There’s a reason why it’s called Music City. I’ve just cleared customs at Nashville International and I’ve already spotted Keith Urban (the country music superstar, American Idol judge and Nicole Kidman’s husband) wheeling a baggage trolley. He’s every bit the chisel-jawed heart-throb in real life that he is on screen. But when I later mention my sighting to local residents, they simply shrug and say that seeing Keith Urban round these parts is #nobigdeal.
What else would you expect in Nashville, this genteel and unhurried yet proudly cosmopolitan city? It’s a place where Southern hospitality is doled out in super-sized portions, and where the Tennessee accent, sweet like honey molasses, is strung with phrases like “y’all” and “sure is”. Counting a population of 609,000, Nashville surely has more music professionals per capita than anywhere else in the world: singers, songwriters, guitar pickers, record execs, studio engineers – you name it, every one has a celebrity tale to tell.
This is, after all, the town that launched the careers of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, a town where Elvis recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? in the wood-panelled RCA Studio B. It’s where Bob Dylan made Blonde on Blonde, and where countless artists have slipped their demo tapes to the execs along Music Row, a place that is to country music what Madison Avenue is to advertising. One of them was Taylor Swift, the biggest-selling artist of 2013, who’s so fond of Nashville that she’s bought four apartments in Downtown.
If you’ve come here for country music, bluegrass or folk, you won’t have to look too far. Seven days a week, the flashing neon lights of Lower Broadway – “Lower Broad” to the yellow taxi drivers – alert you to the honky-tonks where down-on-their-luck pickers once came to make their dreams come true.
On this stretch, you’ll find Legend’s Corner just a few doors down from locals’ favourite, Robert’s Western World, with its famous wall of cowboy boots. And then there’s Tootsie’s, where stars like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash piled in through the back door after playing the Ryman Auditorium across the alleyway.
But on a Monday night, there’s only one place to be, and that’s 3rd & Lindsley. It’s a Nashville institution and that’s thanks to the Time Jumpers, a loose association of seasoned studio musicians. The band’s line-up changes, but tonight, wearing a forest green polo shirt, is country music legend Vince Gill. The audience is made up of professional musicians in 10-gallon hats and country music aficionados – the German singer of 99 Red Balloons among them. The crowd laps up Gill’s swing and blues standards, and he repays them with a barnstorming version of Trouble In Mind.
Nashville is set up to market its rich country music heritage to tourists. There’s a new Johnny Cash Museum off Broadway, the astonishing Hatch Show Print, where they’re still making posters on hand-cranked letterpress machines a century later, and the restored Ryman Auditorium, former church and home of the legendary Grand Ole Opry radio show, before it moved to the more spacious Grand Ole Opry House.
Yet at the same time, Nashville seems to be on the cusp of something genuinely fresh and exciting, with not a rhinestone or Acme cowboy boot in sight. It’s why artists like the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys and Jack White from the White Stripes, as well as top chefs, fashion designers and film-makers, are making Nashville their home. Music City has undergone a creative renaissance; The New York Times reporting it’s been called “It” City, stealing the limelight from other up-and-coming US destinations like Austin and Portland.
A few blocks south of Broadway is Third Man Records, the record label set up by singer/record producer Jack White, whose move to Nashville sparked the city’s artistic rebirth. The brick warehouse lies in a former industrial district called Sobro, where the Union Pacific freight train rattles on towards Chattanooga.
The operation opened its doors in March 2009 and combines a kitchly decorated record shop with a recording studio and a 250-seat venue called the Blue Room. Here, fans have been treated to performances by The Shins, The Kills and even Jerry Lee Lewis. (The shows are recorded direct-to-acetate and vinyl copies are then sold to attendees.)
Behind the record shop counter, a gap-toothed girl with a passing resemblance to Sissy Spacek puts the needle on the latest Third Ear record by The Haden Triplets. “Nashville’s kinda quiet this week. Everyone’s in South By,” she says, meaning SXSW, the annual indie music and film festival in Austin, Texas.
Outside, on the sun-strafed terrace, the manager is talking to a couple deliberating over which car to get Carrie Underwood for her next video – just another typical Nashville pastoral.
The food scene is also hotter than the music right now. While you can eat yourself a belt-buckle larger with Southern staples like fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, there’s also a lot of forward-thinking, homespun cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients. You can witness this first hand across the Cumberland River in the enclave of East Nashville, around neighbourhoods like Five Points, Historic Edgefield and East End. Unlike the big skyscrapers in Downtown, East Nashville has long avenues of brightly painted bungalows, with clipped lawns and rocking-chair porches, interspersed with Baptist churches, a sign of the historic African-American community. Not surprisingly, artists have moved in en masse.
Five Points, so called as it sits at the junction of five roads, lines up restaurants like Marche, a market and bistro banking on its farmyard-to-the-table formula, and The Pharmacy, where the burgers are made from Tennessee beef and have been drawing serious critical attention. Fans of Mexican food head for Mas Taco Por Favor, once a food truck, now a bona fide bricks-and-mortar success story.
But it’s not just Five Points that’s experiencing an injection of new energy. 12South, in the south of the city, is a neighbourhood of 10 blocks boasting shops such as Las Paletas Gourmet Popsicles, which sells lollipops in bizarre flavours like chocolate-dipped avocado, and imogene + willie, a former service station selling custom-made jeans. And over in Marathon City, a converted car factory now houses boutique fashion marques, and The Old Time Pickin Parlor where you can pick up mandos, banjos and custom-made Boo Ray straps.
Outside, in the street, is a huge mural I’ve seen in strategic locations all over Nashville. It has red and white vertical stripes, three stars on a blue circle, and in large capital letters the words: I Believe In Nashville. Though I’ve been here only 48 hours, I can safely say I’m a believer too.