An offbeat, die-hard New Yorker friend of mine just came to visit for a long weekend. She wanted the "Nashville experience," so on Thursday night we convened with some friends at Robert's Western World, still one of Lower Broad's best honky-tonks. We expected Robert's to be hopping, but not out of control. Thanks to Vandy and Belmont's graduation weekend, however, the usual mix of country couples, carefully coiffed hipsters and scruffy musicians was displaced by a baccalaureate bacchanalia.
There were some rich ironies to be savored here, to be surethe kind of thing that might only happen at Robert's. Once we pushed our way through the Young Republican crowd, dressed in their crisp blue blazers and party dresses, we found drag queen Bebe Fabulous holding court in the small balcony. Onstage, a well-meaning Sinatra cover band belted out twangy renditions of Ol' Blue Eyes' best. My friend looked down on the sea of sensible haircuts, all bobbing along to "Mack the Knife," and asked, "So this is honky-tonking?"
Friday night, we rolled through the rain to get lit on 40s of Colt 45 at the 10th anniversary of Johny Jackson's Soul Satisfaction, at Springwater. This is the place where ex-New Yorker Johny got his funk-soul dance party started a decade ago. Since then, Soul Satisfaction has become a Nashville institution, but Springwater, the mother of Nashville dive bars, hasn't changed much at all, really (aside from the addition of a pretty basic deck out back). Heralded as one of Nashville's oldest drinking spotsthe scuffed marble floors offer some kind of proofSpringwater remains trapped in a time warp. Everywhere you look are the hallmarks of a nightspot that's seen better days: the busted Golden Tee game collecting dust in the corner, the "dollar a swaller" PBRs, the battered wood-paneled walls. The hiccuping resident boozers display the true test of loyalty: It doesn't matter whether the music coming out of the back room is bootylicious disco or the most extreme, ear-shredding noise, these guys keep the pitchers of cheap beer coming.
Springwater seems to attract characters that either have something to hide or something to provethe kind of mix that only happens when a crowd of young, desperate people takes over a place already populated by old, desperate people. In any case, I'm glad Johny brought the party back to its early roots at Springwater for one night: The irony of watching aging regulars in their authentic acid-washed jeans grooving to "When Doves Cry" was cinematic.
By Saturday, I gave up worrying about whether I was creating the signature "Nashville experience" for my guest. So we succumbed to the most surreal encounter we could find: a visit to Shannon Wright's Sumo Suit Challenge, held outside the woodsy home of John and Shannon Wright. Brave challengers climbed into large, puffy sumo wrestler costumes and duked it out in an inflated dojo. The Wrights are known for their kooky parties, and this one was part Jackass and part Tennessee State Fair.
As my friend was packing to leave on Sunday, I felt guilty that I hadn't taken her to see more typical tourist spots like Hatch Show Print or Printers Alley. She didn't seem to care at all. "Everyone here is so friendly," she remarked. "Community intertwines with social life, and people are really creative with their free time. After this, New York is going to seem lonely." As it turns out, in just three days, she had exactly the kind of Nashville experience I wanted her to have: good times and friendly people.
E-mail Amy at email@example.com.
Amy Waddell, photos by Darek Bell