How much do you really know about your hometown/adopted city? (Quiz at bottom of page.)
It’s a weird time to be a Nashville native. After decades of being mocked for growing up in some philistine, pig-ignorant backwater, I suddenly hail from a “cool” city. We have a magazine called Native which is stuffed with profiles of people who mostly aren’t. Cranes are the new state tree; the new state book should be How to Get Started in Real Estate Investing, but in fact, our lawmakers have selected a different one. (*That bill was vetoed.)
And the jingoistic “I Believe in Nashville” mural around the corner from my house is clotted with queues of exuberant photo-takers visiting from Somewhere Else. (BTW, what does it even mean to “believe in” Nashville? I mean, I’m quite certain it exists.)
But you know what? It’s all good. Newcomers, welcome! Make yourselves at home. Hospitality is what we do, or at least that’s what we want to believe about ourselves (despite some deeply misguided gestures to the contrary). Please do come, bring us your know-how, and make cool things. And Native, please do keep publishing gorgeously art-directed pieces about the cool things people are making.
Hopefully, you newbies are here for the long haul, and not just cashing in — we don’t cotton to that here. So if you plan on staying, we do ask this: You may have come for love of the New Nashville, but don’t discount the old one. Do bring new ideas and talents — the more the better. But please, also bring your curiosity.
Be interested in what came before.
Of course, it’s not only the rookie Nashvegans who need an education. A friend of mine moved here recently to start a professorship at Vanderbilt. She is an inveterate wonderer and asker. One day she said, “Why is Nashville the country music capital of Earth?” I realized that I didn’t really know the details. I guess I’d somehow figured that being a lifelong Nashvillian, the knowledge would just seep into me, somehow.
It doesn’t work that way. Since then, I’ve gone to the effort to learn the answer — which meant reading several books about Nashville’s music history and interviewing a lot of fascinating people who played huge roles in it.
We natives have too often ignored the past — especially the “inconvenient” aspects of it, the uglier aspects that reflect poorly on us: aspects of race and class and LGBT rights and unimaginable human folly. Certain embarrassing ex-mayors. Our demolished architectural heritage.
So let’s not pin all the historical ignorance on the newbies.
Still, there’s an emerging smugness among us born-and-bred Nashvillians. After decades of camouflaging our accents and insisting we really do like all kinds of music, we’ve adopted an air of self-congratulation, that sense that you had to suffer through the sketchy wasteland era of downtown and a Shoney’s Breakfast Bar childhood to truly grasp the wonder of a dinner at Bastion. After all, the truest pleasure emanates from sufferings past. Right?
I don’t know, maybe pleasure is pleasure. And why make this an Us and Them thing, anyway? We Old Nashvillians really do want to get along with our new neighbors (except the ones who park in my yard, that is). And to start these rather fraught negotiations, let us confess to you our fears: We worry that a glittering, über-popular New Nashville could become more style than substance. That its sudden IT-factor might draw an invasion of speculators who’ll bulldoze our municipal treasures with no regard for the time we’ve invested in those old bricks. That our neighborhoods will become soulless, gentrified theme parks we can barely afford.
Full disclosure: I’ve issued my share of rants on this topic. I’ve railed against the loss of favorite watering holes and shaken my fist at the backhoes. I did all that ranting because I love being a regular customer — sliding onto my reserved barstool twice a week, recognizing the faces there, and not even having to order, because someone started mixing the usual when I walked in. But now that my neighborhood is a favorite of visiting bridesmaids, I rarely see the same face twice anymore.
Still, I’ve calmed down a bit. First, I had to remind myself that we longtime residents did plenty of bulldozing without any outside help. Also, we’ve got soullessness down already: Please visit our strip-mall suburbs for the evidence thereof.
Besides, there’s too much work to do to waste energy on unstructured curmudgeonry. My feeling now is, pick the important battles, plant some trees, enjoy the view from my deliberately unpolished 12South porch, and let the rest go.
For cues on how to manage that, I take as my model the late Jim Ridley, much-loved Nashville Scene editor-in-chief who worked for the paper for his entire professional life and knew this town as well as anyone. He WAS Old Nashville, but he didn’t dismiss New Nashville on principle. In fact, he bear-hugged the New Nashville and any other iteration the city cared to be — so long as the new version was a good-faith attempt at improvement.
His 2015 article about the Belcourt‘s renovation was signature Ridley: nostalgia plus optimism, hope over fear. He was capable of championing his beloved art-house theater while trusting that the best of its traditions would survive an architectural overhaul. See his Scene piece below:
Ridley was capable of calling out craven malfeasance, and he could work up a good mad about the wanton destruction of things worth preserving. But he also spotlighted the good and the great about this little city. I mean, sure — we’re bad at roundabouts. But we’ve got Prince’s, Robert’s Western World, Parnassus, and Becca Stevens! What other city can lay claim to all that?
Sure, I’m still a little mad about some of the things we’ve lost. I miss the Old Nashville. But I see no reason to panic, or to close my mind and heart to the New One.
And then, just when I’m at max irritation with Draper James shoppers, somebody in the neighborhood does this:
Nashville: Breathe. It’s going to be OK.
What I would ask of you newcomers, AND of us longtime residents, is for folks to do the damn homework. You can’t respect a history you don’t know. I’m guilty, too — there are huge gaps in my knowledge. But I’m up for the challenge of filling them.
Here are a few ideas for how to begin a remedial course on Old Nashville. I welcome your additions and recommendations. Also, feel free to post quiz answers in the comments thread. (And if somebody buys me a cocktail, I’ll post an answer key.)
Susannah Felts’ essay on the ghosts of Nashville past
Erin Tocknell’s piece on Nashville pools and Jim Crow
Hank Williams. Garth Brooks. BR5-49? (Peter Applebome, NYTimes)
Any history article by Betsy Phillips (scroll down for nonfiction)
Nashville Students Sit In for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960 (Global Nonviolent Action Database)
Anything whatsoever by Jim Ridley:
“All those years of dashed hopes vanished the second they hit that first note like a blindfolded man flipping off a firing squad. The band members looked stunned at the intensity of the response. They wrote their names in fire that night. They split atoms.”
March, by John Lewis
Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City, by Craig Havighurst
Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, by Andrew Maraniss
How Nashville Became Music City, USA: 50 Years of Music Row, by Michael Kosser
Suggested by Betsy Phillips:
A Shot in the Dark, by Martin Hawkins
Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942
Tony Gonzalez’s piece on John Lewis (WPLN)
Any episode of Curious Nashville (staff, WPLN)
Movers & Thinkers, Episode 6: Guardians of the Past (Emily Siner, WPLN)
Bill Demain’s “Nashville Legends” Spotify playlist
Hear music at Robert’s & the Station Inn.
Go see Doyle and Debbie mock all of it, with style.
Bill Demain’s “Walkin’ Nashville” tour
Eating & drinking list:
- Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
- Arnold’s Country Kitchen
- Brown’s Diner
- Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
- Hermitage Café (THE HERM)
- Silver Sands Soul Food
- Sure, gotta go to Loveless once.
- Oak Bar in the Hermitage Hotel — for sheer old-school splendor
- Spend a weekend in the Civil Rights Room at the Downtown Library, poring through the videos, art and artifacts, and mountains of reading. (You can even request a tour.)
- Check out attorney David Ewing’s fantastic Nashville history Facebook page, The Nashville I Wish I Knew
- Cough up the dough to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. Pause for a long look at the reconstructed office of Owen Bradley, who (with brother Harold) built the first recording studio on what would become Music Row.
- Ask an Old Nashvillian: Find a longtime local and offer to buy him/her a cocktail. Ask about the Old Days. Listen to the answers.
And now for the quiz:
Award yourself a point for each question you can answer correctly without Googling it. Or, just Google it and learn.
- What famous Nashville character evolved from Purity Dairy pusher to movie star?
- In the movie “Existo,” what anatomical feature did the pogo stick most resemble?
- Who was the “Sushi nazi” and where was his restaurant?
- What was the most excellent sandwich at Mosko’s?
- Where was Sunshine Grocery? Becker’s Bakery? Why should you care?
- Who is the namesake of the Nashville Scene’s annual “Boner Awards” issue?
- What year (approx.) did the last Amtrak train depart from Union Station? (And why can’t we have nice trains anymore?)
- What do the letters “WSM” stand for, and why would a radio station be in the business of shielding people?
- What was the “Mother Church of Country Music”?
- What was the “Nashville Sound” and who did it piss off?
- What was the “Quonset Hut,” and what does it have to do with the piano-guy statue at the “dicks” roundabout?
- How is the “dicks” roundabout connected to the Parthenon?
- And why is there a freaking Parthenon here, anyway?
- Where was Lucy’s Record Shop, and why did it rock? Which local political figure opened it?
- What was “The Nashville Curse,” and who broke it?
- What (and where) was Sulphur Dell Park? Why was it named that?
- Where could you buy both Wigs and Records in one convenient location?
- What year did Jimi Hendrix spend flexing his fingers in Jefferson Street clubs?
- Which early Nashville coffee shop ejected Steve Earle for bringing in his own McDonald’s takeout?
- What already-married Nashville mayor infamously appeared with his girlfriend (and played harmonica) on the “Phil Donahue” show?
- What was Church Street Center, and why was it a stupid idea?
- What was a “Screamin’ Delta Demon,” and where would you find one?
- Where could the following song lyric be heard: “I searched the world over, and I thought I’d found true love / You met another, and PFFT! You was gone!”
- What is United Record Pressing, and why did it need a “Motown Suite” apartment?
- Why are there so many fucking Old Hickory Blvds?
- How do you pronounce “Demonbreun”? “Lafayette Street”? “Smyrna”?
- Where was Ralph’s, and why was it so awesome?
- Name 4 additional restaurants that (since 1997) have leased the 12South space now occupied by Taqueria del Sol? Which was the most reflective?
- Why is the Pancake Pantry even a thing?
- Why is Nashville the country music capital of Earth?
Identify the following Nashville figures:
- John Siegenthaler
- The Nashville Smilodon
- Ed Temple
- Cornelia Fort
- Rebecca Bain
- The Nun Bun
- “Mr. Guitar”
- Bianca Page
- Diane Nash
- Sir Cecil Creape
- John Jay Hooker
- Bill Hall
- Harold Bradley
- Jody Faison
- Marcia Trimble
- Clayton “Rabbit” Veach
- Mongo the Mad Bavarian
- Skull Schulman
- DJ Ron
- Dr. Ming Wang
- Homer Horsehide
- André Prince Jeffries
- The A-Team / The Nashville Cats
- Wilma Rudolph
- Billy Block
- Hap Townes
- Cain Sloan & Castner Knott
- Tojo Yamamoto
40+ — You are a Nashville Old Soul. You’ve jammed with Floyd and Boots at the Carousel Club and gotten trashed with Skull. You can visualize the entire scope of Briley Parkway and the various Old Hickorys.
30-40 — You are a veteran Nashvegan. You’ve jammed with Tom T. at his place and gotten trashed with Steve Earle. You know the precise lines of demarcation between White Bridge, Woodmont, and Thompson Lane.
20-30 — You’ve been here long enough to remember 12South before the taco places. You used to sing karaoke at Santa’s Pub and get trashed with Santa, before the college kids took over. You can drive straight to Trader Joe’s without ever getting on Hillsboro Road.
10-20 — You live here now. You are learning to play the chords to “Record Year,” and you once got trashed with some dudes you met at 3 Crow. You know three discrete driving routes from Imogene + Willie to Barista Parlor. Two of them are by interstate.
<10 — You are staying in an Air BnB. You just took your first guitar lesson and are thinking it would be cool to get trashed at Dino’s. (Which you’re pretty sure is on Gallatin Pk — or wait, maybe it’s Main St!) You are a Lyft driver who relies exclusively on Waze to reach your destination.