East Nashville used to be the toughest neighborhood in the city. Today, it’s one of the nicest spots to hang out there. Peter Eriksson went to visit with a wide-open mind. And of course, he just had to see–or should we say hear?–a little more of the city, too.
Text and photo: Peter Eriksson
In an interview for the Walking the Floor podcast (by Chris Shiflett, who is most famous for being the guitarist of Foo Fighters), singer Justin Townes Earle relates his experiences growing up in Nashville in the early 1990s: “it was a shithole, a tough town, and East Nashville was the toughest area.” Today, it seems difficult–if not impossible–to think of East Nashville as a ‘shithole’. It has become something of a Mecca for hipsters, with all the microbreweries, cafes, and vegan restaurants that entails, and a generally good vibe. Now, I’m seeing my friends who live in Nashville posting complaints to Facebook about all the tourists in East Nashville, or recommending Mexican restaurants on the edge of the area along with a warning to “go there soon, before everybody else finds out about it and it gets ruined.”
We–that is, myself and my friend Andreas, who also happens to be serving as a chauffeur for this driver’s license-challenged article writer–have booked stays in two different Airbnbs during our visit to Nashville. The first is conveniently nested in what would be considered a suburban area by European standards–and as it will turn out, this is what most of East Nashville feels like to us: a sleepy suburb where old houses rub shoulders with smaller, newer structures that look more like apartment buildings or terrace houses.
Late that evening, when we check into the first place we’ll be staying at, which is on Waters Avenue in Eastwood, the first thing we hear is the mournful noise of a freight train signaling its arrival to the evening traffic–a sound that feels like a warm welcome to a city so closely tied to Country & Western music and every aspect of its mythology. We sit down on the little porch and open a couple of beers that we bought at a convenience store down the street. It feels good to be here.
The next morning, jet lag helps us seize the day. I take a walk to explore the neighborhood, and soon realize we’re just a short walk from the bar/record store Vinyl Tap, Cafe Roze, and the small Southern Grist Brewery–all great places (it turns out) for a bite or a beer, and if you want to get a tattoo while you’re at it, Adventure Tattoo is also located nearby.
After lunch, we’ve made an appointment to meet up with the local musician Steven Mullan, who’s agreed to guide us around in exchange for some portraits that we’ll be taking during our afternoon together. Steven is a great guy, who turns out to have made only the most rudimentary plans for where to spend the afternoon, but he starts out by showing us the abandoned Cornelia Fort Airport. Today, the airport is used for exercise and recreation. There is an outdoor gym, and the former runways are mostly used by joggers and cyclists. A domestic pig is having a carefree poke around over by the old control tower. Cornelia Fort herself, we soon find out, was an interesting person, although her role in history is more of a footnote than a highly influential one: as one of the earliest female pilots in the US who worked as a civilian flight instructor in Hawaii, she was supposedly the first person to encounter the Japanese fighter planes en route to their attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Cornelia escaped the attack unharmed, but ironically, she went on to make history again by becoming the first female pilot to be killed on duty while serving in the US Air Force–although this happened in rather unglamorous circumstances. She crashed during a routine flight while escorting a training aircraft in Texas. That’s the way it goes sometimes, I guess.
Next, Steven drives us down to Nashville’s famous Lower Broadway, where you can find all the Honky Tonks, boots, and cowboy hats that you expect from clichéd images of Nashville. We park close to Printer’s Alley and walk down to Broadway. Steven informs us quite unequivocally that almost all the Honky Tonks on Broadway are irrelevant, musically speaking, before he brings us to the place he personally finds the most “real”: Robert’s Western World (commonly referred to as “Robert’s”). When we enter, a middle-aged trio is onstage playing some fairly sedate instrumental country music, and Steven is right–this place does seem a lot more authentic than all the more commercial venues on the street outside. We head for the back of the room, and climb the stairs to the bar, where we sit down to sip a beer and a bourbon and coke, and chat about life as a musician in Nashville. Steven doesn’t play the kind of Country music the city is famous for–the music scene here is more diverse than you might imagine–but he explains that he can’t think of a better town to live in if you want to play music for a living. Although making ends meet can be a challenge sometimes, and you have to resort to taking the occasional wedding gig and stuff like that, the atmosphere is consistently positive and encouraging. Steven explains that his friends and neighbors always tell him “you can do it!”–which is pretty much the opposite of how musicians are treated back home in Sweden, where the most common comment is something along the lines of “it’s great and all that you do that stuff, but what do you do for a living?”
On our way back to the car, we exchange some words with Jackie, who politely and gently tells us of his misfortunes and asks if we can help him out with a few dollars. When I ask him, somewhat guiltily, if he’d mind if I took his picture, he brightens up and tells us “I used to be a boxer,” before proceeding to raise his fists in a classic boxer’s pose. Next, Steven leads us to one of his favorite places outside the Nashville city center: the Percy Priest Reservoir, where he goes to unwind. This is a peaceful outdoor area that feels very much like home to us, as Sweden has so many similar places. After passing by Steven’s house, where he very generously lends me a guitar to play while I’m in Nashville, he drops us off at our place on Waters Avenue. We finish the evening off by heading down to the Vinyl Tap, where we indulge in late-night sandwiches and some beers to go with them. They have a great selection here, with 24 brews on tap and just as many more on bottle. Taylor Powell, the bartender, who has that genuinely nice American way about him, asks us where we’re from before writing down a bunch of suggestions for the road trip we’ll be making during a later stage of this journey (more on that in a future issue). We quietly comment to each other that his attention seems excessive–but then, five days later, when we I return to the Vinyl Tap, he immediately greets me: “Hey Peter! How was your trip?” and I feel a little ashamed when I realize I can’t remember his name. On our walk back from Vinyl Tap, we hear that freight train again. By Swedish standards, it’s an impossibly long train, and though it is decelerating as it rolls by, it takes a full eight minutes (yes, we timed it) for its entire length to pass us.
After a slow start to the next day, we meet up with musicians Grant Lee Phillips and Josh Rouse at the nearby Ugly Mugs Cafe. They take us for a ride down to Shelby Park–a large green area in East Nashville, where the freight train (again!) rolls by 60 feet up in the air, on an old railway bridge with a bolted, iron frame. We head down to the shoreline, where the Cumberland River floats by, looking like just the kind of place Huck Finn and the escaped Jim might float downstream on a raft. Since we’re visiting in the springtime, we get a better view of the river than we’d expect to in the summer, when it might not be worth trying to make your way through all the vegetation on the riverbed to catch a glimpse of it. After taking some pictures and engaging in some pleasant conversation, they drive us back, and we have lunch at an excellent vegan restaurant called The Wild Cow. We can’t recommend it enough, regardless of your protein preferences.
After an afternoon siesta, we head over to Nashville’s hipster nexus: Five Points. And whatever we might have been expecting, this is a relaxed neighborhood that doesn’t go to too very much trouble to make an impression. We browse Fanny’s Music store, ogling gorgeous old Dobros and Gibson guitars, before having dinner in the Beyond the Edge sports bar, where I eat my only burger of the trip. We swing by the second-hand store Hipzipper, where I–somewhat compulsively–purchase a cool 50s hat. After this, we finish the evening at the Purple Building (owned by musician Todd Snider), which feels more like an unusually cozy rehearsal space than anything else. There, we watch a bare-bones, but amazing, concert by the incredibly productive musician Will Johnson. Will is on a “living room tour,” which means he’s playing without a PA or amplifier in places that can fit a small, intimate concert–it might just as well be somebody’s living room as a practice room or a small art gallery. I bought tickets long in advance, which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as there are only twelve of us in the audience–which must, in turn, be an indication of the abundance of options people have for musical entertainment in Nashville–but it only makes those of us who are here feel more special: we’re the select few who get to sit in a comfy old couch, drinking beers we brought ourselves and listening to Will’s introverted songs for a little over an hour. If anything, it’s a great, low-key Kodak moment.
For next night’s stay in Nashville, we find ourselves relocating a few miles west, on Chester Avenue. This place is bigger than the last one, which was basically one room (a refurbished garage), but as our hostess is home in the evenings, it still feels a little more cramped. We take a trip to the downtown area to catch a great exhibition of impressionist art and another exhibition featuring the works of the classic American photojournalist Dorothea Lange–both at the Frist Art Museum. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that most of the great impressionist masterpieces reside back in Europe that makes this exhibition so great. It displays a collection of less famous works and sketches by great artists like van Gogh, Monet, and Degas. This museum is well worth a visit if you’re an art aficionado. We also make a visit to the Johnny Cash Museum, which is right off of Lower Broadway. It’s a hyper-commercial place, which has lots of merchandise for sale in the museum’s gift shop (some of it is really cool, though). However, the museum itself a fairly small-scale operation, and getting to see these artefacts from a genuine country music legend is a pretty special experience. For example, they have the Cash family piano on display, which was built in the 1880s and purchased by Johnny’s grandfather. They’ve also moved an entire stone wall from Johnny Cash’s house in Hendersonville to the museum. The most creative exhibit is a mixing board where you get to remix some of Cash’s hits yourself! Here’s your chance to lose or add some drums, bass, guitar, and backup vocals in the songs you love. Our conclusion after trying it is that Rick Rubin made the right decision in paring the tracks back as much as possible when he revitalized Cash’s career in the 1990s–the expression “less is more” seems to apply to Johnny Cash songs, anyway.
We head back to our new home away from home at the Southern Grist Brewing Company, and I sample one of their own lagers, which is absolutely excellent. Danny’s “That Awesome Taco Truck” is parked right outside. Danny tells us it’s a good spot for him at the weekends, because the Southern Grist and the next-door Vinyl Tap are always full of customers. We try a taco each, and they go down a treat–what really elevates this culinary experience is the amazing tortillas, which are thin (and doubled up), and hit that perfect sweet spot between softness and crispiness.
Grand Ole Opry
That evening, we head back to town to visit the legendary Ryman Auditorium, where all the classic country and rock n’ roll greats like Hank Williams, Elvis, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family, and Johnny Cash played back in the day–but other, less expected greats like Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, WC Fields, Enrico Caruso, and even Theodore Roosevelt (!) have also peered out over the crowd in this semi-circular auditorium. From 1943 to 1974, this was also the home of the most classic country music stage show of all time: the Grand Ole Opry. After the Opry left the Ryman, the place almost went under, before it regained its footing and began to find success as a concert venue again in the 90s. The night we choose to visit, Sweden’s own The Tallest Man on Earth has taken the stage–today happens to be the day he’s releasing his new album, and the performance he gives is inspired to say the least. After the show, we’re fortunate enough to get to take a drink in Johnny and June Carter Cash’s dressing room–and afterwards, we even manage to sneak onstage to take in the view that all those classic performers once saw. And even though the only audience we have is a somewhat bemused janitor, we still feel connected to the history of the place. After this, we finish the evening off with another visit to Robert’s, which is conveniently located next door to the Ryman. The vibe there is fantastic tonight, and our day frankly couldn’t get any better.
We head down to the shoreline, where the Cumberland River floats by, looking like just the kind of place Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim might float downstream on a raft.
We start our last day in East Nashville peacefully, with the first–and only–sleep-in that our jet-lagged bodies let us enjoy during this visit. We decide to take a walk down Gallatin Avenue to Five Points; a walk of about a mile and a half. Gallatin Avenue seems less gentrified than the other places we’ve visited in East Nashville, and some it looks pretty run-down, with a few vacant lots glaring back at us. It’s probably just a matter of time before this area gets sucked into the vibe that permeates the rest of East Nashville, for better or worse. Our first stop is at J.D. Tucker’s rather morbid store Hail Dark Aesthetics. If you’re in the market for an old-fashioned cow’s head, this is the store for you! It’s even more so if you’re looking to make a killing on 19th century coffin plaques, mummified bats, indefinable creatures preserved in formalin jars–or why not a two-headed (taxidermied) calf?
Next, we make a stop at a little market for a Lebanese lunch at Jacob’s. He’s originally from Jerusalem, but has lived in Nashville for the last 33 years. Jacob also employs the chef Nidal, who is from Lebanon, and who has lived in the city for 25 years. We indulge in some small-talk with Jacob while Nidal cooks. Jacob has nothing but praise for Nashville (or for the USA, for that matter), and sums his opinions up in his slightly broken English with the words “here, you catch your dream faster.” Then, the very cheerful and friendly Nidal serves our food. When he realizes that he might be featured in a story in a magazine, he makes the only overtly political statement we hear throughout our stay in Nashville. Grinning broadly, he says, “Write: Palestine! One day we will be free!” and then smacks his lips contentedly.
We move on, but don’t get far before stopping to check out Dino’s Restaurant. The place looks very unassuming from the outside, but once we get inside, we find that this little bar and restaurant has a very chilled, comfortable, and ever so slightly worn atmosphere. The clientele is a mixture of what looks like more or less bohemian musicians, students, and lunching families. It’s quite liberating, and rather surprising, that the only music they play is old reggae–from the time before western pop musicians bastardized the genre. As great as Dino’s is, we settle for a quick beer before heading on. Once we arrive down at Five Points, we take another look inside Fanny’s to consider how well an old guitar from the 40s might survive some less than gentle treatment at the hands of airline baggage handlers during our trip back to Europe (we decide we don’t fancy its chances, and that we shouldn’t buy it). When I ask a guitar player if he would mind appearing in a picture, he tells me it’s fine, and then proceeds to ask us where we’re from. When we tell him we’re from Sweden, he lights up, and cheerfully informs us that he’ll be passing through there on tour this summer. His name is Adrian, and he and his partner Meredith make up the appropriately named duo Adrian+Meredith, who will be going on a summer tour of Scandinavia that will last for most of June and July 2019. After some brief small talk, Adrian informs us that Fats Kaplin will be playing the 5 Spot club later that evening. We’ve never heard of Fats, but we soon find out that only yesterday, he played the last gig of a tour he did with the legendary John Prine, and that he’s played with Jack White, Nanci Griffith, and Beck in the past. When we leave Fanny’s, we can’t help feeling amazed over how vibrant the music scene really is here–and the huge number of musicians who seem to live here. Apparently, it’s not called “The Music City” for nothing.
The Tip Jar
That evening at the 5 Spot, we witness one of the most unpretentious concerts we’ve ever seen. Fats is joined onstage by a series of different musicians and singers (some of whom, we gather, are booked to play the 5 Spot fairly soon, and are more or less participating to market their upcoming shows). His wife Kristi Rose switches roles seamlessly from MC to singer to tip jar handler–the tip jar is the main source of income for the musicians onstage. Fats informs us that his next tune will be an Indian Raga, but instead of a sitar, he plays it on a guitar with a slide–which turns out to work surprisingly well. On a couple of occasions, he pauses the concert to perform what appears to be home-made magic tricks. It’s all a perfect conclusion to the our time here in Nashville.
Epilog: The next day, while we sit at the Nashville airport, waiting for our flight and having lunch at the airport branch of Tootsie’s (another legendary Lower Broadway establishment), we watch Woody James play standards in a corner of the restaurant. He’s doing it really well, too–transitioning smoothly between classics like Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain and folkier stuff like Where Did You Sleep Last Night. The latter, which is also known as In the Pines or My Girl, was more recently immortalized for present-day audiences by Nirvana’s acoustic rendition on their Unplugged album, but its roots go way back to the 19th century. Justin Townes Earle (who we mentioned at the beginning of this story) has stated that it was Nirvana’s version of that song that first got him into his American (folk) music heritage–and it’s worth bearing in mind when you read this that he’s the son of the icon Steve Earle! We chat with Woody briefly during one of his breaks, and ask him how the financial aspects of playing the Honky Tonks work, and he tells us you get paid a small fee–maybe 40 dollars or so–and then, the rest of your pay is whatever goes in the tip jar. When you play a gig like this one, at the airport, you only get the tip jar, which means your pay can vary immensely. He’s made as little as 65 and as much as 500 dollars in a day’s playing at the airport before. In a way, this is like a miniaturized reflection of the whole American capitalist system: the music venues (especially the ones on Lower Broadway) use the fortune-seeking musicians to draw a crowd, and the musicians need to have a solid, charismatic stage presence and a well-developed repertoire (ideally combined with a knack for figuring out which standards the crowd wants to hear) in order to get the tip jar filled up. If they don’t, the crowds will be smaller, and the performers will make less money. But when we ask him what it’s like to lead such an unglamorous life, Woody flashes a big smile: “It’s the best job I ever had”.