For a medium-size US metropolis, Nashville has an XXL fame. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about: nation music, the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash, inconceivable desires of stardom, tacky ballads and rhinestone shirts.
But don’t be so certain, warned singer-songwriter and rising star Ben Danaher, throughout a gig at third and Lindsley, one of many metropolis’s many very good music venues. “Lots of dive bars are becoming karaokes,” he mentioned, earlier than dedicating a track, Silver Screen, to “all the hipsters”.
His tone was gently ironic, the track filled with feeling. Danaher (who is taking part in the Black Deer pageant in Kent on 23 June) later instructed me he was alluding to “really gritty places that the blue-collar crowd would go to, that all of a sudden have a charm to hipsters”.
So gentrification is going on. Meanwhile, mass tourism has turned lots of the honky tonks into enjoyable pubs for boozy bachelorettes and preppy boys wanting to indicate how badly they’ll behave – for a weekend.
Country music bars on Nashville’s Broadway. Photograph: John Greim/Getty Images
Similar forces are jolting many metropolises – however is there one thing elementary at stake in “Music City”? I used to be right here to seek out out, and headed first to the Gulch, a neighbourhood that was a dank ravine by the railway tracks however now has back-to-back eating places and bars. Music venues The Mercy Lounge and The High Watt host nightly indie and canopy bands – “karaoke” gigs, of a form – however at The Station Inn, the Gulch’s surviving nation music spot, open since 1974, I caught the tail finish of Nashville’s annual songwriters pageant, Tin Pan South.
The names on the invoice meant nothing to me however the gig was all-acoustic, heat, clever – trad, however cool. As a finale, veteran performer Rory Bourke was requested to play one among his outdated songs. His talking voice sounded hoarse and drained, however when he started to sing his largest hit, The Most Beautiful Girl – sure, the one which begins with “Hey!” and which our mums and grandmas beloved – he was again in his lyrical, lovelorn youth. We all have been.
Open mic night time on the Bluebird Cafe. Photograph: Alamy
That was a Nashville second, catching the deeply acquainted at its supply (who knew this global hit got here from a Nashville-based nation songwriter?) and being moved. The gig additionally had me fantasising about turning into a singer-songwriter. It’s one of many penalties of visiting a metropolis with real cultural clout: you need to turn into a part of the scene, change your life. (My songs are nonetheless works in progress.)
This metropolis and its skyline are altering quick. About $2bn of building initiatives are underneath method
At the Bluebird Café, probably the most intimate of all Nashville’s musical experiences, I caught Danaher once more, sharing the invoice with three girls singer-songwriters: Alex Kline, Erin Enderlin and Beth Nielsen Chapman. He has an earthy voice within the Ray LaMontagne mould, and had simply completed a UK tour. (He’s again right here in June.)
The performers sat in a circle, backs to the viewers, making an attempt out untested and confirmed numbers, by turns soulful and sarky (Kline’s White Trash Female – WTF has to be a success, for somebody).
It was a magical night, and made me mirror on one thing that struck me at downtown’s Country Music Hall of Fame and museum: nation is a style that, for all its cowboy pretensions, has a historical past of robust girls. From Kitty Wells, who proved girls might promote information within the 1950s, to the footage of Wanda Jackson out-Elvising Presley on Hard-headed Woman, to Shania Twain’s establishment-shocking outfits. Every week earlier than my go to, Taylor Swift confirmed up unannounced on the Bluebird: she continues to interrupt guidelines, in addition to information. Country music is alive and effectively (and residing in Nashville) – it’s simply girls who are main the most recent revival.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and museum. Photograph: Alamy
Another missed facet of Music City is correct behind the corridor of fame: Hatch Show Print celebrates Nashville’s historical past as a centre for letterpress printing from the 1870s to the rock’n’roll period. Its partitions are plastered with early flyers for Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. I used to be even invited to roll off my very own little poster – it’s not nice, but it surely’s higher than my songs.
This metropolis and its skyline – which impressed the title of Bob Dylan’s 1969 album – are altering quick. About $2bn of building initiatives are underneath method. The good-looking red-brick edifices alongside the Cumberland river cower beneath glass-and-steel towers together with AT&T’s placing “Batman Building”, and 5,028 rooms are underneath building at 33 new inns.
The most trendy – if expensive – place to remain is The Noelle (doubles from $339), a 1930s art-deco magnificence in pink Tennessee granite that reopened final yr with a sultry cocktail bar and fab espresso store. Near Printer’s Alley, its inside honours the design historical past I’d seen at Hatch.
Cranes muddle the backstreets. Not even the Ryman Auditorium – former home of the Grand Ole Opry – is exempt. By 2020, a luxurious condominium tower will block the view of the gothic facade of this temple of nation and cradle of bluegrass – which remains to be value an hour of anybody’s time, not least to see Johnny Cash’s swimsuit.
Third Man Records, Jack White’s vinyl retailer in Nashville’s Pie Town. Photograph: Alamy
But there are subtler evolutions. In Pie Town, music – within the form of Jack White’s Third Man file company, vinyl retailer and 1947 recording sales space – combines with high-end retail. Central St Martins-trained Savannah Yarborough crafts bespoke leather-based clothes at AtelierSavas. Any Old Iron, run by British designer (and former scrap supplier) Andrew Clancey makes sequinned fits, clothes and present garments for Beyoncé and Kesha, amongst others.
“I moved here not for the music, but for the musicians,” says Clancey. “Many of them want to look more contemporary without having to go to New York or Los Angeles. With every genre recorded here, we felt we could offer something unique. Nashville’s fashion week has just had its eighth year – there wasn’t a stetson in sight.”
Show garments at Any Old Iron, additionally in Pie Town
In the suburbs of Germantown, Five Points and the Nations, meals is the motor of a extra acquainted metamorphosis, as pioneering restaurateurs – from veteran Margot McCormack (Margot Café, Marché Artisan Foods) to newcomers Bryan Lee Weaver (Butcher & Bee) and Julia Sullivan (Henrietta Red) – problem the hegemony of “hot chicken” and “meat and three” (for which I personally advocate Edley’s Bar-B-Que and Hattie B’s).
Five Points, in East Nashville, has a gritty-but-smart really feel, with dreamy clapboard homes and Queen Anne mansions.
“There was a huge fire in 1916,” native information Karen-Lee Ryan instructed me (she runs wonderful Walk Eat Nashville excursions). “Then the area was razed by a tornado in 1998 and again in the floods of 2010. The disasters were curse and catalyst. They brought the community together.”
Hattie B’s Hot Chicken – for a standard style of Nashville
Ryan places the collaborative spirit all the way down to music. “Sitting down with an instrument is a creative act. Musicians riff off each other. So do people in Nashville’s food scene. It’s not ‘I’m in my own silo and I don’t care what other people are doing.’”
So, will the skyscrapers wipe out that denim-blue sky? Probably. And will it additionally lose its vibe? That I doubt. As Ryan put it: “There can be many co-existing Nashvilles, whether that’s through art, music or food.”
And there might be many sorts of Nashville sound too, from Kacey Musgraves’ current feminist alt-pop on Golden Hour to the rocking and rollicking within the honky tonks on the town’s Broadway, to “Hey! Did you happen to see …?”. And, even, to karaoke nights on the (certainly not very hip) hipster bars.
“The music scene in the city is still very strong,” says Danaher. “Despite the changes, some of the dive bars are still home to the greatest guitarists doing residencies. There are way too many amazingly talented, driven people here for Nashville to risk losing its soul.”
Flights have been supplied by British Airways, which has returns from Heathrow to Nashville from £668. British Airways Holidays provides flight and lodge packages, equivalent to 4 nights at The Westin Nashville from £999.
Best time to go to
Nashville is at its greatest in spring and autumn, with temperatures within the mid-20s. In summer season, it’s hotter and extra humid. Rainfall is low year-round. Try to mix a go to with a significant music gathering, equivalent to Tin Pan South in early April; CMA Music Fest from 7-10 June; or America Fest from 11-16 September. The Music City Food and Wine pageant is from 14-16 September. Full checklist at visitmusiccity.com.