Venues de Force: 5 of the Friendliest Venues in the Country and 15 Must-See Upcoming Concerts

Guys and gals like Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood may have sold out arena shows in 2016, but bigger isn’t always better when it comes to watching your favorite country artists perform live. Sometimes it’s the setting of an iconic venue that makes a concert memorable . . . so memorable, in fact, that you commemorate the experience by framing your tickets or shelling out the extra cash for a playbill on your way out the door.

Forget about packing the binoculars and tissues for a nosebleed arena seat, here’s a cross-country sampling of 5 playbill-worthy venues to put on your to-do list (or bucket list)—and 15 upcoming concerts that will put you in a country state of mind.

From hallowed grounds to national landmarks, the force is strong with these 5 iconic venues.

photo courtesy Bowery Ballroom Facebook

Bowery Ballroom, New York City

From the main floor to the wraparound balcony, there’s not a bad sightline in the 575-capacity venue that was built in the 1920s, and that includes the view of Delancey Street from the balcony’s stained-glass window. Part speakeasy, part opera house, the Bowery features high ceilings, stellar acoustics and a friendly basement lounge where you can grab a drink at the U-shaped bar or strike up a conversation before the show. But it’s the main floor full of revelers that puts the roar in this Lower East Side locale.

  • Jan. 12: Frankie Ballard
  • Feb. 2: Maren Morris
  • Feb. 8: Corey Smith

photo courtesy Ryman Auditorium Facebook

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville

In a city that boasts pilgrimage-worthy stops like the Grand Ole Opry House and Bluebird Café, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is still the holy grail of venues. Constructed in 1891, the red-bricked tabernacle is a beacon in Nashville’s bustling downtown for performers and fans alike. With its stained-glass windows, wooden pews and memorabilia displays, the 2,362-seat Mother Church of Country Music is a revival of sight and sound when artists take to its hallowed stage.

  • Dec. 28: Robert Earl Keen
  • Dec. 31: John Prine, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves
  • Feb. 11: Martina McBride

photo courtesy Gruene Hall Facebook

Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Texas

Gruene Hall was built in 1878 and is billed as the oldest continually run dancehall in Texas—and you’d better be wearing a six-shooter if you say otherwise, ’cause them there are fightin’ words. With a pitched tin roof and side flaps for open-air dancing, the 6,000-square-foot hall is a Texas throwback to the days of yore, where you can pitch horseshoes out back, drain a cold Shiner at the bar or two-step on the wooden dance floor to a lineup of performers that reads like a historical marker.

  • Dec. 16: Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis
  • Dec. 23: Ray Wylie Hubbard
  • Feb. 11: Ricky Skaggs

photo courtesy Cain’s Ballroom Facebook

Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa, Okla.

Arrive early if you want one of the few seats in “The Carnegie Hall of Western Swing,” but seriously, who goes to a ballroom to sit? The legacy of Bob Wills lives on in this 1,200-capacity venue that was constructed in 1924 and was named to the National Register of Historical Places in 2003. The maple floor is mounted on sets of Dodge truck springs that rumble to the beat of your favorite band. Plus, rumor has it that Cain’s is haunted—with the iconic list of performers who have taken the stage, we don’t doubt it.

  • Dec. 30 & 31: Turnpike Troubadours
  • Jan. 1: Cody Canada, Jason Boland, Wade Bowen
  • Feb. 4: Eli Young Band

photo CC by 2.0

The Fillmore, San Francisco

With museum-quality playbills adorning its walls in the main room and strobe lights a-swirling, the Fillmore still wafts of the psychedelia that made San Francisco a counterculture hot spot in the 1960s. While that era may be over, the music lives on in this classic venue that features rows of grandiose chandeliers and a wooden dance floor that surges and buckles to the music. And in the tradition of Fillmore founder Bill Graham, you always get a free apple . . . and a poster of the evening’s show if it’s sold out.

  • Dec. 7: Brothers Osborne
  • Jan. 20 & 21: Lucinda Williams
  • May 2, 3, 5, 6: Willie Nelson

photo of Gruene Hall via Gruene Hall;