As the year comes to a close — this year is going to end, right? — we like to take a look back at the stories we wrote and the ones you read (not always the same thing). In this case, we've compiled the Scene's 10 most-read cover stories of 2021. Note that this list excludes special annual issues like Best of Nashville and the popular Boner Awards, which regularly land in the top spots.

Some of these stories have developed since the cover stories below were published. Former Metro police officer Andrew Delke, for instance, accepted a plea deal, avoiding trial right after we published the linked cover story about his forthcoming trial. That's newspapering. But we do believe these stories offer a decently varied view of what we wrote and what you clicked this year. Below our roundup, see a slideshow of some of our favorite cover designs from the past year. And thanks, as always, for reading.  

1. Honky-Tonk Blues: The Pandemic and the Changing Culture of Lower Broadway

Asked what he thinks of the current situation on Lower Broadway — where bars are allowed to stay open until midnight, with last call coming at 11 p.m. — Smith says this: “What are you allowed to do in Davidson County? Then what are you allowed to do in Wilson County? Or in Hendersonville? What are you allowed to do there? You answer that question. Someone can drive 15 minutes down the road and live a normal life or stay in a concentration camp under John Cooper — Hitler John Cooper’s word. Use the word ‘Hitler,’ I called John Cooper ‘Hitler,’ put that in the fucking paper.”

Someone near Smith apparently asks who he’s talking to, and Smith responds: “a newspaper reporter.” The man chimes in again: “Retract the Hitler.” 

“I’m not gonna retract ‘John Cooper’s Hitler,’ ” Smith says. “I’m not retracting that.” 

2. Love and Death Among the Irish Travellers

In vacant lots and campgrounds along Murfreesboro Road, the green tents would appear, suddenly but predictably, the first weekend of May every year for decades. The road would swarm with hundreds of people greeting one another, hugging like family, dancing and playing the old music. 

Their faces told a story of life on the road. Their hands told a story of hard work. There was a familiarity in their countenances, as if all were leaflets clinging to different branches of a very expansive ancient tree.

3. The Other Epidemic: Fentanyl Is Killing People in Nashville at a Staggering Rate

Drug deaths and near-deaths are now a constant hum in the background of daily life in Nashville — one that’s been getting louder every year. In 2016, Metro EMS responded to around 3,000 suspected overdose calls. In 2020, through several waves of the pandemic, they responded to around 6,000. In 2016, the city recorded 300 drug deaths; in 2020, there were 620, and all signs indicate there will be more this year than last. Currently, EMS responds to around 20 suspected overdose calls a day, and the city is averaging about two drug deaths every day. 

The team has no idea when drug deaths will plateau. And one of the alarming effects of the rise of counterfeit pills is that it expands the likely universe of people who may come into contact with a lethal dose of fentanyl. Every person who dies a drug-related death matters, but as a matter of blunt mathematics, there are many people who wouldn’t do heroin but might take a couple Percocets from a trusted friend — pills that could turn out to be pressed fentanyl instead. 

4. Strays at Large: Meet the People Stemming the Tide of Nashville’s Free-Roaming Cats

Since then, MACC has developed a robust foster program, so adoptable stray cats — that is, free-roaming cats who once had owners and are friendly and can live indoors — can be moved out of the facility and into temporary homes. The organization also works with other rescue agencies who have fostering programs. But many cats are not adoptable. Feral cats have spent little if any time with humans, and are the offspring — sometimes several generations removed — of stray cats who were abandoned or lost by their owners. While still technically domesticated as a species, these felines can’t live indoors, no matter how much we might want to “rescue” them. 

“One misconception is that all outdoor cats are suffering,” says Natalie Corwin, director of the Pet Community Center. “And we just find that’s really not true. … The vast majority of cats that are outside are living pretty good lives. Especially if they have a caretaker who’s feeding them and looking after them.” 

5. How a Nashville Radio Station Became a Conspiracy-Theory Hotbed in the ’90s

These days, the stretch of Ashland City Highway between Briley Parkway and Old Hickory Boulevard is known to nature-loving Nashvillians as the way to Bells Bend. To obscurantists and lovers of local quirkiness, it’s known as the home of Travis Tritt’s Biggest Fan in Tennessee. And to local news watchers, it’s the location of Lewis Country Store, a gas station best known for the vitriolic messages on its roadside electronic sign — angry messages about Democrats and anti-Trumpers and people who believe in science and the rule of law.

But halfway between Briley and OHB, there’s a small street sign on the south side of Ashland City Highway: WWCR Avenue. “Avenue” is a bit of a grandiose moniker for the road, a 700-foot stretch of pavement sliding through the woody shoulder of the main drag and easy to miss between the salvage yards and the riverside industry that surrounds it. There are a few satellite dishes in front of a squat studio building, and beyond the tree line — four massive radio antennae, pushing 100,000 watts of signal on the shortwave frequencies.

This is WWCR, and in the 1990s, it was the global nerve center for conspiracy-theory radio.

6. The Murder Trial of Officer Andrew Delke

While Vicki Hambrick declined to be interviewed for this story, she did provide photographs of her son. She is legally blind and used to rely heavily on him for help going about her days. On a recent Friday morning, as she and a friend share various photos, she occasionally smiles at a memory of Daniel when he was a boy. Sometimes she even laughs. But her face straightens when she asks a reporter about attending an upcoming court date. Speaking quietly, under a pavilion just across the street from where her son was killed, she says she’s ready for it all to be over. 

7. Common Ground: Nashville’s Struggle to House Its Neediest Residents

Plenty of research indicates that housing vouchers reduce homelessness, both for families and individuals. Judy Tackett, head of Metro’s Homeless Impact Division, says the city has plenty of vouchers, including hundreds provided by federal pandemic relief packages. The tricky part is finding landlords who will accept them — NewsChannel 5 reported in August that 200 Nashvillians are approved for housing vouchers, but can’t find a unit anywhere. This has led to the creation of the Low Barrier Housing Collective, a collaboration between Metro and community partners to incentivize landlords to take vouchers.

“I’m not asking people to be patient,” says Tackett. “I’m asking people to redirect their energy and help us right now to find landlords that take Section 8 vouchers.”

The city has still managed to house people over the past year, and touts success with its rapid rehousing program. Metro set a goal to get 400 families and individuals into homes by December and has already surpassed that number. The rapid rehousing program offers a one-year lease, sometimes in a motel room. Tackett says someone can also transition from that lease to a Section 8 voucher or a supportive program before the lease is up. She says setting “challenging goals” and meeting them creates momentum and shows that these services are actually working. “Is it as quick as we want it to [be in order to] serve everybody? No, but we need to stay the course.”

8. Girls on Film: How a Group of Photographers Is Bringing Accolades to Nashville

They were there to celebrate Reynolds’ Guggenheim Award — it’s one of the most prestigious honors in art that is given to only a handful of photographers each year (and includes a cash prize of approximately $50,000). The women discussed what Reynolds would do with the award, and acknowledged how hard she’d worked to get it. And then she asked for advice, because this unofficial collective of women photographers — which also includes Kristine Potter, Stacy Kranitz, Christine Rogers, Vesna Pavlović, Robin Paris, Rachel Boillot, Beth Trabue Gorham and Julia Steele — has an unusual amount of experience winning awards. In the past three years, two of the group’s other members have won a Guggenheim. There have also been two Fulbright fellowships, and more than a handful of other prestigious awards and recognitions.  

Potter and Kranitz — who won Guggenheim Awards in 2019 and 2020, respectively — joked that they needed to make some kind of crown to pass around, and maybe even create a ceremony. They could call themselves something over-the-top, like The Society of Tennessee Guggenheim Award Winners. That actually may be the closest they’ll come to settling on a name for the informal group of photographers — all of them women, all of them exceptional. And although they’ve considered calling themselves a “coven,” the fact that they’re all women is pure coincidence.

9. Nashvillian of the Year: Dr. James Hildreth

Between my father passing and MLK being assassinated, I was just a really angry young boy. As a matter of fact, my mother says I didn’t say a word to another human being for a couple of months. It’s hard to describe being locked up in so much rage. And I think I’m fortunate that I was living in a small town in Arkansas and not Chicago or Los Angeles or D.C., because I would have been caught up in the response. But my mother is the one who challenged me to channel my anger to something. She always asked me, “What are you gonna do about it?” And what I decided to do about it was to become a physician myself — try to make sure that no other 11-year-old went through what I went through. The problem is that I had never seen a Black doctor, didn’t know you could be a doctor if you were Black.

10. A Cut Above: Porter Road Is Changing How We Get Our Meat

Developing relationships with farmers has been crucial to Porter Road’s response to factory meat. Over the years, Carter and Peisker were able to set standards for animal care, including prohibiting the use of antibiotics, hormones and steroids. That resulted in not only better living conditions for cows, pigs and chickens, but also in price surety for producers. Porter Road has paid, according to Carter, a 20 to 40 percent premium to farmers for the final product, a figure set well in advance. But because they’re processing entire animals and not just taking the best cuts, there’s less waste. And for their farmers, uncertainty created by the roller-coaster world of commodity prices has been cut dramatically.

“It’s a relationship that we’re building, and that relationship is about trust because our consumers trust us that we’re doing the work to make sure that we’re selling the products that we are,” Peisker says. “We really want to make sure that we’re being truthful with our actions. And that’s [why we’re] making sure that we’re doing those audits, making sure that we’re going to the farms, making sure that [farmers are] adhering to the standards and then double-checking them. We can double-check them when the animals get to the slaughterhouse. We can double-check them when we go out to the farms. We do surprise visits. We send other people there.”

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