Nashville will strike you first by the number of cowboy boots and amount of denim, but once that wears off, the city will stun you with its quality of creativity, and I’m not talking about the chart-topping performers who live in the mansions a half-hour south of town.
Six months ago, I was in Nashville. One moment I was walking down Broadway, the main tourist drag, after listening to some great bluegrass performers. I was headed back to the hotel when I walked by a mostly dead karaoke bar. I instantly thought, “Oh no, karaoke bars are usually a crass indication of tourism gone sour.” But then I listened and the quality of the singing was off-the-chart compared to any other karaoke bar I’ve ever seen. I don’t frequent karaoke bars but I ventured inside, bought a beer and listened to a few songs from a steady string of performers. What shocked me was that these were the people who would be fronting the top bands in most mid-size American towns, but here in Nashville they were just singing karaoke to an empty bar. That’s what goes on in Nashville; that’s the quality of creativity in this town, and that’s what you're up against if you get off a plane at the airport with a dream in your head and a guitar case in hand.
I tell that analogy to author and publisher Taylor Bruce, and he says that it has been that way for years.
“When I was in college,” says Bruce, “the Old Crow Medicine Show was playing on the street corners. You can’t turn around without running into quality musicians. There’s a magnetic pull to Nashville which has been drawing musicians and creative types for years.”
Taylor Bruce knows Nashville. He’s the force behind Nashville’s newest culture guidebook, the Wildsam Nashville Field Guide, which was published in October. It’s partly a guide for travelers but also has been described as a celebration of local culture. The insights range from the obvious touch-points (because you can’t ignore the Ryman or WSM’s iconic radio tower), but also underground, with information only the locals would know. It’s a model that has done surprisingly well in Nashville and something Bruce hopes to replicate next in Austin.
WhereTraveler interviewed Taylor Bruce recently, and in the course of our discussion, he shared with us some of his insights on enjoying Nashville in the Q&A below. Of course, for the rest of his insights, you’ll just have to pick up a copy of his Nashville Field Guide.
WhereTraveler: Broadway Street is the nexus for Nashville’s visitors. Is it all hype, or is there real substance behind the neon?
Taylor Bruce: Sure, it’s popular, but there’s a reason it’s so popular. There’s just a bunch of cool stuff going on.
Robert’s Western World is my favorite honky-tonk. The guy who owns it actually plays on the weekend; he plays the early set on Saturday with his band Brazilbilly.
A couple blocks down is the historic Hatch Show Print, and anyone would recognize their work, their iconic designs for American music and concert posters. They’re still using the same big old presses that are still in the shop from 90 years ago when they came down from Wisconsin. You can actually buy these great posters at their shop.
The third thing is the Ryman. It’s the Carnegie Hall of country music, the [former] home of the Grand Ole Opry. What you should know is that the Opry has bounced around. It once was at the War Memorial Auditorium. Now it is at Opry Mills [a massive tourist hotel/mall /auditorium combination in Nashville’s suburbs]. The last regular Opry show at the Ryman was in 1974, but in the month of January, the Opry is still held at The Ryman, where you’ll find the old church pews and beautiful stained glass. The room has these warm acoustics that are one of a kind.
Also in the Broadway Street corridor is a record shop called Lawrence Records that often gets overlooked because of Grimey’s [1604 8th Avenue South, Nashville] and Jack White’s spot [Third Man Records, 623 7th Avenue South, Nashville].
Tell us about East Nashville, which has a burgeoning reputation for a lot of great culture itself.
In the early 1900s, East Nashville was the fancy neighborhood with the tony houses. Then there was a terrible fire and a tornado, and a streetcar went in. The money moved away. In the last 10 years it’s been rediscovered. It’s where the creative types could afford to live. You see wherever artists live, people eventually move over there because that’s where there are lot of great restaurants and nightlife.
Over there is Barista Parlor; it’s probably one of the better coffee shops in the South. You’ll find a super high-end espresso machine in what was an old transmission shop. It’s around the corner from Porter Road Butcher. Opened recently, it’s a 2012 version of the old-school butcher shop; the proprietor [James Peisker] was actually in Forbes’ “30 under 30” list.
Also in East Nashville are the wonderful restaurants Marche´ and Margot Café & Bar. Marché is a corner spot with big windows and is a great place to get good food, especially for breakfast and brunch.
There are two bars in East Nashville you have to see. First is Dino’s, a total dive bar, I mean a total dive bar, but in the best way possible. Directly next door is the cocktail lounge called No. 308. It’s a dim-lit, very cool environment with great cocktails. I love that these bars live next door to each other.
What’s the quintessential food in Nashville? Is it “hot chicken”?
Hot chicken is certainly up there, and I think Nashville can claim that as its own. But I asked Tandy Wilson of the City House restaurant in the Germantown neighborhood this same question, and he thinks Nashville is a comfort-food town, a meat-and-three town.
Taylor’s restaurant picks for Southern comfort food:
Arnold’s in Nashville is classic. It’s a cinder-block, one-room place where you’ll find sides like collard greens and mac-and-cheese. There’s a bunch of Monell’s, but I like the one in Germantown. Sylvan Park Restaurant’s meat-and-three is as good as you’ll find in any other city.
Of course, for hot chicken, go to Prince’s Hot Chicken, off Dickerson, or to Bolton’s in East Nashville on Main Street, where hot chicken is served on white bread with pickles.
For fun, The Catbird Seat is the hot new restaurant in the city and was founded by the same people of The Patterson House, a fine cocktail lounge. It opened above Patterson House. There’s a chef table, seats only about 30 people, providing courses via a prix-fixe menu. They do a twist on hot chicken as a small plate, serving the hot chicken skin with a Wonderbread blend.
Nashville is known for its mega-stars of country, but where do you go to hear the music and up-and-coming acts?
I would send them to the Station Inn in the Gulch area, where there is bluegrass seven nights a week. It’s a room of mismatched chairs, pitchers of Bud Light and baskets of popcorn. It’s the mecca of bluegrass and has two shows every night. Close your eyes and you could be in some crossroads town in Kentucky.
I also like The Basement. It’s right off the river on 8th Avenue, near the minor-league stadium, below Grimey’s record shop. There’s also the new-ish place called The Rutledge and there’s 3rd and Lindsley. And you can’t forget the Bluebird.
Where do you go to escape the city, while still staying within the city?
I’d go walking at Vanderbilt University. It’s a gorgeous campus and a recognized national arboretum.
What’s the new icon of Nashville?
One of the new iconic experiences is at Imogene + Willie [denim, leather goods and vintage jewelry]. Their family did style-washing for major jean companies. This couple moved to Nashville and created their own line of custom-crafted blue jeans in an old gas station. They are fashion designers as much as artisans.
Where are some places travelers go to get your Nashville field guide?
On our website (wildsam.com), but locally … at Parnassus—it is a great local bookstore. We can be found at Imogene + Willie, at Billy Reid (a boutique), at Emil Erwin (high-end leather goods) and at Antique Archaeology, which is owned by the guy from the “American Pickers” TV show.
What’s your tip for travelers?
Have loose plans when you travel to a city. Ask around and let the locals lead you.
Nashville in Photos