MY AFFAIRE DE COEUR WITH NASHVILLE
It began with a man, of course. (Doesn’t it always?) I met him at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He was adorable, and suave, and brilliant, and funny, and I fell head over heels in love. There was just one little bitty problem. He was from Nashville. And to Nashville he ultimately wanted to return. I ignored that little tidbit, launched headlong into a steamy love affair that culminated in a ring and a gorgeous white dress. My bliss was just beginning.
My husband brought me to Nashville a few times while we were dating, both to see family and inoculate me, I believe. Our very first trip, we drove up Love Hill on a crooked little road called Love Circle, and my then fiancé told me he’d like to live there someday. There’s a magnificent view of downtown from the Hill, and I was shell-shocked, thinking how utterly romantic it was that this man I loved took me to a place in his hometown called Love Hill. Staring over the city, it seemed so big, which surprised me (now I realize just how small we are.) He took me to a bookstore called Davis Kidd – then a true independent store nestled in Green Hills, one of the upper echelons’ playgrounds. (Told you he was smart.) I was utterly charmed by the store, the area, and understood innately that I could make this place home.
Of course, ten years later, I set a murder on Love Hill. How could I resist? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1998, adorable husband got an offer he couldn’t refuse from a newspaper called The Tennessean. Nashville became home a few weeks later.
It was through this eclectic town that I truly found myself. I drifted into the city’s rhythms almost effortlessly, without realizing I had. I missed D.C., missed the culture, the museums, the music. Wondered for weeks if we’d made the right choice. Then slowly, inexorably, Nashville began to bleed into my veins.
Setting a sense of place is vital to introducing a city in literature. Nashville lends itself to the task. We’re a very Southern city. This is the Deep South, where manners are paramount, where celebrities are as likely to belly up to the counter at Waffle House as they are to be spotted at the Sunset Grill. We have restaurants with names like Tin Angel, Sambuca, and Valentinos cozying up with Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Rippy’s Barbeque. Our free weekly, the Nashville Scene, sponsors a yearly contest called “You’re So Nashville If…” which gleefully celebrates the random unique craziness that is the Third Coast, NashVegas. Our politicians have a tendency to be bent, but polite society flourishes, their extremely expensive Belle Meade homes a throwback to real money and class, while gangs run the midnight streets.
It was these very dichotomies that drew me to write about my adopted hometown. I started my Taylor Jackson series in 2003, knowing that the city of Nashville would be a major character in all my books. There are tons of nooks and crannies that lend themselves to murder. In my first novel, I set a pivotal scene at the entrance to Belle Meade. The life-size bronze thoroughbred and her colt are a perfect landmark; everyone knows exactly where that is.
I’ve lived a lot of places, and none of them had the ineffable charm and friendly spirit of Nashville. It’s a city that is a hometown, with fireflies and fireworks, neighborhoods and parades, civic pride and an ever-expanding roster of residents from everywhere in the world. All you need is an afternoon at the Farmer’s Market on the Bicentennial Mall, walking through the spice stalls, to show you that we aren’t just Southerners. What we call “meat and threes,” meat with three sides, abound on many corners, alongside a multitude of Starbucks, though the privately held coffee shops like Bongo Java draw the college crowds.
The Bat Building, also known as the headquarters to Bellsouth, is the crown jewel of our downtown skyline, with the Pinnacle Building and its understated wee signage glossing up the edges. We have a well-respected NFL team (Tennessee Titans) and a world-class NHL hockey team (Nashville Predators.) We have a minor league baseball team too, the Nashville Sounds, and if you’re ever in dire need of a fireworks fix between our stellar Fourth of July celebrations, that’s where you need to go because they shoot them off after every game.
Downtown is home to tourists and musicians alike, a cacophony of sounds reminiscent of a smoky night in New Orleans. From Printer’s Alley to LoBro (Lower Broadway), you can walk into a club and hear everything from blues to country to alternative to old school Southern Rock (I don’t think I’ve ever been downtown without hearing at least one rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” – odd considering Tennesseans and Alabamans don’t necessarily get along.) Did I mention that’s twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? You can get great live music everywhere in the town, anytime, for free. Amazing, when you think of it.
Music Row is chock full of every bit of musical history you can think of and continues to break musical ground every day. The Bluebird Café draws the biggest and best names in songwriting. Third and Lindsley, Exit In, and Mercy Lounge serve up helpings of brilliance night after night. You’ll always find a gaggle of young women doing what the cops call the Nashville Walk—moving in and out of the clubs in sub-zero weather wearing their little black dresses and clutching their arms for warmth because, really, who would ruin a great outfit with a coat?
Music City is an earned nickname—any fan of country music can recite the history of this town with breathless anticipation. Nashville is to songwriters what L.A. is to actors. You can’t swing a cat in this town without hitting someone who is involved in the music industry. No one can hear the words Grand Ole Opry or The Ryman without a chill running down the spine. And trust me, when June died, then Johnny died, then their beloved home burned down, the city collectively wept.
As you can imagine, this is a rich and fertile playground for a mystery writer. I don’t focus on the country music scene, I prefer to show the Nashville I experience on a daily basis. But there’s song by Hank Williams, Jr. called “Country Boy Can Survive” that sums up Nashville better than I ever could. It was that irreverent attitude that allowed me to abandon my preconceived notions of what this city is about and my own notions of who I thought I was. Nashville is all about just being who you are, and if someone doesn’t like that, tough. We are who we are, no airs, no apologies.
There was one spot that I knew immediately was the perfect setting for a murder. Drive up West End Avenue and you’ll run into Vanderbilt—a section of town covered with ubiquitous joggers, fresh-faced students, and medical personnel milling the streets—and enter Centennial Park. This is the home of the Parthenon, a perfect replica of the original in our sister city of Athens, Greece, including a massive statue of Phidias’s Athena, forty-two feet tall, sculpted by famed Nashville artist Alan LeQuire. I’ve always seen Taylor Jackson as the warrior goddess of Nashville, as the city’s protector, as the guiding light of wisdom and truth. When I set a crime scene at the Parthenon in my third book, it fit so perfectly. Here was a physical embodiment of Taylor’s very essence, in the middle of her city. Of my city.
Since we’ve lived in Nashville, there have been some changes. The Frist Center for the Arts has opened, a stellar museum reminiscent of the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. The world-class Nashville Symphony now plays in the newly-built Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, based on the Viennese Opera Houses of old. New restaurants open daily, and downtown is filling with residential and mixed-use housing.
But the best change I’ve seen is the literary renaissance Nashville is undergoing. We are a creative town, not just in music and art, but in books. Authors abound, and we all know one another. We gather, attend signings and events, and revel in the fact so many of us exist here, in this in between land.
The favorite stop in flyover country.
This city seized me in its jaws and hasn’t let go. It’s wildly independent, sophisticated and cultured, yet remains as fresh and raw as the wild strawberries that grow in all of our lawns. There are many, many facets of this town that I love—the friendliness, the intelligence, the fact that I can exit the highway ten minutes from downtown and drive through bucolic green,, fields littered with cows and horses like I’m deep in the country. Yes, it only takes ten minutes to drive from one end of Nashville to the other, from the Cumberland River to West End. But that’s Nashville’s charm – it packs so much into a small package that you get more than your money’s worth.
I just can’t imagine being anywhere else. Nashville has stolen my heart.