One night in February my girlfriend Elena and I were at dinner when she asked me asked me a question we often bring up for the heck of it:
“If you could go anywhere in the US you’ve never been, where would you go and why?”
Now at the time I thought nothing of her asking. Given that I literally have a degree in geography (I hate the word literally, it’s the bane of my existence these days, maybe even over the unforgivable sin of saying “organic” in a business context, but I do feel a rare exception is warranted in this instance) and have worked in the geospatial world for years, I’m hopelessly in love with hypothetical questions such as this one. We’ve probably had the exact same conversation a dozen times. This time around, I answered her emphatically and with zero hesitation:
“Why?”, she asked, though I could see she was already on board with the answer.
I went on one of my hyperbolic rants about how “I’ve gotta be the only kid from Laguna Beach who loves country music” (definitely false, in fact my friend from high school not only loves country but went on to work as an agent for country musicians in, you guessed it...Nashville) and how “I’d rather see Tennessee than the Great Pyramids” (not at all true but again, inflammatory speech is my default setting). God only knows what I said, but rest assured that I rambled on for a good ten minutes while poor Elena nodded her head and ate her some-type-of-Asian food (can’t recall exactly) with a smile (the sort that you think is tandem with your elation but is slyly laughing at you at the same time).
The conversation faded thereafter into memory, not crossing my mind again for weeks. Soon Valentine’s Day came around and I found myself in a total bind. I hadn’t forgotten Valentine’s Day, dear God no. I have triplet sisters: I wouldn’t forget that the Spice Girls were coming to town on a reunion tour, let alone the single most important day for a man to remember in a given year barring anniversaries and birthdays (mind you, many will tout that they “don’t care” or that “it’s just a Hallmark holiday”...say what you want but as far as I’m concerned this is all just female black magic and diversion perpetrated as a psych-out test of one’s true inner soul).
So I got the whole remembering part on lock. Only one problem. I always make my bouquets. Always. In my opinion it’s more fun and more thoughtful. It’s also cheaper. And Lord knows that no girl wants a dozen red roses from Walgreens (I’m looking at you, generic early 20’s white guy in the elevator of a major apartment building on 12th and 5th who carried unopened(!) roses with the plastic wrapper still on the base and wore a knock-off Brooks Brothers shirt two sizes too big, only to smile at me like you’d done a good job…).
Why is this a problem? Is this not in fact the solution? The key to a girl’s heart? Well, it should have been, had I not been an idiot in every other department of my mind. I naively thought I could stroll into any florist on the blessed day of Saint Valentine after work hours had ended in the largest city in America and take my sweet time arranging the flowers of my choosing. I was instead greeted by lines of an actual thirty to sixty people at every place I went. Panicking, my mind jumped to the next best thing I could come up with…
I sprinted through the commuter crowds along the sidewalk to the nearest Milk Bar. Milk Bar, for those of you who don’t already know because you live in Greenland or don’t have Netflix since you’re living a monastic life in a desert cloister without Wi-Fi and aren’t reading this blog anyways, is the legendary dessert-centric bakery founded in 2008 by Christina Tosi (see her profiled on the Netflix show Chef’s Table) as part of the Momofuku family. There I bought a tin jar full of cookies, hastily inserted my chip (I still resent that our dying planet has lost, along with its coral reefs and air quality, the joy of swiping a card instead of letting it sit there soaking in pathetic submission while its chip is screened for financial worthiness) and then ran across the entire island of Manhattan from the West to the East Village (for those who don’t aren’t familiar, New York’s public transit density (key word density, not system) is arguably the best on the planet, but most of those routes in Manhattan run North/South save for a few major cross-overs, meaning that if you need to go from the West side to the East side, you’re probably out of luck on the subway).
Already late to pick up Elena for our Valentine’s Day dinner at Vinegar Hill, I sweated my way up the stairs of her apartment and blazed through the door in a hurry. She laughed, kindly listened to my four thousand excuses for why I had an arbitrary assortment of cookies in lieu of flowers, then gave me a hug as we both laughed. She asked, “Ready for your present?”
Present? I’d never considered that I’d be getting one.
“It’s your Valentine’s Day present and early birthday too.”
She handed me a photo album and my heart lit up. I’d been wanting one for months!
“No no haha, open it!”. I’d thought the photo album was my gift and was beyond stoked already.
I cracked open the album, beads of sweat still dripping from the forehead of my under-exercised late 20’s body. A small piece of paper was taped on the first sleeve.
“WE’RE GOING TO NASHVILLE”
WHAAAAAAAAAT #@#%!!#1&($&@$&% !!!!!!!!
I completely lost it! My ultimate domestic travel dream had been realized, right there, on the spot!
So why Nashville, you might be wondering? I’ll speak to that briefly, then dive into the real reason we’re all here...the actual account of the trip.
First off, I’ve been fortunate to see much of the US. Since I left home in California at 18, I’ve made it a priority to road trip and take any opportunity I can to see the US. Yet the South...the South has eluded me. I’ve kinda sorta been there...I’d taken a trip to the Ozarks of Arkansas, been to the southern part of Virginia and also to Texas...but none of those places are in the undisputed Southern United States.
Southern culture, or should I say, the remnants and fractions of Southern culture that had made their way to me as someone living outside of it, always grabbed my attention. For one, the musical history of the South is, in my opinion, unrivaled by anywhere on Earth. Yes, I said anywhere on Earth.
Allow me to explain in less than 30 seconds (would absolutely love to go on a forty page lecture tangent about the history of American music but I’ll save that for another day).
What has the South given the world of music? (especially the African American communities of the South):
Rock N’ Roll.
This frankly covers the majority of popular music over the last 100 years, save for hip-hop, which of course originated approximately 14.7 miles north of where I’m currently writing this (which is, for you map nerds, 200 Broadway in the Financial District, looking out the window at the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower) in the Bronx. So yes, generally speaking and naturally with some serious glossing over, the vast majority of popular music in the last hundred years originated in just one region of only one country... and to any of you out there who think the British invented rock n’ roll I am extraordinarily disappointed in you, especially if you’re American or Canadian. And to all of you who think America is culture-less, see above list. Boom.
My love for these genres, particularly the blues and by extension rock n’ roll, has fueled many music-centric trips for me, with random weekend adventures to Chicago for the blues clubs and nights alone at jazz haunts in Greenwich Village. Yet one Southern genre has been largely neglected in my long list of live shows seen.
Yes, I like country. I love country.
And where do you go if you love country music (and much more)?
You go to Nashville.
That obsession, combined with my desire to see The South in general, is what ultimately landed me at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel next to Vanderbilt University last week. Now hotel’s aren’t really my jam, nor is modern design when pinned against the historic. Put simply, my expectations were low. And well, they were also completely off. The hotel was unreal and arguably one of the only examples of modern design that I’ve personally enjoyed (some other exceptions would be the lobby of Coach headquarters in Hudson Yards, the Whitney Museum, Freedom Tower, pretty much anything that badass woman and architect has built in Chicago and elsewhere, and, again, the place from which I’m writing this very line: Fulton Center at 200 Broadway). I’m no interior designer, hell I wouldn’t even say I’ve got a sense of what counts as good interior design. So I’ll just say this: the place is nice. Tasteful might be a better word; the lobby has a ten foot high rack of epic coffee table books, a beautiful fireplace and walls covered in curated art from New York and beyond. Not at all what I’d been expected and I say that in the best of terms.
The entire draw of travel for me in that “first light moment” upon waking. I usually get in at night, taking in only slivers of information about the new world I entered from the few hints visible in the darkness. Then there’s the Christmas-morning-like joy of waking up and realizing you’re not at home. You run to the door (or in my case, to the nearest source of coffee since you’re critically addicted), squeak the accumulated junk out of your eyes (the volume of which increases concurrently with age) and peer out the window. Some places, many of favorite places at that, immediately have “a feel”. I specifically recall moving to Taipei, Taiwan when I was nineteen and looking out the window on my first morning at the tall white-tiled buildings with wonder at the site of an urban landscape inundated with tropical plants (I’ve since seen this all over the world and never get bored of it, my favorite example being the drainage ditches of Medellin, Colombia, an urban feature that should be ugly but down there is overgrown with vegetation that makes your typical run-off ravine look more like a mix between the lower levels of heaven and the 1992 best-movie-ever Fern Gully).
When I took my first glance out the window from the Kimpton, my eyes locked on to Vanderbilt University and not much else. The school appeared beautiful, but between it and I lay nothing more than a suburban-esque street. Truth be told, this came to define most of our time in the city proper of Nashville (bear with me, I have an explanation and a happy ending). I’ve wrestled with how best to write out our experience of the downtown without giving the wrong impression and I’ll start here: Nashville’s highlight does not reside on the surface. It’s an average city at first glance, and I can’t stress enough that I do not mean offense by that. I naively expected it (for whatever unfounded reason) to be a collage of colorful Victorian homes. I think this stems from my ignorance as to what the South really is. It’s not a look, but rather a culture. Truth be told, most of the Nashville I saw looked like a typicl Midwestern city combined with pockets of heavy gentrification. The places that were recommended to us, such as the 12 South neighborhood, didn’t hold much of the charm I’d been expecting. Everyone insisted we go there, and at first I was at a loss as to why (again, bear with me here as I loved the trip overall and will get to that in a second). I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that over a dozen people recommended we go to this neighborhood, only to find that the majority of it was high-end retail shops that can be found in any major city. To be clear, there were some highlights: Frothy Monkey (of which there are several locations in the Nashville area) had unreal food and the burger I got was top notch. Aside from there and a sporadically dispersed handful of older buildings, the length of the neighborhood was bougie stores. The same could be said for a few other spots we were recommended to check out. It happened time and again, until finally I developed a theory that I’ll lay out:
Micro-roasteries. Micro-breweries. Yoga studios. Juice presses and fashion boutiques. These sorts of place, I’m hypothesizing, are the first suggestion of locals because for Nashville, such options are relatively new. I totally get that if that’s the case. I like all of those things, but the issue for me is that they’re just nothing new as someone who’s from Laguna Beach, lived in Boulder for ten years and now lives amongst tiny-hatted shirt-tucked fixed-gear hipsters in Brooklyn as a victim of the California diaspora (I can low-key be the most basic person on the block...I regularly order acai bowls, shamelessly smother myself in eucalyptus-infused towels at Equinox, genuinely believe that flavored vinegar water does something for your health and will go to extreme lengths to eat Halo Top low calorie ice cream and destroy the last withering strand of masculinity left in my broken body after repeated SoulCycle classes that I tell myself I go to only “sarcastically” to hide from the fact that I’m obsessed with it).
Where am I going with this? Am I ripping on Nashville?
Not in the slightest.
I f****** loved the place.
My thoughts are, as touched on a bit above, as follows:
...the parts of Nashville that get locals excited are not the same places that would get me, a sheltered West-Coast tool who wants to see “pretty buildings”, excited.
Instead, we learned, you have to seek those spots out yourself.
And my oh my did we find them...just not where we expected. Deciding to branch out on our own and against the steady stream of fan recommendations, Elena and I landed in West Nashville. We looked at each other and nodded in agreement as a slew of rusty-signed thrift stores spontaneously came into existence as if their sole purpose serve us and only us in that moment. We first entered into Cool Stuff Weird Things, which admittedly was lacking in stock but had an epic collection of vintage pins (UPDATE: read up on the alleged behavior and attitude of this place’s owner, many on Yelp will attest that he’s not the nicest person in the world but I’ll leave that up to you to decide...still a worthwhile stop if you can put that aside in my opinion).
The next haunt we came across was a true showstopper of a find, the sort of place you have in mind for a successful urban adventure but work actively to suppress in imagination out of fear of disappoint (fair).
Consider this spot a church amongst bibliophiles. A destination bookstore, no doubt. Small yet powerful, cramped yet vast. Though spoiled we may be in New York with the likes of Strand and others, this Nashville joint is well worth the trip to the outskirts of town (outskirts in probably a misnomer, many people are moving to West Nashville and frankly it was my favorite neighborhood but I digress). The store carries seemingly ever book ever written and yet is more reminiscent of West Village micro-studio than a Barnes ‘N Noble.
Other spots worth checking out while over there include Headquarters Coffee, an also tiny and also epic coffee shop whose coffee tasted good enough for me to buy their t-Shirt (I award the highest echelon of my favorite places with the esteemed designation of being “shirt-worthy”, meaning that I buy the shirt to proudly rep them around the world...some shirt-worthy places that have nothing to do with this article include the famed blues bar Kingston Mines in Chicago, Langer’s Deli in LA and Schwartz’ in Montreal, Dot’s Diner in Boulder...the list goes on). Also pop into Southern Thrift Store if you’ve got the time, it’s fairly large and well-stocked.
Before moving on, I will stress that we did indeed check out a good deal of the quote-on-quote touristy stuff in Nashville and had a blast doing it, though generally speaking that’s not the focus of this blog so I’ll hit you with the short-list:
- The Gulch. The main party area and downtown of the city. Was absolutely insane given that it was both St. Patrick’s Day Weekend and SEC basketball finals and of course we forgot about either of those events in planning our trip. Pretty touristy, but the musicians here absolutely rip out of necessity; the people of Nashville know good music when they see it and anything else is promptly shipped out of town.
- The Ryman. WOW. What a venue. We were blessed to have an Uber driver mention that he was going to Kurt Vile later in the evening and we decided to send it to the show last minute; if you’re a country music van (and/or music lover in general) you must go see a show there. Not to mention, Kurt’s show was extraordinary.
- Monell’s. A culinary powerhouse that embraces binge eating as a near-competitive sport. This place dishes out comfort food and has been in the business since the 1800’s. The second you walk in your entire being will be smothered in gravy and fried goodness. If coronary heart disease is a life goal of yours then this is a fantastic place to start your journey.
Behind the west side of the city (and I can’t stress enough that we did not and could not have seen all of the city with our limited time frame) I came to find that for me the most interesting parts of Nashville were in fact just outside the city limits. Specifically, the small town of Franklin was truly one of the more beautiful towns I’ve seen in the United States. Franklin fulfilled the Southern architectural stereotypes and expectations that I’d unwittingly imposed on Tennessee before even stepping off the plane. The town is absolutely gorgeous, and for those of you readers who aren’t in the US or Canada, this is the sort of place people are referring to when they use the phrase “Mainstreet USA”. It’s a quintessential Southern town, with restored buildings and cottages every which way. It’s places like Franklin that awaken me to the fact that deep down, beneath the love of psychedelic rock and skateboarding and using my friend Ian for his dirt bikes, I’m really just your average eighty-five year old man.
A quick but important note here. It would be absurd and a crime to speak of Franklin and not acknowledge the fact that it was, in its past, the sight of several lynchings, including the first lynching in America of a Jewish man. Racism was the status quo here for a long time and the infamous Ku Klux Klan was founded a short drive south of town. I was disappointed to see that an informational sign in front of its courthouse made no mention of the several people who were hung from its balcony for no reason other than their beliefs or the color of their skin. Having said that, I’ll be the first to tell you that I do not believe in avoiding a town because of its history. The people I met in my time there were very kind and hospitable, but I’m also about as Aryan looking as it gets. I saw a wide range of ethnicities represented in cafes and from the little I could observe it seemed everyone was treated equally but that it, of course, an extremely surface level observation. For me, I just enjoyed the beauty of a place while trying to not pass any judgment, as I believe an outsider is obliged to do. I’d love to here anyone from the area speak to this and share any experiences (positive or negative) that they’ve had in Franklin or Nashville, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Franklin was the sort of place that’s best communicated in photos. I could write a whole other article on the dreaminess of its sleepy backroads, wooded areas and rolling hills. For the sake of your time I’ll show, rather than tell, the glory that is this small town. In brief summary (something I can’t stand doing), I’ll leave it at this:
Walked the main street of town, then curved off towards a backroad that looped around to the Carnton mansion.
Walked for over a mile on the road, stopping to take photos of the historic homes.
Snuck off the road at one point to explore a creek and scaled its muddy banks with Elena to get a good shot of it.
Took the tour of Carnton, a former mansion that was the site of The Battle of Franklin, a massive American Civil War battle that took over 10,000 lives in 24 hours (a particular highlight was the pools of blood still stained into the original floorboards from when hundreds of wounded men were housed in the home durind the battle).
And, of course, Biscuit Love (I’m still in recovery from my chicken sandwich).
So where was I going with all this? What’s my point? Well, if I were to glean a core lesson from this trip, it’s expectations are futile. For one, my completely unfounded assumption (let’s call it what it is, I had zero understanding of the South) was likely rooted in Southern Living back issues lodged deep in my subconscious and led me to initially feel like a place was unauthentic simply because a feel of the streets didn’t fit my preconceived notions of how it should be. The pity is that I’ve prided myself here on making the effort to see the “true” (whatever that arbitrary word may mean) side of cities and towns, only to fall victim to the very kind of thinking I post weekly diatribes against.
The very, very good news is that Nashville was ready for me. It showed me a different city, one I came to love more than my ideations. The music, the people, small towns on its outskirts: all of these things kept me wanting more. Hell, if our entire trip had been a one day flight to eat at Monell’s it still would’ve been my favorite domestic adventure this year.
So here’s to Nashville,
Ya’ll are one hell of a good time.