I was hungover the first time I smelled a celebrity. I was flipping through 45s at my favorite record store in Nashville when the owner—Jack White—walked through the shop. My heart performed a series of horrifying gymnastics. My hands shook. I could feel my jaw go slack, laden with potential words to be garbled in an attempt to make friends with one of my favorite musicians.
Then, at the last moment, I realized that I wasn’t going to say anything at all. Maybe I could have captured a selfie, gotten a handshake, or even a passing thumbs up, but in my hungover delirium I decided to just let Jack White be. He walked right past me, out the front door, and out of my life forever — but I’ll never forget the smell of burnt leather and black licorice that tumbled off him, like the ghostly aura of some effortlessly cool wraith.
It’s one of my favorite stories to tell people when I talk about living in Nashville. Not because it’s an amazing story (which it’s not, it’s literally the story of how I smelled another human) but because it’s the perfect snapshot of everyday life in the city.
Because Nashville is the greatest city on the face of the Earth.
Maybe that’s why everyone wants to move there, because they’ve heard stories like this one, or binged watched episodes on Food Network about barbecue and fried chicken, or they’ve read articles with titles like “The 10 Best Places To Live In America.” But, trust me, if you want to know what it’s really like to live in Nashville, you’ve got to ask the people who make it great. I recently spoke with three of my favorite musicians about days and nights in Music City:
Daniel Pujol is one of the most thoughtful lyricists working today. His music is the perfect blend between psychedelic and punk and he’s a huge part of the Nashville artistic community.
You can listen to the KISSES EP here.
Thelma & The Sleaze is a three-piece, all-girl rock group that fully embraces their Nashville heritage while shredding their way across America. They recently finished the world’s first ever intra-city tour (aka the KANDYLAND tour), in which they played a live show in Nashville literally every day during the month of February.
You can listen to a few of their best singles here.
John Davey is a generous musician with lyrics that function on a high literary level. His compositions are subtle and soft, though his songs often focus on big ideas and the nature of human loneliness. Davey is the epitome of the Nashville musician and while I was living there he was a fixture in the house show scene.
You can listen to the album Living is Trying here.
I asked each musician the same set of questions, about their favorite spots to grab a drink, favorite places to eat, and favorite venues to catch a show, but I was surprised to find that they weren’t really interested in talking about any of that.
“…I expected more exclusivity and cliquishness,” said Davey, who moved to Nashville from Indiana. “But what I found was a pretty broad inclusiveness.”
Davey’s answer surprised me, but it also seemed to be consistent with his cohorts.
“The circles I choose to spend my time in are more cooperative than competitive,” said Pujol. “The community isn’t being neutered, feudally reoriented, or airbrushed by the lifestyle journalistas and real estate agents.”
In other words, Nashville is still an authentic city where people are interested in working together.
“We LOVE Nashville. We worship it,” said Chase, the drummer (and in this case, the mouthpiece) for Thelma & The Sleaze. “The KANDYLAND tour was an absolutely encouraging scheme to remind us how mostly everyone in this town is turned on.”
If you asked me why I love Nashville, I’d tell you it’s because of restaurants like Husk or Prince’s Hot Chicken or Martin’s Bar-b-que, or bars like Three Crow or Crying Wolf or Hops & Crafts. That’s why I was surprised when each musician answered my questions in an extremely personal way, opting to talk about the people in Nashville instead of the places.
“I just walked into small businesses, and even corporate ones, and asked if we could take [them] over for [the KANDYLAND tour],” said Chase. “And we were being met with absolute fucking enthusiasm, mostly without regard to weird shit like beer liability or sound complaints. We played at fucking McDonald’s!”
Part of what makes Nashville work is that it’s a big city that still acts like a small town. Sure, McDonald’s is a national chain, but in Nashville, it’s run like a local establishment. There’s a big push in the city to keep things running that way, with more and more consideration given to local, homegrown communities.
“When I moved here the cost of living was very low,” said Pujol. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on. So, it was easy to get something going…This was the first time I recognized the cooperative possibilities here. Especially when experimenting with fostering social art in a sustainable way.”
Even though I’m not a musician, I am an artist. I draw and I paint and, on occasion, I perform monologues. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Nashville but in less than a few weeks of living there I was drawing portraits of new people, painting murals in restaurants, and telling stories at open mic nights. I don’t know if I would have had those kinds of experiences in other cities, or if I would have been accepted so warmly.
“Nashville is actually a very friendly city,” said Davey. “I like the neighborhoodiness and the feeling that you could probably run into someone you knew no matter what part of town you were in.”
It’s a sensibility that everyone catches onto when they visit Nashville. Everyone is friendly, everyone is excited to hear your story. That’s what makes it such a rich environment for new musicians, and such a tempting place to live for everyone else. Nashville is in that rare moment in time where it’s maintained an antiquated Southern sensibility while simultaneously creating a progressive culture.
But how long can that last?
“…Many new homebuyers or would-be sellers’ property values will go down as city codes keep changing to avoid uncouth, or infrastructure-damaging development,” said Pujol. “So, I think Nashville might see a lot of specious ‘community improvement’ petitions that essentially just try to add bonus-features to neighborhoods that are losing their inflated value. I think locals—myself included–will have to be more active with their Council Representatives to make sure their neighborhoods don’t turn into ‘Brooklyn In 2009 Disney World.’”
Between 2010 and 2014, 65 percent of local growth in Music City was due to an influx of new residents moving in — making it fifth among the nation’s top 25 Metro areas that grew by more than 100,000 people. To put it more simply: a ton of people have moved to Nashville recently, and that trend is only going to continue.
“I’m sick of talking about ‘New Nashville’ and ‘gentrification,’” said Chase. “It’s inevitable and annoying. We’re clinging onto what we have so we can keep it a true Southern city where strangers look each other in the eye.”
A recent study showed that the average household income in Nashville rose 6 percent from 2000 to 2013…but the cost of rent rose 21 percent for four-bedroom apartments and 39 percent for one-bedrooms. In fact, in the middle of writing this, I learned that the apartment complex I used to live at in Nashville is planning to double the cost of rent. How could will artists thrive with that sort of inflation?
“I overheard some real estate agents making fun of such considerations,” said Pujol. “They were saying those considerations, ‘get in the way of progress.’ However, their reasoning essentially just confuses the concept of “overall progress” with them getting what they want as real estate agents. I disagree with such a specific, economically-tethered definition of progress.”
But the truth is, sadly, that rent and the cost of living, like everything else, boils down to simple economics. A limited resource is more valuable if more people want it, and Nashville, as it would seem, is becoming a very limited resource.
“Please don’t move here,” said Chase at the end of our conversation. “The roads can’t handle it. Literally. The infrastructure wasn’t created with this growth in mind. Civil Engineering courses take their graduate students here to show what NOT to do, in regards to city planning.”
She’s not wrong. Nashville is an amazing place to live, but if everyone keeps moving there—if the cost of living keeps going up—then, before long, it might not be so amazing.
“Nashville’s a boom town right now and it’s a really great time to be around,” said Davey. “But at some point, that hype and level of growth will have to end. Mathematics, ya know?”
“Why not care about the quality of your local culture…in a similar way that one would care about their overall ‘quality of life,’” suggest Pujol. “Lots of people here do.”
So please, don’t move to Nashville. You don’t have to move to Nashville. Visit instead, as soon as you can. Spend a long weekend there like Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Eat at all the amazing restaurants, drink at all the amazing bars, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet some really amazing people. Let them inspire you, motivate you to create a culture in your city that is as welcoming and noteworthy as Nashville’s. Be friendly, support artists, look each other in the eye. Be like Nashville.
Because Nashville is the greatest city on the face of the Earth.
If you want to keep up with the real goings-on of the Music City, check out Nashville’s Dead.