In Nashville I’ve only heard people agree on one thing: This ain’t Nashville.
Most cities go broke trying to advertise any asset they can dig up. But Nashville has let pop-culture do the work for them. Country music dominates Top 40 radio. The Grammy nomination ceremony left LA in 2012 (for the first time ever) to give Nashville a turn. The other music cities have been left in the dust. And that TV show which puts the opera back in soap opera bears it’s name.
Not everyone is thrilled. You’d be hard-up trying to find a local over their mid-twenties in any of the downtown bars. There’s still no cover. Indoor smoking is still encouraged. But the seediest part of town only a few decades ago is lit up like Disney World now. The charm of old Nashville is wearing rhinestone studded cowboy boots. The Las Vegas for hillbilly bachelorette parties.
I had a headache after an hour. I didn’t think I could get tired of a thousand women in cowboy boots and jean shorts. After I saw my dozenth Taylor Swift vomiting in the street, though, I decided I’d had enough.
I took the short walk from Broadway to Jack White’s part of town. I found a bar that looked like New York and asked the bartender where the real bars were. He told me to go to Music Row. “Bobby’s Idle Hour”, he said. “That’s the only bar I’ll drink in.”
About a mile from downtown is Music Row. A few square blocks of record labels, music licensers and recording studios. Tucked between two I found Bobby’s Idle Hour. The facade looks like a Tijuana drunk tank. An Easter egg yellow paint job on the stucco. A weird statue of a wide-eyed kid with a guitar stands next to the swinging ranch sign that welcomes “Country Music Fans”.
by men who believe a firm
handshake can tell a lot
I stood outside and stared for awhile. No cars in the lot. I was a little intimidated. I’d asked for a dive bar and that’s what I was delivered. But I hadn’t thought of the locals and the attitudes I might get for walking into a bar on “their turf”.
I was the youngest in the bar by thirty years. Three men sat at the L-shaped oak bar. The wood stained and chipped like an ancient scroll of last dollar living. The men did a slow nod as I took my stool. I ordered a $2 bottle of Budweiser to keep appearances.
The men passed a guitar back and forth and took turns singing songs I’d never heard. The bartender said, “Boy Jim, I remember when that oldie had just come out”. And they laughed and smoked cigarettes in some knowing victory.
I bought a round for the bar. I shared my name with two truck drivers and one man whose father made it big “in the manure business”. They were all coming home or on their way somewhere. I asked them about downtown. “That ain’t Nashville”, Jim said. They all agreed. “I haven’t been downtown in, say, fifteen years I’ll bet”, said another.
Bobby’s Idle Hour isn’t a pretty place, but it’s honest. Like some ancient Veterans of Foreign Wars club that the soldiers stopped by on their way home and never left. There were bottles of the hard stuff behind the counter that nobody touched. The dim lights reflected off of them like diamonds under the moon.
I drank for a few hours. Filled an ashtray. The fliers covering the walls advertised an open songwriters’ night every Thursday, but I’ll bet you can find a player there any night of the week. When you finish your second of third beer you’ll have a cold one waiting for you on the bar. Free of charge. And when you leave you’ll get a solid handshake, by men who believe a firm handshake can tell a lot about a man.
When they say “come back and see us again”, they aren’t being polite. You’ve found a home anytime you stop in Nashville.