As you might expect, country music provides the soundtrack for daily life in Nashville. I didn’t catch the Honky Tonk Blues in the Music Capitol of the World, but like the great Hank Williams, I did spend my fair share of time Howling at the Moon.
Up-and-coming musicians — as well as those who never quite made it — play for tips at many of the Broadway music clubs. When I’m in town, I siddle up to the bar at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, plop down a buck for a can of PBR and enjoy some of the best old-school country on the main drag. If you’re feeling peckish, slide a couple of doors down and grab the Recession Special at Robert’s Western World, a fried bologna sandwich, chips and a PBR for $5. While at Robert’s, the lone guitarist on stage shouted out the bar’s manifesto.
“I don’t want to play no Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban,” the guitarist said before launching into a hillbilly-swing cover of Johnny Cash’s Big River. “Robert’s is about traditional country; that’s why I’m playing here.”
If your tastes veer more Eric Church than Merle Haggard, the Tequila Cowboy and the Wild Horse Saloon are two popular options you might enjoy. If country music isn’t your bag, the Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom and The High Watt host most of the indie-rock bands that pass through the area.
Many tourists never venture far from the Ryman Auditorium or Country Music Hall of Fame, which is a shame because there’s so much more to the city than cheesy commemorative plates and Nashville-emblazoned fly swatters. Your two best options are about three miles to the south and to the east. East Nashville and12 South are two cool, locals-only neighborhoods in Nashville where the residents seek refuge from the interlopers in brand-new cowboy boots and Hard Rock Café T-shirts.Finishing up my beer at Fat Bottom Brewery, I asked our magnificently mustachioed bartender Leon where we could see some live music in East Nashville. He suggested not wasting our time.
“This is where all the local musicians live,” Leon said. “No one plays here. It’s like the chef who doesn’t want to cook when he gets home.”
Luckily there are plenty of things to do outside of a darkened honky tonk. Start off your day with a steaming cup of coffee at one of the three best places I sampled, Ugly Mugs, Bongo Java and the Frothy Monkey. The coffee tasted remarkably similar, but with good reason; all three use locally roasted beans from Drew’s Brews. Ugly Mugs is the more upscale and modern looking of the three, while Bongo Java and the Frothy Monkey both have a more bohemian neighborhood vibe based on their mismatched wooden furniture and number of employees with tattooed arm sleeves. I made the mistake of having a stale, cellophane-wrapped cinnamon roll at my hotel’s continental breakfast. Had I waited, I could have feasted on the fresh, locally baked pastries at the Frothy Monkey or indulged in one of their incredible smelling sausage omelets, made with farm fresh ingredients.
One of the most surprising aspects of the local food scene is how much local restaurants rely on fresh, locally sourced produce and meat. From Local Taco to the 12 South Taproom, nearly every restaurant brags about the nearby farms where their food comes from. The difference is apparent after the first bite touches your tongue. As I popped the last bit of my Fat Bottom cheeseburger in my mouth, I immediately regretted it, knowing I might never have a sandwich that delicious again.
If you’re looking for a taste of the east coast in Nashville, Five Points Pizza is the best thin-crust New York pizza joint I’ve sampled outside the Eastern Time Zone. During my visit, I gorged myself on a mammoth slice topped with sausage, roaster pepper, spinach, mozzarella and garlic and washed it down with one of several local microbrews on tap.
If you must have some processed meats, hit the Weenery in East Nashville, which sells hot dogs out of shack that looks like a Volkswagon bus drove through it.
For dessert, you can’t go wrong with a popsicle from Los Palentos in 12 South. The locally made frozen treats are made with real fruit. On a hot summer day, expect to see a line.
After you’ve stuffed your stomach, it’s time to stuff your shopping bags. I’m not a big clothes-hound, as you can tell from my vast collection of concert T-shirts and black hoodies, but I do love me a good western shirt. The best selection of new, vintage and one-of-a-kind cowboy garb can be found at Katy K Designs at Ranch Dressing. I still regret not pulling the trigger on a gorgeous white shirt with gold musical notes and piping. At $130, it was a bit pricey, but probably worth it. On the bright side, it gives me another reason to go back. I didn’t go away empty-handed though, snagging a used pearl-snap Dickies shirt for $10.
If you’ve never been able to find a pair of jeans that fit you just right, you’ve never been to Imogene + Willie. Their custom denim pants have won nationwide acclaim from the New York Times and other publications. But beware: Perfection comes at a high cost. Expect to pay $250 or more for your tailored dungarees.
If you’re at all musically inclined, my good friend Chrysa Malosh suggests visiting Fanny’s House of Music, a cool independent shop in East Nashville that sells instruments, vintage clothes and more.
Photos by Rob Annis