Why Coastal Creatives Are Moving To Nashville
What makes Music City the place to be right now (other than really, really good food)
Hattie B’s hot chicken. Photograph by Ms Danielle Atkins
“Before I moved here, my perception of Nashville was probably a naïve one,” says English-born singer and model Ms Karen Elson, who has lived in the capital of Tennessee since 2006 after relocating there with her then husband, Mr Jack White. “I imagined every man walked around town in a cowboy hat and boots, and ladies all had big blonde hair and were dripping with rhinestones singing Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Granted, you’ll witness some of that, but when you walk down Broadway, it’s mostly tourists living the Nashville dream.”
I confess that when I have thought of Nashville in the past, I have come up with a similar sketch of the city – a bit reductive, heavy on the country music. Over the course of the past couple of years, however, the place has begun to nag at me. Why are people moving there from the coasts? Musicians, yes, but also world-class chefs, interior designers, curators, entrepreneurs and even Victoria’s Secret models. What is drawing people from New York and Los Angeles to Music City?
“It’s the food, the people, the lifestyle, our house that I love,” says the singer-songwriter Ms Michelle Branch, who recently moved back to Nashville from Los Angeles after nearly a decade away. “In Nashville, we have acreage, a vegetable garden, chickens, a huge recording studio – things you can’t get in NYC or LA.”
That acreage and those things you can’t get elsewhere might also be why the city is in the midst of a development boom. A whole host of American companies such as Amazon and Oracle are building campuses in the area to join the international entities, including Bridgestone and Nissan, that have their stateside bases in town. But with all of that influx, how does a town of a little more than 500,000 people survive the surge in population, in density, in demands? Can it even actually thrive? How does it maintain its identity, especially when a figment of that identity is already attached to a primetime soap (ABC’s country music show Nashville, which ran from 2012 to 2018)? Also, how does a very Southern city contend with both a boom in tourism and a rise in inhabitants from the liberal capitals on the coasts?
Big Bar at Bastion. Photograph by Mr Andrew Thomas Lee, courtesy of Bastion
I went to see if I could find out, from the people who live there, what the modern Nashville is all about and if this real city intersects with the “Nashville dream” Ms Elson described, the one so many of its visitors seem to be looking for. In Nashville, the imagined place that draws in tourists, translates, as you might expect, to a kind of heightened “country music” experience, a Hard Rock Cafe version of the city’s live music roots. Downtown, the main drag of Broadway is at times dangerously close to descending into a Girls Gone Wild parody of debauchery, an Epcot Center village of bachelorette parties on a booze cruise. But can’t a city be forgiven for its one pandering zone? Its Times Square? Its Bourbon Street? How much time do New Yorkers spend in Times Square anyway?
The real Nashville, the Nashville where people are living and writing and recording and eating, is something altogether different – different, too, from anything I’ve experienced in other cities. Everyone I spoke to talked about the sense of community they experience here – artists supporting other artists, chefs other chefs – along with all the necessary infrastructure and open spaces for creative people to thrive.
“It’s a very supportive city for artists,” says Ms Elson. “All the big agencies and management companies have offices here and it’s a great place to work, but also a great place to raise a family and have quality of life. My community down here consists of a lot of creatives and strong businesswomen from all walks of life. I’ve made some of the best friends down here and it’s because there is a sense of equality and a lack of elitism. That is so refreshing.”
That support system also means a lot to Ms Julia Jaksic, chef and owner of Nashville’s beloved all-day Café Roze. Even before she’d opened, Ms Jaksic says she was receiving emails out of the blue from, among others, Adi, wife of Mr Sean Brock, then the chef-owner of Nashville’s Husk, welcoming her to town and to the food scene there. “Everyone is truly supportive and welcoming,” she says. “At least, that’s how I’ve found it to be.”
Bowling lanes at Pinewood Social. Photograph by Mr Andrew Thomas Lee, courtesy of Pinewood Social
Ms Jaksic grew up in Milwaukee, where her dad owned a butcher’s shop. After moving to New York about 20 years ago, she did a little of everything in the food world, including working as the consulting chef for the healthy, homey Jack’s Wife Freda and executive chef at meat-focused speakeasy Employees Only. “For me,” she says, “Nashville offered an opportunity to open a restaurant without a million investors and partners, while also having the quality of life I was looking for outside the city. It has this creative, buzzy, small-town feel to it, although people will tell you that’s changing day by day. The food scene is blowing up here.”
I have to agree. I had two of the best meals in recent memory in Nashville – a weird and wonderful tasting menu at Bastion and a slew of starters at Rolf & Daughters. And that’s with some steep competition in town, before even getting to the fried chicken (Nashville is famous for what they call “hot chicken”, which is marinated in buttermilk and sauced with lard and cayenne). In Nashville, I had fancy fried chicken, casual hot chicken, fried chicken sandwiches and, just as Mr Anthony Bourdain did in his Nashville episode of Parts Unknown, ate fried chicken while hungover and bowling at Pinewood, and let me tell you, that is a treat.
“Jack White says it is his favourite restaurant in town,” says Mr Max Goldberg, the entrepreneur behind a host of Nashville restaurants and venues, including Pinewood and Bastion, as well as Henrietta Red, The Catbird Seat and the Downtown Sporting Club. “Though he probably says that of every restaurant in town.”
Mr Goldberg was born and raised in Nashville, but moved to New York to make his fortune in finance, as one does. Twelve years ago, at the suggestion of his brother, he came back to start their company Strategic Hospitality, which has grown along with the city. They’ve opened nearly a restaurant a year since they started. “The majority of the credit goes to my brother, Benjamin,” says Mr Goldberg. “He recognised the momentum that was building in Nashville early on. And the opportunity to partner with my best friend and brother to create jobs in a city where we grew up was too exciting not to at least try.”
Henrietta Red. Photograph by Ms Lisa Diederich
The variety across the brothers’ portfolio can probably tell us a bit about the range of the city’s appetites, from the raucous to the refined. At the Downtown Sporting Club on Broadway, for example, you can throw axes, get hammered on the rooftop and see (often loud) live music. The 22-seat Catbird Seat, by contrast, serves a 12-course menu of wildly playful food in hushed tones from chefs who met and learned their ways at Noma. Bastion, where I had a crab and mushroom risotto with crispy kale and nutritional yeast dish that felt like the entire spectrum of flavour and texture on one plate, has a speakeasy vibe. Pinewood is, for lack of a better analogy, a Soho House-like all day, all-demographic clubhouse/restaurant/date spot. Mr Goldberg tells stories of the amazing people he’s met while they are working there, writing books, having coffee, meetings. He attributes the culture there to Nashville having “the confidence of the East, with the kindness of the South”.
Mr Philip Krajeck, who grew up in Brussels, the son of a Nato employee, went to school in Switzerland and picked up four James Beard award nominations before he was 35, is certainly helping the city’s dining scene with confidence and kindness. His intensely seasonal Rolf & Daughters has a menu, not to mention a natural wine list and selection of draft beers, that would draw fawning foodies from Brooklyn, London and Paris. In fact, most of my foodie friends from those places have travelled to Nashville to eat there. His new more-than-pizza pizzeria, Folk, is everyone’s favourite restaurant in town. And if he has given Nashvillians some restaurants on a par with anything elsewhere, he credits the people he encounters there (both locals and visitors) for drawing him to this city over all others.
“There’s that feeling you get from a place when it’s right, and we got that right away,” he says. “There’s an energy here, no doubt. And people have become really interested and savvy to what they eat and where it comes from, which is a concern we absolutely share. Good cooking and good ingredients shouldn’t be a luxury. So, being able to put the shine on the hyper-local farms we work with and the people doing that great work only makes that sense of community that much stronger for us.”
Again, that word. Community is something I’ve never quite understood, but judging from my brief visit to Nashville, people-watching in cafés, listening to local artists’ testimonials and sitting in on Mr Goldberg’s poker night, during which former NFL players, local politicians, developers and the host solved all the world’s problems, I think I started to get the hang of it. And I now have a working definition of the word based on my trip: a group of people united by geography and/or mutual interests who help one another get the very best of what they need and what they like without competition, jealousy or real estate prices getting in the way. Oh, and with a pretty good soundtrack. I can’t wait to go back.