Broadway is Nashville’s central entertainment district that encompasses the five blocks of the eponymous street, starting at the river and ending at Fifth Avenue. Other venues, bars, and restaurants line the intersecting streets. There are about thirty bars, four boot stores, one candy shop, one ice cream parlor, a hot dog stand, a psychic, and several tourist trinket shops. Live music emanates from the bars, generically called “honky tonks,” sixteen hours a day every day of the year.
There are about sixteen venues in five blocks. There’s not usually a door charge; the bands play for tips all day. And they are really quite good. That’s 1024 hours of music every day, for those of you who know your powers of two.
A bit of history, in general terms
In midcentury America, many people who could do so forsook the center of the cities. Spurned on by racial conflict and the completion of the interstate highway network, Americans fled to the suburbs. They replaced the unpredictable urban public spaces they associated with crime, poverty, rotting infrastructure, and racial strife with a new cult of cars, predictable privately-controlled shopping malls, and homogenous subdivisions.
In Nashville, the best symbol of this suburbanization was the 1972 relocation of the country music industry stalwart Grand Ole Opry radio show to new studios in the middle of undeveloped farmland seven miles from downtown. The new studio replaced the Ryman Auditorium near the corner of 5th and Broadway, where generations of stars and fans had played and watched the show live. A closely-controlled and monitored amusement park, Opryland, that they built nearby replaced the function of the streets, sidewalks, and many bars and clubs that players and audience had enjoyed when the show was in the Ryman. Thereafter, Broadway became known as a seedy place, and the neighborhoods adjoining it were thought of as good places to be robbed.
Broadway’s current extraordinary success is the result of a more recent trend to reclaim the center of cities. Civic and business leaders worked for decades to reverse Broadway’s decline. The city government spent close to a billion dollars in the area, including a new arena, streetscape improvements, and a new convention center. Broadway once again shines as the prime destination for visitors to our city.
On a Friday and Saturday nights, cars pack the street, moving no faster than a zombie of the ambling sort. Pedal taverns and horse-drawn carriages meander down the pavement. The sidewalks teem with pedestrians, party goers, drunks, urban cowboys, wannabe hillbillies, and visitors from every place imaginable. Even early in the evening, there are people passed out on the sidewalk in their fancy clothes. Mobs of bachelorette parties maraud from block to block in matching outfits or upon pedal-driven taverns.
The Ryman has been extensively renovated. It is sought after as a venue by the greatest popular acts of our era. Shows sell out quickly. One can’t help but wonder if the people now in charge of the Opry regret the decisions of their predecessors.
Broadway is shaped by constant interaction between three groups
The first are the musicians. For most of the bars, acts are scheduled for two hour shifts. The bands work for tips only. They do not receive proceeds from a door charge because most bars don’t charge one. All the way from ten in the morning until bars close at two or three in the morning, the hard-working musicians are on a hustle. The sight of Broadway is a great rebuke to anyone who doubted a person could make a living playing music. There are artists who have been sustained for years by standing gigs on Broadway.
The second group are the tourists, vacationers, and convention-goers. For many of them, Broadway really is Nashville. It is the most accessible place in town for them. If a person does not know what else to see, she will end up on Broadway. If a person is unable or unwilling to investigate novel things to do on vacation in Nashville, s/he will end up on Broadway. If a person came into town for a trade show, knows nothing at all about Nashville, and wants to “get to know a little of the local culture,” that person is going out on Broadway.
A European guest in my house who did not speak English very well once said that he came to Nashville for one reason. “Is there honkey tonk? I want to see the honkey tonk.” Hours later, he returned home elated and shitfaced. He said it was the highlight of his trip. His experience is shared by so many visitors to our town.
Finally, there are the rest of us, who live here. We know that some of what goes on is schlock. We know that some of the bars and businesses get away with stupidity and vapidity because the tourists and convention-goers are a captive and naive audience. But sometimes, we want the excitement! Sometimes, it’s our friends who are playing in the bars. Despite any cynicism I may have, I find it awesome that I can go out two miles from my house and dance to live country music any night of the week for free.
For more information, follow my blog. Coming up soon, I’m going to publish a block-by-block review of where to go on Broadway.