Nashville's 21c Museum Hotel is so modestly signposted that I pause, wondering if I'm at the right address. In a flash, an exuberant porter bounds into the street, insisting on carrying my teeny-tiny bag up the three front steps.
As I'm about to discover, 21c isn't as stuffy as the concept might suggest. Many Australians would be unfamiliar with this "museum hotel" hybrid that launched in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006, with the transformation of five tobacco warehouses into an arty upscale hotel. That's likely to change now the boutique chain has joined Accor, the world's largest hotel group outside the United States, as part of its luxury MGallery portfolio. Besides Louisville and Nashville, 21c properties can be found in six other US cities such as Cincinnati, Kansas City and Oklahoma City. Three more are in the pipeline for Chicago, St Louis and Des Moines.
Philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson wanted to create mid-size hotels that double as contemporary art spaces the public can visit at any time. I don't intend to test out this all-hours access but after swinging around Music City until the wee hours, I stick my head into a room showing Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck's enigmatic video installation, Night Time. You can watch the film from chairs shaped like spinning tops. Other guests, colleagues in Nashville for a conference, swing into the space and we end up spinning around the room making tipsy small talk. Half an hour later, we reluctantly part ways. It's a hoot that the art also works as an ice-breaker.
The hotel incorporates light-filled, glass-floored exhibition spaces and site-specific installations, which you can explore on your own or with a guide on twice-weekly tours. If you want to wake to ultra-arty surrounds, the 124-room hotel, now known as 21c Museum Hotel Nashville – MGallery, includes three artist suites. Sanctuary 21c incorporates recording and visual arts studios, while the Ouroboros Mosquito suite is an installation reflecting on celebrity and identity created by Entourage actor Adrian Grenier.
The hotel is in the Middle Tennessee city's highly walkable downtown, three blocks from the music-pumping, neon-lit honky-tonks that line Lower Broadway, attracting so many hen parties that Nashville is the bachelorette capital of the world. You can dip in and out of the denim and rhinestone scene as you please or explore Nashville's more sophisticated side.
Art aficionados should visit the Frist Art Museum, located in a splendid Art Deco building that was once the main post office. But let's face it – you're likely in Nashville to soak up music. Venues such as the Grand Ole Opry, the Bluebird Café (made famous by the Nashville TV series), The 5 Spot and the more divey Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge, require wheels. In The Gulch, adjoining downtown, spend an evening at The Station Inn – a cosy venue that's a favourite with John Oates (of Hall & Oates), who now calls Nashville home. The neighbourhood is also home to bigger multi-room venues such as City Winery and the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom. Refuel at Arnold's Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three no-frills diner regularly patronised by much-loved musician John Prine.
If y'all worn out and don't feel like walkin' the boots far, 21c also houses the art-filled Gray & Dudley restaurant (named in honour of the hotel's building, dating from 1900, the bones of which are apparent in some rooms). The Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, is but a hop and a skip from 21c. The Ryman hosts an Opry show on Thursdays, as well as country, rock and other artists. Tour the hallowed venue or create the ultimate souvenir by cutting a classic or original tune in the venue's recording studio.
What's music to my ears is hearing my friends' pick-up truck pull up outside 21c, signalling the start of a fun day out. The porter rushes out again to help stow my things. He also eyes my muscular ride and slow-whistles his approval.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of 21c Museum Hotels and United Airlines.