Nashville: A Drinking Town with a Music Problem

Nashville has worked to earn it’s reputation as “Music City.” Music doesn’t seem to be much of a problem here. As for drinking- you be the judge.

The city earned it’s moniker back in 1950 when radio announcer David Cobb used the term “Music City U.S.A” on the air. It stuck. While it’s true that when most think of Nashville, honky-tonks and country music come to mind, there is actually a lot more going on here. It has been home to blues, R&B, gospel, and modern pop starting back in the late 1700’s.

Davy Crockett, one of Nashville’s most famous citizens and one-time congressman, was known for playing his “devil’s box” more commonly referred to as a fiddle. He used fiddle-playing skills learned in Tennessee to rouse his troops when he was in Texas.

Fisk Jubilee Singers, from St. Olaf archives. St. Olaf’s touring chorale group is said to be modeled on the Fisk Singers.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, the a capella African-American singing group from Fisk University, have been in existence for over 150 years and have performed all over the world. The group was first started in the early 1870’s by the school’s treasurer, George Leonard White, his assistant- a frail talented pianist- Ella Sheppard, and nine former young slaves. They set out to perform from Nashville to the North, singing to congregations along the route of the Underground Railway. Their mission was to raise money to help the school, then called the Fisk Free Colored School, educate former slaves. They performed for Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, the royal families of Germany and Holland, and for the Emperor of Japan. Over the years, the group has raised millions for the school helping turn it into a full-fledged university.

Bob Dylan made the bold decision to record in Nashville in 1966. Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline, were all recorded in Nashville. Afterward Joan Baez, The Byrds, Neil Young, and hordes of others followed.

Right now, Nashville is home base for some of the world’s biggest rock acts. Jack White, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Taylor Swift, and others all call Music City home. The Nashville Symphony is a Grammy-award winning powerhouse rounding out Nashville’s musical genres.

Things to do, The Tennessee Whiskey Trail

As for being a drinking town, if you’re looking for a bar in Nashville, you won’t have to look far. And if you like dive bars but think the lack of warm bodies is off putting, you’ll love Nashville. The dives are packed. Broadway, the rapidly growing honky-tonk street, is bursting at the seams. Hordes of bachelorette parties in their matching t-shirts followed by preppy boy toy stalkers swarm the famous party street from Thursday-Sunday. Bars are multi-level with open walls and roof-top bars. People are literally spilling out. These kiddos are here for a party and they are totally willing to show you how badly they can behave. That’s the main strip. But there’s more to Nashville than Broadway.

For a medium sized city, Nashville has a lot going on. It’s growing fast. Right now there are 2 million square feet worth of construction projects going on downtown that will change the skyline for good. There’s another 2 million planned. They are definitely dealing with growing pains (and a burgeoning rat problem). But for a visit, who can’t deal with some traffic and having to make reservations to get into packed restaurants? If you’re walking downtown at night, keep your eyes up. Get out of downtown and you’ll find plenty of breathing room.

There are more than 180 music venues in Nashville. Those that feature live music four or more nights a week are given the Nashville guitar pick sign. Most of the venues on the strip do not charge a cover. It’s easy to pop in and see if you like what’s going on. If you don’t, move on. If you do, belly up and take a load off. Make sure you bring lots of ones/fives to tip the musicians. Keep in mind that that is probably how they are getting paid.

Nashville has the highest concentration of music industry workers than any other city in the world. There’s over 60,000 people working to make music happen.

Music is collaborative. At its best, musicians riff off each other, leach each other’s energy, toss ideas around as easily as a shared harmony; Nashville is a musician’s town. The creative energy is palpable. The city reals with musical/cultural clout. It had me fantasizing about becoming a singer-songwriter and hitting the highway with with my roadies. You want to be part of this scene. You’re willing to change your life and a lot of people have. It’s magical.

It’s also friendly; but more Southern sass than charm. I like that. We were buying records at Grimey’s in East Nashville, and after shopping for awhile, we were each handed a nice cold IPA and reminded gently to recycle. Here’s to new friends. I love Nashville.


The Ryman Auditorium (Downtown)

The Ryman is one of the most storied and historic of American music venues. The red-brick and “stained” glass “mother church” located on downtown’s Fifth Avenue was built in 1892 but wasn’t dubbed the Ryman Auditorium until after 1900 when it was renamed for a local riverboat captain/ saloon proprietor, and businessman. It wasn’t known for country music until the Grand Ole Opry radio station relocated to the Ryman after it outgrew it’s space at the War Memorial Auditorium. The show became so popular that the Ryman was soon identified as the home of country music, or the “mother church.”

Matt, me, and our friend Mike (sans his better half) waiting for first night Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Ryman.

It’s here that Bill Monroe and his band “created” bluegrass in the mid-1940’s. Newcomer Hank Williams performed so marvelously in 1949 that he was called back for six encores. Johnny Cash first played the Ryman in 1956, was banned in 1965 for “bad behavior”, returned in 1969 to host a variety show, and in 2003, it was here that Nashville mourned his loss at his memorial.

Back then the venue had no dressing rooms and the neighborhood was seedy. The bathrooms smelled like urine and sweat. Patrons were regularly carried out after fainting from lack of air-conditioning. In the 70’s, the Opry fled the Ryman and moved to it’s own mega-church like theme park located just outside of Nashville.

The Ryman sat empty, sad, and neglected for over twenty years. It was home only to rats. It was almost torn down. Local artists and fans filmed a series of concerts there in the early 90’s as a fundraiser. The building was renovated and reopened as a concert venue and museum. The Ryman is a sanctuary. Much like New Orleans’ Preservation Hall or Chicago’s Old Town of Folk, it works to maintain the ideals of Americana and roots music in a town that could be said to have neglected it’s legacy. That seems to be changing.

Rolling Stone once asked, “If a band performs at the Ryman, and doesn’t record an album there, did it really happen?” Emmylou Harris (one of the artists that raised $ to save the Ryman), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Erasure, Band of Horses, Levon Helm, Neil Young, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, and Robert Earl Keen have recorded some of the best Ryman live albums. I encourage you to check them out.

It’s a small venue. It has only 2,362 seats. It’s about the size of the Northrup at the U of M. It books about 200 shows a year….This year, we went to two. 2019 has been an excellent year for music in our lives. I feel truly blessed.

Third Man Records (SoBro)

Rocker Jack White originally founded Third Man Records in Detroit in the early 2000’s. The current building in Nashville is the first physical location of the label. It’s a combination record store, performance venue, novelty lounge, and headquarters for the label. There is now a Detroit branch as well. The Blue Room, the live venue located within Third Man, is the only venue in the world that records music directly to vinyl. Check the website for scheduled events. The Novelties Lounge, located in the record store, contains a collection of vintage novelty machines including the Scopitone machine, a video jukebox using 16mm film.

Husk (Rutledge Hill)

Husk is not unique to Nashville. You will find a Husk in Savannah, Greenville, and Charleston. But this is no mall chain. Not even close. Next visit, I’m going to Husk twice: brunch AND dinner. It’s just that good. (Ask food critics that have eaten at all four and they will tell you- eat at Husk Nashville.)

Located in an old mayoral home in SoBro, it sits on a curious street that speaks to the South’s gentile past. We picked up our friend at the airport and headed to Husk. We sat on the winding porch and sipped our cocktails while we waited for our table. (Note to self, make reservations next time.) It was a lovely pause after a hectic day of travel.

Husk, Nashville. Porch where we hung for cocktails on a rainy night. BNW

Husk’s kitchen philosophy is, “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” The menu changes daily. Which is sad, as I had the BEST chicken of my life there. I don’t usually get excited about chicken; I can make it at home just fine, but the “Fields of Dreams Chicken, Sweeter Days Cabbage, Confit Southland Beets, and Smoked Apple Miso” rocked my culinary world. Skin was crisp, meat was juicy (let me count the ways it was juicy) and the flavors on the rest of the plate hummed. The chickens are raised at Springer Mountain Farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I checked up on them. They will ship to you overnight with plenty of dry ice for a flat rate of $19.99. Three breasts will set you back $103. I think I’ll just go back soon and hope to hell and back that they have chicken on the menu.

Husk’s local vendor list, BNW

Before the chicken, we had a few “first” plates. We started with “Pimento Cheese, Pickled Serrano, City Ham, Benne Wafers”. This was an amazingly generous treat for $11 and the three of us had trouble finishing it. Nothing better than nostalgic supper club cheese and homemade crackers with your cocktail. We also had the “Murder Point Oysters, Carter Creek Mustard Greens, Numex Suave, and Preserved Lemon” at our bartenders suggestion. These were grilled and served on a bed of Appalachian salt. Yummy. We had no problems polishing these off. These were as good as oysters get.

Husk, Pimento Cheese plate and Murder Point Oysters, BNW

Even the buns were extraordinary. I try not to eat bread before a meal. But these were too beautiful to pass up. Husk serves Parker House rolls that are enhanced with benne seeds. The inside is light and airy, the crust is crispy. Keep in mind, I grew up twenty minutes away from Boston where these rolls were born, and seriously, the pastry chef at the Parker House should break into Husk a la Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible (insert humming of theme song) to steal that recipe. It says “Bobby John Henry” as the vendor for the bread at Husk, and that’s what our server told us. But I heard from someone later that the rolls are house made. I called today and was told that they are in fact, house made. I have woken up twice from a deep sleep since I’ve been home thinking about these buns (sigh). They are going to haunt me.

Husk Parker House Roll, with a couple bites missing. I couldn’t wait to take the photo. BNW

We ate downstairs in the bar. We aren’t formal people. We normally prefer to eat in the bar and chat with the bartenders (especially in a new city when we need recommendations). Husk has an impressive variety of bourbons, ryes, and whiskeys. The list even impressed our whiskey aficionado friend who hits the best whiskey bars of every city he visits. Ask for the special menu from their cabinet full of vintage, hard-to-find whiskeys that can be ordered by the once. I don’t do whiskey. I stuck to gin. The devils drink. I told the bartender to chose. She brought me Roku distilled in Japan. You know, when in Nashville… drink Japanese gin.

Bar at Husk. Photo by Husk.

Whiskey Kitchen (Gulch)

Fodors lists Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville as 9 out of 15 of the best whiskey bars in America. So the guys were all in. The Nashville Guru calls their patio the best in Nashville, again, we wouldn’t know. More rain.

The special of the day was ‘Minnesota Hot Dish.” We passed.

The Signature Cocktail list was fun. I tried the “Spark of Decency” which included a house tea-infused Castle & Key gin, cucumber, grapefruit and lime. I will now be infusing my own “tea” gin. It was fantastic.

We started with Fried Green Tomatoes. They were served with sautéed spinach, aged balsamic, and horseradish. Loved them.

I had a burger. I thought the bun was made by the Husk bread vendor. This was before I found out they were house made. I was disappointed. Should have had the hot chicken. But to be honest, I was having too much fun to care about my food. The guys liked theirs. Matt said his fish tacos were rocking. We enjoyed our time at WK. It’s a gorgeous place. Feels good.

*A note on Nashville eating. Many restaurants, especially outside of downtown, close at 2 if they are a lunch/breakfast place or open at 5 if they are a dinner spot. This can make hitting your hot spots difficult if you’re on a tight schedule. I suggest scoping out a few places before you go and making plans/reservations.

The 5 Spot (East Nashville)

People are talking about this chill venue. It’s been written up in countless blogs and even GQ. And our Husk bartender told us to go- so we headed right over. If you like rubbing up against people while listening to great music, this is the place for you. Located in East Nashville or as we like to call it, hipsterville, it’s worth a hang.

Coffee Shop: Retrograde (East Nashville)

Our Husk bartender also gave us suggestions for great coffee in East Nashville (where we stayed). We chose the closest one on Friday morning. This is a great place to pause in East Nashville’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. We heard it has a nice patio. We wouldn’t know as it rained the whole time we were there. Retrograde serves an Arkansas roasted Onyx Coffee Lab brew. Not sure who they are, but my latte was amazingly awesome. They have a sweet potato latte. If you get one, please report back. I don’t like flavor in my coffee or pumpkins in my beer so I made a hard pass on that one. I couldn’t talk either of the guys into it either. But I’m intrigued.

My 2019 Nashville Regrets

In my mind, after we left Acme, we would hop over to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge for a visit. It’s the one place on Broadway that I didn’t want to miss. However, a torrential down-pour that threatened to totally kill my hair and soak us to the skin forced a jump into Florida Georgia Line’s bar, called FGL House. Seriously. This is where we dove. They told us the rooftop bar was nice, again, we wouldn’t know. But it kept us dry and warm and they served us cold drinks so we were happy to belly up to their bar. Next time I’ll go listen to some music at Tootsies.

On our way back to the car, we ducked into the Johnny Cash Museum so that I could buy a t-shirt. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of Johnny Cash artifacts and memorabilia. It’s on everyone’s “Nashville Must Do” lists. On a good day, the museum is crowded. On a rainy Friday, it’s a mad house. No way was this claustrophobic mamma heading into that jam. Next time. (But I got an awesome t-shirt.)

We saw the entrance to The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge through a fog of downpour. The bridge connects downtown Nashville to East Nashville. The bridge spans over the old Tennessee Central Railroad tracks and the Cumberland River. It operates as one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. It closed to automobile traffic in 1998 and has been restored for pedestrian use. Nearby Cumberland Park is another good Nashville pause spot. I was looking forward to taking some great photos of the river and the downtown skyline and getting steps in. Rain, rain, go away! Next time.

This is just a tiny sample of what Nashville has to offer. Have a favorite place? Or thoughts? Leave a comment below. We would all love to hear from you.

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