Nashville’s Flip Side

Douglas Wissing is a writer living in Bloomington, Ind

I confess an aversion to all things country. Plangent songs of cheatin’ sweethearts and bad ol’ bosses depress me, and country ham always seems to get stuck in my teeth. Cowboy hats make me look moronic, and high-heeled pointy boots give me the wobbly gait of a drag queen in training.

So when I needed to go to the Country Capital of the South last spring, I didn’t think my destination looked like a playground for someone who believes country isn’t cool, never was and never will be.

To be sure, there’s still plenty of country in Nashville. The vintage neon Bruton Snuff sign that lights up the downtown skyline is as much a part of Nashville as the Hollywood sign is of Southern California. The legendary Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892, hasn’t been home to the Grand Ole Opry for about 25 years, but it still packs ‘em in with full-scale musical productions such as “Stand By Your Man: The Story of Tammy Wynette” and concert series that include bluegrass and classical. (The new Opry is about 20 minutes east of downtown.)


Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop still has its guitar-shaped sign illuminated on Broadway, as it has since 1947, and the wailing sounds of steel guitars still drift out of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge across the way. Around the corner, Dangerous Threads still custom-tailors fringed and rhinestone-studded stage wear for country luminaries, and platinum blonds dressed in sequins promenade down Broadway.

One day I walked out of the venerable Hermitage Hotel (it and the Union Station hotel are gracious, genteel and gorgeous) and watched a hopeful young player with an immense black cowboy hat and a guitar case in hand lope past a bronze statue of Chet Atkins. At that moment, I realized country was alive and well.

But I also discovered, in between researching a biography I’m working on, that there’s a lot more to Nashville than just country music. More than a decade ago, the booming educational, medical and insurance industries overtook the music industry as the city’s economic engines. They have helped make Nashville a prosperous, sophisticated town.

Nashville, the capital, is just 25 miles south of the Kentucky border in north-central Tennessee. The city sits at a strategic musical place, between blues-drenched Memphis at the head of the Mississippi Delta and the old English and Celtic musical traditions of the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee. The confluence of the two in Nashville helped spawn the great river of country music that flooded America.

Founded late in the 18th century at the site of an early French salt lick, Nashville became a flourishing cultural and commercial center of the upper South in the antebellum years. Ten miles east of downtown, Andrew Jackson’s stately Hermitage, an 1821 Greek Revival mansion with “Gone With the Wind” columns, is a graphic reminder of the bygone days.

By the late 19th century, Nashville was known as the “Athens of the South” because of its many educational institutions, including Vanderbilt and Fisk universities. In honor of its nickname, boosters erected the Parthenon in 1897 as the centerpiece of the Tennessee Centennial Celebration in Centennial Park. The city fathers intended the structure--the world’s only full-scale replica of the Athenian temple--to be temporary and didn’t build the wood and stucco structure to last. But residents so loved it that they built another of concrete in 1922, and it continues to serve as the city’s symbol. (A winning entry from a local magazine’s “You’re So Nashville If . . .” contest reads, “You’re so Nashville if you think our Parthenon is better because theirs is falling down.”)


Cool neighborhoods full of restored Victorian and Arts and Crafts bungalows on both sides of the Cumberland River pulse with highly evolved dining and hip, distinctly non-country entertainment, with nary a biscuit or hitching post in sight. Local galleries and museums offer interesting art experiences, some tucked away in unexpected places.

I headed for Hillsboro Village, a 1920s-era neighborhood and commercial center near Vanderbilt that’s been recolonized as a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining area, and quickly found Provence Breads and Cafe. Couples sat at sidewalk tables sipping lattes as happy shoppers exited with baguettes and loaves of fougasse under their arms.

Inside was an array of French cheeses the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was last in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The ochre- and mustard-colored cafe has the feel of the south--of France. Rustic walls and large photos of Provence sent me off on a lovely daydream as I ate my bowl of Yukon Gold potato soup with a chunk of crusty baguette.

After lunch, I wandered over to Fido for a cup of local Bongo Java, roasted on the premises in a big red Rube Goldbergesque machine. Pierced “modern primitives” shared the brick-walled space with paunchy guys in khakis, cohabiting in a convivial caffeine detente.

Down on 21st Avenue South, the Zeitgeist Gallery had a show of mixed-media contemporary art and photographs by regional artists in its austere urban showroom. Also on 21st, Outside the Lines--”art that won’t match your sofa”--offered up contemporary ceramics, art and whimsical bric-a-brac with postmodern sensibilities and shared a space with Antics, which sold a quirky range of architectural salvage, high-style antiques and recent flea market finds.

European- and Southwestern-style furniture, antiques and accessories crowded the floor at Carissa’s Armoires and Antiques, and Bookman Rare and Used Books proffered an intriguing selection of Southern books.


The reality of the Grand New Nashville was beginning to dawn on me, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

After an afternoon of research, I returned to Hillsboro Village. As the day drifted into cool evening, Nashville’s young professionals and corporate power brokers emerged for some social sashaying. Porsches, BMWs and a few black limos began to fill the lanes, and Trace, one of the places to be seen, began to throb. The restaurant’s enormous glass overhead doors were rolled up, and pretty couples sat admiring the passing scene as they wined and dined.

Brioni blazers and little black designer dresses were far more common than leather fringe and blue jeans. The crowd is more the draw than the food on the eclectic menu, but still, I had a flavorful dinner of charcoal-grilled salmon with an oyster glaze, cashew jasmine rice, and ginger plum wine vegetables.

A friend in the recording industry told me about 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill, a bar in a working-class neighborhood down near the railroad tracks where great Nashville studio musicians sometimes play earthshaking rock ‘n’ roll in pickup bands. Though it was a quiet midweek night when I was there, the place was nearly full as patrons listened to a talented young band play a dark REM-style music.

And with that, I was hooked on Nashville.

I shifted into a distinctly bipolar life. Through the day, I worked madly in the historic society archives. Lunchtimes and evenings found me exploring the culinary and entertainment possibilities of non-country Nashville.

The next night I took another excursion. Dinner patrons didn’t begin to arrive at Bound’ry until an urbane European dinner hour, and then the place started to jump with Nashville’s bright young things.


Bound’ry is as much theater as restaurant, with a slightly surreal two-story dining room decorated with mythological murals depicting dionysian revels and village market scenes, flamboyant fish leaping three-dimensionally from paintings, and hallucinogenic mosaics wandering across walls, mantels and floors. The background music, a mixture that defies categorization, rose in pitch and intensity through the meal until diners looked ready to begin spontaneous dancing.

Nashville is one of those upper South cities where fusion cooking can become a gastronomic collision as discordant tastes and warring cuisines clash on the plate. While Bound’ry offers Southern-rooted fusion fare such as Memphis manicotti--shells stuffed with chicken barbecue and crawfish--the food is inspired, harmonious and delicious.

I began my meal with an appetizer of sweet potato hummus with chile oil, followed by an entree of grilled Tennessee ostrich, a dense, flavorful hunk of bird marinated in pomegranate molasses, lightly smoked and served with currant sauce. It was accompanied by grilled squash and an almond sweet potato tart. Although I was dining alone, I felt as though I was attending a festival.

After dinner, I was off for a foray into nighttime Nashville. At Jody’s Bar Car in the rehabbed Cummins Station near Broadway, deejay Johny Jackson had hundreds of dancers grooving to his trance music rhythms. His Saturday night Soul Satisfactions are a “Nashville phenomenon,” one regular told me.

Over at the 12th & Porter Playroom, an earnest garage band thrashed out its original alternative songs in the raw space, the lead singer doing Edie Brickell-like attitudes for the raucous crowd. A large, overwrought rock ‘n’ roll band from New Orleans had a howling and leaping mob in an ecstatic state at the 328 Performance Hall. “Gimme rhythm!” the lead singer exhorted the crowd. And they did.

I took a calmer path the next day. I reconnoitered East Nashville, which used to be the adventurous side of the Cumberland River. Young couples began homesteading the old Arts and Crafts and Victorian neighborhoods in the last decade, and some attention-getting cafes and clubs have followed.


Sasso is the preeminent restaurant, a sleek place decorated in warm hues of mustard and rose, tucked into an old two-story clapboard grocery store. The menu is a meander around the globe, incorporating Southwestern, Asian and Southern fusion cooking, and the talented chefs pull off the high-wire act. My swordfish in soy-ginger sauce with tomato-cucumber chow-chow reflected the two owner-chefs’ global food convergences. Sasso’s friendly staff exhibits an enthusiastic food and wine sophistication that can surprise you if you’re still thinking of this as the Land of Grits and Gravy.

As I left the restaurant, I noticed a small crowd waiting expectantly at the Radio Cafe across from Sasso. A town with 45,000 registered songwriters is bound to have a bunch of live music venues, and I had learned that a fair proportion book more than country. Radio Cafe turned out to be one of them, offering live music six nights a week. The vintage radios that give the cafe its name lined the walls of the old neighborhood pharmacy building, and a neon coffee cup glowed in the front window as I ordered an espresso. A couple of extraordinary singer-songwriters, backed by a small band of flawless studio musicians, belted out soulful tunes that could have them in the big time tomorrow.

As I drank my espresso and the singers warbled out folk-tinged popular songs that were, well, music to my ears, I had to confront my biases. Country may always be king, but Nashville, clearly, is more than a one-note town.



Getting to Know Nashville

Getting there: From LAX there is nonstop service on American and Southwest, and connecting service on Delta, Northwest, TWA, United, Continental and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.

Where to stay: The Hermitage Hotel and Suites, 231 6th Ave. N.; tel. (615) 244-3121, fax (615) 254-6909, Internet, is the landmark downtown Nashville hotel. Built in a grand Beaux Arts style in 1910, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lobby is a wedding cake of gilded plasterwork, chandeliers, leaded glass, cherubs and caryatids. Six presidents and such notables as Greta Garbo, Al Capone and Minnesota Fats have made the hotel their stopping place. Doubles begin at $149.

Union Station, a Grand Heritage Hotel, 1001 Broadway; tel. (615) 726-1001, fax (615) 248-3554,, is another vintage downtown hotel, located in Nashville’s former Romanesque Revival train station. A 65-foot-high Tiffany glass ceiling caps the lobby where passengers used to wait for their trains. Light sleepers, beware: Freight trains still rumble under the hotel’s 124 suites. Doubles begin at $129.


Courtyard by Marriott, 170 4th Ave. N.; tel. (615) 256-0900, fax (615) 256-0901,, is a tastefully decorated 119-room business hotel in a 1903 Art Deco insurance and bank building within walking distance of the many dining and entertainment offerings in the District and Printer’s Alley. Doubles begin at $119.

Where to eat: Provence, 1705 21st Ave. S., local tel. 386-0363, is an artisanal bakery and cafe, a bit of southern France in northern Tennessee. It is a favored lunch spot. Fido, 1812 21st Ave. S., tel. 385-7959, is a postmodern bohemian coffee hangout. The Trace, 2000 Belcourt Ave., tel. 385-2200, is a hot destination for Nashville’s upscale crowd. Bound’ry, 911 20th Ave. S., tel. 321-3043, offers sophisticated Southern fusion cooking. Sasso, 1400 Woodland St.; tel. 226-7942, is a hip cafe and bar tucked into a 1910 two-story corner grocery in East Nashville.

Night life: Radio Cafe, 1313 Woodland St., tel. 262-1766, is a friendly redoubt of live singer-songwriter music. It has 45 types of brews. 12th & Porter Playroom, 114 12th Ave. N., tel. 254-7236, is in a gritty locale hosting some great bands. 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill, 818 3rd Ave. S., tel. 259-9891, is jammed on the weekends, sometimes with world-class studio musicians playing in pickup bands.

328 Performance Hall, 328 4th Ave. S., tel. 259-3288, is a rock ‘n’ roll haven for regional and national acts. Jody’s Bar Car (soon to change its name to the Cantina), 209 10th Ave. S., tel. 259-4875, hosts Johny Jackson’s DJ nights and other music.

For more information: The Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 211 Commerce St., Suite 100, Nashville, TN 37201; tel. (800) 657-6910,