I returned from my week-long Nashville trip in mid December with a slight Southern drawl and a desire to pick up the guitar again. To sum up my experience: honky-tonks, Burger Up, lovely people, and cowboy boots.
On the plane rides to and from Music City, every other person seemed to own a guitar, like the bearded dudes in flannel sitting in front of me on my flight to. While they looked near-identical to me, the two strangers exchanged marriage tips and talked about everything from their music careers to Christmas in Nashville ("it's big there!"), as I shamelessly eavesdropped.
When I landed, country music from the airport speakers greeted me and I knew I was in for country music all day, every day. My exposure to the country music scene is mainly from the show Nashville and occasionally listening to country pop hits from Shania Twain and Taylor Swift. I was expecting Nashville to be like the fictional TV show, and you know what? I wasn't disappointed.
Live music was absolutely everywhere. This is a city where the some of most talented musicians in the country convene to get their big breaks. They'll take any gig they can get—the singer in the hotel lounge can trounce everybody on The X Factor, and the band playing in an empty restaurant at lunchtime has the potential to be country radio's next big thing. That neighbourhood restaurant you hear has good brunch? It has a stage and becomes a concert venue at night, featuring some of the best soul and blues musicians you've never heard of. With so many talented acts, I wondered how they were all going to achieve their dreams of superstardom.
Live Music in Nashville
Downtown, Broadway is honky tonk central. You know because there's a three-story bar called Honky Tonk Central. With so many venues to choose from, we took the advice of our music junkie waiter from The Pharmacy Burger Parlour & Beer Garden and went to Robert's Western World. The experience was so honky-tonk that the band even sang about wanting to honky-tonk.
Over at Honky Tonk Central, a college rock-ish all-male band invited a female guest singer on stage who happened to be a former finalist on American Idol or something. She got the crowd going with a rendition of Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman." Mid-song, we went upstairs to the top floor, where another band finished one song and transitioned into "Man! I Feel Like a Woman." The universe must've really wanted me to hear this song that night.
On another night, we tried to get into the legendary Bluebird Cafe during their open mic night but couldn't get in because they were at capacity. At least they let me step inside to take a look around. I realized they couldn't have filmed Nashville here because the place is so small; they must've shot it in a studio. If you really want to visit and listen to live music at the real Bluebird, I recommend checking their calendar and buying a ticket in advance for one of their shows.
Shopping in Nashville
The shopping options in downtown Nashville consists of cowboy boots, cowboy boots, more cowboy boots, and...cowboy hats. The quality varies from store to store, but I couldn't find anything to my taste until I went to White's Mercantile in the 12 South neighbourhood. They had this amazing pair of vintage ankle boots, but of course, they had to be $900. I have this talent where I always manage to sniff out the most expensive thing in a store.
White's Mercantile is the best general store I've ever been to. Everything from kitchenware to skincare products is perfectly curated. The store is a converted gas station. So is the Imogene + Willie store on the same street. They sell high-quality denim made in the USA.
While in 12 South, I came across Reese Witherspoon's store Draper James. They offered us sweet tea when we came in, just when I was craving a drink. Sadly, most of the clothes were a miss for me due to the low quality of the materials. I'd heard Reese wanted to keep production in the US, and that may be true for some pieces (40% according to their website), but the majority I looked at seemed to be made in China with polyester. I did buy this great horseshoe belt there that was handmade in Virginia with vegetable-tanned leather. If you do shop at Draper James, check the labels. I will say their blue and white stripe motif is very cute.
To visit different neighbourhoods, I took Ubers or Lyfts since their public transit is not so great. I suppose in better weather you can bike, but it was surprisingly cold that week in December. As one driver told me, Nashville is made up of "pockets." Each neighbourhood has a cluster of shops and restaurants, but the distance between each hood can be great. I'm assuming locals must have cars if they want to get around the city comfortably.
I took an Uber to Germantown, a quiet neighbourhood with a pocket of shops. Wilder, a hip home decor store is there, as well as some acclaimed restaurants, cafe and bars. Peter Nappi, a gorgeous shoe store nearby, was recommended to me, but I didn't have time to visit.
Whenever I visit a city, I like to check out the hipster area to see what the young folks are up to. That would be East Nashville. There's more happening here, even if the neighbourhood can seem quiet and spread out.
Two Son is a contemporary clothing store that could belong in Brooklyn. I bought a plain T-shirt from the store's own label, made in the USA.
Vintage is big in Nashville. The Hip Zipper is amazing. Everything was very reasonably priced. They had an anti-poaching sign at the cash register. I asked about that and the saleswoman told me they don't sell to dealers anymore because they would buy a bunch of stuff from them to resell at jacked up prices, leaving the store with little inventory for their real customers. Their vintage wool and fur coats were only around the $100 price point. I bought a very Western/prairie cotton shirt and skirt set from the 1970s for $30. The saleswoman informed me the outfit was from the estate of a "rich hippie." She gave me a flyer listing other vintage stories in Nashville. It's great how the stores support each other.
Goodbuy Girls, Alegria, and Fanny's House of Music are walking distance and worth checking out. I also recommend Gift Horse, a quirky gift shop, and Her Book Shop, a "nook for people who love beautiful books."
Where to eat in Nashville
East Nashville has plenty of food options. The Family Wash/Garage Coffee is a cozy restaurant/concert venue that used to be a laundromat. Burger Up is my absolute favourite place to eat in this town. They have two locations: one in East Nashville and one in 12 South. I've dined in both of them. They really have the best burgers, and they source their beef locally and sustainably. They even make their own ketchup, which has a spicy kick, and it's for sale only at their restaurants. I really wanted to buy a bottle to take back but was afraid Canada customs would take it away from my carry-on.
Another great little place is the Sky Blue Cafe, which became popular after an episode of Nashville was filmed there (the episode where Juliette Barnes goes on a date with a football player). Luckily, we went on a rainy Wednesday morning and we were able to get a table right away.
While there's a lot of meat on Nashville's menus, if you're a vegan or vegetarian, AVO is an organic vegan restaurant doing pretty creative things with vegetables.
A retail and dessert shop downtown, Goo Goo Cluster, sells locally famous candy bars of the same name. A converted car garage, the store is really adorable. They have an old-fashioned diner in the back where you can snack on pies, cakes and milkshakes. They also seem to be a sustainable company.
Final thoughts on Nashville
I felt kindness from the people in Nashville. Whether in stores, restaurants, or at the hotel, they welcomed me with Southern hospitality. All my Uber and Lyft drivers were cool and fun to talk to. Over half of them were women, which surprised me because I rarely encounter female drivers in Toronto and other big cities. One told me she felt safe driving in Nashville, although she didn't do night shifts to avoid picking up drunks.
As an Asian, I encountered no locals who were also Asian, but at no point did I feel out of place or was singled out for being different. When I told one Uber driver I was from Toronto, he hilariously started bashing Drake for being a horrible rapper. He also said a lot young people were moving to Nashville and the real estate was booming.
I can see why everyone from celebrities to recent college graduates would want to live here. It's chilled out, friendly, creative, not too crowded, and the people are warm.
With their flannel, mason jars, and decor heavy on the wood, Nashville has a similar cozy winter vibe to Canada, but with a lot more country music. We have Drake and Bieber, but we'll take credit for Shania Twain, even if Nashville made her big.