knoxville news
knoxville news knoxville advertising entertainment knoxville obituaries rss linkedin twitter facebook contact smoky mountains knoxville legal notices knoxville classifieds travel knoxville sports business lifestyle knoxville daily sun

‘One Nation Under a Groove’ at new African American music museum in Nashville
By Tom Adkinson
March 26, 2021

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

One Nation Under a Groove at new African American music museum in Nashville
“One Nation Under a Groove” is one of five major galleries at the National Museum of African American Music. Image by Tom Adkinson.

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – When the smoke clears from the COVID-19 pandemic and throngs of entertainment-seeing visitors again descend on Nashville, they will discover a major new attraction whose location may puzzle them at first.

That’s because the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) is cheek-to-jowl with the historic Ryman Auditorium, famous in part for its connection to country music’s Grand Ole Opry.

one national under groove marquee
NMAAM is an anchor in the redevelopment of what once was Nashville’ downtown convention center. Image by Tom Adkinson.

It’s not really a clash of cultures. Instead, the highly interactive museum “puts an exclamation point on Nashville’s brand as Music City” in the words of CEO Henry Beecher Hicks III, noting that other neighbors include the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, with its classical music focus, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that defines a specific genre of music and the Musicians Hall of Fame that tells the story of the musicians behind the singers.

NMAAM, which locals already are pronouncing as “nay-ma’am,” tells the long and diverse story of how Black music has been a part of American culture since the first African people were brought to North America as slaves in the 17th century.

NMAAM’s birth was not easy. It took two decades for all the elements to come together to examine more than 400 years of African American musical influence. The museum’s 56,000 square feet are a major piece of a massive redevelopment of what once was a convention center.

curator steven lewis interactive display
Curator Steven Lewis explains an interactive display that lets you see how multiple musical influences are connected. Image by Tom Adkinson.

It offers highly visual, interactive and absorbing displays and activities. Your ticket comes with a radio-frequency identification bracelet that allows you to perform in key locations and preserves your involvement on a thumb drive.

“NMAAM is organized around themes and topics instead of individuals,” said curator Dr. Steven Lewis, whose undergraduate work was in jazz studies. “It’s more a cultural history museum than a hall of fame.”

The museum’s central corridor, Rivers of Rhythm, begins with a film that examines 50 genres and subgenres of African American musical innovation, development, history and achievement. From there, you flow through five galleries, each of which is a trove of artifacts, activities and information.

“Wade in the Water” is about gospel music. “Crossroads” examines the blues. “A Love Supreme” focuses on jazz. “One Nation Under a Groove” looks at R&B and its offshoots. “The Message” delves into hip-hop.

Among the stops along the way are an opportunity to be part of a choir led by Nashville gospel legend Bobby Jones (you’re really part of the choir by the magic of green-screen video), a chance to create your own tune in an exhibit called “Anyone Can Improvise” and a room where you can dance like nobody’s watching – but, of course, everyone is.

one nation night train; ironing board sam
The legendary Ironing Board Sam created this spangled keyboard and played it on “Night Train,” a local Nashville show that predated the national “Soul Train.” Image by Tom Adkinson.

In a very real sense, much of America’s history is outlined at NMAAM. It shows the interconnectedness of African American music with slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, modern media and pop culture.

one nation night train; ironing board sam
The NMAAM Dance Studio is a place to create your own dance routine and have it preserved as a digital souvenir. Image by Tom Adkinson.


The too-casual visitor might breeze through NMAAM and see only the artifacts that resonate with the names of widely known artists – but that would be missing the substance of the museum.

Yes, one of B.B. King’s “Lucille” guitars is there. Yes, there is a suit Ray Charles wore. Yes, there’s a crumpled sheet from a yellow legal pad with a Temptations set list scrawled on it. Yes, there’s a Dior gown that Whitney Houston wore.

didley bow
Many blues musicians played a handmade diddley bow as their first instrument. You can play this one at NMAAM. Image by Tom Adkinson


But there’s also a diddley bow (an early African American stringed instrument), there’s a version of a painting of plantation life painted in the late 1700s that includes the first depiction of a banjo-like instrument in America and there’s a less-than-mint-condition trombone that belonged to Helen Jones Woods.

You say you don’t know who Helen Jones Woods was? Curator Steven Lewis explains that she played in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-female jazz orchestra. There’s a story in that trombone that involves race, gender, the evolution of jazz and World War II.

That’s the kind of story the National Museum of African American Music puts in the spotlight.

Trip Planning Resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

knoxville daily sun

Knoxville Daily Sun
2021 Image Builders
User Agreement | Privacy Policy