Nashville on the Verge

Building on its musical history, the city is now leaping forward with a new generation of creatives fostering a vibrant mix of contemporary culture & haute hospitality

WORDS By Melinda Sheckells
November/December 2018

Photos by Luis Garcia

The Revitalization

“A city has to last for generations,” says Emmylou Harris, country-music singer, songwriter and legend. “I moved to Nashville in 1983. It’s the longest place I’ve ever lived in my life, and I’m here for the duration.” Over those 35 years, Music City has seen tremendous growth in its population, commerce and culture, and one of the sparks that ignited the firestorm was Harris’ seminal live recording of her 1992 album, At the Ryman, inside the historic auditorium that was the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

The event, which would revive interest in the monumental building, leading to a renovation that reinvigorated downtown Nashville, happened by accident. “I wish I could say I had a grand plan, but I had decided to do a live album of songs and we were looking for a venue,” Harris says. “I wanted something more intimate, but the clubs were too small.” At the suggestion of music executive Bonnie Garner, she checked out the Ryman as a recording location.

“We could only get 200 people in a night,” she adds. “It was invitation-only. It was free. I knew the audience would enjoy it, and we did three shows. We didn’t record anything until the downbeat of the first song on the first night.”

The Ryman auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry

Harris was rocked by the power of the building, the way the sound filled the room. From a performer’s standpoint, it was ideal, and from the audience’s point of view, it was an unusual, amazing place to hear music. “It has spiritual roots and its own soul,” says Steve Buchanan, former president of Opry Entertainment Group. “It’s a simple, humble place. It’s not ornate. It has warmth sonically and then it has a warmth in terms of feeling.”

There are few corners in the building, which creates a divine acoustic experience, and the entire structure is made of wood—the floors, the pews and the ceiling. “It’s like being inside a big guitar,” Harris says.

The Ryman was opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle by Captain Thomas Ryman. Constructed before modern amplification and with seating for more than 3,000 people, its primary purpose was to host traveling evangelists. “The pulpit was in the center, and the acoustics were amazing in terms of your ability to stand center stage and project,” Buchanan says. After the turn of the century, it became a platform for crusaders of all kinds: Known as the Carnegie Hall of the South, Anna Pavlova danced there and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there.

Its greatest fame came as the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974, but all that changed when the new Grand Ole Opry House was built outside of town. The Ryman lay dormant for almost two decades, being used if at all as a filming location. “They call the Ryman the Mother Church of Country Music,” Harris says. “Being a country fan, I held it in reverence, but at that point it had been pretty much abandoned as a place where music was made.” It was going to be torn down, but after Harris’ album, its owners, Gaylord Entertainment, decided to save the building, seeing that it was a “pretty great place for musicians to play and people to hear music,” Harris says.

The building shut down in 1993 and a team of artisans was enlisted for the refurbishment. The mission was to bring the structure back to life with all genres of music and make it visitor-friendly. It reopened the following year, and since then a host of top performers have experienced the magic of the Ryman auditorium, including Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Roger Daltrey, Elvis Costello and Joan Baez.

The Lower Broadway entertainment district

The Paradigm Shift

In the same year that Emmylou Harris arrived in Nashville, Max Goldberg was born in Boston. Four years later, his family would move to Nashville.

“It was a great place to grow up. Nashville has always had the confidence of the East, but the manners and charms of the South,” Goldberg says. In his formative years, dining was always part of the equation. “I remember going to the Green Hills Grille. I remember going to the Belle Meade Cafeteria. I remember going to The Beacon Light Tea Room, where we still go today. The difference between back then and now is there used to be a handful of restaurants—literally a handful—and now 113 restaurants opened last year.”

Goldberg and his brother, Benjamin, are writing a new narrative for the Nashville food scene with their company, Strategic Hospitality, alongside some very key chef-partners. A kitschy honky-tonk on Lower Broadway called Paradise Park helped springboard the Goldbergs’ business, and now they own almost a dozen of the city’s most high-profile and highly lauded bars and restaurants, including the historic Merchants on Fourth and Broadway in downtown Nashville; The Catbird Seat, a tasting-menu-only eatery with 22 seats around a kitchen counter; and Henrietta Red, a barroom and restaurant offering seasonal cooking and an oyster bar, in partnership with Max’s high-school classmate Julia Sullivan.

“I don’t know if I would say a specific cuisine represents the city,” Goldberg says. “Catbird and Bastion have become traditionally Nashville and not categorized as a specific cuisine. Fresh is the style.”

Chef Josh Habiger is the Goldbergs’ partner in Bastion, a small restaurant in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, known for its concentration of galleries. And while the restaurant is deemed a “cocktail bar and hangout,” its menu is ever evolving.

“When I moved here in 2009, it was a different Nashville. There wasn’t really any fine dining,” Habiger says. “It was a community of young, interesting, creative people who were embracing new stuff. They saw The Patterson House opening as: This is new and different, and it doesn’t fall into the stereotype of Nashville.”

Habiger had moved from Minneapolis to work as head bartender at the Goldbergs’ cocktail bar The Patterson House before opening The Catbird Seat. Nashville’s version of a fine-dining restaurant is “genuine,” Habiger says. People don’t need white tablecloths and captain service, but they want quality. The result was Bastion.

“Every six weeks our menu should be completely turned over,” he says. “We take the time to get to know the guests. If you come and sit at the counter in front of our cooks, they’re going to ask you questions. They’re going to get to know you.”

There are 15 things on the menu—set up in a three-by-five grid—and Habiger tells people to pick five. Most of the offerings are based on things grown and raised in Nashville.

“I just wanted something unique,” he says. “A lot of times people, especially in a smaller town, see something in Chicago or New York and say, ‘I’m gonna replicate this in Nashville.’ We might be inspired by things we see in other cities, but we try to do it in a Nashville way.”

Raw oyster and melon at Bastion

The Movement

The Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood where Bastion is located really started buzzing about five years ago with the influx of contemporary art galleries such as Zeitgeist, David Lusk and Julia Martin. Anna Zeitlin, whose mother started Zeitgeist almost 25 years ago, organized an art walk to get people to come to the mostly industrial neighborhood that was home to numerous artist studios.

“Downtown has been doing first-Saturday art crawls for a long time,” she says. “We thought, Let’s make it a citywide event and have first-Saturday art crawls in Wedgewood-Houston. We have almost 20 spaces participating now, and we usually get about 1,000 people out every month.”

What makes the Nashville art scene so interesting is its diversity. Music long took the focus, and without a proper contemporary art museum, the cultivation of talent fell on the gallery scene. From college students to established names, from Nashville-bred to visiting masters, performance-art and experimental shows converge with wheat paste and street art into a kaleidoscope of talent.

As a kid, Zeitlin knew the neighborhood for its close proximity to the fairgrounds and its popular flea market. She says it contained mostly large machine shops in the ’80s, a format that has served her well in Zeitgeist’s large walls and massive garage doors.

Now there are coffee shops, cutting-edge restaurants and cool breweries. Only five minutes from downtown, it has become a hub for professionals seeking the no-commute lifestyle. And the creative energy that emanates now touches other disciplines.

“There used to be more art enthusiasts who were building their collections, but now we’re seeing people who really consider the work they buy and want a special piece for a specific place in their home,” Zeitlin says. “You’re not seeing as much impulse buying, but you’re seeing people who are really excited about the work.”

Julia Martin is a gallerist and artist who has been working in Wedgewood-Houston for about 15 years. “I have a deep, deep love relationship with this neighborhood,” she says. “It’s pretty magical. I opened my gallery in 2013. In 48 hours, I had two pieces left out of 18.” Her space is in one of the last intact railroad houses that dotted the neighborhood in its former life, which she describes as a ghost town.

“There was no foot traffic. People weren’t walking around at night at all,” she says. “It changes weekly now, so fast. It’s kind of mind-boggling. It’s beautiful to see so many people out walking their dogs. I’ve even had people picnicking in the grass lot across from the gallery, which I just love. It’s wonderful to feel a community growing.”

Ginger Smash at Bar Tenn

The Transformation

Located a few blocks from the Ryman auditorium, the Holston House hotel opened in January. It is the most recent in a long line of historic luxury boutique hotels to debut in Nashville, transforming the hospitality offerings in downtown and beyond. The building was originally constructed in the ’20s and had several incarnations over the years, most recently as an apartment house.

The philosophy of the hotel, part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection, is to embrace the sense of adventure of the city. “We offer a uniquely authentic experience in the heart of Nashville,” says general manager Peter Tziahanas. “We capture the original history of the building while meeting the demands of the traveler today.

“There are interesting vintage pieces in the hotel,” he continues. “We kept a lot of the original fixtures and features of the lobby space. In Bar Tenn, we have the original hand-carved ceiling that we were able to restore, as well as the original terrazzo tiles in the public space and the limestone walls to the staircases.”

Because there were limitations to how the building could be modified due to its age, much of the modern ambience is reflected in the furniture. The hotel’s three drinking and dining spaces—Tenn, Bar Tenn and the panoramic rooftop bar and pool Tenn on Top—all offer local farm-to-table with Southern flair, versus the traditional meat and three.

“Five years ago Nashville’s food scene looked different than it does today,” says Tziahanas. “The creativity that is required of food and beverage is so much more than it used to be. “Nashville is robust,” he adds. “We are getting an influx of new residents to the tune of 100 a day. The growth is continuing to spread.”


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