My friend Meredith, a talented fiddler and garage-sale junkie, whose prize find is a leather biker jacket that once belonged to singer Lucinda Williams, parks her pickup behind Brown's Diner, a converted trolley car that holds the oldest beer licence in Nashville. The two of us enter the back door of an empty dining room infused with a deep smell of fry grease. The all-day regulars occupy blue vinyl swivel seats and pull on their Budweisers in the narrow bar, where Meredith plays the occasional gig squeezed in a corner barely big enough to fit a fiddle.
We grab a table and the waitress takes our order. The burgers at Brown's are legend, a basic patty topped with grilled onions, slices of American cheese, iceberg lettuce and tomato.
"Is salad on the menu?" I ask.
The waitress gives me a pity look.
"Honey, the salad is on the burger."
Bless your cholesterol-clogged heart, Nashville.
Years ago, my great-aunt Kat stuffed my younger sister Kaki and me in her Cadillac and scooted us through the Great Appalachian Valley during our summer holiday to watch Minnie Pearl clog-dance across the stage at the Ryman Auditorium. It did not go over well at the time with a pair of rebellious teenagers who preferred The Mod Squad to The Beverly Hillbillies. The skyline was a lot lower, the air-conditioning restricted to handheld fans, and chicken wasn't so hot yet. Since then – I haven't been back in decades – the city has changed.
Defined by the curves of the Cumberland River, Nashville was settled by Native Americans, French fur traders and Scots-Irish frontiersmen. It became a key port and railroad hub for the cotton trade by the early 19th century, and quickly afterward the Tennessee state capital. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops, spies and sympathisers, escaped slaves and free blacks occupied the city variously.
But Nashville's real notoriety began on 28 November 1925, when George D Hay broadcast a one-hour radio "barn dance" concert that would eventually be known as the Grand Ole Opry. By the 1940s the first music-publishing companies had also set up shop here, signing artists such as Hank Williams and Roy Orbison. Producers on Music Row turned raw talent into stars. (Dolly Parton smacked a car into the building while rushing to her first recording session for the label.) Last year Jason Isbell released an album titled The Nashville Sound. It's a sound unquestionably like no other. And singer-songwriters keep living the dream, even if they're only playing for tips in a Hillsboro Village dive bar.
"We can't miss The Doyle & Debbie Show," says Meredith, who has the duo's "Whine Whine Twang Twang" bumper sticker plastered on her refrigerator. "It's a cult thing, gets crazier every performance, and they're playing tonight." We pay for our burgers and head to The Station Inn, one of the city's best "listening rooms" for bluegrass, snagging seats near the stage as this pitch-perfect parody of a washed-up country act kicks off. "You can yodel for good and you can yodel for evil," says the show's creator Bruce Arntson, whose portrayal of the whiskey-soaked Doyle is dead to rights.
I spit-laugh my PBR.
Anyone who takes country music seriously should explore the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The vast complex in the Arts District houses the permanent Sing Me Back Home exhibit, which includes rare recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, stage costumes designed by Manuel Cuevas and Nudie the Rodeo Taylor, a banjo owned by Earl Scruggs, Elvis Presley's 1960 "Solid Gold" Cadillac limo and Jerry Reed's 1980 "Bandit" Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. My favourite artefact is the black stage suit worn by Johnny Cash on his television show taped at the Ryman in the late '60s and early '70s, when he performed with crossover guests including Bob Dylan and Mama Cass Elliot. (Of all the sub-genres – Western swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, honky-tonk – outlaw country appeals to me most.)
On the museum's ground floor, Hatch Show Print still sets bold-coloured handbills and concert posters on its original letterpresses with hand-carved woodblock type. The print shop is one of the oldest in America, and lies at the crossroads of Southern art and culture; the distinctive graphic style once applied to flyers advertising travelling carnivals, church revivals, and movie theatres evolved into an art form demanded by entertainers who appreciated its throwback style.
That same slow-school creative vibe has driven change in neighbourhoods such as East Nashville and Wedgewood Houston. Dan Auerbach and Justin Townes Earle are two of the recent performers at Supper & Song, a backyard pop-up behind the converted gas station housing hipster denim designers Imogene & Willie in 12 South. This district typifies the real-estate boom under way in South Nashville as "tall-and-skinny" condos pop up next to "lifestyle" stores owned by actor Reese Witherspoon and other sweet-tea queens.
Andy and Charlie Nelson revived their family's hundred-year Tennessee whiskey tradition when they opened Green Brier Distillery on Clinton Street in edgier Fang, north of downtown. Luthier Manuel Delgado builds custom guitars in his studio across the Cumberland River near Eastwood. And the farm markets and food trucks of Nolensville Pike, many owned by recent émigrés from Latin America and South East Asia, are testament to the city's growing diversity. (Nashville has the largest Kurdish population in the United States and kebabs are starting to outsell barbecue.)
The next morning I borrow my friend's truck to hunt for yardbird. It's too early for lunch specials at the Silver Sands Café, a modest brick-and-stucco soul-food standard on a side street off Rosa L Parks Boulevard, so I join other breakfast customers ordering biscuits and gravy, grits and country ham from the ladies on the steam-tray line here. One of them is having a meltdown.
"I need me a hug like a spiritual," she says.
She puts down her serving spoon and walks away.
Another lady picks up the spoon.
"What'll you have, baby?"
I carry my styrofoam clamshell to one of the tables and crack it open. Maybe I'd had a little too much fun the night before. Could have been the heat. Or just bad table manners. I start to saw away at the bird with a fork and knife. Another customer walks past, then stops and turns back. "Excuse me, ma'am. That's no way to eat fried chicken."
I look up, startled.
"Use your hands. You got to feel the gravy."
As the story goes, Nashville hot chicken was created when James Thornton Prince cheated on a woman. Her revenge? Spiking his chicken with nuclear-grade spice. It backfired. By 1945, he and his brothers opened their first chicken shack. Since then, other hot chicken establishments have spread the gospel of a humble bird once served only in segregated neighbourhoods. Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish, Hattie B's Hot Chicken, Pepperfire Hot Chicken. Even KFC has tried to rip it off. The city now hosts a hot-chicken festival. But it's essential to try the original. Around midday, I sit next to Prince's grand-niece, who talks about her family's legacy as the staff deliver XXX Hot drumsticks and a side of pickles to our table.
"It's not boring chicken," says André Prince Jeffries. She's wearing a searing-red logo shirt that matches her lipstick and the bird on the plate.
My eyes water with each bite, and I take her advice to sop up the sauce with slices of squishy white bread. "Women maintain it," she says of the heat. "Men slide back down. It turns people on; it's good for the sinus, for hiccups. One customer has a car seat for her chicken. She buckles it in. Praise god for that."
Meredith has a rehearsal this afternoon, so I go to church. Originally built as a tabernacle for revivals, the Ryman Auditorium is known as the mother church of country music. This is the stage where Patsy Cline sang "Crazy" and Johnny Cash broke all the footlights. When my grandmother and great-aunt Kat took us to see the Grand Ole Opry we sat on the worn oak pews up in the Confederate veterans gallery. The show ended its run several years later, and relocated to the Opryland USA amusement park and resort on the city's suburban outskirts in 1974 as downtown Nashville fell on hard times. At the last performance, Minnie Pearl broke down and cried for the "spooks and shadows" (one of the display cases contains her original straw hat and cracked-leather Mary Janes). As tourists take selfies near the stage, I touch the varnished wooden benches glowing in the subdued light of Gothic stained windows. My great-aunt, nana and sister are gone now; I miss them terribly, and sitting here in the balcony once again, I cry a little.
After paying my respects, I duck around the corner to Robert's Western World, where the Don Kelley Band played "Ghost Riders in the Sky". Urban renewal has mostly restored this strip of Lower Broadway. Gone are the seedy peep shows and adult bookstores, but the honky-tonks have endured. Along with Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Robert's is one of the most respected. The best seats are in the balcony bar, which has a back entrance from the alleyway next to the Ryman. The drinks menu is limited to uninspiring house wine and far better domestic beer – order the local Yazoo brews – fitting enough for a set or two of twangy tunes before the dinner hour.
While I'd happily stand in line for the fried green tomatoes and chess pie at Arnold's Country Kitchen or the ham biscuits at Wendell Smith's, Nashville isn't all meat-and-three joints. Julia Sullivan serves one of the best brunch menus in town at Henrietta Red. Her smoked mackerel toast and a Jerusalem artichoke salad celebrate modest regional ingredients. Nashville native Trey Cioccia recently opened Black Rabbit for serious canapés and a cocktail list strong on Southern spirits.
Meredith and I finally catch up at Bastion. We sweet-talk our way onto stools at the kitchen counter, where Josh Habiger, formerly of the globally inspired game-changer The Catbird Seat, reigns. The trout roe swimming in sake-lees dashi and Carolina Gold rice has me singing hallelujah, and I confess to not sharing the gutsier chicken liver and waffle with my fiddler friend.
At the end of the night we wind up back at her bungalow, sitting on the front porch drinking whiskey and wine. Crickets chirp and mosquitoes buzz in the dark. Hackberry aphids drip honeydew on cars parked in tree-lined driveways.
We open another bottle. Meredith complains about the bothersome streetlight casting too much loom on her house, and we speculate about what kind of weaponry would be required to take it out.
I vote for a slingshot.
Because, don't you know, we're outlaws, too.
Where to eat and drink
Arnold's Country Kitchen
Line up for the buffet at this meat-and-three classic. Thursday is fried green tomatoes day.
605 8th Avenue South, +1 615 256 4455, arnoldscountrykitchen.com
Check "let's try everything" on the à la carte menu in Josh Habiger's New South dining room.
434 Houston St, +1 615 490 8434, bastionnashville.com
The Filling Station
A tasting room and growler store where you can try regional and craft beer on tap.
1118 Halcyon Ave, +1 615 818 0012, brewstogo.com
Best snack: Tennessee paddlefish caviar with sour cream and potato chips. Nashville native Julia Sullivan's buttermilk biscuits are the finest in town.
1200 4th Avenue North, +1 615 490 8042, henriettared.com
The Melrose Billiard Parlor at the Sutler Saloon
A saloon where Nashville legends often turn up to play unannounced gigs and an old-school pool hall with equally good vibes.
2600 8th Avenue South #108, +1 615 678 5489, dirtymelrose.com
Nelson's Green Brier Distillery
Take the tour at this revival distillery tasting room and learn why Tennessee whiskey is something to sing about.
1414 Clinton St, +1 615 913 8800, greenbrierdistillery.com
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack
Start with "medium" hot and build up your tolerance from there.
123 Ewing Dr, +1 615 226 9442, princeshotchicken.com
All-in-one hipster hangout, with a bowling alley, plunge pools, bocce court, cocktail bar and the best eggs Benedict "in a jar".
33 Peabody St, +1 615 751 8111, pinewoodsocial.com
Where to stay
Urban Cowboy B&B
The welcome drink choice at this wildly stylish East Nashville mansion is either a shot of bourbon or a glass of water. Cow punks welcome.
1603 Woodland St, +1 347 840 0525, urbancowboybnb.com
Where to go for live music
An open-air concert stage with high-rise Nashville skyline as a backdrop.
310 1st Ave S, +1 615 999 9000, ascendamphitheater.com
Grand Ole Opry
Country stars and rhinestone cowboys.
2804 Opryland Dr, +1 615 871 6779, opry.com
Pilgrimage Music Festival
Produced by Tennessee native Justin Timberlake, expect a stellar lineup and a ton of surprise guests at this annual two-day festival in September in nearby Franklin.
Robert's Western World
Bands play for tips here so be generous at the best honky-tonk on Lower Broadway.
416B Broadway, +1 615 244 9552, robertswesternworld.com
Appearing on the original stage remains a rite of passage for Americana musicians.
116 Fifth Avenue North, +1 615 889 3060, ryman.com
The Doyle & Debbie Show headlines here most Tuesday nights.
402 12th Avenue South, +1 615 255 3307, stationinn.com
Where to shop
Cotten Music Center
Founded in 1961, this guitar shop and lesson room is an essential stop for serious pickers and strummers.
434 Houston St, +1 615 383 8947, cottenmusic.com