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
“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 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
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.”
The Clothier: Andrew Clancey
Burnt out from the New York City lifestyle, British fashion designer Andrew Clancey moved to Nashville in 2014, bringing with him his atelier, Any Old Iron. “I had so many people coming in from Nashville who were clients,” Clancey says. “We wanted to go somewhere else that had lots of musicians because dressing them was our main thing.”
AOI isn’t just any old clothier. What started out as a boutique of curated designer wares turned into a label of some of the most glamorous and celeb-friendly garments the South has ever seen. The slower pace of life in Nashville gave Clancey time to create his own clothes, and his chosen medium has been the not-so-simple sequin. The plan has been a huge success, and he has Beyoncé to prove it.
“I found sequins that change color,” he says. “The jacket we made for Beyoncé—she wore it to Jessica Alba’s birthday party—was the most unusual thing we’ve done. It’s the most showstopping piece. I want clients to walk into a room and have everybody turn around and look at them.”
A current client list reads like a who’s who of the biggest names in country music: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain, Martina McBride. Even Cher and Taylor Swift. Clancey also designed the suit Miranda Lambert wore when accepting the CMT Award for Artist of the Year. “That was the first breakthrough country piece. It was just a black suit with rhinestone lapels,” he says. “Now she wears motorcycle jackets with different colored panels.”
Clothing done in other reflective materials is on the horizon, but Clancey has no plans to stop two-stepping with the one that brought him—the sequin. “We got lucky with the choice of fabric,” he says.
The Designer: Hannah Crowell
West Coast native Hannah Crowell doesn’t like telling people she isn’t from Nashville. “No good Southerner wants to say she was born in Los Angeles,” she says. “My whole family is as Southern as you can get, but my parents are musicians, so they were living in California when I was born.” Crowell’s family is, in fact, music royalty—her mother is Rosanne Cash, her father is Rodney Crowell, and her grandfather was Johnny Cash.
In 2007 she returned to Nashville and launched Crowell + Company Interiors, specializing in high-profile residential and hospitality projects. She is helping to redefine the aesthetic—one she says has been riddled with “barnwood and light-up Nashville signs”—for the metropolis’ fast-growing population. “The city really does have a great undertone of what makes a Southerner a Southerner, which is hospitality and everybody feeling welcome and included.”
Her style leans toward the unexpected mix of contemporary pieces from Sweden, Australia or Chicago and “heirlooms from your grandma, who is a nice old Southern lady.” Work shifts between home renovations and new glistening condos, but the project dearest to her heart is her own restoration of a 1960s ranch. Once completed, touches of family will be everywhere.
“I have one of my dad’s gold records. I always put it in my laundry room, so it’s tucked away but I still get to see it all the time,” Crowell says. “And I have a really beautiful photograph of my grandparents that goes with me everywhere.”
The Music Man: Ben Swank
Living in Detroit, Ben Swank left his friends Jack White and Ben Blackwell behind and moved to London in 2004. “I was doing light A&R work but still kept in close touch with Jack and Ben,” Swank says.
In 2009, White, then the lead singer of the White Stripes, transplanted his independent Third Man Records label to Nashville. “I was ready to live somewhere quiet so I jumped at the chance, too,” Swank says. “Everybody knew each other, and Nashville was an insanely friendly town.” Swank, the consigliere of Third Man Records—he mostly handles marketing while Blackwell takes care of manufacturing—witnessed the city’s boom.
“So many people launched all these companies,” he says. “When I came to town, there were some book and record stores. But other than that, all you could do was drink and eat.”
Artists on Third Man cover a wide range of genres. “We’ve got a strong stable of Nashville-based country and Americana artists, and we’re really proud of that,” Swank says. Yet the retail front that sells the label’s catalog of artists—such as Margo Price, Lillie Mae and Joshua Hedley—on vinyl is only a small part of what goes on in this massive warehouse. Experimental cinema is shown, books are published and art is exhibited.
“If we’re showing a film, it’s something that nobody else in town would want to take a chance on. If we put a band on, maybe we can give them a larger audience than they would get at another venue,” he says. “We bring a sense of fun to what we do.”