The birthplace of country music, snakeskin boots and high-octane glamour is suddenly the capital of cool. Welcome to Nashville...
"I knew you were trouble,” go the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s most recent hit. While the song was allegedly about her liaison with Harry Styles, she could equally be recounting a weekend in her adopted Tennessee hometown, Nashville. From the moment you first pitch up on the neon babylon of main strip Broadway, you just know the country music capital will be mischief. Immaculate-looking girls strut down the street, bottles of Bud in hand, yammering away in gorgeous, “C’mon, y’all!” accents. Their alligator boots clatter on the sidewalk while Stetson-ed chaps pass by, battered guitars on backs.
Fittingly for America’s self-proclaimed ‘Music City’, there’s music everywhere. Street-speakers blast Dolly Parton’s Jolene, jostling with the hootin’-and-a-hollerin’ live music emanating from rowdy honky-tonk bars. On Sunday mornings you’ll struggle to find bottled water, but there will still be four bars open offering a beer. Yes, Nashville is trouble all right, but you can’t help being sucked right in.
ABOVE: Taylor Swift performing this earlier year in Paris
Over the last year, Nashville has been thrust into the global spotlight, thanks to three factors: country star Taylor Swift giving Beyoncé and Rihanna a run for their money in the world’s-biggest-pop-star stakes, the city being re-modelled into the must-visit travel destination for 2013 plus the brilliant Nashville TV series currently showing on More4. Full of camp, clever nuances courtesy of upstart singer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) flipping between simpering teen-queen-in-cowboy- boots one minute and super-bitch the next, the Dallas-like drama about two battling country stars drew an impressive 8.9million viewers on its US premiere. Nashville has also won praise from feminists due to its strong female leads, in particular Rayna Jaymes played by Connie Britton, superb writing (it’s created by Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri) and second-fiddle male characters. The Stepford Wives this is not…
ABOVE: Nashville TV stars Connie Britton, Charles Esten and Hayden Panettiere
Meanwhile, Nashville the city is buzzing. There’s a thriving foodie scene. Formerly down-at-heel neighbourhoods are being regenerated. Designers and entrepreneurs are flooding into the place US GQ magazine christened ‘Nowville’. They’re not the only ones.
Nicole Kidman lives in the suburb of Franklin (‘the Malibu of Tennessee’) with country singer husband Keith Urban. Jack White (White Stripes) and his now ex-wife Karen Elson are Nashville residents too, with Manchester born Elson staying on with their two children after their 2011 divorce. Cult director Harmony Korine (famous for 1995’s controversial Kids) recently moved here, joining homegrown talent Miley Cyrus, Kings of Leon, Paramore and Ke$ha.
But country music still propels Nashville. While the rest of the music industry crumbles, country is big business, shifting over 40 million albums a year. According to Nielsen Soundscan statistics, sales of country went up 4.2% in 2012, in a market where all album sales shrunk by 4.4%. Having evolved from old Scottish and Irish folk tunes sung in the Appalachian mountains, country first became popular in the Twenties, merging with pop three decades later to create the ‘Nashville Sound’ of artists such as Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. Since then, it has split into various strains such as bluegrass, country pop and alt-country, but one thing remains constant: its tales of heartbreak and frontier spirit.
ABOVE: Carrie Underwood in concert in Las Vegas
Even so, for many in the UK, country is greeted with derision, fuelled by memories of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart and Jack Duckworth line-dancing in Coronation Street. But the tide is turning. Taylor Swift, 23, has scooped seven Grammys and sold over 26 million albums (in Nashville, she’s such big news she has her own section in Walgreens – a bit like finding an Emeli Sandé corner in your local Superdrug). Fans flooded into London’s O2 to watch Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes perform at the recent Country To Country music festival. Even Adele has mooted going country on her follow up to 21. “I want to spend some time in Austin and Nashville and learn about it,” she has said. “I feel like a four year old in a candy shop who’s discovering sweets again.”
Carrie Underwood, known in the US as ‘country music’s reigning queen’ after notching up three number one albums since winning 2005’s American Idol, tells us the genre’s growing appeal is down to, “lots of stereotype-breaking artists that still respect country roots, including myself. Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum have more of a pop influence, it’s helped raise country’s profile.”
One mile west from the main strip Broadway are the nondescript villas and bungalows of 16th and 17th Streets. It doesn’t look like much, but behind the clapboarded exteriors, million-dollar deals are brokered. This is Music Row where the record labels, publishing companies and agents who run Nashville’s country music industry are based. It’s universally agreed that the biggest player in Nashville right now is ex-racing driver Scott Borchetta, currently CEO of Big Machine Records, who became rich after discovering Taylor Swift as an unknown 15 year old.
In Nashville the music business is portrayed as full of two-timing lovers, internecine power struggles and gimlet-eyed divas who’d trample on their own grandmamas for success. “In many ways, the show is accurate,” says Sarah Skates, senior news editor at industry bible MusicRow. “The team spent a lot of time here studying the business and they definitely have some real-life scenarios that happen.” But Underwood (who Nashville’s Juliette Barnes is allegedly based on) says, “There are so few women in country music, but the TV shows are always about how they all hate each other. I have many girlfriends in the scene and none are like that!”
Still, there’s no doubting Nashville is a ruthless place. Just like Rayna, the ageing country queen in the TV show, there’s an ever-present pressure to remain on top. Last month after years of substance abuse problems and having struggled to maintain the level of success she achieved in the Nineties, 37-year-old singer Mindy McCready was found dead in her Arkansas home, after apparently shooting herself in the head. “The business itself among the executives and artists is extremely competitive,” notes Skates.
Adele: Nashville makes you feel like a four year old in a candy shop who’s discovering sweets again
Ever since the Twenties, musicians have travelled here in the hope of becoming the next Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. British electro-soul artist Jamie Lidell moved to Nashville from New York two years ago and was shocked to discover, “even my carpenter had a Grammy and my estate agent questioned my choice of mixing desk.” As Underwood says, “Everybody there is either part of the music industry or trying to make it.”
Consequently, in Nashville, ambition is just as compulsory as a pair of cowboy boots. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the tale of Taylor Swift. At the age of 14, she persuaded her family to relocate to Nashville to kick-start her career, securing a record deal a year later. She follows in the tenacious footsteps of Dolly Parton who went from being one of 12 “dirt-poor” kids crammed into a one-room cabin in the Tennessee mountains to a multimillionaire with her own theme park. But for every musician who graduates to the holy grail of the Grand Ole Opry (the auditorium which has broadcast a weekly radio show since 1925), there are many others stuck in honky-tonk limbo, hauling beer-bloated frames from one bar to the next, churning out covers of Islands In The Stream and egging customers to “holler-and-swaller” (the ubiquitous Nashville toast).
“Nashville is a 10 year town,” reckons Skates. “It will take several years for songwriters to get attraction and get noticed.” As Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy puts it, “Hustle’s the name of the game and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain.” The upshot of all that rising ambition is that Nashville has an embarrassing excess of talent. Every bar Stylist visited featured bands in tasselled jackets and starched denim knocking out jaw-dropping live music that would convert even the most curmudgeonly country-hater. “Even karaoke singers in Nashville are amazing,” notes Underwood.
ABOVE: A tenacious Dolly Parton found fame in Nashville
There is, of course, another side to Nashville, which outsiders adore. The brash glittery rhinestone kitsch that has seen the city earn the nickname ‘Nashvegas’. You’ll find it in Dolly Parton’s platinum-blonde Marie Antoinette wigs (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” she once quipped). In Broadway’s tacky souvenir shops (a cookery book written by Johnny Cash’s mother, anyone?). And in the neon strip clubs of Printer’s Alley, numerous mullets or the unspeakably hideous 2881-room Gaylord Opryland Hotel which houses a paddleboat, 19th-century town and antebellum mansion all under the same roof. “Country music just lends itself to trash,” says Sheri Lynn, who runs the camp NashTrash tours (nashtrash.com), where guests ride through Nashville in a pink bus sipping BYO alcohol. “We’re not doing Shakespeare down here.”
Although some Nashvegas shtick is ironic, a fondness for spangles ’n’ sequins seems to be mandatory. “I love eyeliner and the teasing brush,” says Underwood. “It’s kinda inherent in me. I was born with a love of things that sparkle. I love rhinestone and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Broadway on Saturday night is the best time to view Tennessee women in their prime. Wearing bootcut jeans, alligator heels and a blow-dry, they carry themselves with an almost antique feminine poise. “Tennessee girls are different,” says Underwood. “They’re Southern belles. They know how to drink and have fun, but they’re still very much ladies.”
Even country legends share this attitude. Underwood remembers being backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when “somebody cracked me on the rear. I was offended, turned around and saw it was Loretta Lynn [Sixties country singer-songwriter]. There she was, with her sparkly dress and big country hair. That’s such a Loretta [ie, country] thing to do, go up to somebody you’ve never met and smack them on the rear.”
ABOVE: Country music legend Loretta Lynn
Nashville folks’ warmth and politeness is legendary. But such bonhomie makes some of the region’s more reactionary tendencies difficult to square. When Stylist visited, it was just after the 2012 election. “Obama must go” bumper stickers still emblazoned many cars. Then, late one night, we struck up conversation with a pristine, Presley-lipped 21-year-old barwoman, who explained in her lazy Tennessee drawl, “My house is protected by two things: God and my gun. If anybody breaks in, first they’ll see my gun, then they’ll see God.”
Nashville is part of America’s ‘Bible Belt’ and is said to have the highest number of churches per capita of all US cities. There are some rural churches, not far from Nashville, which have snake-handlers and preachers speaking in tongues. But, Lidell is keen to point out, his new hometown is far from primitive. “You can’t expect somewhere like Nashville to thrive by holding such a bigoted world view,” he says. “It has a huge university community and it’s an interesting melting pot. If Nashville was such a conservative Bible Belt… people wouldn’t move here and it wouldn’t get coverage.”
Indeed, Nashville is a city in transition. Away from Broadway, southern stereotypes are being quashed everywhere you look, whether it’s the garage bands of hipster enclave East Nashville or the city’s burgeoning foodie scene. While southern cuisine is still mind-blowingly calorific (an accompaniment for chilli is not rice, but a grilled cheese sandwich), there’s a new influx of visionary chefs updating it with fresh local ingredients. City House offers an Italian take on New-South food such as catfish with cornmeal crust and sweet potato fettuccine. In East Nashville, hipster types chow down at Pharmacy Burger Parlor, Marché Artisan Foods and Mas Tacos food truck. However, the undisputed jewel in the southern gastro-renaissance is The Catbird Seat. Run by two tattooed chefs with Copenhagen’s Noma and Heston’s Fat Duck on their CVs, their seven-course menu ($100) includes pigeon with sweet hay-grass yoghurt and burnt oak ice-cream.
But the best food Stylist ate in Nashville was at an eatery which we initially mistook for a soup kitchen. Inside Arnold’s Country Kitchen, street cleaners, doughty pensioners and bolo-tied businessmen queued up, tray in hand, for the classic Nashville meal, meat and three veg – a heaping portion of fried chicken or indecently drippy roast beef served with a trio of sides (note: mac’n’cheese counts as a vegetable).
Putting on weight in Nashville might be inevitable, but the food, just like the rest of the city, hits a homely spot. Yes, Nashville can be odder than a raccoon in a rhinestone jacket, but there are pockets of (southern) comfort if you know where to look for it. “Nashville is all about the people,” says Lidell. “They’ve got good soul, they really are incredible.” The currency of Nashville’s country music might be heartbreak, but you’ll struggle to find a happier or friendlier place…
NASHVILLE IN 48 HOURS
What makes the capital of Tennessee the next travel hotspot? Here’s a full weekend of reasons to drop on by
Start at Country Music Hall of Fame (countrymusichalloffame.org) to see Elvis’ gold Cadillac and Patsy Cline’s cocktail dress.
Next, scoff ‘meat-and-three’ at Arnold’s, pausing to dig the crates at Jack White’s Third Man Records (thirdmanrecords.com).
Explore Nashville’s trashy side with NashTrash bus tours (nashtrash.com) before hurling yourself in the boot-stompin’ mania of Broadway.
Ponder the South’s past by visiting the exact replica of the Parthenon (nashville.gov).
Then take a detour north of the river to eat Prince’s Hot Chicken and tour the Grand Ole Opry (opry.com).
Head to 12South neighbourhood, which is littered with boutiques such as Imogene + Willie (imogeneandwillie.com).
Unwind over cocktails at The Patterson House (thepattersonnashville.com) before critically-lauded fare at The Catbird Seat
Picture credit: Rex