Famous for music, Nashville is also a hit when it comes to tourism, tech and tantalising tastebuds.
You can’t talk about cosmopolitan Nashville – the centre of Southern haute cuisine and the engine room of Tennessee’s healthcare and high-tech businesses – without considering country music.
As much as the movers and shakers of modern Nashville try to tell you that this attractive, diverse city is so much more than the musical genre for which it is internationally famous, the roots of country run so deep that they are both the foundation and the living exemplar of everything that is good about this city.
How the city’s money-making music machine arrived at this place was explained to me one morning at the Country Music Hall of Fame by Michael McCall, writer and editor for the Country Music Foundation.
The museum, an essential port of call for any first-time visitor, traces country music chronologically, so you start with the growth of the radio stations in the 1920s and move on to the advent of the mass-produced motor car, which allowed artists to tour the South with live shows. Then to the movie-star singing cowboys of the 1940s and on and on through the ’50s with Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams, the ’60s with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, then to the big stadium country rockers of the noughties, and through to Taylor Swift and the country-pop modernists of today.
The difference between the early days and now, according to McCall, is that it is no longer a down-home, folksy Southern cottage industry. Today this is big business.
“Back then, people like George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] toured in buses with their names painted on the side,” he said. “They came from poor stock and were very grounded. Now, country stars grow up in the suburbs with cable TV and travel to concerts in their own private jets.”
It was McCall’s tour through the wonderful displays in the Hall of Fame that gave me my first basic lesson on the rise and rise of Nashville. Those impecunious country folk of the ’50s and ’60s suddenly found untold wealth and went out and spent like crazy before they developed anything like good taste.
Thus, the array of rhinestone-covered Nudie suits and luminous spangly dresses, and if you were looking for the best/worst examples of barking mad Southern consumerism then look no further than two convertibles sitting nose-to-tail on the second floor – Elvis’s garish Cadillac featuring crushed diamonds in the paintwork, and, even more ostentatiously, Webb Pierce’s Bonneville complete with pistols for door handles, a silver-dollar encrusted saddle separating the two seats and gigantic bull horns adorning the front bumper. These days, we associate that kind of bling with hip-hop stars.
The city is set in a low-lying basin beside the Cumberland River. The centre is a collection of skyscrapers gathered around the AT&T Building, aka the Batman Building, so-called for reasons that are obvious as soon as you see it. Spreading out from the centre are low-rise suburbs of which some, like Music Row, where many of Nashville’s prolific songwriters ply their craft, are tree-lined and with turn-of-the-20th-century houses. A short drive beyond the centre are the rolling Tennessee Hills, bucolic countryside that could be the America of Norman Rockwell paintings.
Nashville has come a long way since country music catapulted it on to the world stage. Today, its image is that of a Southern renaissance city, with healthcare by far the number one revenue producer – more than 500 companies earn a global revenue of more than US$40 billion annually. Tourism, which includes a steady growth in the business and convention sectors, brings in 14.5 million visitors a year, earning the city US$6.5 billion annually, while the music industry earns just under US$6 billion.
Tied to all of these industries is technology, with tech-based start-ups a major growth area – the city is ranked 13th out of 25 rising US tech hubs, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Nashville has the fourth-strongest economy in the US and the lowest rate of unemployment, while Forbes polls have rated it the fifth best place for business and careers and the fourth best city for white-collar jobs. Basically, it’s a boom town.
The boom has seen a wave of migrants from more crowded, less user-friendly US cities, running at more than 100 arrivals a day for many years. Only this year has that number plateaued and the population appears to have stabilised at just under two million – which is double the population in 1990. And its reputation for being friendly, manageable, well run and well groomed – it consistently tops “favourite city” polls – has also led to an influx of big stars buying homes in the city, including Nicole Kidman, Ed Sheeran and Johnny Depp.
That UK travellers, both business and leisure, have embraced the Tennessee state capital is evidenced by the success of British Airways’ direct B787 Dreamliner services from London. Launched in May last year as a five times-weekly service, the route is to go daily at the end of next month, adding a First class cabin to the mix.
Simon Brooks, BA’s senior vice-president of sales for North America, says: “London-Nashville is the quickest new route that we’ve moved to a daily service in the past ten years. Its success is largely down to the fact that for more than two decades business and leisure travellers in the city didn’t have a direct flight to Europe. It’s certainly a city on the rise and a great part of the success of this flight is down to the revived convenience and efficiency for travellers. Going daily will further support this.”
With the boom has also come a transformation from small city with too few hotel rooms and plain Southern restaurants serving high-cholesterol food to a modern metropolis that is a foodie capital with rooms to spare. Over the past five years, more than 5,000 new hotel rooms have opened in the city centre and, according to Butch Spyridon, president and chief executive of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, another 5,000 are under construction, representing the largest growth anywhere in the urban US.
“In 2004 we launched a strategic plan that focused on big events, a new convention centre and building a true, authentic music brand, and it is the development of these three things that has contributed greatly to the city’s success,” he says.
Hotels available to the visiting business traveller range from trendy boutique boltholes (Thomson Nashville in the Gulch area, the new Fairlane hotel, the high-fashion 21c Museum hotel, and the retro-cool Noelle) to large, classic city hotels (the 533-room JW Marriott Nashville, which opened in July last year, and the 376-room Westin) and historic properties that reflect the Old South (the Hermitage, which opened in 1910). A 334-room W hotel is due to open in 2020, also in the Gulch, a former industrial area that is now one of the cool epicentres of the city.
Because the city is small and largely walkable, all of these properties are within easy reach of its business hubs, the Convention Centre and most musical venues. The Ryman, the Station Inn and the Printers Alley clubs are walking distance, while 3rd and Lindsley and the Bluebird Café (see panel, page 33) are short Uber rides away. In little big town, everything is easily accessible.
A significant change in the city’s culinary landscape has accompanied the boom, with trendy international restaurants and cutting-edge cocktail bars opening every week. It used to be that “meat and three” (three vegetable side dishes, one of which is macaroni cheese, considered a vegetable in the South) and fried chicken were the food staples. Now it’s octopus and shrimp bruschetta and charcuterie salads. New restaurants such as Husk Nashville, Henrietta Red, Café Roze, Etch and Bastion are as good as you’ll find in LA or New York.
Over the past decade, the city has drawn in chefs from all over the country, one of the most prolific and creative being Josh Habiger, who arrived from Minnesota in 2009 as culinary director of local entrepreneurs Ben and Max Goldberg’s Strategic Hospitality company. A former estagier at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in the UK, he opened the Patterson House that same year, the Catbird Seat in 2011, Pinewood Social in 2013 and Bastion in 2016, all hugely successful restaurants and bars patronised by the cool Nashville crowd and in-the-know visitors.
“Pinewood is a bowling alley, a coffee shop, a restaurant,” Habiger says. “There are people on their laptops at the bar. This is a place to hang out.” I should add that the Patterson House, a wonderfully decadent speakeasy, serves some of the best, and most imaginatively named, cocktails I’ve ever had, all based on pre-Prohibition recipes. Locals reassure me that it is over such cocktails that many Nashville business deals are concluded.
That said, however much you are encouraged to embrace modern Nashville, you may also wish to tip your hat at the Old South and dine either at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken or Arnold’s Country Kitchen. At Hattie B’s I took the plunge and ordered one of the famously scorching “Shut the Cluck Up” mega-hot chicken dishes. It was served as advertised, leaving my eyes watering for the rest of the day.
At Arnold’s, you sit at a long formica table alongside truckers, construction workers, lawyers, city gents and country music stars. It is an institution – all red leather banquettes, concrete floor, and walls crammed with pictures of country music stars who have been customers – where you eat the “meat and three” in an unprepossessing yet atmospheric room. This is authentic Nashville and however international the city becomes, you get the sense that places like these will always have an audience.
In fact, appreciation of authenticity is not only a Nashville staple but also a successful commercial platform. Take the Tennessee whiskey trade, one of the state’s top ten export businesses. The annual US market for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey amounts to around US$2.5 billion a year and Tennessee exports US$1 billion of this traditional Southern nectar a year. While Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, both located a short drive from downtown in Lynchburg and Cascade Hollow, are the major producers, there are a number of smaller local producers that now form part of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, a 25-stop distillery tour across the state.
The most accessible of these, and the one with the best storyline, is Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, located in the heart of downtown Nashville. In 2006, brothers Charlie and Andy Nelson were on holiday from university when their father took them to Green Brier, a small town 20 miles out of the city, to pick up some barbecue beef. There they spotted an historic marker that read “Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery one mile east”.
“The marker said that a man named Charles Nelson had opened this distillery in 1870,” Charlie recalls. “I was a little mystified to see my name on an historic marker, so we asked Chuck the butcher if he had ever heard of him. Chuck directed us to a barrel warehouse across the street.”
There the boys discovered that their great-great-great grandfather had been one of the first legitimate producers of Tennessee whiskey. He had been forced to close down in 1909 because of Prohibition and, while the brothers had heard vague stories of a distiller in the family’s past, they had always assumed that, like most Tennesseans at the time, the relatives were just making moonshine. “It was like being struck by lightning,” Charlie says. “It was one of the only moments of clarity in my life.”
The brothers spent hours in the Historical Society of Green Brier, poring over archive newspaper articles and adverts, and found the original recipes for their ancestor’s whiskey. At that point they decided to dedicate themselves to re-establishing the small-batch distillery that put Tennessee whiskey on the map a century before. In 2012 their first Belle Meade Bourbon hit the market and two years later they opened their distillery to tourists. They now produce several different variations of bourbon whiskey.
So, what’s the secret of Nashville’s peculiar Southern charm, which seems to combine the entrepreneurial zeal of the big US cities with the friendliness and unembarrassed embrace of the past you find in small-town America? The hit songwriter Barry Dean, who moved here from Kansas 15 years ago, told me recently that as far as he was concerned, Nashville was simply the most “collaboratively creative city in the US… and that works for all of us here, whatever business we are in”.
Live music, mainly country-oriented but not exclusively, plays 24/7 in Nashville. The Lower Broadway honky tonks are in the centre of the touristy downtown area and are an essential stop. This is where the music hopefuls play for tips; the standards are largely outstanding.
Nearby is the mother church of country, the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry until 1974. It still hosts Opry events several times a week as well as welcoming everyone from blues group the Tedeschi Trucks Band to Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. A little further out of the centre is the legendary Bluebird Café, where songwriters play in the round.
If you’re here on a Monday night, visit 3rd and Lindsley, where the Time Jumpers play. A collective of Nashville’s top veteran session players, they include country star Vince Gill (infrequently now as he tours with the Eagles) and the brilliant steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin. This is pure Western swing, or cowboy jazz as the band members describe it; genteel, lilting, melodic.
Then there are the excellent museums. As well as the Country Music Hall of Fame, there are the Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline museums side-by-side, and RCA Studio B, where Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison recorded.
Don’t miss the city’s two great music shops, Grimey’s and Third Man Records. The latter, owned by Detroit migrant and music superstar Jack White, is now much more than a record store, more a sprawling creative Aladdin’s Cave that features, among other things, the world’s only live music venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities.
You could easily spend a week or more simply eating and drinking in Nashville, although your waistline may not thank you. Here are some places to check out.
Named for chef Jonathan Waxman’s late mother, this rustic yet chic restaurant serves seasonal American dishes, many cooked in the wood-fired oven or over the grill in the open kitchen. adelesnashville.com
A small chain serving Detroit-style pizza (rectangular and thick-based) that gets rave reviews from guests. The Colony (pepperoni, pickled jalapenos and honey) is a firm favourite. emmysquared.com
The 404 Kitchen
European cuisine gets a modern spin at this restaurant, with high-class yet comforting results. Demand saw it relocate here from a shipping container thanks to the growing reputation of chef Matt Bolus. the404nashville.com
Can’t get a table at the 404 Kitchen? Then its bar is worth the pilgrimage instead. One of Nashville’s finest bourbon collections meets craft cocktails with a menu of crowd-pleasing food completing the package. gertiesnashville.com
Words by Graham Boynton