Going into my trip to Nashville, I was 110% positive that it was going to be my new favorite city. I was proven correct less than an hour after my plane landed when I entered my first honky tonk on “Honky-Tonk Row,” and heard one of the two live bands on the premises break out into one of my favorite country tunes of all time, Garth Brooks’s “Baton Rouge,” followed in quick succession by Blake Shelton’s “Playboys of the Southwestern World,” another favorite.
I’m not using the term “honky tonk” arbitrarily, nor am I using it to try and prove how Nashville I now am. One of the first things I learned was that there’s a difference here between a Honky-Tonk and a regular old bar. Honky Tonk’s in Nashville have no jukebox and no jukebox. They play live music and performers at these honky tonks are more likely than not trying to be discovered. They don’t get paid, but rather work for tips. It’s impressive how much everyone there is hustling to try to make it big in the world of country music. I saw one band play at a all but deserted bar on a Friday night outside of town, then do a 2:00-4:00 show Saturday afternoon on a bar on Broadway, before heading to yet another time slot on 2nd avenue from 6:00-8:00 on 2nd Avenue. That’s impressive.
Would you know that the reason I went to Nashville was the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention? True story. My friend helps out at trade shows for Triple Toe Turkey calls and goes to Nashville every year to this particular show. He’s been trying to get me to tag along the past two years and this year I had the time and found a cheap flight (Nashville is just a little over an hour from Philadelphia). Now, I know next to nothing about hunting or turkeys (other than I like them in club sandwich form) and was just going to have a good time and explore the city.
We stayed at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, an attraction in its own right, situated in music valley, a couple miles north of downtown Nashville. Opryland is the world’s largest non-casino hotel, which is funny because it reminded me of being in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Opryland is divided into several large, glassed-in atriums, through which a man-made river flows-you could even take an indoor gondola ride.
Opryland is located in an area adjacent to the Cumberland River known as “Music Valley.” This is where the famed Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music radio program broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House in this eastern corner of Nashville . The Opry plays ever Friday and Saturday night with a rotation of up and coming as well as already established artists. From November through February, the off season for tourists, the Opry is broadcast downtown from the Ryman Auditorium, where the Opry got its beginnings. Despite not really knowing the artists scheduled to play the weekend we were there, we tentatively planned on going to the Opry Friday night, just for the experience, however a couple of freak downpours sent us downtown instead (we would have had to walk about half a mile to the Opry and downtown was served by a shuttle). I’m sort of pissed we weren’t going to Nashville a week later, as Kellie Pickler and Dierks Bentley were scheduled to take the stage; I’d walk a half mile in the rain for that.
While Opryland was indeed impressive, I don’t think I’d stay there again. It is about fifteen minutes from downtown, which wasn’t super inconvenient and as I mentioned, there was a reliable shuttle (although being able to wake up already downtown would’ve been nice), but it was obscenely expensive. I could deal with expensive rooms but food and drinks add up; $18.00 for breakfast consisting of a glorified mcmuffin, smoothie, apple and granola bar. I could probably get the same thing cheaper in NYC, which is saying something. There’s plenty of hotels downtown in the thick of things, but a fun option might be the Nashville Downtown Hostel, which is located right on the riverfront in a renovated warehouse. It’s right in the thick of things and I walked by several times while making my way from bar to bar.
The Ryman Auditorium, the “First Church of Country Music,” is located on 5th Avenue, just a block from Broadway (the aforementioned “Honky Tonk Row”) which is where we headed our first night, pretty much directly from the airport. If you like fun, drinking, music and have even a passing appreciation for country, you need to book yourself a ticket to Nashville almost immediately, because this street is straight up fun. I sort of lost track of how many bars we made it to that first night, but highlights included The Stage, Tootsies, The Swingin’ Door Saloon, Honky Tonk Central and a place fashioned after a trailer park that had dollar drafts and whose name I cannot for the life of me find, despite extensive googling. The Stage and Honky Tonk Central were two of the bigger venues, with several stories and seemingly some of the best acts. The Swingin Door Saloon was located a block down a side street and the spot we found ourselves returning to at the end of the night due to it’s low key atmosphere and beer-claw machine.
Tootsie’s official name is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and is probably the most famous (or infamous?) Honky Tonk’s in Nashville. While the exteriors of many of the Honky Tonks blend into each other, Tootsie’s is painted a out of place pastel purple, which fits its colorful history. Tootsies’ backdoor and the backdoor of the Ryman are merely steps from each other through a back alley and many of the performers used to come here during shows and intermissions to throw a few back. They have two stages with different bands going at any time, even in the morning, which I discovered when I stumbled on in around 10:45 AM on Saturday to grab an early lunch.
I was planning on just getting a hamburger, maybe a drink and then walking around a little bit. I ended up getting that hamburger but stayed for at least a six pack and was almost late for my 2:00 tour because it was that fun. It was packed and people were drinking like it was 10:45 PM. The musicians were excellent and it was cool to see them walk around, introduce themselves and work the room while the other sang or they took a break. The music would stop, but they were working. Had I not had a tour planned or had a bigger group of people with me, I probably could have stayed there all day. They have a VIP booth in the front window you could rent ahead of time which I think would definitely be worth it (if you have a small party, that is). And make sure if you ever head to Tootsie’s or any of the other Honky Tonks, that you bring some singles to tip the musicians with. They deserve it.
I did venture off of Broadway. One of my favorite bars was The Beer Sellar, a really cool, well, basement bar that had super cheap craft beer and no live performances but “a really good jukebox (they also had phenomenal pulled pork served with a side of pasta salad which I hope starts becoming a thing everywhere).
2nd Avenue is probably the other very bar laden street, the Benchmark being particularly enjoyable, probably because I was convinced by a group of middle aged Canadians to partake in a shot of moonshine. You know how Fireball is dominating all the bars in PA? It’s moonshine in Nashville.
Did you know one of Nashville’s top industries is publishing? I didn’t but learned that this industry was once centered on the aptly named Printer’s Alley, just up the street from the Beer Sellar.
It was also at one point Nashville’s red light district, and although it’s simply a nightlife destination today, it sort of retains that skeezy vibe. We went to Printers Alley late one night and the vibe was decidedly, I don’t want to say desperate, but desperate. To complete the red-light aura they even have a bar offering nude karaoke.
One afternoon I took a cab up the area around Vanderbilt University to check out Exit/In, which a bartender at one of the Honky-Tonks recommended as a place with some local flavor. It’s a music venue that caters more towards the alt-country and indie set, rather than straight up twang. In fact, Nashville is becoming an all around music town, not just country music. The Black Keys, Ben Folds, Jack White (whose website is an amazing exercise in self-deprecation), and the Kings of Leon all either live or record here. Hell, Kesha‘s a Nashville native. Kings of Leon is based in East Nashville not far from the Fat Bottom Brewery which I visited Saturday afternoon.
I spent Thursday and Friday being a country-music tourist. I took some bus tours, explored Music Row and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Saturday, well was for more Saturday-esque activities, and that included an afternoon of Nashville brewery hopping, which in turn got me out of downtown to other neighborhoods.
Fat Bottom Brewing was my first stop, over the bridge in East Nashville. I only mentioned Kings of Leon are based here previously because that’s what my cab driver told me (he also hated country music which seems counterproductive for a Nashville cabbie), which may or not be true, but it would make sense. The small glimpse of the neighborhood I got gave me strong hipster vibes, and the brewery (which, for the record, I liked) echoed these; a lot of plaid, distinctly not-country tunes and plenty of kale-centric items on the menu. The beers and décor had a pinup theme and was located in an old mattress warehouse, which is cool if you’re into refurbished industrialization (which I’m into..does that make me a hipster?). There’s brewery tours every Saturday at 5:00, for $5.00 which I would’ve liked to see had I not been on a schedule. Bummer, because it includes a souvenir glass, which is pretty much what I live for.
Yazoo is arguably the most well known of the Nashville beers and I’d had my fair share of their hefeweizen before visiting their tasting room. The tasting room, located in the trendy Gulch neighborhood (which reminded me a lot of Pittsburgh’s Shadyside; both very shiny and gentrified) offers tours which depart every half hour on Saturdays. I took one, which was fun and cost $7.00. Jackalope Brewing Company was my last stop. Like Nashville, I knew I’d like it before I got there; I could get behind any establishment named for a mythical creature your “funniest” family members used to send you postcards of. Unfortunately I was only able to stay for ten minutes or so before I literally had to sprint across town to catch my bus back to Orpyland for dinner that night, which brings us to a perfect way to segue into my closing statements.
My entire Nashville trip felt rushed. There’s so much to do and see (and listen to) that I felt my Nashville trip was just a constant go-go-go and next thing I knew I was back at the airport trying desperately to jockey a spot on an outbound flight to Philly (big storm that weekend and original flight was pushed back). The only thing this means is that I’ll need to go back again and if you’ve been inspired to visit, stay tuned. I have two more Nashville-centric posts coming your way in the next week.