Sometimes, when a Knoxvillite looks west, Nashville can appear to be the emerald city, sparkling like the light on your answering machine when you have a message. Nashville nightlife seems shinier than ours, full of interesting places and people and shows. Culturally, those basin dwellers have more than we hill folk—more museums, more galleries, more live theater.
But it hasn't always been this way. The major upheaval in Nashville's entertainment life has come about in the last decade or so. While the seeds were certainly planted before the late '80s, the right amount of water, sunlight, cash, and motivation made the city's arts and live music scene vigorously grow in the last decade.
Jonathan Marx, managing editor at the Nashville Scene and multi-instrumentalist for indie band Lambchop, has seen the change happen. And he knows whereof he speaks; Marx was born, bred, and—except for a college stint at Columbia—rooted in Nashville and has experienced first hand the city's growth.
"It's actually been pretty dramatic," Marx says of the last 10 years. "There's a lot more going on now than there was. There's more places to go and more big bands coming to town. More major institutions. More theater. More galleries. It seems like culturally in all ways it's gotten better."
Relative outsiders notice the vibrancy of the scene as well. One such is Chris Neal, a Knoxville ex-pat who is currently a staff writer at Country Weekly.
"It's a very tight-knit community here, inasmuch as everyone pretty much knows everyone else," Neal says. "The biggest difference in the music scene is that in Nashville, there's a sense that there is actually a goal in sight—there are big labels, big publishing houses, and always the chance that you'll be heard. In Knoxville, it always seemed musicians were making music more for the love of it, albeit with an undertow of hopeless desperation.
"When I came to Knoxville, I thought it was a big Middlesboro [Kentucky], and I guess I kind of think of Nashville as a big Knoxville. In some ways, it's smaller, even with a much larger population—more people are in the same business, and the city is laid out in a more concentrated way," he says.
"It definitely gives Nashville's community a purpose and driving force that Knoxville doesn't have. On the downside, since pretty much everyone in the clubs is in the business, or at least everyone I meet, every conversation is part get-to-know-you, part schmooze. That makes going out a little more stressful, especially for someone as awful at schmoozing as myself," Neal concludes.
In addition to the omnipresent feeling of being on the job for those who work in the music industry, there have been some other intangibles that have disappeared on Nashville's entertainment radar. One of those things is something you can still get in Knoxville.
"I miss knowing that there were only so many places you could go in this town and see the same people and you'd all be bored together and, in the process, you'd realize that you were having the best time ever," Marx says.
"Some things have been lost in the process, like the small town-ness of it. It's somewhat of a trade-off, but I think it's worth it. The more stuff there is, the more people have access to different things, the more it opens them to possibilities up to creating new things."
If you want to explore Nashville's entertainment offerings on your own, without the benefit of a local in your pocket, here are some ideas. Given space limitations and the dynamic nature of cities, this list is not comprehensive, just a few suggestions of some places to start. More information can also be found at nashville.citysearch.com or nashville.net.
For the visual arts, the new Frist Museum can't be beat (see story). However, Hillsboro Village is a good jumping off point if you are looking for smaller galleries. This four-block zone around 21st street is a concentrated area of art, which can become even more dense on certain days of the month.
"Typically, the galleries here tend to schedule openings at the same time," Marx says. "Generally, there's one Saturday night a month that you can see a bunch of stuff. There's something nice that happens when they have openings. More communal and friendly and excited about getting together, rather than insidery and art-world-ish, which keeps people from taking themselves too seriously."
In terms of live music, Marx also has three recommendations. First is Springwater, at 115 27th Ave N, a dive near Centennial Park. "[It's] always been kind of a refuge for outsiders. More and more people come here and realize they'd rather be outsiders than insiders.
"The Slow Bar [1024 Woodland St in East Nashville] is exciting just because it's a new bar. It just also has a vibe that feels less like the old grungy boring Nashville, more like a kind of fun Nashville you want to hang out in," Marx continues.
A wonderful renovated theater in Hillsboro Village ends his list. "The Belcourt [2102 Belcourt Ave] is cool because of what it is, which is an old movie house. The person who's booking their music also has been booking music for the Conan O'Brien show. Little things like that means that there's more going on here. It's the kind of place you go where you feel like you're taking part in something that is both local and bigger than that," he concludes.
As for downtown, it is both a Mecca of authentic and exciting things to do and a cheesy, tourist-driven spectacle.
"Downtown has the biggest concentration of nightclubs, but it also has the biggest concentration of tourists," Neal says. "Parking downtown is also a horrible nightmare. There's a section of downtown called Printer's Alley that manages to strike a pretty good balance between attractions for tourists and locals."