A strange article for me to write is “how cool” Nashville is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great city. In fact now, it’s possibly the hottest, growing city in the American South. It’s hip. It’s cool. People are moving there by the thousands from larger, more well-known cities such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Nashville is not only a travel mecca, but in fact a domestic mecca – a place where 30-somethings are congregating in hoards to settle-in and raise a family in a place that is increasing in relevancy. These days, Nashville is the place to be.
Growing up as a child there in the 90’s? Not so much.
The city I grew up despising and devising plans to escape from in my misspent youth has grown to become, dare I say, a cultural icon. To say it has undergone a metamorphosis doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Nashville is, in many ways, synonymous with not only music, food and a good beverage but the American way of life itself. In many ways it is as it has always been – a blue-collar city full of old southern charm, Americana, deep cultural history and truly some of the kindest, gentlest people you could ever want to meet.
The past decade has been kind to Nashville, as areas of previous degradation have risen from the ashes to spearhead a sort of cultural renaissance built on much of what made Nashville cool in its mid-century heyday. It’s hard to say where or why the rebirth started, but one needs look no further for an example than the Nashville’s East End. Until roughly 10 years ago, much of what is now a gastronomical haven in East Nashville was high-crime, and in many places unlivable with unemployment hovering around 40 percent. That’s until local entrepreneurs, sucked in by the antique building structures, low cost of doing business and relative non-existent barriers to entry, began opening hipster-inspired bars in a wide-spread re-gentrification of the area.
As new bar after new bar grasped a foothold in the local community, drawing in younger crowds with disposable income from nearby universities such as Belmont, Vanderbilt, and Middle Tennessee, unemployment dropped, the vibe changed and suddenly entrepreneurial capital from more northern states began pouring in. Culinarians looking for a fresh start in warmer weather aided in the area’s progress, which since has become a hotbed of activity for not only locals, but vacationers looking for a taste of the Old (and the New) South.
The rebirth of East Nashville was a harbinger of things to come, as developments in the area coincided with massive upgrades following in the “Gulch” area, the southwestern corner of Nashville’s business district, as well as along West End Avenue in downtown and in surrounding communities easily commutable from the city center. Among these included new shopping and restaurant areas in Franklin, a primarily business district 15 miles south of the downtown area, and a re-branded section of South Nashville known as Pie Town.
Beneath the veneer of new development, however, remained the classic Nashville ingredient that first put the city on the map in the 1930’s – music. Well known as the country music capitol, what is revealed in the Nashville underbelly is a broader music scene than is popularly known, supported by music programs feeding the local music communities from the aforementioned universities above. On a given Friday or Saturday night (or Tuesday, for that matter), within blocks one can hear budding upstarts in Rock, Metal, Blues, Folk and even Christian music.
The kitchen classics remain in Nashville, as well, despite the city’s new face. From diners and country kitchens, to soda shops and Rotisseries, Nashville hasn’t lost sight from where it came. Among the classic “musts” are Wendell Smith’s Restaurant in West Nashville, Rotier’s in the West End area (get the milkshake), the Loveless Cafe in Bellevue and Helen’s Hot Chicken on Jefferson Avenue. How hot is the Hot Chicken in Nashville? Enough for Chef/Author Anthony Bourdain to describe it as a “three-day commitment” after his recent taping.
So many of these places represent countless memories for me, such as Wendall Smith’s Restaurant. As a kid growing up in the Music City, it was simply called “Wendell’s”, and I remember coming back from golf rounds with my dad, sitting down in Wendell’s classic diner-style benches waiting on a flawlessly-made “Meat-n-3” to storm from the kitchen. I remember Sunday morning breakfast buffets at Loveless Cafe, the classic morning breakfast joint built within the shell of a classic 1950’s motel – old Americana sign and all. Memories are made easily in Nashville, as yours will be.
After you’ve tasted the classics, see how “New Nashville” stacks up against it’s legendary predecessors. Great places to check out include the Sky Blue Cafe and Pepperfire Chicken, both in East Nashville’s Edgefield district. Nashville is also littered with some of the best breweries in the South, such as Tennessee Brew Works, Jackalope Brewing Company and the grandfather of modern Nashville craft breweries – Blackstone Brewing Company on West End Avenue.
Belly full and buzz accomplished, you might be in the mood for something to do. Perhaps, educational? Historical? Nashville’s got you.
The Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium and Johnny Cash Museum are well-known hotspots for southern audiophiles, and the home of the 7th U.S. President Andrew Jackson (The Hermitage) still attracts crowds of visitors each weekend. Lovers of classical history can get their fill of culture upon visiting Nashville’s full-scale replica of The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Similar travelers may be interested in the tomb of James K. Polk, America’s 11th President, located in the State Capitol building.
As if this and the untold number of pubs, bars, juke-joints, museums, halls and parks gone unmentioned in this article weren’t enough, Nashville provides ample fun for the sports-lover as well. Collegiate sports have always been a massive hit in the area, whether it’s watching the rivalry of in-state football rivals Tennessee and Vanderbilt battle alternately between Nashville and Knoxville, taking the family to the Vanderbilt basketball team at Memorial Gymnasium or attending the Music City Bowl, a Division I college bowl game played in Nashville for nearly 20 years. Football or Basketball not your thing? Greer Stadium provides a wonderful and wholesome experience each summer as families gather to watch a Nashville classic – the minor league Sounds, who have lit-up summertime nights for nearly 40 years.
It could be argued, in fact, that the city’s renaissance began not with the addition of new restaurants in lesser developed areas, but with the arrival of the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans in 1999. I, in fact, was one such lucky fan who was present at the “Music City Miracle,” Tennessee’s heroic last-second victory against the Buffalo Bills in January 2000. Believe it or not, it was my 18th birthday and one of countless memories Nashville provided.
Nashville presents something for everyone. From the music lover to the foodie, from the history buff to the sports enthusiast, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with options and short on time to get it all done. What remains now, as the backdrop to the development and the city’s growth, is that which has always been and will always be. The people. In no place could one find finer people, wholesome of spirit, well-intended at heart and of caring nature. Upon moving from Nashville, I remember being shocked how strangers passing by simply didn’t wave and smile with a gentle southern nod as if to say “have a good day.” It’s a city that can spoil you.
So, be spoiled. Go to Nashville. Have a beer at Tootsie’s. Troll 2nd Avenue for a great new band. Get lost in the wonder of the history, and listen to the music spilling out of “The Row“. Have a conversation with a kind stranger bellied-up to the bar. Nashville’s waiting, and it won’t hold back.
Neither should you.