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Riding Nashville’s wave of national popularity, themed Yankee-tonks have popped up in many cities, channeling a crude version of Music City’s culture, sounds, and food
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It’s line dancing night at Nash Bar & Stage and a couple dozen folks are out on the floor, smacking their cowboy boots to Ian Munsick’s “I See Country.” Under the glow of a sign that asks “What Would Dolly Do?” a blonde who could pass for Miley Cyrus wears a Tennessee Vols jersey as a skirt. This could be any honky-tonk in Nashville, but the Jimmy Fallon look-alike in the Red Sox hoodie gives it away: Nash Bar, a Nashville-themed bar, is actually in Boston.
Nash Bar isn’t the only place “bringin’ a little bit of NashVegas to Boston,” as the Instagram bio puts it. Right outside of Boston — next to Gillette Stadium, where Kenny Chesney has sold more than a million tickets over the years — Six String Grill & Stage is decorated with whiskey barrels and a portrait of Dolly Parton made from 15,300 painted guitar picks. Right behind Fenway Park, Loretta’s Last Call boasts “original decor inspired by Nashville’s most famous honky tonks,” meaning Johnny Cash photo collages, a Dolly Parton poster next to the stage, a Nashville Banner printing plate mourning the death of Elvis, and a vintage jukebox loaded with Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson (alongside Daddy Yankee). Just like Munsick, I see country everywhere.
You might call these places Yankee-tonks. They’ve popped up all over the country since Nashville became the hottest city in America over the last decade, beginning with the debut of ABC’s Nashville in 2012, the New York Times’ subsequent bestowal of “it” status on the city the next year, and more recently its designation as the bachelorette party destination of choice. The Yankee-tonks aren’t exclusive to Boston, of course. There’s low-key hipster joint Dolly’s Swing & Dive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the restroom is a shrine to the Queen of Nashville; or Belle’s Nashville Kitchen — in that other bachelorette capital, Scottsdale, Arizona — which sells merch sporting the slogan “Bourbon. Boots. Belle’s.”
In general these establishments do very little to honor the actual culinary traditions of Middle Tennessee: the soul food, meat and threes, and even Maxwell House coffee and Goo Goo Clusters. Nash Bar’s food offerings are literally all over the map, from ribs with Carolina gold barbecue sauce to Cajun grilled swordfish. Six String serves a Nashville hot chicken sandwich that barely tickles the tongue, along with New England clam chowder and a menu that’s about as Southern as Susan Sarandon playing a country music matriarch in Monarch.
These places are not for transplants missing home or even for people aiming to learn more about Nashville’s culture. They are to Nashville what tiki bars were to Polynesia in the 1950s, an affordable escape hatch into a geographically murky paradise without concern for appropriation or authenticity. Yankee-tonks replace bamboo with corrugated tin, hula shows with line dances, rum drinks with whiskey, and exotica with country. They seem like an excuse for Bostonians or New Yorkers to slip on the party boots without having to spring for a plane ticket or one of the country’s most expensive hotel rooms — but they’re also evidence of how the culture of Nashville itself has eroded as the city’s heart and soul have been packaged for export.
When my family moved from Boston to Nashville in the 1990s, I didn’t understand much about the city’s food or its music, two integral pieces of Nashville’s identity. I considered it a Bible Belt backwater. Although I went to school with Johnny Cash’s grandkids, I was a Seattle grunge fan who thought of Nashville mostly as the “Hillbilly Music Capital of the World” and inwardly scoffed at its self-appointed nickname, Music City, U.S.A. During my earliest days in Nashville, I believed its biggest culinary claim to fame was the “Nun Bun” — a cinnamon bun resembling Mother Teresa enshrined at the only decent coffeehouse in town. My understanding changed over the years, after visits to the hallowed music venue the Bluebird Cafe, soul food institution Monell’s, and meat-and-three icon Arnold’s Country Kitchen.
Despite Nashville’s constant thirst for stardom, it’s not an easy place to get to know due to several oxymoronic, intertwined trends: The city celebrates its history, commercializes its culture for export — especially its music and more recently its food — and invites investment through a steadily growing tourist economy. Yet, at the same time, it demolishes the artifacts of this history and squeezes out the living embodiments of this culture in pursuit of a manicured NashVegas. This process has reshaped much of the city, but it has especially hollowed out the city’s Black communities to the benefit of white communities, politicians, and corporations.
These trends are as old as the Grand Ole Opry, which launched its nationwide radio show in the 1920s and turned the city into a magnet for musicians, “an American city of dreams,” as novelist Ann Patchett, one of the city’s many transplants, has put it. At the same time, Nashville was undergoing a long, tortured process of urban renewal that reshaped much of the city’s physical map. Government efforts starting in the 1950s cleared entire neighborhoods to “make way” for roads, green spaces, and newer buildings; by the early 1970s, as Francesca T. Royster wrote in Oxford American, the city prioritized Music Row even as it decimated Jefferson Street, a Black commercial and cultural center.
In the 1990s, a former Bostonian, Harvard graduate, and Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen sparked another wave of “revitalization” in downtown, bringing in hockey and football teams as well as a new arena that “took downtown Nashville from eerie to epic,” per one dubious local headline. Around the same time Bredesen was making over downtown, Dolly Parton was buying property in Sevier Park, a historic Black neighborhood that has since gentrified into bougie 12 South, where the boutiques sell “Howdy” and “Y’all” makeup pouches. In recent years, some downtown honky-tonks have raked in $20 million a year. Lower Broadway is now “arguably THE hottest spot in the country,” according to Garth Brooks, who owns soon-to-open honky-tonk Friends in Low Places on the famed stretch.
This history of erasure is also evident in the city’s food and in how it’s replicated beyond city confines. After Thornton Prince III of Prince’s Hot Chicken introduced Nashville to cayenne-laced fried chicken in the 1930s, the dish was mostly confined to the city’s Black communities through decades of racist and misguided urban development, Rachel Martin writes at Bitter Southerner. Through all of this, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Nashville was seen as a “chain town,” as restaurateur Randy Rayburn has put it, spurring growth for brands like Shoney’s.
“When hot chicken left the neighborhood,” Martin notes in her book Hot, Hot Chicken, “it did so without taking its progenitors along with it.” In 2012, white-owned Hattie B’s opened in a location near Vanderbilt and Music Row that was more attractive to Nashville’s white residents and tourists. Lines have snaked out the door ever since, and the brand now has locations as far away as Dallas and Las Vegas.
Thanks to what has been called “hotchickenfrication,” much of Nashville’s own hot chicken is “a pale echo of what it was — a spicy but soulless joyride,” per Zach Stafford. While newcomers dabble in “hashtag fried chicken,” local institutions are hanging up their steam pans and fryer baskets. Meat and threes have also struggled. At the beginning of January, Arnold’s joined other classic establishments in closing its doors after decades in business, citing the escalating property taxes of its gentrifying neighborhood (though a comeback may be in the works).
As these closings occur at the same time that the cultural cachet of “Nowville” continues to skyrocket around the country, locals are left wondering how to preserve the city’s true gems amidst the rapidly multiplying rhinestones that threaten to crowd them out. Some have called it the “It City Blues.”
During a recent return to Nashville, I squeezed into the historic Belcourt Theatre — home to the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s — to catch the premiere of Nashville Bachelorettes: A Ben Oddo Investigation. At one point during the short documentary, Tom Morales, proprietor of Acme Feed & Seed, takes a shot at the owner of a neighboring honky-tonk: “I have a problem with things that are not authentic,” he says. “Kid Rock is not from Nashville.” The packed house erupted into cheers. During the panel discussion, Morales complained that Nashville’s current leadership has turned its back on the city’s country and R&B roots in the interest of courting the NFL draft, filling hotel rooms, and chasing “the glitz.” “They don’t even play country music on Lower Broad anymore,” he said. “It’s rock and roll.”
It’s a familiar refrain. By the 1950s, the “Nashville sound” resuscitated country music and catapulted it all over the world by ditching fiddles and steel guitar for “arrangements more redolent of Las Vegas,” as a 1985 New York Times article about the decline of country music sales put it. Honky-tonk traditionalists decried a lack of authenticity, but that didn’t matter to proponents like Chet Atkins, who famously likened the Nashville music style to “the sound of money.”
Outside money is always flooding into Nashville, not just in terms of tourist dollars but brand investment. The city has seen waves of interlopers over the years, imports to match the city’s own cultural exports. While Morales complains about Kid Rock, the Michigander rocker has become settled enough to make his own complaints; the merch table at Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ‘n’ Roll Steakhouse on Lower Broad sells bumper stickers that read: “Don’t turn Nashville into the sh*t hole city you moved here from.”
Most recently, New York City establishments have been “flocking to Nashville,” offering travelers to Music City connecting flights to places like Spain (Boqueria), Italy (Carne Mare), and France. I was shocked when I heard that Pastis, synonymous with Manhattan dining, was coming to Nashville. But I shouldn’t have been. Food is an artifact of cultural export; in Nashville, that’s now going both ways.
All the cross-pollination has led to some curious hybrids: Emmy Squared Pizza serves a New York version of Detroit pizza topped with Nashville hot chicken. The Nashville location of New York’s Two Boots Pizza created a Third Man Coney Dog Pizza, inspired by Detroit-style hot dogs, as a tribute to Detroiter Jack White, who has been cited as a prime cause of New Yorkers moving to Nashville. Meanwhile, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nashville restaurant claims to be inspired by “Tennessee’s culinary heritage,” with offerings that “reflect the modern spirit of Nashville.” Dishes like ahi tuna tartare and Maine lobster with shishito peppers certainly don’t speak to Tennessee’s cultural heritage, but do they reflect the modern spirit of Nashville? That’s harder to say, given the ways Nashville restaurants have actively wooed visiting diners.
The spirit Vongerichten is picking up on is evident in the homegrown restaurants that earned the nouveau Nashville dining scene its first New York Times profile back in 2012, including Margot Cafe & Bar (“a lot like eating at a Chez Panisse knockoff”), City House (“a lot like Roberta’s in Brooklyn”) and the Catbird Seat, where the dishes were “influenced by the French Laundry, Noma, and Alinea.” Now it seems the line between local and import is entirely blurred. Trevor Moran, former chef at the Catbird Seat, now heads Locust, named 2022 Restaurant of the Year by Food & Wine. On the one hand, his Noma-influenced plates are antithetical to the Nashville of my youth. On the other hand, the magazine’s description of chefs engaging diners in “a quick chat about anything and everything” sounds a lot like the checkout-line banter at the Piggly Wiggly. It also sounds a lot like money.
Brands trying to export Nashville often end up neglecting everything about the city except for replicable business models, cloning aspects of the most commercially successful outfits like Hattie B’s. Sometimes they don’t even know what it is they’re selling. Last summer, I was lured inside Flo’s Hot Chicken in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn by a window decal that touted Nashville hot chicken in Hattie’s-esque red and white. The hot chicken sandwich, made with “original Southern Hottie chicken breast” and pineapple slaw, seemed dubious, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a hot fish sandwich on the menu. I asked the chef, a Long Islander, if it was in the style of Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish. He blinked and admitted he wasn’t familiar with Nashville’s second-oldest hot chicken purveyor.
During a recent tour of hot chicken joints in New York and Boston that included a “Nashville hot tofu” detour, I saw countless versions of the Hattie B’s red-and-white color scheme, the checkered paper in plastic baskets, the chicken silhouette for a logo. I saw it at Dave’s Hot Chicken, but there was no acknowledgment of Hattie’s or even Nashville, much less Prince’s, in the “How It All Began” spiel bolted to the wall, which instead described the chain’s “humble beginning” — five years ago — as a pop-up that got an Eater LA shoutout.
Meanwhile, the one non-Nashville offshoot of Prince’s, in Los Angeles, struggled and eventually closed at the end of 2022. Kim Prince, great-great-niece of Thornton Prince III, learned that part of the problem was that locals, including Black residents, were unaware of the dish’s history in Nashville’s Black communities. She went on to describe Los Angeles’s hundreds of hot chicken joints as: “a lot of imposters and ‘inspired’ individuals who are frying chicken and making it spicy, but it is not Nashville hot chicken — at all.”
Restaurateurs have had more trouble importing the least zany of Nashville’s dining traditions, the meat and three. In New York, both Harold’s Meat + Three and Mr. Donahue’s folded within about two years. When Harold’s opened in 2016, Eater critic Robert Sietsema ended up finding a lot to like, but admitted to rolling his eyes. As I read his review, I had to wonder who among those familiar with Southern meat and threes as homey, working-class cafeterias would want to drop a Benjamin at an upscale version located inside of a chain hotel. Eater’s Patty Diez also couldn’t help but note that “the prices are too high and the food looks a bit too fussy” compared to places like Arnold’s, and it “isn’t really a meat and three in spirit.”
The Yankee-tonks don’t do a much better job. Loretta’s was one of the first in Boston to capitalize on the most recent wave of Nashville interest. The bar started slinging moonshine cocktails and fried green tomatoes in 2014 on Lansdowne Street, where illuminated marquees and scantily clad stumblers evoke downtown Nashville’s Honky Tonk Highway. The restaurant is operated by a hospitality group that also owns French, Italian, and Asian places around town. Same goes for other Boston honky-tonks. To the people who run these establishments, Nashville is a concept to be reproduced like any other cuisine.
It works best where it can be easily adapted to the tenor of its new home and appeal to its new clientele. Boston is a perfect example. When I walked into Loretta’s on a recent Sunday night, it was packed with “sons” in plaid and “daughters” in jeans and crop tops, to borrow the parlance on the restroom doors. Maddi Ryan, a Massachusetts-born country singer, had many of them line dancing to Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.” Her set soon abandoned any semblance of country and closed with a nod to everyone’s favorite Nashville Yankee. “We got a request for Taylor Swift, is that cool?” Ryan asked, to shrieks of approval.
When I texted a friend about this hot mess, he responded, “Isn’t Nashville the bachelorette party capital? This all sounds on brand.”
A BuzzFeed article details all the “Bachville” tropes: the mural selfies, the type of line dancing classes that are now offered at multiple Boston bars — basically, the cowgirl cosplay that The Real Housewives of New Jersey engaged in during a very sloppy visit to Music City. When I returned to Nash Bar for “Flannel Fest,” I found a local upcycler selling “cowgirl fringe koozies” and “Mischief and Mayhem” cutoffs while a man in a cowboy hat strummed “Wanted Dead or Alive” by New Jersey’s own Bon Jovi.
If “woo girls” have come to associate Nashville with a good time, so have the bros. Just look at drinking anthems turned bar concepts like Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, which once had a location near Boston. At Boston.com, Meagan McGinnes posits that Beantown — a “super bro” city thanks to its colleges and sports teams — began embracing the country lifestyle around 2013, when the “bro-country” subgenre took off. This makes sense. At one point, the top song on Spotify’s Boston playlist was “Bad Day to Be a Bud Light,” by Alec MacGillivray, a singer-songwriter who boasts about mixing “Nashville style and Boston swagger.” Kenny Chesney’s “Boston,” about a Red Sox girl who flirts with everyone at the bar, still holds strong in the city’s Spotify top 25.
All together, everyone profiting off the Nashville sound and flavor — the Kid Rocks of the world, the Hattie B’s — have set strong expectations among their prime customers. At Nash Bar, I overheard two friends planning their first visit to Music City. “Do you think there’ll be a Nash Bar in Nashville?” one asked. “Dude, every bar in Nashville is a Nash Bar,” the other said.
I was tempted to shake my head. Or maybe lean over and quote the Gillian Welch line: “Drink a round to Nashville before they tear it down.” Or I could’ve told them to check out the real Nashville, somewhere like Acme Feed & Seed on a Saturday morning when they could catch Charles “Wigg” Walker, the 82-year-old former Motown songwriter who performed with a young Jimi Hendrix.
But the duo at Nash Bar were onto something. Despite billing itself as “where the locals go,” Acme also hosts events with groups like Bach Babes, a bachelorette party planning service that outfits Airbnbs with “Nash bash” decor. Even the Bluebird Cafe, one of the places that helped me start to understand the city, has become impossible to visit after its own turn on Nashville; now, the chances of scoring a table are like “winning the lottery.”
Besides, the patrons of Nash Bar were always going to find their way to somewhere like Tin Roof. They’d be right at home at the kitschy honky-tonk, which opened near Music Row in 2002. The bar now has 21 locations in places like San Diego; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Detroit; and soon, no doubt, a city near you.
Daniel Maurer, former editor of Grub Street, got his start in journalism delivering newspapers for The Tennessean.
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