If you’re like me, your preconceived image of Tennessee would look like the set of Black Snake Moan, where sweltering Southern heat hovers across the vast landscape of tall-grass.
Hundred-year-old hillbillies sit atop rocking chairs on their front porches, drinking mason jars of moonshine they made from corn in their bathtubs. Faded American flags hang from awnings above them as they whistle at their neighbors who drive by (real slow) in Chevy pickups with Hank Williams’ twang drifting out the open windows. If you’ve seen Black Snake Moan, you’ll surely recall the scene where Samuel L. Jackson tells the story of how he lost his virginity to his cousin.
Yes, the mysteriousness and enchantment of Tennessee is abundant, and maybe such things exist in the rural outskirts of Memphis or in the mountains behind Knoxville, but Nashville is not this kind of place. Although it has no shortage of nostalgic All-American charm, Nashville is not what you might generalize about the South. I didn’t see a single mason jar the entire time I was there.
It was the tail end of winter as I rolled into Nashville on Interstate 65 from the south, crossing into Tennessee from Alabama. Alabama is a wild place, rich with delicious fried seafood, old wealth, new poverty, obesity and racism. I was behind the wheel of a brown Chevy pickup with a Marlborough Red between my lips and Johnny Cash playing on the radio. Beside me was my trusty Smith & Wesson .38 that my granddaddy gave me—safety off—and I was fixin’ to find some trouble or have some trouble find me. In reality, I was driving a sky blue rental sedan and my wife was hand-feeding me salad that we picked up at a strip mall back in Birmingham, and I was panicking about missing our exit because I couldn’t load the map on my iPhone. I get cranky when I drive too long without eating. I think we were listening to Pixies.
Where to Stay
I’ve lived roughly 1,600 weeks in this world and only one of those weeks was spent in Nashville, so I’m by no means an expert or even an educated person on the place—but if you want my advice, East Nashville is the area to stay. It’s basically Brooklyn. Same people, same spots, same vibe, but half the price! My wife booked us into a place she found on Airbnb (she’s the planner) that was a trailer parked in some dude’s backyard. It was even better than it sounds and the dude who lived in the real house was pretty cool: young-ish, retired science-fiction novelist who moved back to Tennessee from Brooklyn a year ago to take up weaving. He wore a witch’s hat, listened to Old Crow Medicine Show while he loomed all day, and made us a map of all the cool spots within walking distance. If you’re not brave enough to stay in a trailer in a stranger’s backyard, you should still consider staying in the same neighborhood. Nashville is small, so staying on the east side is like five minutes from downtown.
Where to Party
Every tourist in Nashville is required to go honkytonkin’. This goes down every night on Broadway, downtown, in a strip of dive bars with names like Robert’s, Legend’s, and Tootsie’s, which are all exactly the same. Inside each is the same band playing the same shitty cover songs and the same shitty people drinking the same shitty beer. It’s fantastic. Shitty beer is usually my favorite kind of beer, running a close third behind free beer and cold beer. You should never drink too much when you’re honkytonkin’ because you need your wits about you when you spill out of the honkytonk bar and momentarily think you’re in Las Vegas, but Broadway is basically a four-lane freeway and the Chevy trucks have no time to slow down for drunk pedestrians. And drunk driving is not a rare thing in Tennessee. Back on the Brooklyn side of town in East Nashville is a zone called Five Points, which surrounds a five-way intersection. Clever, huh? There are a bunch of cool bars there and they’re always lively. We went to one that was designed like a tree house and one that only plays metal. You can smoke cigarettes in some of them, too. One thing to note is that Tennessee is a very gun-friendly place, so post-party altercations are best to avoid altogether.
What to See
What you don’t need to see is the Music City Center. The building cost over $600 million to make and the place is a total drag. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Taylor Swift Education Center are across the street, but I’d give them a miss too if I were you, unless you’re really into country tunes. If you’re into real music, just ask around town or look at the papers stapled to telephone poles and you’ll find amazing live shows in small venues every night.
The Cumberland River runs through downtown and there are some nice parks and viewpoints to hang at if you want to stare at a river, but there are no rapids or alligators or anything like that. There are two notable forts in town: Fort Negley and Fort Nashborough. Nashborough is the site of the original city and Negley is a restored battle fort the Union Army made slaves build when they were fighting against the Confederates in the American Civil War, which from what I know (which isn’t much), was a pretty weird war. Both of the forts are now occupied by tourists from the Midwest from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and sometimes there are reenactment performances in full costumes of famous Civil War battles.
Where to Socialize
For your cultural kick, check out a Predators NHL hockey game or a Titans NFL football game. I did neither. Game days are the best days to go honkytonkin’ because the sports fanatics in matching team jerseys really know how to light it up on Broadway. Instead of viewing sports, we went to Pinewood Social, which is a bar/restaurant/lounge/shared workspace/bowling alley (10 pin, baby!). First, we went there for brunch and I had the waffles and a mimosa. It was lovely and we met a bunch of strangers and burned a few hours with conversation. Then it was Happy Hour, so we ordered beer and sat at the bar, burning a few hours conversing with the barkeeps. Everyone who works and hangs out at Pinewood recently moved from Brooklyn. Finally, our lane was ready. I love bowling and I’m very, very good at it. Our friend from Brooklyn is a Tennessee native and happened to be in town visiting family while we were there. He rolled a few frames with us and then we hit the town to see live music, drink shitty beer, and breathe indoor cigarette smoke. I don’t remember what else happened that night, but I woke up on the floor of a trailer in some dude’s backyard the next morning.
Where to Shop
I was the proud renter of a 2015 Chevy Malibu during my time in Nashville, so the city was limitless. I don’t know if they have public transportation there, but they do have Uber. I might’ve seen a bus somewhere, too. A short drive to the south side of the city brings you to a neighborhood called 12South. You guessed it: 12th Avenue South. There are some good stores there, hip restaurants, and speciality craft beer and bourbon shops—things I didn’t know existed. It’s a good area to walk around for a while and see what you find. We found some neat old buildings that have been converted into new businesses. Hillsboro Village is nearby and close to the university, where there are some good bookstores and probably some frat boys. The vintage shops worth checking out are in the Five Points zone.
Where to Eat
It’s the South, so the food is good and the portions are massive. Tennessee’s staple Hot Chicken is a must. Spicy Fish is the same deal and sides are usually soupy slaw, pickles, and soggy Wonder Bread. The best spots in Nashville are the dirtiest, sketchiest-looking places you might never think about walking into, but you’ve gotta put your trust in the streets. If you like spicy food, Tennessee spicy is a whole different thing. There are several world-class Southern BBQ takeout spots in the city and we also hit several really good restaurants in East Nashville that offered more of a sit-down vibe with a full menu. Holland House, Rolf and Daughters, and Marché Artisan Foods were the most notable.
There are some quality coffee houses scattered around the city that are easy to find. Parking is free in most places and there’s a ton of green space where you can hang out and not feel like you’re stuck in a city. One surprising aspect that we weren’t expecting was the weather. It wasn’t hot and humid like it looked in Black Snake Moan, which must’ve been summer. Winter is cold and rainy, like Seattle. If you think Nashville is just some landlocked city in the middle of America like all the rest, think again. It’s a lively scene, full of creative people with that Southern hospitality you wish existed in the rest of the world. It’s a place where you can be bad, try new things, meet good people, and sleep in weird places. There’s not another town like it.