If you’re a country music lover, there are plenty of historic sites that come to mind when you think of Nashville: Music Row, Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sure, those places are must-sees for tourists, but if you’re longing for a unique look into the lives of country music’s biggest legends, there’s one lesser-known museum you should visit — the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum.
Owner Mark Hughes inherited the museum from his father, Frank Hughes, who was a friend of Nelson’s. Frank and his wife once owned framing store in Madison, Tenn., which Nelson regularly visited. Over the years, they collected memorabilia from Nelson and other famous regulars, like Johnny Cash. After legions of country music fans began visiting the store for its array of unique souvenirs, the frame shop evolved into the “Willie Nelson General Store.” The store moved to various locations around town before becoming the “Willie Nelson and Friends Museum.”
Today, the bright blue building sits in a strip mall across the street from what was once known as Opryland, which is now home to the sprawling Opry Mills shopping mall. Nearby you’ll find the historic Nashville Palace music venue.
THE MUSEUM IS ONE OF THE FEW LASTING MONUMENTS TO THE OLD NASHVILLE.
Back in the early 1990s, the McGavock Pike area of East Nashville was a huge tourist destination, thanks to Opryland and its new Grand Ole Opry House, along with the large outlet malls and shops in the area. Opryland closed in 1997, and during that time there was a huge focus on reviving the downtown district. With the opening of the Bridgestone Arena, Wildhorse Saloon and rebirth of the Ryman Auditorium, there wasn’t much left to keep business in East Nashville.
Yet, somehow, the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum stayed afloat as the businesses around them went under. Although it doesn’t have the interactive touchscreen exhibits or modern design of its much newer counterparts downtown, it has a story that makes it a truly special place.
One of the big reasons why the museum is still operating, even when other businesses around it began to close, was because of their ever-expanding gift shop. Along with the novelty Nelson-themed items, you can buy souvenirs of all shapes and sizes shapes from the Music City. As downtown Nashville has blossomed, many of these types of tourist-friendly shops have closed, making theirs one of the last of its kind.
Once you get to the back of the massive store, you’re greeted by a set of saloon doors that mark the entrance to the museum. As you step through, hundreds of items that hold their own amazing stories greet you.
Many of the objects found inside the museum came from an 1990 IRS auction of all the country legend’s personal items. Although the Hughes family gave most of those items back to Nelson, the rest are currently on display in the museum for fans to enjoy.
But remember, this is named the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum. Other exhibits show off artifacts from a range of classic country stars, including Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.
Although this pink fringed stage shirt seems like just a cool piece of memorabilia from Lefty Frizzell’s career, it has another story to tell. After a young George Jones opened for Frizzell, he approached him backstage.
“Boy, if you’re gonna be star, you got to dress like one,” he told Jones, and gifted him the shirt which the now-legend later wore during multiple live performances. These special bits of history are what make this museum so unique and so fun to walk through.
Thanks to smart marketing tactics, a burst in growth in the East Nashville area and Hughes’ passion for the keeping his father’s project alive, the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum won’t be closing anytime soon.