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Inside the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Nashville’s Hidden Gem

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.

Willie's likeness is found on nearly every inch of the museum's interior.
Willie’s likeness is found on nearly every inch of the museum and store’s interior.

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.

Some of Willie's furniture is arranged in the center of the museum, atop the old Texas flag rug that he performed on for years.
Some of Willie’s old furniture is arranged in the center of the museum, atop the old Texas flag rug that he performed on for years. You can see the worn areas where Willie stood and played night after night for many years.

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.

The original guitar that Nelson played during his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1964.
The original guitar that Nelson played during his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1964.

 

One of Nelson's custom embroidered pair of jeans.
One of Nelson’s custom embroidered pair of jeans.

 

One of Nelson's worn out pairs of running sneakers.
One of Nelson’s worn out pairs of running sneakers. For years, Nelson has been an avid runner and will only wear New Balance brand shoes to jog.

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.

A pay stub from the Grand Ole Opry and a list of tour stops from Patsy Cline's purse.
Patsy Cline’s last pay stub from the Grand Ole Opry and a hand-written list of tour stops recovered from her purse.

 

A guitar that features the signatures of artists who have visited the museum over the years, including Bill Monroe, Bobby Bare, David Allan Coe and more.
A guitar that features the signatures of artists who have visited the museum over the years, including Bill Monroe, Bobby Bare, David Allan Coe and more.

 

One of Porter Wagoner's famous Nudie suits.
One of Porter Wagoner’s famous Nudie suits.

 

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A stage shirt worn by Lefty Frizzell.

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.

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Inside the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Nashville’s Hidden Gem