Where We Should Live

Athens of the Now

Twenty years ago—or even 10—Nashville was falling to the bottom of any list of top U.S. destinations. Music City’s recent resurgence is a reminder of what Americans really value.

David Graeme Baker, Spare Room with Montana Guitar. Courtesy the artist and Artists' House Gallery.

For a long time after leaving for college I would tell people that my hometown, Nashville, was a good place to be from—implying, of course, that it wasn’t such a good place to be.

Tennessee’s capital city, I thought, was best left to right-wing nuts and burned-out country stars, retrograde politics and Bible Belt hypocrisy, orange cheese and white racism (somehow these two go together for me, rooted perhaps in a forgotten lecture from a friend’s dad about the dangers of black people as he made us pimento-and-Kraft-Singles sandwiches). Sometimes I would lie and say I was from somewhere else: Chicago, which was sort of true, since I lived there for a while, or New York City, which was sort of true in an aspirational, if not strictly factual, sense.

Eventually I did move to New York, settling in Brooklyn to complete the arc of escape from Southern suburban purgatory to Northern urban utopia. Then a few weeks ago, at a party in Prospect Heights, someone asked where I grew up.

“Nashville,” I said, buckling up for a long passive-defensive bull session. Instead, I got nods of approval. “It’s the new Austin,” one woman said.

Suddenly Nashville is everywhere. A few days after the party I read in GQ that the “most stylish party in America” happens Mondays at Nashville’s 5 Spot bar, a place filled, according to the pictures, with Hank Williams look-alikes, if Hank Williams had gotten a doctorate in cultural studies instead of dying from alcohol poisoning in the back of a car. The same issue reported that one of the country’s best new clothing stores is Imogene and Willie, down 12th Avenue from my old house—though when I was there the road was mostly lined with pawnshops, Christian bookstores, and a hygienically suspicious (albeit tasty) bakery. The New York Times Magazine just published a long profile of the Nashville transplant Jack White and his new mecca of cool, Third Man Records, on the south side of downtown next to the homeless shelter where my church youth group used to volunteer.

Nashville isn’t just cool; it’s the locus of a whole new genus of cool: a retro-roots-analog-gingham-rye-Johnny-Cash cool. Certainly much cooler than I am. I ran away as soon as possible, twin maps of Manhattan blinking in my eyes like dollar signs in a Looney Toons short. And now that I live in Brooklyn, work in Midtown, go out in Prospect Heights, and do whatever else one does in the epicenter of American trendiness, I find out I really just switched places, and the cool kids are all hanging out back home—my home. 

The Nashville people are buzzing about now is not the Nashville I knew growing up. Like the wrinkled cowboy divas who frequented my mom’s department store jewelry counter, the city back then had a certain faded glory.

The Nashville people are buzzing about now is not the Nashville I knew growing up. Like the wrinkled cowboy divas who frequented my mom’s department store jewelry counter, the city back then had a certain faded glory. One day Naomi Judd came into the store to buy a necklace. As Mom went to open a case, Judd suddenly froze, hands splayed across the display glass, her ear cocked toward an overhead speaker. “Do you hear that? Why, they’re playing my song!” Mom’s Judd impression is two parts Scarlet O’Hara to one part Norma Desmond, which is just about right—a perfect fit for the story and a perfect fit for Nashville.

I grew up hearing tales of Nashville’s lost greatness. In fifth grade we had six weeks of local history, most of which involved a heavily sanitized retelling of the city’s postwar glory days as the birthplace of country and a hotbed of bluegrass, soul, jazz, and early rock. We’d take field trips to Music Row, near Vanderbilt, to see the studios where guys like Elvis and Hank had recorded their legendary tunes, but we were introduced to the city as history, where things had happened but where nothing was actually happening. The suburbs, without history, were the future.

Later on our own, we learned about Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and their “lost year” spent in a Nashville apartment, about carousing and womanizing and drinking and amphetamines in the back of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which drew performers across a narrow, urine-soaked alley after shows at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry during its heydays in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But those days didn’t last long. Outlaw country had its moment in the ‘70s, and for a while “Hee-Haw” and “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Urban Cowboy” defined the national aesthetic. But by the ‘80s everyone wanted to forget the rhinestone days, and country lost its luster while the recording industry consolidated in California, leaving Music Row to rot.

Meanwhile, Nashville was disfigured by successive, failed attempts at dramatic reconstruction: the downtown mall, empty; the “international” airport concourse (read: flights to the Bahamas), shuttered. Though the suburbs continued to grow, the city itself stagnated until when I left, in 1995, it wasn’t much larger than it was when my father had first moved away at around the same age, 30 years before. Local baseball allegiances were defined by which teams you watched on cable—TBS out of Atlanta and thus the Braves, or WGN out of Chicago and thus the Cubs—and it was just another sign of how Nashvillians all seemed to be looking elsewhere.

The city had a certain Charlie Brown quality to it: Our mayor, who was cursed (or blessed, depending on your outlook) with the name Bill Boner, went on Donahue to explain why he dumped his wife for a lounge singer named Tracie Peel. For a while the big topic of debate was whether Branson, Mo. —Branson! —was about to overtake us as America’s country music capital. (Also pathetic: the belief that, like college degrees or royal titles, “country music capital” was a conferrable status.) When we tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the New Jersey Devils hockey team to move, Garden State wags unleashed a stream of one-liners in the national media, mostly along the lines of “Nashville: the only city where the players will have more teeth than the fans” (which is pretty insulting, but also pretty funny).

Even worse, Nashville kept making bad decisions, especially when the local economy picked up in the early ‘90s. The Grand Ole Opry had already moved from the gorgeous Ryman to a larger, corporatized and sanitized venue near Opryland, a lackluster theme park that was, nevertheless, our theme park—soon demolished to make way for a giant outlet mall. The city shut down the seedy joints along Lower Broadway and replaced them with Planet Hollywood and the NASCAR Café, neither of which lasted long.

This was not a place I or most anyone else I knew wanted to live after college. Though some people moved back, most of my friends scattered for Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco. We preferred being transplants in the anonymous megalopolis, trading the whiff of hayseed for the dry, unscented air of rootlessness.

By the ‘80s everyone wanted to forget the rhinestone days, and country lost its luster while the recording industry consolidated in California, leaving Music Row to rot.

I suspect, however, that it was our very departure that made the city fertile ground for a new crop of cool. Young people had been leaving the city for decades. But they weren’t leaving for the same reasons young people left Detroit or Birmingham or Baltimore, with their maelstroms of deindustrialization and poverty and racial strife and crime; they left Nashville because it was boring. In the short term, the effect was the same: emptied-out neighborhoods filled with cheap bungalows, vacant storefronts on seemingly prime commercial corners. But unlike in other decimated cities the Nashville government, setting aside Mayor Boner and a propensity for pipedreams, was relatively competent, the crime low, the schools decent by urban-America standards.

As a result, Nashville fell close to one end of the work-life spectrum of city living. At the other end are places like New York and San Francisco, where dreams of the full, creative life are usually dashed by the realities of sky-high costs of living. Some people make it as artisanal picklers or professional banjo-stringers, but not without a struggle or a trust fund.

But Nashville, alongside places like Asheville and New Orleans and even Chicago, is the kind of city where you can actually get by comfortably on a part-time job, spending the rest of your time tuning up your knitting skills to Etsy grade. That sort of lifestyle is increasingly appealing: Over 53,000 people between ages 18 and 34 moved to Nashville between 2006 and 2008, the latest two-year stretch available from the Census Bureau, while Forbes rated it among the top five cities poised for a growth boom over the next decade. And since the city has a long tradition of accepting struggling musicians, it was primed to receive another crop of like-minded, other-directed folks.

Looking back, I can see the roots of the renaissance around the Nashville of my high school years: cafes springing up near Vanderbilt, a fantastic roster of 20-something DJs on the university’s student-run radio station, downtown poetry nights, and weekend raves in a long-abandoned car factory. But I can’t blame myself for not seeing the bigger picture; I was blinded by the brighter glow of other cities.

When my brother and his wife returned to Nashville, they moved into my grandparents’ old house, a 1960s single-floor ranch that somehow packs a living room, dining room, study, den, and three bedrooms into 1,400 square feet. Growing up, it was the Nashville of my Nashville—depressingly outmoded, clean and safe and totally without character. But my brother did some painting and hung up some Hatch Show prints, and suddenly everything felt new and comfortable and right. The old linoleum, the brick patio, the shag carpets, somehow it all just works, as modern today as it was in 1963. 

As with the house, so it is with the city. In these days of slow growth and rebuilding, of learning to reuse and adapt to what we have rather than crave something disposably newfangled, it’s only natural that a city like Nashville, along with its retro chic image, should be cool once more.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen