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 TWO | It’s easier to extract yourself from your room this morning, knowing what’s in store. You walk north, pausing to puff your cheeks at a full-scale reproduction of the Parthenon, an incongruent extravagance that was erected in 1897 as part of the centennial celebration of the “Athens of the South.” Soon, having honed your ambling techniques amid the splendid greenery of Bicentennial Park, you arrive once again in Germantown.
Monell’s is a classic family-style restaurant set in a spacious old home with each room jammed with diners feasting at communal tables. There’s a wait, but a pleasant one, out in a garden space. Eventually, you’re seated at a table with a motley bunch: a few missionaries from Oklahoma, a couple from Louisville here for the weekend, a family from Atlanta in town to help their son move. Over heaps of fried chicken, grits, beans, catfish, biscuits, gravy, ham and so on, you trade stories, sing happy birthday and eat, eat, eat. A waitress comes over, takes stock of the empty plates and says, “Don’t y’all go passing out on me now.” You all agree that people should be made to eat with strangers more often.
Eventually, perambulatory again, you make your way back to Lower Broadway. The strip is heating up. You stop at the great Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where you meet a Californian schoolteacher who recently moved to Nashville. What brought him here? “Good fun!” he exclaims. “Great music at a good price!” Then, grinning: “And, well, tax advantages.”
There’s music history of a different sort at the nearby Hatch Show Print, a vintage letterpress that for more than 130 years has made the concert posters you see all over town, and whose walls are plastered with gorgeous vintage promos. From here, it’s off to Ryman Auditorium, the high church of country music.
The Ryman used to be home to “The Grand Ole Opry,” the TV and radio show that transformed country from a regional concern to a national one. After the Opry moved to the glitzy, high-tech Opryland, the Ryman narrowly avoided the wrecking ball and survives today as a concert hall and museum. Upstairs, you watch a video biography of Minnie Pearl, the ebullient hillbilly character who once ruled the roost here. “Tryin’ to hold me back is like tryin’ to shoot off a cannon a little at a time,” she squeals.
You soon learn, though, that Nashville’s status as the capital of country music is not confined to the past. On a juke-joint crawl down Lower Broadway, you start at the rollicking dive bar Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which, over the last half-century, has played host to everyone from Patsy Cline to Waylon Jennings. Yellowed photos of patrons and performers line the walls. The house band is all classic country, with dirty jokes and repeated calls to shout and drink (“holler and swaller”), and the capacity crowd obeys. A few doors down from here is an even more notable venue: Robert’s Western World. Even the snobs who deplore the Nash Vegas side of town will tell you to go to Robert’s. The Silver Threads are currently playing a set. The singer, Eileen Rose, calls Johnny Horton’s “Cherokee Boogie,” and the renowned guitarist Rich Gilbert replies, “I heard this song while trying to park.”
“You can hear a lot of songs while trying to park,” quips Rose. “Nashville’s getting popular.”
The big room is starting to fill up. The next act, the Don Kelley Band, is a proving ground for some of Nashville’s best young guitar players, which is saying a lot for a city with the highest concentration of frighteningly skilled pickers in America. Kelley’s new guy is Daniel Donato, who is celebrating his high school graduation today.
“Ain’t no new country music,” Kelley announces. “Only bad rock and roll.”
Donato rips off solo after solo, each more impressive than the last. It’s dizzying. You had dinner plans, but you’ve never heard anything like this. A woman behind you is telling a story in a thick drawl. It ends with her shouting, “And I was holding her baby and drinking her beer!” Straight out of a country song.
You order a burger and another round. As Gram Parsons once sang, you ain’t