For a medium-size US city, Nashville has an XXL reputation. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about: country music, the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash, improbable dreams of stardom, cheesy ballads and rhinestone shirts.
But don’t be so sure, warned singer-songwriter and rising star Ben Danaher, during a gig at 3rd and Lindsley, one of the city’s many superb music venues. “Lots of dive bars are becoming karaokes,” he said, before dedicating a song, Silver Screen, to “all the hipsters”.
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His tone was gently ironic, the song full of feeling. Danaher (who is playing the Black Deer festival in Kent on 23 June) later told 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 happening. Meanwhile, mass tourism has turned many of the honky tonks into fun pubs for boozy bachelorettes and preppy boys wanting to show how badly they can behave – for a weekend.
Country music bars on Nashville’s Broadway. Photograph: John Greim/Getty Images
Similar forces are jolting many metropolises – but is there something fundamental at stake in “Music City”? I was here to find out, and headed first to the Gulch, a neighbourhood that used to be a dank ravine by the railway tracks but now has back-to-back restaurants and bars. Music venues The Mercy Lounge and The High Watt host nightly indie and cover bands – “karaoke” gigs, of a sort – but at The Station Inn, the Gulch’s surviving country music spot, open since 1974, I caught the tail end of Nashville’s annual songwriters festival, Tin Pan South.
The names on the bill meant nothing to me but the gig was all-acoustic, warm, intelligent – trad, but cool. As a finale, veteran performer Rory Bourke was asked to play one of his old songs. His speaking voice sounded hoarse and tired, but when he began to sing his biggest hit, The Most Beautiful Girl – yes, the one that starts with “Hey!” and which our mums and grandmas loved – he was back in his lyrical, lovelorn youth. We all were.
Open mic night at the Bluebird Cafe. Photograph: Alamy
That was a Nashville moment, catching the deeply familiar at its source (who knew this global hit came from a Nashville-based country songwriter?) and being moved. The gig also had me fantasising about becoming a singer-songwriter. It’s one of the consequences of visiting a city with genuine cultural clout: you want to become part of the scene, change your life. (My songs are still works in progress.)
This city and its skyline are changing fast. About $2bn of construction projects are under way
At the Bluebird Café, the most intimate of all Nashville’s musical experiences, I caught Danaher again, sharing the bill with three women singer-songwriters: Alex Kline, Erin Enderlin and Beth Nielsen Chapman. He has an earthy voice in the Ray LaMontagne mould, and had just finished a UK tour. (He’s back here in June.)
The performers sat in a circle, backs to the audience, trying out untested and proven numbers, by turns soulful and sarky (Kline’s White Trash Female – WTF has to be a hit, for someone).
It was a magical evening, and made me reflect on something that struck me at downtown’s Country Music Hall of Fame and museum: country is a genre that, for all its cowboy pretensions, has a history of strong women. From Kitty Wells, who proved women could sell records in the 1950s, to the footage of Wanda Jackson out-Elvising Presley on Hard-headed Woman, to Shania Twain’s establishment-shocking outfits. A week before my visit, Taylor Swift showed up unannounced at the Bluebird: she continues to break rules, as well as records. Country music is alive and well (and living in Nashville) – it’s just women who are leading the latest revival.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and museum. Photograph: Alamy
Another overlooked aspect of Music City is right behind the hall of fame: Hatch Show Print celebrates Nashville’s history as a centre for letterpress printing from the 1870s to the rock’n’roll era. Its walls are plastered with early flyers for Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. I was even invited to roll off my own little poster – it’s not great, but it’s better than my songs.
This city and its skyline – which inspired the title of Bob Dylan’s 1969 album – are changing fast. About $2bn of construction projects are under way. The handsome red-brick edifices along the Cumberland river cower beneath glass-and-steel towers including AT&T’s striking “Batman Building”, and 5,028 rooms are under construction at 33 new hotels.
The most stylish – if pricey – place to stay is The Noelle (doubles from $339), a 1930s art-deco beauty in pink Tennessee granite that reopened last year with a sultry cocktail bar and fab coffee shop. Near Printer’s Alley, its interior honours the design history I’d seen at Hatch.
Cranes clutter the backstreets. Not even the Ryman Auditorium – former home of the Grand Ole Opry – is exempt. By 2020, a luxury apartment tower will block the view of the gothic facade of this temple of country and cradle of bluegrass – which is still worth an hour of anyone’s time, not least to see Johnny Cash’s suit.
Third Man Records, Jack White’s vinyl store in Nashville’s Pie Town. Photograph: Alamy
But there are subtler evolutions. In Pie Town, music – in the shape of Jack White’s Third Man record company, vinyl store and 1947 recording booth – combines with high-end retail. Central St Martins-trained Savannah Yarborough crafts bespoke leather garments at AtelierSavas. Any Old Iron, run by British designer (and former scrap dealer) Andrew Clancey makes sequinned suits, dresses and show clothes for Beyoncé and Kesha, among 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 clothes at Any Old Iron, also in Pie Town
In the suburbs of Germantown, Five Points and the Nations, food is the motor of a more familiar 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) – challenge the hegemony of “hot chicken” and “meat and three” (for which I personally recommend Edley’s Bar-B-Que and Hattie B’s).
Five Points, in East Nashville, has a gritty-but-smart feel, with dreamy clapboard houses and Queen Anne mansions.
“There was a huge fire in 1916,” local guide Karen-Lee Ryan told me (she runs excellent Walk Eat Nashville tours). “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 traditional taste of Nashville
Ryan puts the collaborative spirit 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 also 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 can be many kinds of Nashville sound too, from Kacey Musgraves’ recent feminist alt-pop on Golden Hour to the rocking and rollicking in the honky tonks on the city’s Broadway, to “Hey! Did you happen to see …?”. And, even, to karaoke nights at the (surely 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 were provided by British Airways, which has returns from Heathrow to Nashville from £668. British Airways Holidays offers flight and hotel packages, such as four nights at The Westin Nashville from £999.
Best time to visit
Nashville is at its best in spring and autumn, with temperatures in the mid-20s. In summer, it’s hotter and more humid. Rainfall is low year-round. Try to combine a visit with a major music gathering, such as 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 festival is from 14-16 September. Full list at visitmusiccity.com.