NASHVILLE’S mix of Southern hospitality and rich creative heritage hits just the right note for Jez Smadja
There’s a reason why it’s called the Music City. I’ve just cleared customs at Nashville International and I’ve already spotted Keith Urban [the country music superstar, American Idol judge and Nicole Kidman’s husband] wheeling a baggage trolley through the terminal. He’s every bit the chisel-jawed heart-throb in real life as he is on screen. But when I later mention my sighting to Nashville residents, they simply shrug and say that seeing Keith Urban round these parts is #nobigdeal.
What else would you expect in Nashville, this genteel and unhurried yet proudly cosmopolitan city, reared right in the middle of the United States Bible Belt? It’s a place where Southern hospitality is doled out in super-sized portions, and where the Tennessee accent, sweet like honey molasses, is strung with phrases like “y’all” and “sure is”.
Counting a population of 609,000, Nashville surely has more music professionals per capita than anywhere else in the world: singers, songwriters, guitar pickers, record execs, studio engineers – you name it, and every one has a celebrity tale to tell.
This is, after all, the town that launched the careers of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, a town where Elvis recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? in the wood-panelled RCA Studio B. It’s where Bob Dylan made Blonde on Blonde, and where countless artists have slipped their demo tapes to the execs along Music Row, a place that is to country music what Madison Avenue is to advertising. One of them was Taylor Swift, the biggest-selling artist of 2013, who’s so fond of Nashville that she’s bought four apartments in Downtown.
If you’ve come here for country music, bluegrass or folk, you won’t have to look too far. Seven days a week, the flashing neon lights of Lower Broadway – “Lower Broad” to the yellow taxi drivers – alert you to the honky-tonks where down-on-their-luck pickers once came to make their dreams come true. On this stretch, you’ll find Legend’s Corner just a few doors down from locals’ favourite, Robert’s Western World, with its famous wall of cowboy boots. And then there’s Tootsie’s, where stars like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash piled in after playing the Ryman Auditorium across the alleyway.
On a Monday night, there’s only one place to be, and that’s 3rd & Lindsley. It’s a Nashville institution and that’s thanks to the Time Jumpers, a loose association of seasoned studio musicians. The band’s line-up changes, but tonight, wearing a forest green polo shirt, is country music legend Vince Gill. The audience is made up of professional musicians in ten-gallon hats and country music aficionados – bizarrely including Nena, the German chanteuse of 1980s classic 99 Red Balloons among them – all sipping on beers and Tennessee bourbons. The crowd laps up Gill’s swing and blues standards, and he repays them with a barnstorming version of Trouble in Mind.
Nashville is uniquely set up to market its rich country music heritage to tourists. Yet at the same time, it seems to be on the cusp of something genuinely fresh and exciting, with not a rhinestone or Acme cowboy boot in sight. It’s why artists like the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys and Jack White from the White Stripes, as well as top chefs, fashion designers and film-makers, are making Nashville their home. The Music City has undergone a creative renaissance; GQ magazine has dubbed it Nowville and in the New York Times it’s been called “It” City, stealing the limelight from other up-and-coming US cities like Austin and Portland.
The food scene in Nashville is also hotter than a poker right now. While you can eat yourself a belt-buckle larger with Southern staples like fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and cherry pie, there’s also a lot of forward-thinking, homespun cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients. You can witness this first hand across the Cumberland River in the enclave of East Nashville, around neighbourhoods like Five Points, Historic Edgefield and East End.
Unlike the big skyscrapers in Downtown, East Nashville has long avenues of brightly-painted bungalows, with clipped lawns and rocking-chair porches, interspersed with Baptist churches, a sign of the historic African-American community. Not surprisingly, artists have moved in en masse.
Five Points, so called because it sits at the junction of five roads, lines up restaurants like Marche, a market and bistro banking on its farmyard-to-the-table formula, and the Pharmacy, where the burgers are made from Tennessee beef and have been drawing serious critical attention. Fans of Mexican food head for Mas Taco Por Favor, once a food truck, now a bona fide bricks-and-mortar success story.
There’s a huge mural that I’ve seen in strategic locations all over Nashville. It has red and white vertical stripes, three stars on a blue circle, and in large capital letters the words “I Believe in Nashville”. Though I’ve only been here 48 hours, I can safely say I’m a believer too.