Country music’s hometown has become a center for cool creative types and a modern culinary destination without losing any of its honky-tonk soul. Supermodel and local Karen Elson gives writer David Prior a tour of her favorite haunts.
On paper, British supermodel Karen Elson does not quite belong in Nashville. The famously flame-haired, porcelain-skinned muse of the fashion world is more the embodiment of urbane British cool than the epitome of the razzle-dazzle, rhinestone-studded “Music City.” Or so it would seem. Elson, who decamped from New York to Nashville in 2006 with her then-husband, the musician Jack White, has since become something of a poster girl for new Nashville, a city that has retained its distinct honky-tonk charm while evolving into one of North America’s buzziest creative hubs.
Its neighborhoods, each unique, are growing in national recognition: the hipster enclave of East Nashville, the tree-lined cool suburbia of 12South, the proliferation of artists’ studios in The Gulch and the bourgeoning restaurant destination Germantown. “In the past five years, the city has exploded, and it’s now not just about country music,” Elson says enthusiastically. “The food and fashion scenes and other genres of music are all evolving, and at the same time, that community spirit that drew me here only gets stronger.”
Nashville looms large in the American psyche. From afar, the home of country music and birthplace of many a star is often viewed as one neon-lit, hairspray-enhanced dive bar. Yet that first impression is misleading, and it takes insider knowledge and a willingness to fall in step with the rhythm of life here before the city’s true spirit reveals itself.
The postcard-familiar honky-tonk strip is the first point of call for most visitors. And while Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and other country music icons might not recognize some of the haunts where they nursed beers and wrote songs, there are still plenty of sights and sounds that remain authentic here. “I still go to Robert’s, one of the most famous dive bars downtown,” Elson says with a vague drawl. “It’s a great place to see gentlemen two-stepping and hang with musicians, maybe after a performance at the Ryman.”
Elson is referring to the legendary Ryman Auditorium, of course, a former tabernacle that is now Nashville’s most recognizable landmark and its true spiritual center. Made famous as the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, the red brick structure, with its cathedral-like bones, is at odds with the glitz and dive bars that surround it. However, the Ryman remains one of the world’s most storied venues and, for musicians of every genre, one of its most sought-after.
“Wherever you go in Nashville, music permeates,” Elson says, and it seems that she herself has not been immune. The multitalented model is also well known as a striking vocalist and avant-garde musician, with her sophomore album due to be released this year.
As Nashville has drawn many musicians outside the country genre, so, too, has its food tradition diversified. Known by some for hot chicken, Nashville has become one of the more exciting restaurant cities in the country. “The city is surrounded in every direction by beautiful farmland, and the restaurants here are really connected to farms,” Elson says. She counts the elevated Italian-influenced Rolf and Daughters and Adele’s in The Gulch among her favorites.
The southern city is also home to one of the country’s most dynamic hospitality operators, the brothers Max and Ben Goldberg, who won national acclaim at their 22-seat fine dining Southern degustation The Catbird Seat, also an Elson favorite. The Goldbergs lead the scene with a roll call of venues that balance the spirit of unpretentious Nashvillian hospitality and Southern food tradition with a modern, lighter touch. At Pinewood Social, the brothers created a bowling alley and restaurant where neon and Edison bulbs find harmony and Southern classics sit comfortably on a menu alongside more cosmopolitan fare.
This blending of old and new Nashville is also present in the city’s transforming fashion. “Women here have an easy style,” Elson says. “It might just be a great pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, but it is definitely no longer about bedazzling and miniskirts.” The singer-songwriter- storekeeper Holly Williams, granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams, is Nashville royalty and has been an ambassador in helping shape that transformation, mixing international labels with a more down-home style at the boutique H. Audrey and her “general store” White’s Mercantile. “I often drop by and see what Holly is stocking,” Elson says. “There is always a mix of items for the home that I love. It is great modern Nashville style, like so many places here—a mix of warmth, charm and always a little bit of edge.”
Where to Stay
The beautifully restored grand dame of Nashville’s hotels is reminiscent of another era but with all the modern accouterments. Have a drink at the classic Oak Bar or simply marvel at the extraordinarily ornate lobby.
This contemporary option in Midtown incorporates eco-conscious details into its design and amenities.
Owners Jersey Banks and Lyon Porter split their time between New York, where the original Urban Cowboy is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and this cooler-than-cool restored Queen Anne-style mansion in the hipster-fying neighborhood of East Nashville. Less luxury and more louche rock ’n’ roll nonchalance.
For more on Nashville, go to BG.com/Nashville.