Nashville’s country-music roots have gotten tangled up in big-city sophistication—and we dare say Music City’s never looked better
Photography by Justin Bolle
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.
MUSIC CITY MUSTS
Our little black book of Nashville necessities
The Hermitage Hotel
If only the walls could talk at this five-star, century-old hotel. The Beaux Arts gem has long served as the luxury spot for traveling music execs and big-name talent—its down-filled duvets, marble-floored bathrooms and afternoon high tea will leave you feeling like a celebrity yourself. (231 Sixth Ave. N.; thehermitagehotel.com)
If you operate under a strict only-if-it’s-good-enough-for-Gwyneth-Paltrow rule, you’re in luck: this design-y West End boutique hotel played host to the starlet during a recent three-week stay in Music City. And it’s easy to see why she chose the Hutton, what with its modern art installations, swish lobby and environmental ethos (hybrid courtesy shuttle, anyone?) and all. (1808 West End Ave.; huttonhotel.com)
A more budget-friendly option is the nearby Aloft (1719 West End Ave.; starwoodhotels.com), part of a chain of modern, playful hotels that borrows style and sophistication from big sisters W and Westin. If you prefer to be out of the hustle and bustle of Music Row, opt instead for the hotel’s quieter location in the charming town of Franklin, just 20 minutes away. (7109 S. Springs Drive; starwoodhotels.com)
EAT & DRINK
Abuzz with foodies hot on the pursuit of house-made charcuterie, sorghum dressing-topped kale salads and wood-fired pizzas melting with pork belly, this airy Germantown eatery’s clever Italian-inspired menu is the work of Tandy Wilson, a young chef whose focus on top-notch ingredients appears to be working out quite well for him. If you don’t have a reservation, try to snag a seat at the bar that overlooks his open kitchen. (1222 Fourth Ave. N.; cityhousenashville.com)
Rolf and Daughters
Thanks a lot, Bon Appétit. Naming Rolf and Daughters third on your list of Best New Restaurants of 2013 has let the cat out of the bag, and now it’s nigh impossible to score a Saturday-night reservation at Philip Krajeck’s temple to “modern peasant food,” where booths runneth over with Nashville’s glitteratti. But try we will to snag a seat because we’d wait hours for a taste of his hand-rolled squid-ink pasta, or a bite of his Sunday-sauced dry-aged meatballs, or a morsel of—well, you get the picture. (700 Taylor St.; rolfanddaughters.com)
If you’re the type who likes to chat about vinegar shrubs, small-batch gins and spherical ice molds, you’ll be fast friends with the knowledgeable staff at the Division Street speakeasy Patterson House. If you’re the type who just loves to enjoy a good cocktail in dark and handsome environs—think leather banquettes, vintage chandeliers, wood-paneled walls—then you’ll appreciate the Patterson all the same. Also: shrimp corn dogs. (1711 Division St.; thepattersonnashville.com)
Mas Tacos Por Favor
It’s a clever name, but it’s not just a clever name—try to have just one braised beef-filled or fried avocado-topped taco at the East Nashville brick-and-mortar outpost of Nashville’s favorite taco truck. We dare you, and we’ll win, because it’s impossible. They’re just that good. The only thing better? The decadent chicken tortilla soup. (We guess “Mas Sopa Por Favor” just didn’t have the same ring to it.)(732 Mcferrin Ave.; eatmastacos.com)
It’s chef Hal M. Holden-Bache’s chicken-liver pâté that’s gotten him the most recognition, but Lockeland Table’s comfy menu is full of creative dishes that elevate simple Southern classics, like wood-fired Louisiana oysters crowned with cornbread crumbs, or pepper-jam-topped roasted chicken served on pimento-cheese grit cakes. Order with abandon; just don’t overlook the sweet ricotta doughnuts when it’s time to wrap up the meal. (1520 Woodland St.; lockelandtable.com)
What is it about craft-cocktail bars and miniature corn dogs in Nashville? We’re not sure, but we’re on board, especially if said cocktails and corn dogs are those from No. 308, a hipster haven in East Nashville that’s as big on Southern hospitality as it is on trend-forward eats and drinks. That’s probably why it’s the bar other bartenders recommend. (407 Gallatin Ave.; bar308.com)
Hatch Show Print
Sneak a peek at one of the oldest letterpress print houses in the country at Hatch Show Print’s new digs in the stunning Country Music Hall of Fame building. Though it might lack some of the musty, crowded charm of the shop’s former Broadway location, the expansive, window-lined print room gives visitors an up-close look at Hatch’s historic print-making process—and still manages to smell like ink and paper. Win, win. (224 Fifth Ave. S.; countrymusichalloffame.org)
Listening Room Cafe
Ask after a good live-music venue in Nashville, and you’re sure to get a myriad of responses—there are just that many. When we asked, we kept hearing about the Listening Room Cafe, and we’d recommend it as well—it’s accessible, comfortable (tables! waiters!), and they put on a darn good show with a little help from some of the city’s most talented songwriters. (217 Second Ave. S.; listeningroomcafe.com)
You’ve likely seen Corsair’s small-batch spirits lining the top shelves of your favorite local watering holes. In Nashville’s Marathon Village, you can head straight to the source for a tour of the expansive brick-walled distillery and a taste of its favorite concoctions, like triple-smoke whiskey and vanilla-bean vodka. Prefer a little vermouth with your artisan gin? You can also order cocktails at their chicly outfitted bar (order the J&R if it’s on the menu—trust us). (1200 Clinton St.; corsairartisan.com)
Seen one city park, and you’ve seen them all, right? Well, unless the parks you’re accustomed to are outfitted with a sunken garden and an art gallery hidden inside a very convincing replica of the Parthenon, you’re probably going to be impressed with this one. Its lovely walking trails and scenic mini-lake are a nice respite from the busy city center. (2500 West End Ave.; nashville.gov)
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
This stunning Art Deco building boasts a revolving door of inspiring exhibitions, with something new on view every six to eight weeks. If you hurry, you can still catch “30 Americans,” a thought-provoking collection of contemporary work created by some of the biggest names in the African-American art canon (on view through Jan. 12). (919 Broadway; fristcenter.org)
Folks will advise heading to The Gulch for one-stop shopping, and we wouldn’t disagree—we’re big fans of the LEED-certified development’s lineup of boutiques. But a trip to industrial-chic Marathon Village, a four-block complex of small artist studios and shops, feels like a boutique-ing and touristing expedition in one. Ladies, you’ll drool over Ceri Hoover’s minimalist handbags; guys, you’ll want to snag one of Otis James’ handcrafted neckties. (1200 Clinton St.)
Imogene + Willie
Named after the shop owner’s maternal grandparents, this 12South destination has morphed from a denim design company to a high-end boutique to a full-on lifestyle brand. Though the handmade jeans are definitely the draw, we love to stop in for their expertly curated collection of jewelry and one-of-a-kind home goods. (2601 12th Ave. S.; imogeneandwillie.com)
Olive and Sinclair Chocolate Co.
The only thing more delicious than Scott Witherow’s Salt & Pepper chocolate bars or Bourbon Nib brittle is the gorgeously designed packaging he wraps them in—they’re almost (almost!) too pretty to eat. Almost. (1404 McGavock Pike; oliveandsinclair.com)
See this piece in the wild here.