Adam Hill muses on Bourdain's Nashville trip
My name is Adam Hill. Welcome to my blog. I wrote the book Old Timer’s Blues set in Nashville back in 1973, the year I was born.
Every few weeks I post something that I’m ruminating on. Recently I bought Anthony Bourdain Remembered from ECCO publishing. I picked it up thinking it would be a travel essay collection with photographs. I should have read the copy. It does feature exotic, charming, and touching photography but text wise, it’s lightweight. What you get is a collection of short thoughts verging on platitudes by a variety of folks. In the mix are notable chefs and writers but otherwise it’s lifted from the social media masses. Surprisingly, I found some merit in this, with observations that I felt a knowing twinge of shared experience.
But let’s get to it, How does Anthony Bourdain and Nashville?
I posted this a few days after Bourdain died on Instagram.
He’d post Instagram stories. Hotel rooms. Ruffled beds. Empty plates. The Stooges playing. Sometimes the iPhone camera looked out the window at whatever city. Maybe it was home. Maybe he was trying to show how lonely he was? I know depression gets to everyone. You put your hand up and it hits you like mercury. It goes right up your arm. You can’t wall it off. So food, money, travel? That’s the life right? Experience is a religion now isn’t it? Go there, find yourself. Eat that, learn about life. But it’s not enough. Not even close. And I don’t think that appreciating travel and food is all bad. If we’re not here to love others and learn about them, then what? We need to sit down and break bread with strangers. That’s beautiful. That’s one big lesson that he was good at. He was a guy who’d beat it right? He was the guy who liked making pancakes for his daughter and her friends. He got rolling at 44. He survived. That was pretty damn inspiring. So what does that mean now? There really are no second acts in America? All of that. I know more people killed themselves between when Kate Spade did and he did and someone loved them and misses them. Make fun of me if you like for it but I feel like I learned from him. So I’ll miss that dude. What bums me I guess is there’s one less talented, insightful, funny, and scarred man sitting at the bar drinking a beer with his friends.
He came to Nashville once. I hear more people complain about that episode than I’ve heard like it. I know how much I appreciate every episode from places I’ll most likely never see, so I bet the folks who will never see Nashville, enjoyed it. Gripe all you want but he did what any of us would do. He called up his friends that live here. Which to some degree makes me wonder about how he picked folks in some other cities. But I think it says more about the people he would know that are coming here than the people he picked in other cities. He knows rock stars and chefs here. I think most places he went, he knew nobody. Those were probably easier shows in a way. What if you lived here, knew Tony and you weren’t on the show? “Awkward,” as the young set would put it.
When I first moved away from home I was shell shocked. I tried unsuccessfully to move away again after college and eventually got the courage to move to New York City. Go big right? Living there changed me forever. I discovered tacos there and later on a trip to Chicago I had my first taco truck taco. I worked with a group of Puerto Rican’s, Dominicans, Mexicans, Haitians, Chinese, Trinidadians and some locals from Harlem. I went to lunch with the guys and gals. We had pizza, burritos, and stir fry. These things made me closer to growing up. Being in another place, working with a group of people where I was the only white boy, other than a full on Irish guy. For my wife it was Chicago and Asian food. When I first saw Bourdain’s show, I recognized this magic of breaking bread and working with people from the rest of the world.
To be able to go to city after city and connect and compile an image of it over and over is an arduous task.
There was a sense that there was a merit to people he picked in locations, they were the person his research team said, “Yeah, this is the chic that knows the deal. This is the dude that has the story.” Of course the people who were on the Nashville show have merit for a-lot of things but merit for the story of Nashville?
If you are here long enough you’ll notice most people aren’t from here at all. I’m always quick to point out few musicians came from Nashville. This place is Music Business City USA not Music City USA. Memphis should have that distinction. It’s stupefying how many talented people came from an hour radius of Memphis from 1945 to 1963 that changed culture. It’s jaw dropping how many singular stylists came from within two hours of Bristol TN in the 1930’s. There aren’t a-lot of people from here that are musicians or chefs, the city has always depended on outsiders.
It can seem like an artless place. We don’t have an art museum. We don’t have a wealthy class that cares about culture to that extent yet. This place is for insurance salesmen and bankers, health industry executives. You get the music now that you’d expect from that climate. Nashville is not funky, or gritty, or redolent with the flair that NOLA or Memphis have. Of course the 1940’s-50’s era of country music put us on the map. Commercial, music business, yes but the untamed sense of the wilderness had not been ripped from the artists yet. Even in this era the legends came from far away, except for Kitty Wells. It's a business, so the music ain't avant garde, punk or even rock n roll.
The eighties run of Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Steve Earle, Foster and Lloyd and others would have been grand to behold and again none of them are from Tennessee. The last whimper was the mid 90’s when BR549 and Paul Burch revitalized Lower Broad, midwesterners and mid Atlantic gents I believe. Perhaps we tip our hat to when East Nashville was still new. That was fun with the old Family Wash, the old Slow Bar and the old Radio Cafe. Since then it has devolved into something wholly unmusical and between those moments it is hokum schmaltz. But like the music the city is now a business that depends on outsiders coming here into the maw.
Let’s break the show down. They went to Dandgures because it’s close to Third Man. Let’s break from the shoot ok? Arnold’s is close too. I’ve not been to Dandgures so I can’t make the call on which is the best. Though with meat and three, there's a good chance they are all the best. I’ll just say I’m thankful he didn’t go to Big Al’s because I don’t need the meat and three pearl of the city on television.
City House is a fine choice. Southern tinge to new things. The top of the top of Nashville food chain I suppose is Catbird Seat. I’ve not dined there, I don’t have that kind of coin but I think he could have skipped it. Every major city has places that plate food in a small bowl with grass on it, in a purée of something pickled and a rock. Which I dig. I dig those kinds of meals. Don’t hear jealousy or derision.
His hot chicken experience with the Mossharts seemed like everyone was nervous. The pain can be fun! It didn’t seem like anyone was having fun. Get Pat Martin. Get Sean Brock. Give each other shit. I’ve gone into Bolton’s before and seen a group of guys sweating buckets giving each other shit and closing their eyes unable to talk. That would have made good TV. The Mossharts were not into the heat.
In the subsequent Sichuan episode where Bourdain seeks to meltdown Eric Ripert’s mouth with Chinese dishes, this begs the question, “Is Nashville Hot Chicken hotter than Sichuan hot?” I get the aversion, my phrase is, “Hot Chicken is like chewing on a can of mace,” but I’m to believe it’s more flame throwing than eating Chinese Sichuan province hot noodles? Allison Mosshart did it right. The fish sandwich at Bolton’s is one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten in town. It’s up there with Big Al’s Pork Chop and Theresa Mason’s Pozole. Full disclosure I am a medium at Hattie B's kind of guy at this point in my life.
The guests? Sean Brock, Pat Martin, Tandy Wilson. That makes sense. Margo Price makes perfect sense. I’ve met Margo Price 3-4 times. She’s always pleasant. She never remembers me. She is as country as can be attained in 2019.
The Kills are one of my favorite bands of the last 20 years. They perfectly prove that Nashville has changed. Mosshart reflects that when she was in punk bands they would avoid Nashville. I remember the days still when tours would avoid Tennessee altogether. In 2005 Paul Westerberg was supposed to play Nashville. He had to cancel the show for poor ticket sales. He did play the New Daisy Theatre in Memphis that week. Why I didn’t go over there still mystifies me. Why I tried to have a band in a city that would let this happen mystifies me even more.
Seeing Mosshart and Hince on the show is better than him hanging out with Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow but something seems awkward about them hanging out in Nashville. I don’t know whose fault it is.
When The Rolling Stones played here in 2016 they had Brad Paisley open for them. I really thought The Alabama Shakes would have been the no brainer move. But The Stones got Paisley. It made sense. That was like if they ate at the Loveless Cafe. They are 80 year old men right? I think it’s like this with a moving target. Paisley is too old, the Kills are too new. Nashville is a mess. Sometimes you have to pick the biscuits.
The Dead Weather people? I’ll say this, Jack White is the man. He is the smartest marketer and mover in making you want what he’s got. I never cared for his solo albums. But I thought the White Stripes were incendiary brilliance. Good Lord, Meg White’s Jack Daniels drumming. Besides this, I owe White my last enjoyable record purchasing experiences. The Charley Patton records on vinyl. The Memphis Jugband on vinyl and the accompanying American Epic PBS documentary. I knew this music as the Harry Smith set, the Anthology of American Folk Music. I’m not sure what good it does at this point to remind the world of that past, because people don’t seem to care about anything before 2019, but it’s sweet to see. It gave me good chills.
I’ve played a show to a seemingly bored out of his mind Jack Lawrence at The Basement. I can’t remember what version of The Sunday Best it was. The me and Joe show or the me and Joe and a bunch of side people show? I’ll blame it on the bunch of side people show, those were always boring. The best was me and Joe and I should’ve learned to play the bass notes on the organ with my boots.
Why didn’t Bourdain go to a dismal songwriter night at a restaurant instead of hanging with successful musicians? That would have been closer to the everyday story. But shit, those things are horrible. I can’t sum up how horrid those are. They are demoralizing in a way that ideals, dreams, and a drink minimum for performers only can be. Not good TV.
Why did he go to a cryogenic bar? That was a ridiculous waste of time. Why not spend some time on Nolensville Pike? I know every city has an enclave of shops and restaurants where immigrants collect and start a new life. But Nolensville Pike is the migrant story in the old south, with Little Kurdistan, Mexican markets and taquerias, the Sudanese, it’s a vibrant street and in the context of Tennessee seems like it would be intriguing. But you can’t come here and do that. We aren’t Texas or California right? We aren’t the border.
But what does a cryogenic bar prove? We aren’t rubes? We aren’t unwashed heathens?
Do we have oxygen bars here? Google says, “Yes.” My friend and I have an ongoing act to talk about snakes, the flu, brown recluses, when we are in a bar and think visitors are lurking nearby. I still think a trip to Printers Alley to explore the fight over hip hotels condos and old bars would have summed things up. But, if you came to have fun, that’s a-lot to get into.
The Jefferson Street part was way cool to see. Night train to Nashville was a show at the Country Music Hall of Fame when I first moved to town back in 2001 that detailed the R&B hot and heavy sounds that street kicked out. The Bullit Excello Records story is fascinating. They never had the hit makers like SUN, Speciality or Chess but they had some damn good times on wax. Nashville is so cut down the middle. I don’t think the guys running Slim and Huskies were going yet when Bourdain visited but that would have been a nice food key into the Jefferson Street heritage. Nashville has so little racial overlap.
Every time I go to Memphis I remember this because that city, though obviously painfully evident has had a long hard story with race, it’s culture seems melded. I was just there and the downtown hotel I was in had a 50th family reunion for an African American family. They had rented out the whole place. It was a party. Downtown Nashville? Big hotel? I don’t see that happening. Granted, I don’t spend time in downtown Nashville hotels. The Scene pointed out that Bourdain avoided talking about Jefferson Street and the history of Nashville putting an Interstate right down the middle of the neighborhood that is home to TSU, Fisk, and Meharry. But if you came to town to hang out, again, that’s a-lot to get into.
This is the deal, people come to Nashville to have fun. It’s become the city personification of what I used to say about music. “People don’t love music. They love to drink, dance, have a good time, and feel like they are cool.” Nashville is that city. Besides that, we are a convenient place to be. The taxes are low. The crime is low. The amenities are fresh, if you have the coin. Our new citizens have the coin. Nashville is the cultural equivalent of living in a bank lobby. Marble counters, air conditioning, reclaimed wood floors. Garden and Gun yourself my friends.
The bohemianism is straight from the movie set with bespoke moments and expensive hand made shirts. The dive bars are curated. Dive bars don’t have a website right? At least that’s how I remember it. The cook gets ashes in your eggs. That’s a dive bar. I don’t want ashes in my eggs but I tired of every place being an Instagram moment.
Dangerous eccentricity is nonexistent, the music is mostly slick professionalism made for commercials. Even the “Outlaws” are singing perfectly in tune, gingerly strumming pristinely recorded acoustics playing what boils down to 70’s easy listening music in hippie hats. I guess that’s outlaw compared to Fla Ga Line but I need more Hank Williams in my life.
This whole thing is an exercise about Nashville. Crime writers write about where they are. This is where I am. I’m not gonna lie, I think being a crime writer in Memphis would be easier. Memphis is more interesting and vibes. Maybe I have been given a Hollywood, which is the most noir of noir. Maybe I should be thankful for that.
I enjoyed the Nashville episode. Dino's is easlity my favorite of the spots he went to. Kickass bar menu. Fried catfish sandwiches and beer, yes please. I still miss Bourdain. I miss his Instagram posts. I miss his show. I'm bummed he can't come back here in 10 years and go, "What the hell happened?"