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By the end of the night, we had heard four separate bands cover Colby Rasmus’s favourite batting song, Boys ’Round Here, and twice as many play Florida Georgia Line’s Cruise. It hit us, on the first of seven nights in Nashville, that the city’s endless assembly line of cover bands might get a little old.
At first, the annual summer guys’ trip sounded perfect: stay in a hotel five minutes from Broadway, the famous Nashville strip of honky tonks and barbecue joints each claiming some slice of country-music history. But once we arrived at the madness – a mess of sloppy bros and bachelorette parties from across the South, with fans of the city’s namesake TV series trying to keep up – it became apparent that the experience could grow tiresome.
The seven of us faced a week in what we now realized was a tourist trap. But thanks to some forward planning and Southern hospitality, we managed to defy the odds and discovered corners of the city that were spared from rap-sung Blake Shelton covers.
Nashville, we learned, quickly sheds its slick exterior. A 10-minute cab ride southwest of downtown took us to the Gulch, a half-gentrified postindustrial neighbourhood that boasts both high-end condos and underpasses sprinkled with shattered vodka bottles. There, on a street lined with boutique clothing stores and old warehouses, we stumbled upon Jack White’s Third Man Records, a label and concert venue fronted by a record store that featured a phone-booth-sized recording studio.
Deliberately located away from midtown’s major labels, it’s a required stop for record fans. I walked away with a handful of rare 45s and and a new King Tuff live record. Later, we would come back to record two songs straight to vinyl in the phone booth for $15 apiece, giving us grounds to boast that we’d recorded in the same studio as Neil Young.
We had wandered into the Gulch to find the Downtown Antique Mall, a sprawling warehouse of old treasures and ridiculous collectibles.
The city, we learned, is best navigated by car; it took 45 minutes of walking along crumbling sidewalks and around abandoned warehouses to find the right abandoned-looking warehouse. But there were treasures inside: a vintage ammo box for one friend, an old buoy for another, and a variety of American-flag apparel, which another one of us bought, then wore out of the store. After crowding into another honky-tonk bar a few hours later, a man claiming to be a record executive recognized our wariness and gave us a hot tip: escape to East Nashville. Half of our group took the bait and headed east, to Foobar, a smoky joint filled with like-minded hipsters-in-denial in their late 20s, famed for its enormous Jenga game. We would all return to East Nashville’s cluster of bars much of the rest of the week; it was the only part of town where everyone around us wasn’t trying to be something they weren’t.
There is a third tier of Nashville’s nightlife, if both honky tonks and hipsters offend your sensibilities: midtown, home of the country music industry and Al Gore’s alma mater, Vanderbilt University. Students have the neighbourhood bars in a chokehold, but one midtown spot offers a change of pace. The Villager Tavern is a smoky dive just south of Vanderbilt where the bartender indulged us with a kindness we will never forget: He turned off the heated Yankees-Red Sox game, to the chagrin of the regulars, to let us watch one of the final episodes of Breaking Bad as he kept our drinks full.
We went on a few requisite tours (including the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry), but mostly spent our days seeking out America’s greatest leisure stereotypes, as dictated by pop culture: shooting guns and watching baseball.
At the Nashville Armory, a 20-minute drive south of the city along the I-65, staff were generous and helpful, if a little confused about seven Canadians showing up in a taxi. We took turns firing revolvers and a semi-automatic. We walked away in full catharsis, with perhaps a lingering fear that we’d have to explain the gunshot residue no doubt smothering our clothes to security agents on the flight home.
Later, at Herschel Greer Stadium, we watched the Triple-A Nashville Sounds play a minor-league team from Texas. For $14, we sat behind home plate during what turned out to be dollar hot-dog night. As we waited in line for hot dogs three through six, we saw a familiar face waiting to buy his own franks: Jack White, a noted baseball fan, wearing a replica Roy Hobbs jersey.
Starstruck, we surrounded the musician and asked if we could Instagram a photo. He (begrudgingly) obliged, making small talk about his sister in Mississauga. That night, the Sounds let in the most runs in their 37-year history, as they were trounced by the Round Rock Express 20-2. We left two and a half hours into the game. It was still the fourth inning.
We did not subsist solely on dollar hot dogs. Southern barbecue was everywhere, and it was delicious. The moment we landed, we dined on pulled pork at Rippy’s Bar and Grill across the street from the Bridgestone Arena. We’d have it again and again, including from a makeshift shack in Printer’s Alley in the wee hours of the morning. There were stops at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and a storied, greasy dive called the Hermitage Cafe that serves gravy-soaked, country-fried steak. And we capped off the week with a huge family-style Southern dinner at Monell’s restaurant in Germantown, sharing meatloaf, peas and iced tea across a long table from a couple whose date we occasionally interrupted.
On our final night, we returned to Broadway. Bar to bar, band to band, cheap cans of Pabst to cheaper cans of Pabst, we relived the first night in town. By my estimate, we had heard Cruise performed at least 30 times since we arrived. But something had changed: After seven days in Nashville, country-cover culture had hooked us in. When we heard the opening lines of Cruise from the fifth cover band of the night, we were the ones high-fiving and yelling along: “Baby, you’re a song, you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”
IF YOU GO
If you don’t mind renting a car or taking hotel shuttles, midtown Nashville’s pace is a little slower than the core. Visit in the mid-summer and you’ll avoid Vanderbilt University students.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels next to Broadway that can cater to your needs, but Nashville’s downtown is smaller than it looks. The DoubleTree by Hilton on 4th Avenue North, a five-minute walk from the downtown main drag, has rooms from $169 (U.S.). 315 4th Ave N. doubletree3.hilton.com
Country music’s most hard-core fans will want to stay closer to the Grand Ole Opry in the east end. The Gaylord Opryland Resort is steps away from the concert venue, where you can catch the likes of Lady Antebellum, Vince Gill and Trace Adkins on a given night. The resort, with rooms from $159, offers 17 restaurants, three pools and a spa. 2800 Opryland Dr., marriott.com