It wasn’t until walking the streets of Broadway in the cool February evening with the frosty air nipping at my skin and the sound of live music permeating from the rows of Honky Tonks that I realized I knew nothing about this town. I chose to visit on a whim and out of the necessity of preventing frequent flier miles from expiring. In fact Nashville was barely on my radar; I’ll be the first to admit I had no pre-conceived notion of what to expect. It was only in my preparation did I come to realize that Nashville had been named a top travel destination by pretty much every travel publication in 2015, with the expectation of holding that title though 2016. I’ll admit I was intrigued by this revelation. What is it that this town could possibly have to offer over all the other major players in the US? So the planning began.
Like any respectable traveler I took to my research like an Aderol laden student takes to studying for his midterm. I hit the web in search of top attractions and must-see lists. However, as a photographer I’m always interested in capturing a destination in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Albeit a daunting task most of the time, and admittedly not always successful, it does however tend to lend an interesting perspective on my experiences. Nashville was no different. I would not stop until I found the heart of the city; the Nashville you won’t find in city guides. Being a man of the people, I’m interested in how locals spend their time. By the end I had a mountain of information to sift through, but picked out what I thought to be most interesting in relation to my tastes.
My search of all things authentic started immediately while talking with my Air BnB host Robyn. Having lived in Nashville for the last 40 years with her husband and seeing the steady growth of the city since the 70’s, she is thrilled to see the positive changes over the years, but concerned more recently that the city seems to be growing faster than the infrastructure can handle. Located in the Gulch and minutes from Downtown she’s seen her property taxes double within in the last couple years, with talks of another hike looming in the not too distant future. While Robyn and her husband may be more poised to weather such economic strain by supplementing their income renting their place to progressive travelers, she seemed concerned many in town may not be as fortunate.
With this newly acquired information rattling around in my brain, I decided to spend my first night getting the “touristy” portion of my trip out of the way. In exploring the city I serendipitously found my way to a free parking lot at Nissan Stadium; home of the Tennessee Titans and located perfectly on the East bank of the Cumberland River. With football season over, the parking lot becomes a cost-free alternative to the paid lots downtown. Only a quick jaunt over the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge and taking in what has to be the best views of the Nashville Skyline, I found myself right in the heart of Broadway and Honky Tonk central.
I'm in no way a country music fan, but taking in the neon spectacle known as Broadway is enough to get anyone intrigued. An energetic conflux of tacky neon signs, rowdy tourists and 365 days of live music; This is good time central. I imagine most people likely have preconceived notions of what a Honky Tonk experience entails and they’re probably not far off. With each new bar, the night slowly blurred together in what I can only describe as a whirlwind of live music, fried bologna sandwiches and an increasing stack of empty Yuengling beer bottles. What makes the Nashville Honky Tonk scene different than all those preconceived notions, is that they are founded and steeped in Southern musical tradition. A time and place that throughout history has grown to become the music capital of the world. It doesn’t matter if your a jazz or blues fan, rock or country... it all started in the South, and Nashville made it it’s home.
Of course a night of drinking wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory early AM diner stop and where better to indulge in one of life’s underrated pastimes than the Hermitage Cafe. Serving the ubiquitous all hours breakfast with Southern classics such as, Grits and Hash. With oldies pumping through the jukebox and a chef who’s been catering to Nashville’s late-night denizens for the last 20 years, there is no better stop to revel in the evenings more questionable decisions.
Still reeling from the night before and not being able to get what Robyn said out of my head, I continued my journey into the heart of Nashville. I told myself there has to be more than just Honky Tonks and a rich musical tradition that defines Nashville. Being a man of fashion; a self-proclaimed connoisseur of all things finer in life, I went to visit a shop owner I had come across during my research...Otis James.
With piercing blue eyes, a friendly smile and laid-back demeanor Otis welcomed me into his unassuming shop where we talked about ties, hats, and his love for the city he has made home, and which is changing so fast. After a 4,000 mile bicycle trip across America, Otis settled back in Nashville, where he vowed to follow his dream of hand crafting apparel. Starting in a shed and with no formal training, he had worked his way into apprenticing for a tailor in town when he was given his first commission to fashion wedding ties for his boss’s daughter. One commission led to another and Otis quickly became the tie baron of Nashville; an honorable mention in GQ never hurt one's reputation either. However, after talking a while, Otis laid on me that he recently hung up the tie business. Appreciative of all the success and notoriety it brought, he needed to get back to his passion for tailoring bespoke clothing. His newfound richness has him spurning out some of the most original hand-crafted hats I’ve ever seen. With millinery traditions falling to the easier and more cost effective machine-assembly trend of late, Otis finds himself in a unique position to revitalize a dying craft.
The words coming from his mouth couldn’t have been any sweeter, a man with a dream to revitalize a tradition I personally hold dear. Anyone who knows me, understands I’m a hat man. Since purchasing my first Stetson fedora on Ebay all those years ago, I’ve since collected every style of hat under the sun. Looking through his on-site collection and swathing through all the timeless fabrics, I came across a combination I couldn’t resist. A dark brown, corduroy style fisherman custom fashioned to my dimensions. A one-of-a-kind, not likely reproduced work of art unique only to those who’ve had the pleasure of knowing Otis James.
I couldn’t help but pick up on something Otis had mentioned in our conversation as well. He had recently relocated his shop to an area of town many would considered undesirable. Due to inflating rental costs and growing issues with his neighbors, he found the transition necessary in order to keep business alive. Undaunted by his new location, he is confident that anyone interested enough will make their way to him, and if I’m any example, he’s correct in that assumption. Still, I couldn’t help but notice a continual trend regarding the the ever-changing climate of the local communities.
Feeling as I had just won a traveler’s version of the lottery, and with a couple local suggestions from Otis, it was again time to bask in the glory which is Nashville. I made my way past Centennial Park to catch a glimpse of the life-sized scale replica of The Parthenon. A seemingly strange landmark for the city, but non-the-less impressive. Temporarily erected in 1897 for the Centennial Exposition and complete with a 42’ statue of Athena, the structure was recast as a permanent structure in 1925. I also breezed past Fisk University in attempt to catch an Alfred Stieglitz collection purported to be on display, only to find I was 2 months early. Nonetheless I perused the beautiful architecture on campus before making my way to lunch.
One only has to look to the trendy East Nashville Five Points district for proof of a culinary scene bursting at the seems. Between I Dream of Weenie, Mas Taco por favor and Prince’s Hot Chicken, there’s no shortage of fantastic street fare. Each one delivering a fresh spin on the traditional comfort foods of all time. The most intriguing restaurant I came across, in what seemed to be a never-ending marathon of food consumption was Marche Artisan Foods. Only second to it’s big sister restaurant Margot, both restaurants offer a diner’s dream of fresh, seasonally curated breakfast and brunch options. With an overcast, early afternoon light shining through the large corner windows overlooking Main and Woodland, I was fortunate enough to stop by Marche for an afternoon mimosa and a Savory Crepe made with fresh kale, creamy goat cheese, and served in a tomato basil reduce. Add a side of apple chicken sausage and foodie life in Nashville is good.
The trendy Five Points neighborhood just may be the epitome of Nashville’s thriving spirit and recent growth. Not only offering the cities best food, it’s also the home of a budding creative scene. I had the good fortune of running into the contracting genius behind I Dream of Weenie’s yellow VW van/hot dog stand to discuss whats happening. Bret McFayden is a Pennsylvanian transplant and the founder of the Five Points Art Collaborative. A hub of local artists looking to jump start a creative renaissance in the trendy East Nashville neighborhood. McFayden offers short-term leases at a reasonable prices in attempts to allow independent artists to get their projects up and running without the unnecessary risk of collecting large debt through high interest business loans. The spaces which double as galleries, studios, and offices serve as the framework which allows local small business entrepreneurs’ the ability to thrive; what he calls an “Idea Hatchery”. I think it's safe to say, when artists are allowed to work together in harmony, amazing things can happen.
With my time in Nashville closing in, I spent my last day lazily drifting in and out of record stores and brew pubs. With Black Abbey, Jackalope, and Yazoo Breweries all centrally located it wouldn’t take long to work up a delightfully hoppy buzz; Luckily one is able to find all three breweries proudly sponsored at The Picnic Tap located inside the Nashville Farmer’s Market. Having arrived unseasonally early, there wasn’t much in the way of fresh produce; Fortunately though the market houses an impressive array of food stalls and vendors equipped in handling the maddening bustle of the afternoon lunch rush. As the rush died down, I settled in to indulge in the aformentioned libations. Served in glass mason jars, with the sun setting outside and my tongue loosing inside, I began chatting up the locals. Many stopping in to fill their growlers; since The Picnic Tap serves only Nashville and local Tennessee taps, this allows patrons their choice of brewery all in one convenient spot. Intrigued and happy to chat up a visitor, one can genuinely feel the sincere interest and warmth from the conversations.
Of course my trip to Nashville wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Third Man Records. The studio and record label of musical revolutionary Jack White. Founded in Detroit in 2001, with a physical location in Nashville opening in 2009, the studio and connecting record shop serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of the city. With Third Man’s 7th street home strategically located on the wrong side of the tracks...so to speak, Jack White’s presence has elevated awareness of the surrounding neighborhood and jumpstarted an initiative to rezone the area for more creative pursuits.
Ironically only a few blocks away, on the far more famous Music Row, studios are facing a much more precarious future. Constantly threatened by the ever changing climate looking to capitalize on the prime real-estate, music execs are concerned the legendary recording “Mecca” may soon be turned into condominiums and shopping centers. Walking around you can hear the jackhammers and see the cranes closing-in around the famous neighborhood. Just last year a campaign was started by recording artist turned studio exec Ben Folds to preserve the surrounding area’s musical heritage, including legendary Studio A, where artists from Dolly Parton to Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks to Carrie Underwood have all recorded albums. If Jack White’s presence has the intended effect, he needs to ensure his neighborhood’s growth doesn't encroach on it’s residents.
Having piffled through the rows of freshly pressed vinyls recorded in studio at Third Man, and picking up a couple rare gems, my Nashville Odyssey had come to an end. I'm left in attempts to compartmentalize such an array of contradictory information. A city so rich with history and tradition working and striving to meet the demands of the 21st century.
There is no doubt in my mind that Nashville is a top tourist attraction, more so than ever; due to the cities support of local communities, artists, and tourists the demand for all things Nashville comes at no surprise. Yet, with all the good comes the worrisome. Yes my friends, change is unavoidable; however, It’s our responsibility as a society to determine how we let that change shape us. Carefully monitored and measured, with reason and control, change can turn a city into a inspiring example of the creative spirit, but if left unmonitored that same change can also suffocate under the weight of it’s own infrastructure. As I think back on my brief stay, it's become clear that what makes Nashville so special is the unrelenting spirit of the South and it's aim to remain true to it's culture, all while transitioning into a brave new future.