It has been a long, long time since I’ve eaten drunken pizza at 3 AM with a table full of good friends after closing out a music club.  But it was so f&@%ing worth it.  Welcome to Nashville.

I came to town dressed in the clever guise of a conference-goer (and by the way, kudos to the hosting organization for its rocking choice of locale).  Now truly, the corporate agenda can fritter out any travel buff’s adventure flame–three nights and four days in a schmaltzy uptown hotel, drinking catered coffee and eating tiny slices of pie in big beige rooms with the names of city landmarks on the doors.  Dinner is usually a twenty-person networking event with a set menu at an expensive restaurant, leagues away from the other end of town, where locals savor lip-smacking specialties at half the price and twice the ambience.

The solution? You have to escape every once in a while.  You know, pull out the jeans and the flats, leave the laptop bag in the hotel room and get the hell out into town.  On my first night in Nashville, I was all by myself, but determined to go out and See Something, by damn. Besides, having recently moved from New Jersey to South Florida, I was seriously jonesing for some cool fall air.  I had packed a trench coat (gasp!) and leather boots (swoon!) and I couldn’t wait to take them for a spin.

That first trip through the revolving doors of the hotel gave me exactly what I craved–a good, chilly blast of fifty-degree night air, crisp and clean and infused with the faint smell of dry leaves.  Deliciousness.  Now then, where to go from here?  Seeing Something becomes a bit tricky when you’re a woman alone at night in a new place.   That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.  However, travel enough and you learn a few tricks to sock into the sleeves of your little red trench coat.  Mine was in the form of a bouncer at the entrance to a nearby bar as I turned onto Broadway.  These guys have seen a lot, and will usually know where a lady can go to comfortably enjoy some food and music at nine PM on a Tuesday night.  I wanted simple food, a beer, and a little bit of good live music–no big deal. His recommendation to me was Rippy’s, a little bar/restaurant a few doors down from where we stood.  Thirty minutes later, I was wolfing down some smoky, tasty ribs served in a plastic basket with various squeeze bottles of sauce on the side, and washing it down with a cold bottle of Sam Adams.  To my left,  two guys in polo shirts and deck shoes who looked like they may very well spend their days as accountants seved up some even hotter classic rock.  BBQ and CPAs singing CCR–it’s all good in Nashville.

Happily, I was only a solo tourist for a short period this time around.  It just so happened that a few dear friends of mine from a prior company were heading into town for the same event, and I was stoked beyond belief to be seeing them again.  We had been a tight-kit crew back in the day, logging many hours together in coffee-scented meeting rooms and airport lounges all around the world.  On business trips, they had shared my zeal for exploration, whether to the unnamed local haunt on the outskirts of town (see Cultural Confluence: By the Light of the Pilsner for more on that) or just over to the hotel bar, where the evenings had a way of slipping on by unnoticed.  And always, laughter.  Now these cats were going to be with me in the sexy cool city of Nashville.  Hot damn and start your engines.

For her part, the city laid out before us a landscape and culture that fairly begged us to let down our hair and enjoy.  Everything was there for the taking; high culture and upscale restaurants lay a beat away from bustling, bluesy and brazen Broadway, the beating heart of Nashville’s music scene.  It is a metropolis of many colors, woven together to create a patchwork cityscape truly unlike any other.

The baggage claim at Nashville International, a harbinger of the musical greatness to come (photo credit: me)

Paramount in my traveler’s set of priorities are food and music, and Nashville is an important city on both counts.  It’s musical legacy doesn’t require any illumination from the likes of little ‘ole me–from classical to country to blues, Nashville is a true American treasure.  However, there is some damned fine food to be had here as well.  Elite wines, renowned chefs and innovative examples of haute world cuisine dot the downtown landscape, and the foodie movement is growing strong. At the other end of the pendulum, ticking like a metronome at the very nexus of the form, is tried and true Southern cooking—you know what I mean.  The Real Thing.  As does the performance of a world-class symphony, fine dining can leave you breathless from its complexity and beauty.  But just like the blues, great Southern cuisine speaks to you in its own hot and sweet language, and when you hear it, you’ve just gotta close your eyes and arch your back a little in response. It ain’t always health food (can you say hot fried chicken?), but something in its spicy truth clutches at the heartstrings like a first kiss. A deep, artery-clogging first kiss. And first kisses are always good.  Whether French or french-fried and finger-licking, it’s all good in Nashville.

Our little band tucked into the city  gradually, with a Wednesday  lunch at Puckett’s Fifth and Church, a short hop from the conference center.  There were six of us in our little scout troop–two Canadians (Jack and Virgil), a pregnant Jersey Girl named Emmy, Philly contingency Layla and Mike, and this gal. Emmy, Virgil, Mike and I were the reunion set. Layla and Jack were in Nashville for the ride–Jack traveling along with his brother, and Layla (a friend of Mike’s) in town for a job interview.

Po’ Boys, burgers, and pints of beer in a mason jar–it was the perfect place to regroup and get the groove going once again.  Puckett’s decor got us right in the mood from the first with country knicknacks lining the walls, making us feel like we were over to dinner at Uncle Jesse’s house.  That same evening, I had one of those “group dinners”–a private room for fifteen at the restaurant of one of the more tony hotels in town.  It was a good choice.  The decor was classic, the menu top-shelf new American and the wine list stellar. From fried okra to pot de creme, Nashville had shown me a good, round culinary day.  I went to bed sated, smiling, and fixed on getting my rest to be ready for more.

Then it was Thursday.  We made sure to schedule our official Night of Reunion Shenanigans to take place after we had all participated like good corporate denizens in the conference events of the preceding week.  You see, salty dogs that we were, we knew by now that hangover + back-to-back two-hour presentations were a nasty, nasty combo.  That’s something you do once, then plan never, ever to do again–kind of like martinis and wine with a Grand Marnier chaser.  Add to that the fact that a few of us had been scheduled to be on the dais ourselves throughout the week, and what do you get?  Thursday.

With a feast of riches laid out before us, the only question was where to dig in first.  We took care of the pleasantries and fueling-up at a casual smokehouse just a short drive from the hotel, and enjoyed each other’s conversation over shrimp and sausage and seafood stew.  We rubbed Emmy’s belly, learned more about Jack and Layla, and got the laugh machine started at a good, steady hum.  Bellies full and energy high, it was time to get serious with lady Nashville.

We were after the music now, so we piled into a taxi and headed back to Broadway.  The good news is, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting top-notch talent in Nashville.  Club after club, bar after bar bear marquees that would rival any … well, anything. I mean hell, these folks hauled in their own gear, set it all up, rocked the roof off the place, then packed up and went out for a burger most every night. The town was a teeming river of talent, and we drank it up like Yuengling.

As had happened at this same conference the year before, albeit in a different city, Mike served as ringleader.  Mike, who had already closed down a bar in Nashville before the conference had even begun.  Mike, who had never before been to this town, but who still seemed to know all the best local spots.  Mike, who unlike the rest of of our little gang, dressed as we were for the  evening in nice pants, sweaters and boots, showed up in the hotel lobby in a hoodie, faded jeans and Converse.  Mike was not messing around.  Like Jamie Foxx’s character from In Living Color, Mike was “Ready to Go.”

But in hindsight, Mike also knew what we didn’t–that the deepest part of Nashville doesn’t care if you wear Prada or Gucci or even that your socks match.  It doesn’t give a hot damn about how you show up.  It just wants you to be all there–ears, eyes, guts, heart.  It wants you to listen, and listen hard, to what it has to say.  Come as you are.  It’s all good in Nashville.

And listen we did.  Now I flat-out love live music.  No amphitheater  required–I’d rather be sweat on by a late-career virtuoso guitarist or watch an unknown blues master light up a tiny club than swim in a sea of amphitheater-goers all squinting toward a penpoint spotlight in the distance.  Hell, as much as it screams “You’re Old!” to me, I’ll gladly wait outside a venue with a small army of teenagers for 3 hours to get close to the stage, as I did seeing Bruno Mars in Mannheim a couple of years ago.  And boy, was that worth it.

But back to Nashville.  Our first stop was Tootsie’s.  This was the place Mike had closed out earlier in the week, and I could see why.  Tootsie’s had music all over the place–Southern rock on the second floor, blues in the basement, and straight-up country with a view of the city from the deck.  We went out there first, swigging bottled Bud in the cool air, getting loose, and chatting with a red-bearded philosopher of about thirty–mind scarred from the service, heart beating for his kids, and hometown pride oozing from every pore.

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a staple of Nashville on Broadway (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We were down to four in our contingency at this point.  The expectant Jersey Girl had understandably retired after dinner,and Jack had chosen to head back to his room to continue nursing a hangover from a few nights before (no conference for him, so why not?).  And so it was that we, the Four Musketeers, took up our Budweisers and wielded them resolutely from floor to floor and laughing above the din of rock and roll and life.

By midnight we were on to our second venue; this one smaller, more intimate to match the movement of our conversations about the things that moved us.  We shared whatever filled our minds or memories … college, family, career … music.  The cover of blues riffs provided the confidence, the flow of beer offered the openness, and the laughter made it all easy to say. Under the cloak of music, shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and friendly strangers, maybe you can let your guard fall away, lighten your load and speak in or out what’s on your heart.

Mike himself was a musician, once centrally and now socially, and wanted so much to be up on that stage that he could taste it as distinctly as the draught of Bud on his tongue. Here at the Second Fiddle, where we ultimately closed out the night together, he stopped partying at one point to sit on the amp in front of the band for a little while, soaking up as much of the ambience, the crowd celebration as he could before returning to his role as Audience. Nashville makes you think about things.

That’s not to say the evening was slanted hopelessly toward the deep and meaningful side.  There was raucous fun I there,too–unintelligible shouts to and from strangers at the next barstool, a photo booth group shot in which everyone was looking everywhere but at the camera, and many, many beer drips.  At one point, I looked over to see Mike drinking a shot from the ample cleavage of a fifty-year-old woman in a cowboy hat. Stage-side confidences or bosom-sweat tequila, it’s all good in Nashville.

By the time we dug into that 3 AM pizza, hot, tired and our ears ringing with music and beer, we had largely run out of things to talk about (and voices with which to talk about them), and so we ate our food and drank our bottles of water in peaceable, quiet camaraderie.  We hugged in the elevator as we disembarked on our respective floors and dropped like rocks into sleep.  Though we didn’t see each other as we headed out the next day, we didn’t need to.  No words were required, no pleasantries called for. Nashville had helped us to rediscover each other as we jointly discovered it.  We took our time, our memories and our new and old friendships home with us, and that was plenty.  Better than plenty.  It was all good in Nashville.