I met my younger sister at the Nashville airport and embarked upon three days of easy-going tourism with her through Christmas.
I got to Nashville by car, half-asleep and careening through early-morning fog up I-75 alongside Georgia drivers, who operate as if they are outrunning something and would prefer death to being caught. More than once I came within inches of meeting the void and survived through a combination of sheer luck and last-second, knee-jerk reactions on the part of myself and my peers. I tackled the next highway, I-24, more caffeinated, but noticed the road was littered with more shards and remnants of wheel rubber than I’ve ever seen in one stretch before
Nashville, by my standards, is a small and quiet city that manages to pack character into its limited geography. You know what you are there for as a visitor, and the city and its people deliver. Atlanta, for all its perks, lacks that sort of gooey cultural center — there are too many people from too many other places for you to feel like you can get “the experience” in one trip or even one year. Nashville is about music, and everyone there that we spoke to had ties to music in one way or another. Either they were literally playing it, in a band, when we walked into the bar; or they were talking about it as they mixed our drinks in that obnoxious overly dramatic way that bartenders do now (with lots of shaking and twirling), saying that things were finally coming together for them; or they were listening to it intently, as if the music was the only thing that mattered in this whole world, and/or as if they were peaking on whatever they had slipped themselves a few hours earlier. You cannot avoid live music in Nashville so do not try, only embrace or do not come.
We went to a honky tonk-kinda place the first night, and I say “kinda place” because like most tourist institutions the bar almost felt as though it were playing the role of itself. The band was country and folky and a little bit rocky, and the lead singer was a woman with a beautiful voice who between songs talked up how good the guy behind the bar was at frying up bologna sandwiches and burgers and how you shouldn’t forget to tip your waitress or the band for that matter. That was fine and expected.
The guitar player was not so fine. He reminded us, we folks scattered around the bar, after every song that we must clap for the band loudly and often and we must tip lots and lots of money. Earlier, we had passed a beautiful woman playing guitar and singing alone in the window of a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and we turned it down for something less kitschy. There must be something more authentic here, on Broadway, the city’s neon runway. Turns out authenticity is a third-generation Nashvillian, wailing on his guitar and then into the mic for you to tip him more.
That got old so despite the perceived perfectness of the scene so we split to get hot chicken.
Hot chicken is a Nashville staple food. I love spicy and consider myself “good” at handling it (despite a crippling, never-ending case of heartburn that I’ve had since I went to Ecuador after high school and took tequila shots every day for like two weeks, possibly burning a hole in my esophagus). So when I got the “medium” as a “warm-up” (and a compromise with my sister) at Hattie B’s, I was disappointed in its lack of heat. The chicken itself was just alright too. After that we decided it was time to brave Prince’s, which is north of the city and was said to be spicy enough to turn souls to ash.
The next day we drove up to Prince’s, which I was told was “authentic” and which I soon understood meant “there are a lot of black people there.” The wait was incredible considering that it’s basically a shack in a strip mall, but when the chicken arrived on two slices of white bread, it discharged a sense of spicy doom. It was red and looked painful. My sister got mild (which she said was spicier than Hattie B’s medium) and I got “hot,” which was below “Xtra hot” and “XXXtra hot” but I felt okay with my choice as soon as I took the first bite, which activated my sweat glands and turned my saliva to lava. All told, I picked my breast and wing clean and even mashed some of the bread, now stained with a deep crimson chicken spice, onto my fork and into my mouth. My throat felt like a coal oven and I think my hair grew about an inch. I could have done the Xtra hot, though I probably wouldn’t have liked it.
We swung by Jackalope Brewery, which I’ve written about before, and had some beers. I like their Thunder Ann and Rompo. The place, like much of Nashville, is cute and hipster without being overwhelmingly pretentious. My sister made sure to Instagram arguably the only pretentious thing about the place, which was a Willy Wonka quote etched into our table.
Ah, Instagram. In the interest of keeping things cordial throughout the rest of my life with my sister, I will limit the following comment to this passage only: People her age — for I can no longer call her a child, or a kid, but a person, a fully-formed adult in the eyes of the law and by most everyone else save for probably our immediate family — spend a lot of time on their phones. I do too, of course, too much so, but there was hardly a down moment in our time together than wasn’t in some way filled by her phone. She was either on Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook and passed the time between ordering food and waiting for it to arrive, or driving from one location to another, by putting various filters on the many photos she’d taken from our last stop and trying to find the best way to explain, in a short caption, the meaning of this. Photos that weren’t liked as much as expected became sources of doubt. Is your trip to Nashville really a trip unless people know you are on it? Was the food you ate actually delicious? Was the art on the walls actually cool? Were the memories you made really all that great? The answers to these questions appear to come from without, via other people, rather than those in attendance (i.e. the two of us). Millennial tourism involves analyzing our actions moments after they occur, which tends to make them less impactful, if you ask me.
After waiting out tornado warnings and rainstorms in our Airbnb in Sylvan Park — a nice if “regular” (which is to say, not special) neighborhood — we returned to the nightlife of the city, of which live music was the pulse. We headed to East Nashville, where our trip had begun because it appeared often in the hipster travel blog my sister frequented. The Family Wash featured a pirate-themed country jam band. We did not understand this, as dressing/speaking like pirates appeared to be their entire schtick which seemed gimmicky if not plain weird, but they played some nice songs and my sister was roped into getting onstage for a pirate shanty singalong at one point, which she hated and I loved.
The next bar, the Crying Wolf, was dark and intimately lit, and while we sat there and judged guys with American flag bandannas hanging out of their pockets, the next band set up and kicked into gear. It turned out to be a kickass rock n’ roll band that clearly lamented that The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith were now super old and couldn’t rock like they once could, so they decided to pick up the mantle. Their energy and enthusiasm were infectious, though I’m sure some of my New York friends would view their lady pants and long hair with disdain, because imitation is the sincerest form of being a douche, according to the cynical. The truth: their music was good and they seemed to be having fun, which was enough. They are called the Freewheelers which is confusing because other groups have been called that before, but check them out.
The final day was spent relaxing. The weather had turned and the sky was blue and the air was warm. We walked through and around a life-sized version of The Parthenon, which we had visited in Greece as kids. We lounged and read in chairs and blankets in Sylvan Park, reveling in late spring weather on December 24th. We drove to Radnor Lake State Park, bringing with us a salad because we were so full of hot chicken and pulled pork and biscuits and grits that we were willing to skip a Nashville meal to feel less full. The sun set and the colors burned off into darkness and then we saw “Sisters” at the movies because we are Jews on Christmas, not much was open, and we wanted to laugh. The movie sucked though.
Like most short vacations, we lamented “not having enough time” to do more as we pulled out of the Airbnb for the final time. And though it’s nice to think that I’ll go back at some point, to do and see more, the truth is the world is big and there are lots of places to go and the mantra “not enough time” could apply to my entire life. So I may never go back, though not for lack of wanting. Nashville is fun. The hot chicken is legit. The music is plentiful and often really good. The hipsters are almost bearable. I just don’t want to make any promises, ya know? And if I don’t go back, I feel content with what we did — though I swear, I could have gotten Xtra hot.