Nashville may be best known for its music but there’s much more to Tennessee’s capital than the tunes, finds Michelle Mannion.

It’s 3pm on a bright Friday afternoon but it’s pitch dark in RCA Studio B. Elvis Presley recorded much of his catalogue in the unassuming Nashville facility and, as my guide tells me, he used to replicate the mood of the song as best he could inside the studio.

So when making a Christmas album in the sultry Tennessean summer heat, he would put up a tree and red and green lights. And for the song I was about to hear, recorded in the early hours of the morning, he turned the lights off completely. The stereo is switched on and as the rich, crooning sound of Are You Lonesome Tonight fills the dark – the 1942 Steinway grand piano Presley used to play just perceptible through the gloom – the goose bumps rise on my skin.

You can’t get away from the music in Nashville and if you’re a fan, like me, it’s a magical place to visit. From the airport signs welcoming you to “Music City” to the bands playing in the departure lounge bar on your way out, the tunes follow you wherever you go. This is the country music capital of the world, and it’s proud of it.

But this is also a thriving state capital with an unexpectedly diverse range of industries. “People get off the plane and expect everyone to be wearing cowboy boots and hats,” admits Heather Middleton, spokeswoman for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau (NCVB). But she’s keen to stress the city’s strengths.

The music industry is certainly big business, contributing more than US$6 billion to the local economy annually. That encompasses not only production, publishing and performance but the tourism it generates – each year people flood in to experience the live scene, concentrated mainly around the hopping honky-tonk bars of Lower Broadway, to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and catch the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest-running live radio show. Some 11 million people visit Nashville a year in total.

The city’s studios are mostly set around Music Row, the area centred on 16th and 17th Avenue South, just southwest of the compact downtown area. Along with every notable name in country, they have hosted artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, REM and Kings of Leon. Middleton says: “The city is also, more than any other, a city of songwriters. That’s all they do – they’re here to write. A lot are writing country music but plenty are working in other genres.” Country has long crossed into mainstream pop and rock in the US so to place even one song with a top-selling singer is the holy grail of these jobbing writers.

Beyond music, the film industry is also growing, thanks largely to incentives introduced by the government five years ago, which have boosted the number of productions being made from one or two a year to about 14. These include last year’s Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Some suggest its southeastern location makes it an entertainment crossroads between New York and Los Angeles. “There’s the East Coast and the West Coast, and we’re the third coast”, says Judith Hill, existing business director for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Middleton says: “It’s probably the most creative city I’ve experienced – when you consider the population size [nearly 1.6 million], it’s hard to find a city with the sheer number of people working in the creative world. And it’s not just music – there’s a lot of start-up companies, healthcare is actually our number one industry, and there are many colleges and universities, so there is a lot of research going on.”

Healthcare dwarves the music industry, in fact, contributing US$30 billion annually to the city’s economy. HCA (Hospital Corporation of America), the world’s largest private healthcare provider, was founded here in 1968 and has its HQ in the city. Employing 183,000 people, it has hospitals and surgeries in 20 states as well as six in London, such as the Wellington and Portland hospitals. Two of HCA’s founders were Frists, an influential family that ten years ago gave the city the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts, a downtown gallery that recently held an exhibition of works from Paris’s Musee d’Orsay.

Feeding into healthcare is the education sector. There are 16 colleges and universities in and around Nashville, the most prestigious being Vanderbilt University, home to a well-regarded medical centre. As far back as the 19th century, in fact, the city was dubbed the “Athens of the South” for its reputation as a centre for learning – to make the point, it even built a full-size replica of the Parthenon, which stands rather incongruously in Centennial Park.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for this part of the South, Christian publishing is a big earner – as a deacon here told me: “This is the Bible Belt and we are the buckle.” The Methodist and Baptist churches do much of their printing in Nashville, while Thomas Nelson, one of the world’s largest publishers of bibles, has its HQ in the city. Other headquarters include Nissan (it has its US HQ here), budget store chain Dollar General, and Caterpillar Financial. There is a sizeable distribution and logistics industry, too, as well as the government jobs created by being Tennessee’s capital.

“The diverse economy meant Nashville came out of recession more quickly than some other US cities,” says Caroline Young, president of the Nashville Health Care Council, a 200-member trade association. This it managed despite a huge flood in May last year, which caused US$2 billion worth of damage to private property and saw part of downtown closed for a month.

So what makes it a good place to do business? Hill says: “The cost is much less than in other places in the US but the quality of the workforce and of life is much higher.” Young adds: “There is a deep well of talented executives who have run successful businesses here.” Also an advantage is that there is no state income tax in Tennessee.

Steven Andre, general manager of the Hutton hotel, open since 2009 (see review overleaf), adds: “Not being from here, I can say this is the friendliest market I’ve worked in. The hotel is what we think Nashville is – warm, welcoming and hot on art, design and culture.” (I can vouch for the city’s friendly nature, having been struck by it wherever I went – when I rang a wrong number, the local man on the other end even took the time to look up the correct digits for me.)

Next on the city’s list is to boost its meetings offering. A new convention centre, Music City Centre, is being built next to the Hall of Fame to replace the old one, and is due to open in early 2013 with a 32,500 sqm exhibition hall, 5,300 sqm ballroom and about 60 meeting rooms. “It will basically double our capacity downtown,” Middleton says.

She adds: “We do great things with meetings – you could hire a songwriter to write a song with a group as a teambuilding exercise, for example. It’s affordable and they’re great writers who have had hits. Or you could hold your event in the Hall of Fame or have dinner on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.”

The city’s meetings trade is mainly domestic but Middleton hopes Music City Centre will help it to attract more global events. (In this, it is limited by its lack of direct international flights, though it is well connected to the rest of the US, and the airport is only 13km from downtown.)

To house the new delegates, an 800-room Omni hotel is being built next to the convention centre. Due to open in autumn 2013, it will be linked to the Hall of Fame, itself being expanded. Other brands here include Hilton, Doubletree, Renaissance, Sheraton, Marriott, Indigo and Holiday Inn, with the Hutton and the 101-year-old Hermitage – Tennessee’s only five-star hotel – among the only high-end independent properties.

Jon Cummins, chief operating officer of the Hutton’s owner, Amerimar Enterprises, sums up the city thus: “Nashville is going through a metamorphosis – from a small country town to a sophisticated small city. It’s one of the US’s hidden gems and has grown naturally, so it has its own unique vibe.” A vibe well worth checking out, even if you’re not a fan of country – or Elvis.

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