Nashville’s Cultural Cool

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Caroline Allison

One recent morning on a residential street in Nashville’s newly named 12South neighborhood, Patrick Carney, the drummer for the Black Keys, was walking his Lab when he was reminded of why he moved to Nashville in the first place. He could hear music wafting out of his neighbor’s studio, and then he passed the house where filmmaker Harmony Korine lives with his wife. Two houses down, more music: another recording studio.

“There’s basically more recording studios here than anywhere else in the U.S.,” says Carney. “And that’s the thing about Nashville that makes it so great, you know? There’s just a bunch of really cool people here. That’s why I like it.”

He doesn’t like Nashville just because it’s somehow groovier than his hometown of Akron, Ohio (“especially after the recession, man, that place has just been bleak”). He’s also comparing it with New York – the current benchmark of creative cool – which he fled last year to join the exodus to Nashville.

“Man, I loved New York,” he says. “But I was having trouble relaxing. Nashville’s the opposite of that. It’s fucking cool, and it keeps me calm.”

Nashville is still Music City – the spiritual home and business center of country music and its artists – from Johnny Cash and Lefty Frizzell to Carrie Underwood, Trace Adkins, and just about every bluegrass legend ever to pluck a mandolin. With musicians come venues, and the city brags a bar density that in places runs six a block, with constant live music and unofficial closing times that push 4 a.m. Nashville is also the “buckle” of the Bible Belt; more Bibles are published here than anyplace in the world. But the city, with a growing population of around 626,000, is changing fast and stealing a certain cultural thunder from established epicenters of hype and style.

There are only a few American cities that can still draw the creative classes. Austin, Brooklyn, and Portland all have a set of tangibles – art galleries, a high-flying culinary scene, a hive of musicians, clothiers, and hipsters that set the style – and practicalities: abundant real estate and enough jobs to sustain the movement. “I’m a born and raised Nashvillian,” says Tandy Wilson, owner of the City House restaurant. “Right now, what’s happening is part of a natural progression. The talent is moving here – every day there’s another car with a California or New York license plate.”

Blame it on Jack White. The White Stripes frontman moved here from Detroit in 2006. The Kings of Leon stayed in their hometown, and now the Black Keys have taken up residence. Ann Patchett (she wrote ‘The Patron Saint of Liars’ and ‘Bel Canto,’ among others) is opening a bookstore.

Matt Eddmenson runs Imogene + Willie, one of those curated high-end clothing shops that doubles as a neighborhood focal point. This morning, two Grammy winners stopped by the store in search of $250 hand-sanded jeans (they weren’t Wranglers). Standing among the denim, felt caps, and Red Wing and biker boots, Eddmenson, who is originally from Henderson, Kentucky, is distracted, preparing for the “Supper and Song” concert he stages one Thursday every month in the gravelly backyard behind the shop. Mas Tacos Por Favor sets up outside, and Eddmenson brings in local indie rock bands to perform. Imogene + Willie is a bold statement for a city like Nashville. There aren’t many boutiques in the American South that turn heads in the fashion world, but Matt and wife Carrie have managed to draw the attention of collaborators like J.Crew. When Gwyneth Paltrow spent time in the area filming ‘Country Strong,’ she shopped at Imogene + Willie and blogged about it generously, her cloying list of enthusiasms read by millions of Gwynie fans. “Now 80 percent of the traffic is out-of-towners,” Carrie says. “Destination shoppers.”

A more organic representative of the city’s cultural capital can be found in East Nashville‘s Five Points district, where a younger crowd tends to congregate. The neighborhood – recently a marginal zone of closely aligned homes with patchy lawns and tarred driveways – has been solidly lower-middle class for generations. Fortunately, the area’s mild gentrification hasn’t chased off the classic dive bars.

Today, clubs overflow with bluegrass, country, rock, funk, and jazz, and bartenders pour drinks well into the early morning hours. There is an art gallery that was started by local pioneers when flagrant crack use and hookers were common. A natural-food market that recently opened for business in the neighborhood seems to have been airlifted from Berkeley.

Nashville isn’t yet a gourmet town. In fact, it’s one of the best places in the United States to cultivate coronary artery disease in delicious, family-owned holes-in-the-wall. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, for example, is a disreputable place responsible for some of the most egregiously hot leg-quarters in the world. But there is some haute culinary creep, obvious in places like City House, which serves ambitious Italian food with an American South twist. Chef Tandy Wilson uses mostly healthy, locally sourced ingredients in an open kitchen with a wood-fired oven that churns out homemade belly ham and grana padano cheese–topped pizzas. The dishes are laden with zucchini, squash, potatoes, and kale – all from the garden out back. “The culinary scene has changed quite a bit,” says Wilson. “Before this new scene, chefs kept to themselves. Now we’re growing as a community.”

In Germantown, with its rehabbed waterfront warehouses and brick condos, or in East Nashville, with its grand turn-of-the-century houses, real estate beckons. It’s a buyer’s market: A two-bedroom house costs about $200,000. It’s also a highly liveable city – airy, quiet by day, and just wild enough by night – sexy and stable and not too serious.

“All sorts of people feel called here, not just musicians,” says Meg MacFadyen, the co-owner of Art & Invention Gallery, who moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1983 and opened up the gallery with her husband, Bret, in 2001. Across the street, an animal hospital has broken ground, and Bret is now building eight freestanding shops to house incoming artists. “It’s an anchor project,” Meg says. “Artists need to sell their stuff. We want to provide the bricks. Know what I mean?”

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