I left Nashville in 2011, at a time when the fairgrounds issue was lying face down in a racetrack, when Davis-Kidd was shuttering, when Lisa Howe had just been forced out. It's not that the city wasn't percolating toward more progressive, cosmopolitan vibes: There was Music City's first fashion week, Third Man Records and hipness to spare. But there was no sense the city was about to go Boomtown. Within two years of my absence, Nashville wasn't just a mid-sized city known for health care jobs, country music and the occasional punchline on national news. It was "It City," aka Hot Shit. You know what happened next — you live here. "Southern sensibility" takes on the "luster of the current," and the magazine spreads ... oh, the magazine spreads.
But I was skeptical. Could Nashville really be so great in such a short time, particularly without me in it? I'd lived there a decade. For about half that decade I wrote about Nashville for this paper, usually covering rock bands and why the good ones wouldn't play here. My point is: I know you — like, the real you. And you're great and all, but It City seemed like a slick sheen for a place that still, you know, has a racetrack in the middle of town.
Still, my social media feed said otherwise. According to it, there was now widely available great coffee, cold-pressed fresh juice places, a restaurant boom, real fashion, the Black Keys and, of course, something called Diarrhea Planet (a rock band, not what happens after having the juice).
Cut to now, when I would be visiting for nine whole days over the holidays. I intended to approach it thusly: I would go about my day just as I always had (minus the job), seeking out the same things I do in Los Angeles: fresh juice, good coffee, staggering selection of booze. I'd still find my beloved meat-and-threes, but luster of the current suggested I'd also find my now beloved healthier fare.
Truth be told, my first impressions were hardly different than my last. Whether by billboard, church marquee or general announcement, upon driving out of the airport I was immediately reminded of God, hair transplants or barbecue, sometimes all at once. (In Los Angeles, it's movies, cosmetic dentistry, weight loss).
There was that Southern sensibility: Someone flashed their headlights at us on a stretch of Briley Parkway to signal a cop running radar somewhere down the line. Billboard after billboard promised cheap, tasty comfort food — a plate at Cracker Barrel for only $7.69. Nothing in Los Angeles is only $7.69. Also: What are you waiting for, Nashville? You can still get two Arby's beef and cheddars for $5. But it worked: We ordered a kid's portion of pancakes at the Cracker Barrel, and they were the size of two small-plate pizzas. Bowl of whipped cream on the side just 'cuz.
It was practically Proustian to indulge in all these homestyle treats. But then I needed coffee, and I needed it how I like it now — with soy milk. Record scratch. It didn't seem like too much to ask in the land of Itty, but even in this town celebrated for its accelerated coastal catch-up, I was a bit confused as to why this popular non-dairy amenity with debatable health benefits was so scarce. You have heard of it?
A sample of various reactions:
At Dunkin Donuts by MetroCenter: [guy sounding eerily like Darryl from Thelma and Louise] "Uh, soy milk?"
Another who shall not be named: "We upcharge for that" [as if soy isn't the fifth most popular creamer after half-and-half, whole milk, 2 percent and skim] [pure speculation].
At Crema: "Yep, we have soy milk," says scruffy barista, reaching under the counter to produce a glass jar full of thick white liquid. "Only it's almond milk."
Sigh. The coffee, by the way, was excellent, especially at Crema and Roast on Eighth Avenue. But I took my soy frustrations to Twitter, where Megan Seling, a Nashvillian by way of coffee mecca Seattle, had my back:
"It's like this city has an exclusive deal with the almond milk industry. But almond milk is gross!"
One woman's "gross" is another woman's "Fine, but only if soy milk isn't around."
Now that soy was so hard to find, I was starting to notice other limited selections, and I began to feel, like so many coastal jerks, very, very oppressed. Why were these fresh Trader Joe's strawberries shaped like tubes? Why were there no salads on any of these menus? You know, the filling entrée salads, at least one or two without cheese? We may not agree on everything that makes a city great, but surely we'd agree that any list worth its pink gourmet salt includes a hearty entrée salad. At the excellent new pizzerio DeSano — where the pizza was grand — the only salads were pre-made, appetizer-sized, and doused with dairy. Tsk tsk.
I confess it was not so difficult to return to our earlier ways. We marveled at the tasty barbecue we picked up from Edley's in 12South. And the cornbread. It was moist; we died. This is a ghost writing. And this ghost also had the biscuits and gravy at Nashville Biscuit House and died again.
As the time went on, the ease of the Nashville of yore sunk back in. It was stupid easy (not to mention free) to park practically anywhere. And even the worst Cool Springs rush-hour traffic, once utterly dispiriting, was now a chance to laugh giddily at the thrill of hitting 45 mph on a major thoroughfare.
Unfortunately, the combination of freezing temperatures, holiday closures and a wicked sinus infection — thanks, cheese — meant we didn't get to do much else. I missed Diarrhea Planet on New Year's Eve, but I did something better, as far as I'm concerned: rolled up on the "new" dive bar Mickey's, parked in the ridiculously large, inviting, open, free spot directly in front of the door, and dropped chump change on three good vodkas.
It was great, but it was old Nashville. We spent an afternoon driving, looking for new construction, and though parts of Eighth Avenue and 12South looked freshly redesigned, aside the Jetsons Convention Center, I still felt like I was missing something keenly "It." So I put the question to my friends: "I drove around. I know about the restaurants. I've seen the convention center. What's up with the soy milk? Explain yourselves."
And at first they said, almost defensively, "Well, we don't call it It City." Fair enough. But as they began to talk about the New Nashville, it was obvious I was thinking about it all wrong. Nashville's newer charms are still a relative thing: better food, better shows to see, cooler hangouts. A music writer summed it up when he described covering Nashville's entertainment scene as finally a vibrant thing where it's not just that the artists are bigger, but they grant more access, and treat their stop here like a bigger deal.
But that didn't answer the one thing bugging me: This convention center, so touted as critical to Nashville's success, was something few residents would ever need to visit. So I asked: Give me one good reason you'll ever end up at the Music City Center.
"Eh," someone said. "They have some events there. But mostly it's a very good deal on downtown parking." I cannot argue with that.
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