IT'S 10:30 A.M. on a chilly and gray late-autumn Saturday, but it might as well be midnight on Broadway. If it weren’t for the thump of guitars and the twang of Southern drawls spilling out of propped-open doors and curling around back-alley exits, finally meeting in a mash-up of country-and-western cacophony, you could hear the buzz of neon lights.
At this time of day, you think you ought to be smelling biscuits and cream gravy, but instead, it’s spilled Budweiser and last night’s whiskey on the nose. At Tootsie’s—an ostentatiously purple honky-tonk known for “that old Nashville tradition, ‘the holler and swaller’”—the band’s covering Alison Krauss, the young crooner’s voice dripping like honey, and the lights are low. It’s standing room only, forcing the head-bobbin’ foot-tappers to congregate three thick at the bar and crowd the entrance, effectively blocking out any notion of daylight.
In other towns, on other Broadways, it might all seem a bit obnoxious, but here in Nashville, it’s long been the standard—and a welcome one at that. Here, it’s a friendly kind of frenetic, the kind where the bartender smiles as she hands you a local brew, the guy you’re chatting with at the bar politely excuses himself to take the stage, and the band’s lead singer—with her long blond locks, pearl-button shirt and bright I’m-going-places smile—greets you with a hearty “Where y’all from?” as she makes her way through the room, plastic tip jar at her hip.
You pause, taking in the floor-to-ceiling autographed head shots and letterpress gig posters, fresh and straight-edged at the bottom but curling and smoke-stained toward the top. There’s a cigarette machine that you’d be tempted to dub “vintage” if it weren’t clear that it’s still very much in use and hasn’t budged from its spot in decades. There are metal trash barrels brimming with discarded longnecks, names carved into paneled walls and door frames. It looks as if it’s always been this way—been just like this since Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings were taking the stage, trying to get noticed, trying to make it in the music biz. And, in truth, it probably has.
If that nostalgia, that big, beating heart of hope and rhythm and talent and tenacity, is what you came to Nashville for—and who could fault you for that—you could spend your days and nights on Broadway and head home perfectly contented. But there’s a new Nashville bubbling up beyond Broadway, a sophisticated Southern city that both honors its Music-City tradition and pushes its boundaries. A Nashville where you’re just as likely to rub elbows with indie darling Jack White as you are with Tim McGraw, where the new “meat and three” is served up as forward-thinking small plates by Beard-nominated toques, where an abandoned factory has been reclaimed by a new breed of industrials, a tinkering mass of young creatives and artisans. It’s a Nashville where the local art museum attracts the caliber of contemporary exhibitions more common to a city five times its size, where “Folsom Prison Blues” on WRLT Lightning 100.1 is followed by the Kings of Leon, and then an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, and then Merle Haggard, and then Alabama Shakes. And it all just works.
Walking through East Nashville, the wonderfully weird and eclectic thumping heart of Nashville’s reinvention, brings this even sharper into focus. There’s the Tennessee-beef burger parlor and soda shop with a line wrapping around the corner. There’s the cigar-smoking hipster who “forgot” to put on his shoes, though he remembered his blazer and vest. There’s the art gallery overrun with tomato-themed installations; the antique store where you’re just as lucky to find Eames chairs as chicken-wired pie safes. It’s this juxtaposition of artsy indie outposts and gritty holdovers from its workaday past that makes it seem a world away from the neon-lit hubbub of Lower Broadway. It’s provocative, sure, but without a hint of pretension. This is the South, after all, and you’ll be reminded of that fact with every new introduction, whether that’s by way of an exchange with an effervescent shop owner or a lengthy conversation with a bearded bartender, who might disappear for a few moments and then come back with a hand-scrawled list of neighborhood music venues penned on the back of a cocktail napkin.
And that’s it right there—that magical combination of elements that unites the new Nashville with the old, the two things you can’t escape in this town: good ole Southern hospitality and sweet, sweet music. Look beyond the cleverly designed logos, the hip menus and the freshened-up facades, and it’s there. It’s yours for the taking.