The last time I was in Nashville was exactly 3 years ago, when we circled the country. I was a typical anti-everything country New Yorker who had no idea what I was walking into. The initial shock of hearing pants referred to as “britches” and swerving through a sea of cowboy boots and whiskey wore off quicker than I expected. I became completely enamored by the place, and sipped my drinks down inside a honky tonk while “Shoulda Been a Cowboy” played overhead in unexpected glee. I knew that Nashville was special. Despite the fact that it’s nestled inside a conservative southern state, the city itself is surprisingly diverse and eclectic. The culture of music is absolutely consuming, and you can’t walk down the street for 10 feet, morning or night, without hearing the sound of instruments and country tunes on the streets and inside every single bar. People have started to come to Nashville from all over the country, which makes for an interesting mix of deep Tennessee twang and East-and-West coast accents. It also has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.
I loved it so much the first time around that I vowed to be back within the year (which didn’t happen). It made me a lifelong country music convert and I craved the feeling of those rustic bar stools as they vibrated along to endless beats. Time can really get away from you, and as I’ve embarked on this 50 states by 30 challenge, I knew that I had to make this place a stopover at some point. Our latest endeavor would take us from Nashville, TN to Tulsa, OK, where we would then fly to San Francisco and drive the coast down to San Diego to go to a music festival. Catch all of that? What started as a long weekend quickly spiraled into much more.
As soon as we landed on Friday night in music city, I was blasting Luke Bryan and tearing through downtown like a country-crazed child, looking for a beer. We stayed on the outskirts of town at the adorable Apple Annie’s Inn (highly recommended) and called a cab to avoid any tipsy transportation. The cab driver, by the way, voluntarily stopped the meter ahead of our destination because it would have “cost us too much to keep running with the traffic”. If that had ever happened in NYC I would have probably aspirated my iced coffee.
We remembered that 2nd avenue and Broadway were the busiest for nightlife in downtown, but they were much more congested than they had been the first time around. Broadway bore a surprising resemblance to a southern Times Square-meets-Vegas, so we spent a little more time on 2nd this time around instead. Despite a little bit of kitch, you cannot deny the awesomeness of endless live music, and we spent our first night adjusting our naturally distrusting New York mindsets to match the con
genial and easy-going pace surrounding us. It was one day after my birthday, and I was wished genuine happy birthday by three strangers within just a few hours. We started out at Bourbon Street Blues down Printers Alley (try the Voodoo chicken) which is the same place we started at during our first visit. Feeling nostalgic and energized by the bluesy bands that played below our balcony seat, we continued through town in bar-hopping fashion, where conversations with partiers always went from “where are you from?” to “what t
he heck are y’all doing down here??” People seemed to revel in the
fact that we would make a trek from NYC for country music.
I’m not sure what type of city-wide day drinking activity had gone on during that Friday, but the nightlife was in rare form. I almost couldn’t keep up. As the evening wound down, we found ourselves making “friends” with some football players from the Miami Dolphins, completely unbeknownst to us. I’m sure the fact that they were about 8 feet tall and surrounded by peppy girls asking to take pictures with them should have been a giveaway, but it came down to an older friend of theirs breaking the news to us. Don’t ask me what their names were…I know so little about football that I’m surprised that I was allowed to enter the south.
The next day, after a late start (bars stay open until 3am here), we decided to make a point of actually seeing the city in the daytime, which we failed to do 3 years ago. We ate brunch at The Southern, avoiding the mimosas even though they cost a pitiful $4. After a syrup-laded platter of crispy chicken and waffles alongside a “brunch pasta” with goat cheese, pine nuts and sunny side up eggs, we were stuffed too full to finish our sweet tea. We wandered around in the beaming sunshine and I had an epiphany. I needed cowboy boots. Katie brushed off my initial declaration with little effort, but my urge only grew stronger as the day went on. I pouted like a child who missed out on birthday cake. Something about it felt like it would be a confirmation of a culture that I never expected to love so much. It became my mission, and a surprisingly difficult one at that. I must have walked into 10 boot shops over the course of several hours, some with catchy-but-deceptive “buy 1 get 2 free” deals (the boots tended to be pricier off the bat). I learned the ins and outs of how a boot should fit (snug), the amount it would stretch over time, the styles that fit best with larger and smaller calves, and the fact that sizing varies (I wear an 8 but was trying 6 1/2 and 7). In my very last store, I bought the very last pair that I tried on. It’s like they had found me—they were the ones. Boot buying was a very intuitive procedure. I couldn’t buy a pair until they were perfect. As soon as I shoved my heels inside the soft leather, I knew that there was no turning back. I’m not really sure that New York is ready…..
My boots made their official debut that evening, and strangers’ disbelief of our New York origin only grew stronger, as did my own confusion about my loyalties. Music city, you are like a drug. We ate some amazing hot chicken pizza bar-side at Stillery before moving through our music venues, including the famous Tootsies Orchid Lounge, which had different bands on each of its 3 stories. A useful Nashville tip, you hear a lot of “$20 gets your song request to the top of the list” from local bands, and the concept seems to be universal. If you’re itching to hear something specific, be prepared to pay generously.
My most memorable stranger meeting of the evening was a young guy who struck up a conversation about college. I asked what he studied and he said he majored in “picking up girls”, but left after 2 years. Might not have been his best choice. By the time I was shoving my boots off my feet in the wee hours of the morning, I was drunk on soulful tunes. It’s amazing how quickly you can feel like a different person when you change your setting. As much as I love NYC (and trust me, I really do!), I’ve reminded myself how unnatural it is to be instinctively distrusting of those around you. Once you are around that for too long, it can be hard to accept that there are honestly friendly people out there whose friendliness is not the least bit contrived or fueled by ulterior motive. It can be really, really, really hard to relax emotionally. But after 2 days, I feel much lighter than I ever could have expected.
After some melt-in-your-mouth hot biscuits from Biscuit Love in the morning and a quick drive past the Grand ‘ole Opry, we were on the road again. Nashville was hard to leave, but we’re Memphis-bound and ready for some roadside BBQ. We WILL be back.