We came in search of Nashville beyond the twang and the bro-country, and it didn’t take us long to find it.
A drag performer named China, in a fuchsia dress, belts out “I Will Always Love You” — lip-syncing the Whitney Houston version of this Dolly Parton original — to applause and tips, including from little old ladies. It’s our first morning in town, and we’ve landed at Suzy Wong’s House of Yum. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Arnold Myint, was a “Top Chef” contestant. Suzy Wong is the main character of a 1957 novel and a campy 1960 movie, a Chinese lady of the night who takes up with a U.S. diplomat — and Myint’s drag persona.
It’s only midmorning, but women sit around giant fishbowls of booze and let out high-pitched screams at some hazy memory of weekend hijinks.
We feast on the “Hong Kong Millionaire” — French fries topped with an egg and pulled-pork scramble helped along by cheese, tomato confit, scallions and Sriracha.
In walk Brian Copeland and Greg Bullard. They are white. Their adorable toddlers are African-American.
“It’s a welcoming, loving place,” says Bullard of Nashville, where he’s a pastor at Covenant of the Cross Church.
Did you know it’s a powerhouse in book publishing? Or that it has the largest Kurdish population in the United States?
We did not. (Just as Copeland and Bullard didn’t realize it was Sunday drag brunch at Suzy Wong’s.)
My wife and I have lived and traveled all over the country, keeping an open mind about all regions and peoples, but preconceived notions of the South seeped into our perceptions like a misty pollutant. Tennessee is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Nashville, Bullard and Copeland remind us, is considered the buckle of the Bible Belt.
The city is also the home of country music, where the Grand Ole Opry got its start 90 years ago and visitors drink up the Disney-esque Country Music Hall of Fame or stray no further than downtown’s touristic music road, Broadway.
But as we learned during our trip, Nashville is more than all that. For every slicked-up country star, there’s a singer-songwriter waiting for her turn on stage. Urbanism and new residents are transforming the city, even as it upholds great culinary and roots music traditions. There’s no place quite like it.
Let’s start with music. In Nashville, it’s everywhere, intimate and diverse.
Our first music in Nashville? Opera. If you’re there in summer, do what we did: Drive to Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory for “Opera on the Mountain,” featuring some of the finest, lesser known opera singers in a casual, outdoor venue. There’s something great about hearing Artistic Director John Hoomes tell you about the finer points of “Turandot” in his Southern lilt. And the singing? Superb.
Country’s big tent
We sought to avoid country of the “I’m-drunk-and-got-my-girl-and-my-truck” variety. But we would be foolish to come to Nashville and skip out on the singer-songwriters, bluegrass and roots music that are under country’s big tent, music often born of joyous and sometimes angry defiance, and so central to American history.
What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? I learned the answer in Nashville: You don’t spill beer on a violin.
Though well-known to locals and music aficionados for years, the Bluebird Cafe now draws massive crowds due in part to “Nashville.” The TV show is a guilty pleasure for my wife, Leila, so we head there for Monday open-mic night, which features more singer-songwriters than country-star wannabes. The music venue shares a strip mall with a bridal shop and a laundry, and by the time we get there in a driving rainstorm two hours before the doors even open, about 100 people wait in line, all huddled under the awning, stepping aside for dry cleaning customers. By showtime, the head count reaches 400.
Unless you really need to see the Bluebird, I suggest you check out any number of other killer open-mic nights around the city, many in out-of-the-way bars.
Just witnessing the devotion to creativity and craft, watching humans chase their bliss, brings me joy. They are trying to fill a hole in their souls (plenty evidenced by the lyrics), in part by filling the hole in ours.
“My in-laws are outlaws and they’re makin’ homemade booze,” sings one.
“Don’t let the night kill the day,” sings another.
“She’s a beauty when there’s a bottle around,” sings a third.
There’s a 13-year-old prodigy who apparently knows about unrequited love (“I just keep falling into your black magic”) and a straggly-haired old hippie with a dog named Jesus.
“You want to video this, that’s fine, but just put a time stamp on it so my parole officer knows I was here.”
Another strip mall in an industrial area, and another great music venue: 3rd and Lindsley. (Are you detecting a pattern here? You’ll want a car. By one measure — residents per square mile — Nashville in recent years ranked as one of the most sprawling cities in the country.)
We sit in the balcony, sip RC Cola and rum and listen to Haas Kowert Tice, a talented young trio. Later the main event takes the stage: The Lonesome Trio — an acoustic band featuring Ed Helms and two pals — hits the stage with mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass.
Helms sings: “I can’t hardly move/There’s a picture on the wall/It’s just you and me/It looks about to fall.”
The actor and comedian may be rich and famous, but Helms has had his heart broken, too.
Coffee, cocktails and chicken
Grub. The South’s pre-eminence of the prandial has lately been threatened by the American food revolution: You can now go to almost any U.S. city and get a great meal. But for flavor and simplicity, people staffing the stoves in Nashville know what they’re doing because their great-grandmothers did it and passed it on.
We’ll start at the high end, Husk, where the wines are categorized not by red or white but by soil type. The ratio of hipster beard to clean-shaven here among staff and clientele is roughly one to one. The Bob Woods Murfreesboro ham sits out on the bar, looking medieval. The bartender shaves a thin slice, and my memories of childhood ham sandwiches are obliterated as I savor this new thing — great ham.
The best Pappy Van Winkle bourbons — that’s the good stuff selling on the secondary market for $700 per bottle — is in a case for all to see, behind lock and key.
On the stereo, Lefty Frizzell sings “Always late with your kisses,” because the music here, like seemingly everywhere we go in Nashville, is always well curated. We drink craft cocktails and share rice cakes with pimento cheese, and shrimp and grits with a wonderful earthiness by way of ’shrooms I have to guess are local.
But we enjoy “meat + 3” at Arnold’s just as much. That’s roast beef or fried chicken plus three choices from the list of sides: green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, collard greens and banana pudding.
“Is mac ’n’ cheese a vegetable?”
“At Arnold’s, it is.”
We start every day at one of the fine coffee shops like Frothy Monkey or Crema, where we enjoy our coffee or espresso without alterations such as sweetener or milk because it’s not needed (and a barista lets us know with a look).
Outside of town, we find the somewhat mysterious Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in another crummy strip mall. A bleak green hue colors the walls, and flies buzz around our plates. The ordering process is opaque, borderline hostile, and all the cooking takes place out of view in some shady back area.
And then we bite into the fried chicken. What follows is a fiery crunch of juicy flavor and the experience of addictive heat, a pleasure-pain (this, on the “medium” spicy chicken).
To cool off, we hit up Las Paletas popsicles in the 12 South neighborhood.
In fact, you’ll want to spend some time in 12 South. That’s where we resided in a lovely Airbnb hosted by Emily and Marshall, who spoke enthusiastically about their changing city and the rebirth of old country.
The neighborhood was in a bad way not too long ago, but now is a hotbed of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and boutiques.
The boutiques look suspiciously like someone from Brooklyn or Los Angeles decided to try Nashville for its cheaper rents.
At Emerson Grace, the replica 1970s-era tour shirts of the Ramones, David Bowie and the Stones are hand-distressed, with cotton from Memphis (does this matter?) and go for $159.
At Savant Vintage, by contrast, the stuff isn’t made to look old. It’s actually old. If you like old things like 1970s shearling coats, 1960s dresses and typewriters and suits, block off an afternoon to spend with Beverly Chowning, who has been here 13 years and doesn’t like the newbies.
One other shopping must, if you like vinyl records: Grimey’s. “Scarlet Begonias” played as we walked in, which put me on the hunt for some Grateful Dead. I walked out with a double live album, 1977, Cornell University, every Deadhead’s holy grail.
On our final night, a Monday, we had a perfectly greasy burger, fries and shake at the Pharmacy. Music on the stereo: “Belong” from Washed Out, which Rolling Stone once accurately described as “zonked out electropop.” (What did I tell you about great music everywhere?)
On good advice, we hit the dance party at the 5 Spot in East Nashville. The space was hot, dank and dark, and the DJ was spinning oldies and rockabilly, with classic Ed Sullivan performances projected on a screen.
Dancers cut up the floor fiercely to the Drifters’ “Drip Drip Drippity Drop,” swinging each other around with practiced exuberance.
By the looks of it, the crowd, the young and the hungry, had come from every boring hamlet in America to find that thing they couldn’t name but sure could feel.
Every city on the make has that bar with a good soundtrack and your crowd, the place where you were sure you would change the world and fall in love, maybe on the same night.
The 5 Spot, in all its sweaty sexiness, is one of those places.
And Nashville is one of those cities.