Nashville Saved My Soul

Nashville Saved My Soul

I drew this a couple months after we moved to Nashville. It was a random doodle made while messing around with a new brush pen. But it’s also one of the truest statements I’ve ever written. Nashville saved my soul.

Nick and I moved here a little over 3 years ago, ready for a change. We weren’t happy in Portland anymore. We weren’t happy in general. We sold everything that couldn’t fit in my Jetta. We said goodbye to all our friends and family. We drove across the country toward a new life. The radio broke in Nebraska and for hours and hours there was only silence and cornfields and a terrified voice inside saying, “My God, I hope we’re doing the right thing.” We watched the sun rise over the mountains in Wyoming. We stayed the night in a room full of ventriloquist dummies in Kansas City. In the middle of one 12-hour stretch of driving, Nick missed the exit for Starbucks and I legit almost broke up with him. And then we came around a bend and saw the Nashville skyline and suddenly we knew that yes, this was not only the right thing to do, but we could do it. Because we did it.

Nashville taught me how brave I can be.

Nashville welcomed us with open arms. The city is growing so fast — and not always in positive ways — and while I know that must be hard to stomach for people who have lived here all their lives, not one person ever projected that onto us. Every single person we encountered, from new coworkers to baristas to neighbors to Comcast repair guys, had one thing to say: “We are so glad you’re here.”

Nashville taught me about kindness.

That’s not to say that first year wasn’t hard. We didn’t know anyone, and even though everyone was super friendly, translating casual friendliness to genuine friendships is tough. Plus, I worked from home. I was so grateful to have Nick by my side but I missed my friends so, so bad. It was, without a doubt, the loneliest year of my life.

Nashville taught me how to be lonely. How to feel it. How to not be scared of it.

And then, slowly, we made friends. We invited our neighbors to hang out on the porch, and they invited us to their monthly friend group dinners. I got part-time retail jobs in addition to my writing work and bonded with my new coworkers. I met my friend Lauren when she came in to a shop where I was working and mentioned she was reading a book on organic cotton. “I LOVE organic cotton,” I said. “Wanna be friends?” She said yes. There are so many people here that I love so much, and it gives me endless delight to trace the line of our friendships back to those first interactions: a conversation about writing, a yoga class, an anti-NRA protest, a free coffee sample, a smile, and some small talk. These moments led to tea parties and road trips and Harry Potter literary discussion groups and unforgettable nights in smoky karaoke bars and the kind of friends who show up at your front door with flowers and a hug on the night your family dog died, saying “I’m so sorry. I love you.” (Thank you, Christiana.) This city has given me friendships I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Nashville taught me how to find my tribe. 

I’ve told this story many times, but now I want to tell it again: When Nick and I first visited Nashville, about 6 months before we moved here, we got caught in a rainstorm and sought shelter in a cute little coffee shop. We ordered pastries and coffee and at one point I looked around and said to Nick, “I think we’re going to move to Nashville, and I think you’re going to work here.” It was one of the clearest intuitions I’d ever had; a premonition, but also an invitation from the city: come here, and see what happens. So we moved to Nashville, and Nick emailed that coffee shop the day after we arrived, and they hired him. And then the pastry chef at that coffee shop left, and the owner said, “Hey Nick, you want the job?” and Nick, the brilliant baker who had never been able to get a job at a bakery in Portland because he hadn’t gone to culinary school, got the chance he needed. Less than two years later, he had become the executive pastry chef at one of the nicest restaurants in the city.

A few months ago, that same voice that told us to move here started saying something different: “It’s time to go try something new.” I didn’t want to listen, because I love this place, these people, our little house with a peach tree in the front yard. But for whatever reason, Nick and I knew, with growing certainty, with grief and gratitude: it’s time to go. Now there’s a “for sale” sign in our yard, the Nashville chapter coming to a close (at least for now), and a new chapter of our lives about to begin.

Nashville taught me to trust my intuition, even when it breaks my heart a little.

So what’s next? Well, we’re not really sure. We’re going to travel for awhile: starting with a Celine Dion concert in Montreal (naturally), meeting up with friends for a road trip along the coast of France, exploring the British countryside, and working on our Italian in Rome. I’m going to write. Nick is going to bake. We’re not quite sure where we’ll land after that. Maybe we can figure out how to live in Europe in for a bit. Maybe we’ll head back to Tennessee. Maybe Oregon for awhile. Maybe DC. Maybe (hopefully) somewhere near a beach. I don’t know where we’ll end up next, but I know that Nashville will always feel like home.

I am so excited for our next adventure, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to do it, but I’m also heartbroken to leave this place. In a way though, if it weren’t for Nashville, we wouldn’t be doing this. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote I love: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Nashville taught me I had wings. And now it’s time to use them.

Small Talk

Nashville downtown

I’m holding my hands above my head in the x-ray machine at the Nashville airport when I hear a phrase much more interesting than the traditional, “Look straight ahead and hold still.”

“They make the chips fresh in-house!”

The voice is coming from my right, and as soon as I’m allowed to move I look over to see who’s made this ebullient pronouncement.

It’s a male TSA agent with a bright, round face speaking to his coworker, a woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair. She looks at me and says, “Come on, honey,” motioning me out of the machine. Then she turns back to her coworker. “So they make ‘em in-house, huh?”

“Yes!” the man says emphatically. “And don’t even get me started on the queso.”

The x-ray monitor lights up to indicate my necklace — I always forget to take off my necklace — and the blonde TSA agent starts patting me down while her coworker breathlessly describes a queso sauce that “tastes like liquid gold.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I finally interrupt. “What restaurant are we talking about here?”

The man lights up. “Moe’s Southwest Grill!”

“Really?” I say, “I never would have thought they make the chips in-house.”

“They do,” the man says, “and they’re the best chips you’ll ever have.” He leans in conspiratorially, and the other TSA agent and me huddle closer to him. “Now here’s what you do,” he whispers. “You tell them to to put the chips IN the burrito. It gives it a crunch.”

The three of us stand there, blocking the growing line for the x-ray machine, talking about crunchy chip burritos, until someone behind me clears his throat loudly. The TSA agents frown at the prospect of cutting our conversation short.

“You have a good day,” I tell them, gathering up my laptop and shoes from the conveyor belt.

“You too, darlin’!” the woman says.

“And try the chips!” the man shouts as I walk away, both of them waving me off as dramatically as if I were boarding an ocean liner bound for the new world.

I dump my stuff on a bench down the hall from the security lines, and my boyfriend Nick, who was in another line, joins me. “Guess who makes their chips fresh in house?” I ask, and tell him about my chatty interaction with the TSA.

He laughs. “That was such a Nashville moment,” he says. And he’s right.

——

When we moved to Nashville from Portland, one of the things I was most excited about was the warm, talkative culture. It was evident from the first moments of our first visit. Everyone from grocery store cashiers to people in line at coffee shops to diner waitresses (especially the diner waitresses) seemed poised and ready to greet us with a sweet “Hi y’all!” and then chat our ears off. I loved it. It felt open and fun and social in a way that I wasn’t used to.

Portland is known as a friendly city, and it is, no doubt. Walk down the street and catch a stranger’s eye and you’ll probably get a warm smile. Maybe a nod of the head. But in Portland, spontaneous interactions tend to end there. There’s a formalized friendliness but people also place a premium on privacy — yours and theirs — and will clip conversations short to ensure that privacy is maintained. “Hi,” “How are you,” and “Good” are usually as far as things go. Until you really know someone, there’s a certain level of guardedness on both sides.

As a naturally perky, social person, this often frustrated me when I lived in Oregon. But what I didn’t realize is how much that culture had shaped me. When I moved to Nashville, the effects of my Pacific Northwestern upbringing became abundantly clear: I didn’t know how to chat.

I noticed it first in interactions with neighbors. In the South, neighbors are kind of a big deal. You get to know them, they become friends, you share gossip and garden vegetables, you invite each other over for dinner, you yell conversations across the street, from porch to porch. I immediately loved this cornerstone of Southern culture, but I also didn’t quite get it. I happily said hi to my neighbors when we crossed paths near the mailbox, but then they’d follow up with “How’s your day going?” and “What are you up to this weekend?” and “Did you see any lightning bugs yet?” and I’d clam up, feeling trapped and panicky. Even if the conversation was interesting and flowing well, there were times I found myself backing away mid-sentence. I was so used to brief interactions, so unsure of where these new social boundaries were and how to navigate them.

As the months and years passed, I started to feel more comfortable with this Southern brand of small talk. I got really good at it, in fact. People wanted to talk to me, and I wanted to talk to them, but more importantly, I wanted to listen. I’d regale Nick with stories gathered from strangers at the post office and the hardware store. “So when he was 16 he qualified for the national gymnastics team but then he cut his hand on a broken bottle and he knew, instantly, that even if it healed, he’d never backflip onto a parallel bar again.”

“Who is this you’re talking about?”

“Some guy getting gas at the pump next to mine.”

As a writer, these interactions are goldmines. Stories are everywhere — on the tip of every stranger’s tongue, waiting in the wings of every passing “hello.” The truth is, we all walk in and out of each other’s life stories, but in the South, those stories are being composed verbally, every day, out in the open. The chattiness of neighbors and bartenders and church ladies here isn’t just charming, and it’s certainly not superficial; it’s what makes life feel rich and vivid. It makes you realize that we’re all part of the same tapestry, our overlapping anecdotes and experiences coming together to form the biggest, weirdest, most beautiful story of all.

It adds a layer of surprise to everyday life, too: you never know who you’ll meet, and you never know what they’ll say.

——

I’m back at the airport, Dallas/Fort Worth this time, wandering around between flights on my way back to Nashville. Nick went back a few days before me for work so I’m alone, lugging a backpack full of Christmas gifts, trying to decide where to eat. I’ve passed the same Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk and exorbitantly priced “cantina” multiple times and am about to opt for a Hudson News trail mix dinner when I see it: a streamlined airport version of Moe’s Southwest Grill.

I giggle to myself while standing in line, and I order a burrito with chips inside. The burrito isn’t great, but the chips are good.

I sit alone in the food court, watching the business travelers rush past my table. I wish someone would slow down for a moment, so I could catch their eye, say hello, and tell them about these chips.

The Best Little Honky Tonk In Nashville

Nashville Palace

A few years ago, Nick and I visited Nashville for the first time, for a long weekend.

On Sunday night, we put on our country best and went out to the honky tonks downtown. It was a good night to go out, because both of us hate crowds, and on Sundays the bars are more chill and stocked mostly with locals enjoying cold beer and good music.

We walked up and down Broadway, popping into different honky tonks (never a cover charge!) and staying for a song or two. The music, across the board, was fantastic. My love for banjos and steel guitars borders on a sexual fetish, so I was in heaven.

Once we got to a honky tonk called Layla’s, we loved the vibe and the music so much we decided to hang out there for the remainder of the night. We danced to a rockabilly band playing chunky, gleeful renditions of “Ring of Fire” and “White Lightning.” I drank 3 cowgirl cosmos, which were strong enough that by 2 in, I started telling Nick that if he were a baby horse, I would gladly sell him to the fair for a bargain price. And no, I don’t know what that means either.

The whole experience was so ridiculously, genuinely, undeniably fun — more fun than we’d had in a long time. There was nothing pretentious or ironic about it. And being from Portland, the world capital of irony and pretense (no offense PDX I love you!), that was such a refreshing change. I’m pretty sure it was there in that honky tonk, balancing on a couple of decrepit bar stools, dropping $5 bills in the mayo tub tip jar, that we first looked at each other and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to move here?”

Six months later, we sold all our stuff, packed up my Jetta, and did just that.

I still love Layla’s, but today my favorite Nashville honky tonk isn’t even on Broadway — it’s 15 minutes from downtown, across the street from the Grand Ole Opry and a sprawling outlet mall, next door to the Willie Nelson Museum and a place called Cooter’s. I’ve very purposefully decided to never find out exactly what Cooter’s is. I feel the same way about Cooter’s that I feel about God: even if its existence could be proven and defined, I’d rather not know. I want to revel in the mystery, all the awe-inspiring possibilities.

Anyway, my favorite honky tonk is called The Nashville Palace, and I love it so much that every time I go there I get a little emotional about it. Especially if I have a few drinks. Then I’m suddenly not just trying to sell Nick to the fair but repeating, over and over, “I just love this place so much. I’m so happy. I’m so happy here!”

Here’s why:

Nashville Palace

On any given night, the majority of the clientele ranges in age from around 50-85.

Every Friday and Saturday night, an elderly couple drive an hour from their rural town to tear up the dance floor here. They slowly twirl and two-step to Loretta Lynn covers and Buck Owens ballads, the woman’s hair perfectly sculpted into a foot-high beehive that doesn’t move no matter how enthusiastically she dances. When they pass your table on the way back to theirs, they will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Why aren’t you dancing?” When you finally do go out and dance, they will clap for you.

If you order a coke, the waitress will say, “We have RC Cola,” and you’ll say, “Even better.”

Nashville Palace

There’s a wall of shelves filled with old cowboy boots of every size, shape, and color. On the top shelf is a bedazzled jacket. If you ask about it, the bartender will tell you, “Dolly Parton left that jacket here,” and then you’ll say, “Like, in the lost and found? Shouldn’t we return it?” and the bartender will laugh and say, “No, she left it here on purpose. So we could put it on the shelf.”

There’s always a guy sipping whiskey at the bar in a big white cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a big black cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a denim vest with an American flag decal sewn onto the back.

Nashville Palace

The servers and bartenders will call you honey, baby, sweetie, love, darlin’, or some combination of all of the above.

Randy Travis was a dishwasher here before he became a country star, and they have a plaque on the wall to prove it.

Nashville Palace

Their vodka lemonade will get you real tipsy, real quick.

So will all their other drinks.

Nashville Palace

You won’t hear modern country hits here. You’ll hear classic country and western swing, played by women in frilly apron dresses and men with bolo ties who have played backup for the biggest country stars of the past century. Sometimes the band will start playing the opening riffs to a crowd pleaser like “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then they’ll stop and say, “Wait, we don’t play that kind of music here,” and laugh as the crowd boos. Then they’ll play Merle Haggard instead.

They have the best fried pickles and grilled cheese sandwich you’ll ever eat.

Nashville Palace

When the bass player comes around with the tip jar, she’ll ask you where you’re from, and how you like the music, and how often you come here, and if you have any kids, and if you’d like to go see her son’s band play.

The table nearest the stage has a sign taped to it that says, “Reserved for Burt and Carol.”

On the way to the bathroom, you’ll pass life-size cardboard cutouts of Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson, and depending how many vodka lemonades you had, you might try to hug them.

Nashville Palace

Nashville Palace

Nashville Palace

There is a 70% chance someone will call you a “purdy little thing,” no matter your gender, age, or how purdy you actually look.

The entire dessert menu is as follows: “Moon pies…$1.”

When you get up to leave, the band will nod and smile at you and the bartender will say, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” and you’ll say, “Oh, I will. I most definitely will.”

Nashville Palace