The vibrant, eccentric, doggedly authentic capital of Tennessee is in the midst of a massive makeover; thankfully, the city’s many old-time charms remain very much intact
Author Joe Keohane Photography David Eustace
DAY ONE | It’s morning, and a distant train whistle cuts across a quiet Nashville, which seems appropriate. You’re staying at the Hermitage, the city’s grand dame hotel, in a debilitatingly comfortable king suite. The tub is capacious. The table by the window is arrayed with music magazines. This is not an easy room to leave. After a couple of attempts, you achieve exit velocity and head through the vaulted, stained-glass lobby and out into the city.
You stroll south along the Cumberland River and happen upon Crema, an artisanal coffee shop in the hipster mold, with concrete floors, salvaged wood accents and beards aplenty. You order a “Coffee Soda” and a cream cheese Danish, and, passing three people holding guitar cases, take a seat by an open garage door overlooking a yard. The coffee soda is sweetened with demerara syrup and carbonated. The Danish is coffee-cake crumbly and decadent. Your plans for a light breakfast lie in ruins.
Next, you head over to The Gulch, an industrial zone rapidly transforming into a cultural hub, with clubs, bars, a brewery and shops with names like Two Old Hippies. On 7th Avenue, you find Third Man Records, the recording studio/store owned by Jack White, former front man of The White Stripes and recent Nashville transplant. Inside is a yellow and black funhouse, stocked with records, a photo booth, stuffed animals and the “Mold-A-Rama,” a machine that, for three bucks, will make you a wax mold of White’s 1964 Montgomery Ward guitar. Your inner 5-year-old is persistent. You walk out
Lunch is a few blocks away at Arnold’s Country Kitchen, an old-school meat-and-three diner. The place is only open for lunch on weekdays, which seems like a missed opportunity until a woman in line points out a problem they have here: “Sometimes the cash register is so full the drawer won’t close.” On the advice of an inexplicably svelte regular, you get roast beef, savory green beans, cabbage and fried green tomatoes. It’s served cafeteria style, so you pile up your tray and take a seat at one of the tables jammed into the long, narrow space. Everything is delicious.
Heading north, you walk for 10 minutes to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where you see Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis’ black tuxedo shirt, Hank Williams’ guitar and the wristwatch Patsy Cline was wearing when she died. Best of all are the striking expressions of country music bling: Elvis’ “Solid Gold Cadillac” (glittering with crushed diamonds) and Webb Pierce’s Pontiac Bonneville convertible, which is lined with hand-tooled saddle leather and silver dollars, and bedecked with guns and horse heads made of chrome. It cost the honky-tonk singer 20 grand to trick out. You want one.
After a quick scrub at the Hermitage, you head to the north side of town, to the neighborhood of Germantown, for dinner at Rolf and Daughters, a new northern Italian eatery that’s set in a former factory and owned by James Beard–nominated chef Philip Krajeck. This is the chic side of Music City. You start with a Black Dog Sour, made with moonshine, pernod, lime, egg white and bitters, followed by sourdough bread with seaweed butter and asparagus with lardo and trout roe. Next comes a rich, delicious garganelli verde with heritage pork ragout. For dessert, it’s donuts stuffed with custard and tossed with sugar and chocolate. Blrp.
Gastrointestinal adventures notwithstanding, you take a cab out to Bluebird Café, the legendary club that featured so prominently in the show “Nashville.” It may be an unattractive little room in a strip mall, next to a hair salon, but it has a history: Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks and Townes Van Zandt have played here. As you enter, the doorman informs you that “the number one rule in the Bluebird is, shhhhh.”
Tonight features four veteran performers trading jokes and tunes. Billy Dean gets called up. He prefaces his song with a story: When he got his first hit, he told his mother-in-law that “Christmas is on me this year,” and asked her what she wanted. “She said, ‘I want something silver that goes from zero to 200 in three seconds.’” Beat. “So I bought her a scale.” The performances are squarely in the folk tradition: funny stories, sad songs. Whether it be laughter or tears, the night gives you a glimpse into the beating heart of country music, which, in turn, reveals the beating heart of Music City.