 5 Spot, which is apparently the only venue that plays live music in East Nashville. Located on 1006 Forrest Avenue, this East Side neighborhood bar has great beer, live music and ambiance. It's also home to the TV show Nashville on ABC. Locals and tourists alike go this venue and for dancing fools, this is most definitely your East Side spot.

On 2205 Elliston Place is a honky tonk known as The Gold Rush. Gotta love the name! Known for their great bar food and cocktails, locals are also known to frequent this place, even on weekends. You can find out more about who's playing and when at goldrushnashville.com.

We learned about Robert's Western World from a local, although it is located right on Broadway. Live music is always great, a local told me and he has been going to the venue for years. A quirky thing to note about its interior? The wall of cowboy boots of course.

Other places we hit up downtown on Broadway include Layla's, Paradise Park, which is newer than most and the well-known and popular among tourists Honky Tonk Central, which touts four stories. My favorite of this bunch was Layla's, largely because it felt the most authentic and like so many Nashville honky tonks, had its fair share of quirky things.

The artsy wall had me at hello and the brightly colored license plates from around the country on the ceiling were the added visual eye candy this New Yorker needed to give Layla's two thumbs up!

Also worth a stop is The Flying Saucer, especially if you like beer, since they have 83 of 'em on tap and nearly 150 bottle options. Located on 111 10th Avenue South, this very old and authentic establishment was once a train station in the 1900's, where you'll still feel remnants of the time with its old freight tram out back. Nearby is the Union Station Hotel, which is also worth a stop.

World famous Nashville honky tonks along Lower Broadway (1st Avenue-5th Avenue) include Tootsie's Orchid Lounge @tootsiesnet, Robert's Western World @RobertsWWorld (mentioned above) and Legends Corner @LegendsCorner (below) where many country music legends got their start. Most of the time, there is no cover charge -- musicians just play for tips that get passed around in jugs.

Below is taken inside Honky Tonk Central along the main drag in the afternoon as music lovers tune in to hear a local band on stage.

On the other side of town, we had an unexpected fun evening rocking out to the music of Damien Horne at Douglas Corner Café. I loved his performance -- let's just say that this man has soul and he's a blend of funky blues, rock and jazz. He is known for his humanitarian work as well as his music and is a member of the trio The Farm (U.S. band), as well as Nashville'sMuzikMafia, is involved with the Salvation Army, Samaritan's Feet, and others.

He has collaborated and performed with Melissa Manchester, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, John Legend, Hank Williams, Jr. The Commodores, 3 Doors Down, Faith Hill, Big & Rich, Shemekia Copeland, Robert Randolph, Jewel, Josh Kelley,Gretchen Wilson, Velvet Revolver, and The Neville Brothers.

Other good live music venues include Mercy Lounge, Station Inn, 3rd & Lindsley, and City Winery. For one of the most traditional country music experiences in Nashville, be sure to book tickets for the Grand Ole Opry at the historical Ryman Auditorium.

If you're a music lover, you won't have a hard time finding world class music in Nashville, whether it's country, soul, rock and roll or blues. While Memphis may be the home of blues, you'll find Nashville venues that play it. Our experience of Nashville was largely country and soul - plenty of it, and we'd go back in a heartbeat to explore more venues and performances.