Walk along Lower Broadway, downtown Nashville’s main strip, and you’ll hear the songs of country legends spilling out the doors of honky-tonks. You’ll also stumble across the Ryman Auditorium, known as the mother church of country music and the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.
But it is possible to have fun here even if your appreciation for the likes of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton or George Jones is somewhat limited. Be warned though: music is hard to avoid on a night out. Everyone you meet seems to be a writer or a musician (or both) looking for their big break. The arrival in the city of Jack White, the Kings of Leon and the Black Keys, other indie bands like JEFF the Brotherhood, and even bands that cross the rock–country divide – the Cadillac Three and Old Crow Medicine Show, for example – means there’s now a lot more to the scene than songs about pretty girls, pick-up trucks and whiskey. The other staple of a night out in Nashville is booze, so pull on your best boots, download the Uber app (it’s the only way to get around) and prepare to meet some interesting characters.
There’s no better way to get your bearings than on a tour. Unless it’s on a tour complete with beverages. The Nashville Pedal Tavern takes off several times a day on a number of different rolling pub crawls. Pedal away on the Midtown tour and you’ll see Music Row – home of record labels, publishing houses and recording studios – and stop at bars where the locals drink, including neighbours, Winners Bar & Grill and Losers Bar. It’s not all necking shots and skolling beers though, because you’re powering the tavern through the streets. Getting it going is the hardest part, and there are plenty of traffic lights, stop signs and hills with which to contend. Drinks can be downed on the pedal tavern too, but you have to bring your own (no glass). A couple of cans of beer will work, although boozy iced tea, a Southern staple, poured into gallon milk jugs isn’t unheard of.
Nashville Pedal Tavern
After two hours cranking that moveable bar around, you’ll need to refuel. Right at the bottom of Broadway is one of the city’s coolest venues. Acme Feed & Seed is spread across three floors in what was Nashville’s first reinforced concrete building – it has housed all sorts of businesses, from a flour mill to the Acme Feed and Hatchery, which operated here for more than five decades, before the whole lot was closed up and left to sit vacant. Now, the ground floor has good food, beer on tap and live music, a lounge area on the second floor is home to regular events like the Geeks Who Drink Wednesday trivia night, and there’s an event-slash-music space up top. There’s also a rooftop bar, with views right up Broadway and over the Cumberland River. Watch the sun set with an Acme Rooster Brew (created by local Fat Bottom Brewery) then grab some pulled pork tacos, a beef brisket sandwich or slow-roasted short ribs downstairs.
Acme Feed & Seed
There’s just one way to kick a Nashville night into high gear and that’s with a bushwacker. “This is the best place to do it, and Wednesday is the best day to do it,” says the barkeep at Edley’s Bar-B-Que. (If you’re wondering about Wednesdays, it’s because prices drop from US$8 to $5.) A bushwacker, which is thought to have originated somewhere in the Caribbean, has somehow now become something of a Nashville tradition. It is basically a frozen milkshake made with two types of rum, including Bacardi 151, “which is what gives it so much kick”, and two liqueurs in coffee and chocolate variations. A squirt of Hershey’s chocolate syrup decorates the glass, which is then filled from a slushie-style machine. It doesn’t taste too boozy, but there are actually almost four shots of alcohol in each serve. One bushwacker will give you a quiet buzz; a second might just put you on your arse.
2706 12th Avenue S
If you were to say to us “bar with bowling lanes” we’d want to permanently reserve a spot. But that’s just one of the reasons to love Pinewood Social. It’s all a bit industrial-hip and represents a newer Nashville where acoustic guitars are far from everyone’s minds. The Social has plenty to recommend it, including a pool and bocce court outside, a restaurant, cocktails and coffee bar inside and some outstanding people watching (yes, Jack White has been seen here). Our tip, at this time of night, is to grab a jug of Tennessee Brew Works Southern Wit Belgian white ale and lace up your shoes. There are six vintage lanes reclaimed from an old Bowl-O-Rama in Indiana, and each can host up to six players for just US$40 an hour. That’s what we call a strike. (And tomorrow morning, if you’re feeling under the weather, drop back for a dip and breakfast of chicken and biscuits.)
33 Peabody Street
Not surprisingly there are music venues everywhere in this town, representing every genre from straight up-and-down country to jazz. The High Watt sits beside two larger sister venues (Mercy Lounge and the Cannery Ballroom) in an old industrial site that once ground coffee, then was a factory making jams, mustard and mayo. There’s no pinpointing a definitive style for this intimate venue. You might see an alt-country duo like the Contenders playing a warm-up gig for a national tour, a local soul band or an about-to-break trio pumping out rock tunes. Grab one of the tables in an elevated section to the left of the stage, sink a couple of PBRs and simply enjoy being in what one Uber driver described as “a drinking town with a music problem”.
The High Watt
One Cannery Row
Lower Broadway is the home of the honky-tonk, which is really just another name for a bar with music. And do they have music here. It starts at about 10am each day and kicks on well into the evening. Unfortunately a lot of venues along Broadway feel like they’re catering to tourists and hen parties. Not Robert’s Western World where there are neon lights, cowboy boots along one wall and a guy making burgers on an open grill. On Friday and Saturday nights the house band, Brazilbilly, offers something a little different. Fronted by Robert’s proprietor, Brazilian-born Jesse Lee Jones, the band puts a Latin spin on classic country tunes by the likes of Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Hank. Regardless of the time of week, though, there’s music playing till 2am. Grab an icy Coors or a partner and get your Tennessee two-step on. If you’re starting to feel a bit peckish, order the Honky Tonk Grill’s specialty, a fried bologna sandwich.
Robert’s Western World
“No beer. No cussin’. No cigarettes.” So reads the sign on the stage at Santa’s Pub. OK, so it’s not exactly a stage – more a spot with a microphone, karaoke machine and rogue Christmas tree. A woman called Taylor, who encourages her drunk mates to come and sing with her, has the music cut. They’re carrying drinks. “We work hard selling $2 beers to get this expensive equipment for you,” says Mrs Santa. The crowd begins chanting: “Let her sing. Let her sing.” But the owner’s wife holds firm. As you may have guessed, Santa’s (owned by the big guy with the white beard, if you’re wondering) is no ordinary karaoke venue. Located in a double-wide trailer it’s a proper dive bar. There’s a legend about why the place only sells beer: something about liquor, an altercation and a man getting shot. Who knows if it’s true? The standard of singing, however, is incredibly high. A couple of older guys give ‘Elvira’ a crack, another young woman cranks through Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’ and the crowd goes wild when Byron, with his short, blond ponytail, dances through the drinkers and over tables as he smashes Edwin Hawkins Singers’ ‘Oh Happy Day’ out of the park. Put down your name only if you’ve got the chops.
2225 Bransford Avenue
Nashville’s night owls held their collective breath when it was announced the Hermitage Cafe, one of the city’s only remaining old-school diners, was getting an update courtesy of Food Network show American Diner Revival. Thankfully, when all was revealed in October last year, it hadn’t changed that much and, most importantly, cheap, plentiful food still filled the menu. The Hermitage opens at midnight every day (except Sundays) making it popular with the few-too-many, going-home crowd. French toast with bacon, bacon cheeseburgers and the Texas breakfast (ribeye, bacon, eggs, fries and biscuits with gravy) are all on the menu. Tuck in and plan how long you’re going to sleep for in the morning.
71 Hermitage Avenue
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