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How did Nashville get to be the ‘It’ City? Our timeline is full of ‘it.’

How We Became the Bomb

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Like most everyone we know, we've had something on our minds lately: Henri Bergson's principle of duration. Especially the part where the French philosopher concludes that the instant you start to take stock of a moment — the great time you're having at a party, the romantic night you hope will never end, the season finale of Duck Dynasty — you kill it. You've already started processing it and filing it away, which means you've effectively stopped living it. Sure, you can cherish, appraise and fondle it in memory. But the moment's gone, and you've already moved on to the next moment.

So it was with mixed feelings last month that we saw The New York Times declare Nashville an "It" City. "Here in a city once embarrassed by its Grand Ole Opry roots," Kim Severson wrote, "a place that sat on the sidelines while its Southern sisters boomed economically, it is hard to find a resident who does not break into the goofy grin of the newly popular when the subject of Nashville's status comes up."

Dammit, we were just getting used to the past year's proliferating mass-media profiles, the travel-section tip-offs and paratrooped-in guides to the city. We'd happily have watched for years as they kept discovering Music City has more than country music, or food besides drumsticks. Bergson's not around to ask anymore, but we worried: Now that the Times says we've arrived, does that really mean we've departed?

Once we started thinking about it, we realized the Times had done us a favor. Now we can concentrate on the things that make a city something more than a passing fad. Nashville author John Egerton said as much when he told the Times, "We ought to be paying more attention to how many people we have who are ill-fed and ill-housed and ill-educated."

But now that the moment has been effectively captured for us, in one swoop of the Grey Lady's butterfly net, we might as well take the opportunity to pin down what's happened. We decided to make a timeline of events that charts our path to ... er, Itness. The more we looked, the farther back we kept going. The cool event that puts us on the map in 2012 might have its roots a decade beyond, or earlier. Way, waay earlier.

Some things occur to us as we scan the results. One, some twangy dudes playing hillbilly music on Lower Broad in the '90s had more impact downtown than a multi-million-dollar development blocks away on Church Street. Two, today's ballyhooed chain is tomorrow's Sam Ridley Parkway McDonald's. Three, the things that ultimately made us "It" were here all along. Jack White, a born ambassador, was undoubtedly the catalyst for a lot of media attention — but what led him here?

Follow now along with us, and see if you can pinpoint exactly where "It" happens ....

DEC. 24, 1776:

Outsiders stumble across riverside village/salt lick natives already knew was cool.


National press descends to profile populist politician/rock-star general Andrew Jackson.


Northerners intent on visiting all major Southern cities make Nashville their first stop, stay for a long time.


Nashville becomes the second most heavily fortified Federal city, ranking behind only D.C. Guns in lots, y’all.


Fisk University founded.


Vanderbilt University established.


Fisk Jubilee Singers impress Queen Victoria, who remarks that they must live in a “musical city” — according to legend, the name “Music City” is thus born.



Union Gospel Tabernacle built; later renamed Ryman Auditorium. Over the coming decades, it hosts the major artistic figures of the early century, from Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso to Rudolph Valentino, paving the way for the likes of Ashlee Simpson.


Centennial exposition! City declares self “Athens of the South” (the fin de siècle version of “It City”).



President Teddy Roosevelt likes our coffee “to the last drop.” Cool!


At Vanderbilt, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate et al. form the Fugitives (the Infinity Cat of their time).


WSM — “We Shield Millions” — radio goes on the air, becomes home to the Grand Ole Opry.


An Illinois Central RR brochure describes Nashville as one of the two largest commercial fertilizer manufacturers in the country! Hey, we’ll take it.


Fugitives turn into Southern Agrarians, get all weird and quasi-fascist. Like when JEFF The Brotherhood did that Mozart cover with Jack White and Insane Clown Posse in German.



Bill “Hoss” Allen takes over Gene Nobles’ late-night DJ slot on WLAC-AM, broadcasting Nashville R&B records border to border.


L&C Tower, tallest in Southeast (409 ft.), opens. Squint at the skyline today and you might make it out




Success of downtown lunch counter sit-ins by Nashville Student Movement protesters becomes a milestone in the civil rights movement, praised by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


TSU Tigerbelle Wilma Rudolph takes three gold medals at the Rome Olympic Games.



Ray Charles releases smash LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, the first record many hipsters buy with “country” in the title.


“You told my maw! Told my paw! You’re gonna take me back to Ark-an-saw!” Etta James records live LP Etta James Rocks the House at Nashville’s New Era Club.


On their debut LP, England’s Newest Hitmakers, some band called The Rolling Stones cover Nashville R&B songwriter-producer Ted Jarrett’s song “You Can Make It If You Try.” Stones guitarist Keith Richards is a mail-order customer of now-defunct Randy’s Record Mart downtown.



After New York studio dates that bear little fruit, Bob Dylan comes to Nashville and nails Blonde on Blonde with Music Row session cats.


WLAC-TV late-night R&B revue Night Train continues its run, with WVOL DJ Noble Blackwell as host. One 1965 clip contains what is believed to be the first TV appearance of Fort Campbell paratrooper turned hotshot Nashville club guitarist “Jimmy” Hendrix.


Country Music Hall of Fame opens, tells public this hillbilly-music thing might stick around a while


Davidson County approves liquor by the drink.


Nashville Film Festival (né Sinking Creek Film Celebration) starts.


Ryman saved after preservationists mount national campaign that leads New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable to attack demo plans.



Robert Altman gives a sneak peek of his new epic Music City ensemble piece to The New Yorker critic and tastemaker Pauline Kael. She promptly loses it at the movies and declares Nashville a masterpiece; it proceeds to the cover of Newsweek. The movie isn’t exactly a hit, so obviously Kael was right.


In Nashville, Elvis Costello records country-covers LP Almost Blue, gateway to honky-tonk for a generation of too-cool teens. (See also: X.) Related: First-wave Nashville punks stop hating themselves.


Riverfront Park replaces city wharf and gargantuan TVA tower. Boy, this sure would make a great venue for a nationally televised July 4 special!


Jason & the Scorchers’ EP Fervor hits No. 3 on the Village Voice’s influential Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.


First Southern Festival of Books.



Country’s “Class of ’89,” led by Vince Gill, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks, flexes historic commercial clout and makes country (and Nashville) a big fat blip on the national radar. Brooks outsells Michael Jackson. In mid-December, somewhere in Pennsylvania, a girl is born and named after James Taylor.



In a radical break from years of decrepit good ol’ boy political machinery, Nashville elects egghead Yankee Phil Bredesen mayor.



Celebrity author Jay McInerney marries Helen Bransford and moves to Tennessee; later writes Southern novel The Last of the Savages and regales the New York press with the wonders of bucolic living. Shortly thereafter, he gets bored and moves back to New York.


SUMMER 1992:

Mary Mancini opens all-ages punk venue/hangout Lucy’s Record Shop. Among the acts who play its cramped stage: Yo La Tengo and unclassifiable Nashville ambient-country-soul orchestra Lambchop.


Stimulants! Bob Bernstein opens Bongo Java, the first coffeehouse to establish a lasting foothold in Nashville.


JULY 16, 1993:

Hopping aboard the country bandwagon (or so it hopes), Paramount releases The Thing Called Love, a Peter Bogdanovich-directed comedy-drama about country music hopefuls in an oddly roomy Bluebird Cafe. Though not a hit, it becomes famous as the beginning of Sandra Bullock’s stardom — and the end for gifted River Phoenix, who dies of drug-induced heart failure months after its release.


The Ryman reopens as both venue and museum. It goes seemingly overnight from padlocked relic to revered treasure, as visiting artists compete to top each other in awestruck genuflection.



Greg Garing starts playing at Tootsie’s, joined by Paul Burch, while BR549 (named for a running gag on Hee Haw) sets up three doors down at Robert’s; tourists and hipsters begin flocking back to Lower Broadway, drawn by the phenomenon of live (real) country music in Nashville.


Zoning changes to permit residential construction in downtown core. Goodbye, post-apocalyptic desertion after sundown!


Indie rock heroes Yo La Tengo record acclaimed album Electr-O-Pura in Nashville. Not only do they throw in a shout-out to Middle Tennessee’s late, lamented Museum of Beverage Containers, they give Nashville’s beloved local specialty hot chicken national exposure with their song “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1).”

JAN. 16, 1995:

John Berendt profiles cross-dressing Belle Meade bon vivant “High-Heel Neil” Cargile for The New Yorker. Not the tourism generator Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil proved to be in Savannah, but we’re pleased to see our eccentrics can hold their own in the spotlight.



Bongo Java’s infamous “Nun Bun” — a cinnamon roll that bears an odd resemblance to Mother Teresa — makes national headlines.


Bicentennial Mall opens, symbolically reconnecting Jefferson Street to Capitol Hill and bringing new visibility to Nashville Farmers’ Market.


Downtown arena (now known as Bridgestone Arena) opens with Christmas concert by one of Middle Tennessee’s few pop hitmakers, Amy Grant.



Hee Haw goes off the air


Yo La Tengo records “Hot Chicken #2” in Nashville. Prince’s counter staff responds to new influx of indie-rock curiosity-seekers: “Who’s Yo-Yo Tango?”

AUGUST 1997:

In a lengthy cover profile, Billboard touts Murfreesboro’s Spongebath Records and its roster of local acts (The Features, The Katies, Self, Count Bass D) as indie rock’s next big thing. They’re not, alas — but it primes the pump for Nashville to become “the next Murfreesboro.”


Nathan and Caleb Followill move to Nashville.



After playing first season in Memphis, NFL team formerly known as Houston Oilers relocates for good to Nashville; changes name following year to Tennessee Titans.


Tornado roars through East Nashville. Ironically, this spurs its revitalization and, later, hipster irony


Lambchop, emerging as one of the decade’s most revered indie rock acts — just not in its hometown — teams with cult hero Vic Chesnutt for the LP The Salesman and Bernadette.


Tennessee Titans pound turf for the first time at their new football stadium on East Bank. Not bad, not bad.





JAN. 8, 2000:

Down by one point at the end of a wild-card playoff game with the Buffalo Bills, with 16 seconds on the clock, Titans tight end Frank Wycheck chucks a lateral pass to Kevin Dyson on the kickoff return. As an astonished NFL Nation watches, Dyson barrels 80 yards for the winning touchdown. The endlessly replayed moment goes down in football history as the Music City Miracle. The Tennessee Titans end up advancing to the Super Bowl.

JAN. 30, 2000:

In the very last second of Super Bowl XXXIV, a groan heard from Antioch to Bellevue goes up as Dyson is tackled juuuuuuust short of a game-tying touchdown. Music City Miracle, meet The Angry Inch.


After a roller coaster decade of buyouts and closings, The Belcourt reopens as the city’s indie arthouse.


First location of indie record store Grimey’s opens in Berry Hill.



Meanwhile, in East Nashville, The Slow Bar co-founded by Mike “Grimey” Grimes makes Five Points the city’s hot new nighttime destination. Among the groups who play the corner pub (now 3 Crow Bar): a promising two-man Rust Belt act called The Black Keys.

APRIL 2000:

3,230 men and 2,589 women complete the first Music City Marathon.




USA Today names Nashville the nation’s most sprawling metropolitan region with a population of 1 million or more. That’s right: No. 1!


In the space of a year, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a greatly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame, and the new downtown Nashville Public Library open.


Margot Café opens in East Nashville. Oooh, dare we cross the river?


In one year, Nashville author Ann Patchett wins two major literary prizes, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize, for her novel Bel Canto. We’ll hear more from her.



Nine Inch Nails fans are used to hearing a man in black sing “Hurt,” but not the Man in Black. At age 70, with producer Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash scores one last career-defining hit — and notifies gloomy goths that Nashville was cutting black-hearted ballads when their daddies were kayaking fallopian tubes.


Chef Sean Brock, age 23, brings avant garde cuisine to the Hermitage Hotel’s Capitol Grille.


MARCH 8, 2003:

With reality-TV talent competitions all the rage, USA premieres the country music contest Nashville Star, which ultimately lasts six seasons. The first winner is Buddy Jewell, who now runs a chocolate pretzel shop in the downtown Arcade. Third place: Miranda Lambert

JULY 4, 2003:

A&E broadcasts a nationwide This Is Your Country Independence Day celebration from Riverfront Park. Host Chris Noth bellows non-sequiturs about Woodstock, inspiring speculation the Sex and the City star should lay off the Sex on the Beach. But millions watch.


City demolishes Metro Thermal Plant, freeing up riverfront space.



Much as Johnny Cash did thanks to Rick Rubin, the mighty Loretta Lynn gets a stiff breeze in her sails from an unexpected producer: White Stripes frontman Jack White. The resulting Van Lear Rose LP gets them on Letterman, gets Lynn on rock radio, and gets the legendary singer her biggest album sales in years. As for White … evidently he likes what he sees of Music City.


2004: on Nashville rapper Young Buck: “If he’s going to prove that his hometown of Nashville is more than the capital of country and gospel music and is, in fact, a hip-hop hotbed, his debut album, Straight Outta Cashville, has to pop.” Pop it does, going platinum — even if Buck’s association with label boss 50 Cent eventually goes pop, too.

MARCH 2004:

Country Music Hall of Fame opens its landmark Night Train to Nashville exhibit on the city’s R&B history, giving many Nashvillians their first exposure to Ted Jarrett, Etta James Rocks the House, Night Train, Jimi Hendrix’s Jefferson Street days and more. The accompanying CD not only wins a Grammy, it spawns a long-overdue coast-to-coast reconsidering of Nashville music history.





Teenage Nashville punk band Be Your Own Pet becomes an overnight overseas sensation when indie powerhouse Rough Trade puts out their Damn Damn Leash EP. It’s also the first mention outside the city limits of Infinity Cat, the home label drummer Jamin Orrall runs with his brother Jake and dad Bob. Soon the band is rubbing shoulders with Sonic Youth, playing Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, and touring England. There’s nothing left for them to do but break up — which they do in 2008. Sure sign the band has made it: instant griping every time they’re mentioned on the Scene’s music blog Nashville Cream.


Sean Brock invited to bring his Capitol Grille team to cook at James Beard House in New York.

MAY 9, 2005:

Oscar winner Renée Zellweger, once linked romantically to Jack White, marries country superstar Kenny Chesney. Hang on to those gift receipts.


AUG. 18-19, 2005:

Jonathan Demme shoots the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold at the Ryman. Scene managing editor Jack Silverman almost snags the post-film reception plate that held Meryl Streep’s porkchop.

SEPT. 15, 2005:

Oscar winner Renée Zellweger seeks annulment from country superstar Kenny Chesney on grounds of … whatever. “Get me a ticket to this Nashville place!” —People magazine.


A gift to news-starved media on a slow day, the Nun Bun is stolen. Culprit remains at large. Follow the crumbs.




Sean Brock leaves for Charleston, gets massively famous, receives princely honors — and a few defeats, notably to Michael Symon on Iron Chef America. (You wuz robbed in Battle Pork Fat, bud.) Will he ever return?

JUNE 25, 2006:

Nicole Kidman marries Keith Urban. “Um, New York? Cancel our return tickets. I believe we’ll be here a while.” —People magazine.


Levon Helm hosts his star-studded “Ramble at the Ryman” as part of the Americana Music Conference. Broadcast later on PBS, it makes Music City look like roots-music heaven.



The Nashville Curse is broken! Casting the magic spell is Franklin band Paramore, whose second LP Riot! goes platinum in the U.S. and opens the floodgates.

JULY 2007:

Did Spoon’s Britt Daniel inadvertently “homage” local club faves How I Became the Bomb? Ensuing controversy goes viral.

AUG. 22, 2007:

Plotting the eventual conquest of Two-Buck Chuck, schemers petition to bring Trader Joe’s to Nashville. Company responds that Nashville is “not in our two-year plan.” Oh, but you are in ours, Trader Joe.



The Jack White-Karen Elson Years begin.


Relocated to Nashville after years of hard living, Harmony Korine, now sober and married, releases his first feature in nine years: Mister Lonely, a plaintive fable starring Samantha Morton, Denis Lavant, Werner Herzog and Korine’s wife Rachel. It plays the world festival circuit from Cannes to Toronto. With his partner, French fashion designer Agnes B., he opens a production office in Nashville. No dumpster is safe.



Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night LP finally breaks the band in the U.S. on the strength of the ubiquitous No. 1 rock singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” Two years later, the group is so huge that a pigeon crapping on Jared Followill onstage makes national headlines.

JUNE 12, 2008:

Metallica plays secret show at The Basement.

OCT. 7, 2008:

TV news networks descend on Belmont University for presidential debate. Chris Matthews appears gobsmacked to discover vocal, sign-waving Democrats in Nashville.

NOV. 7, 2008:

Trader Joe’s opens in Green Hills.



After appearances in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” video and on Britney Spears’ “Lace and Leather,” the former Franklin/Brentwood High School student known as Ke$ha guest-sings on rapper Flo Rida’s No. 1 single “Right Round.” A star is born.


Jack White’s Third Man Records opens.

MAY 21, 2009:

In The Atlantic, sociologist Richard Florida publishes “The Nashville Effect,” an influential piece positing Nashville as the nation’s No. 1 center for music-business density. (Music- business density is something we have in spades, all right.) He revisits the city in print so often you’d think his surname was Tennessee.

JULY 2009:

Imogene + Willie opens, putting next-wave Nashville fashion on the map.Over the coming months, artisans such as Emil Erwin and Otis James join it as emblems of a new “Southern gentleman chic.”


SEPT. 13, 2009:

When Taylor Swift met Kanye West on the MTV Music Awards.

SEPT. 20, 2009:


FALL 2009:

Harmony Korine’s latest film Trash Humpers — a Nashville-shot VHS provocation in which masked geriatrics molest garbage receptacles — gets selected for the prestigious Toronto and New York film festivals. Well, of course it does.



For an early Belcourt screening of the rediscovered Japanese cult movie House, local designer (and Ben Folds drummer) Sam Smith creates a poster for a lark. Not long after, RuPaul is spotted wearing it on a T-shirt.

NOV. 4, 2009:

Breaking news from The New York Times travel section: “But there’s more to Nashville than country music … ”

JAN. 18, 2010:

Mike Wolfe’s show American Pickers premieres on The History Channel.

MAY 2010:

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann notices we’ve had a bit of rain, wonders why others haven’t noticed either. Except for CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose cradling of a ceramic lamb in a flood-soaked Nashville yard becomes a meme. Media rush to make up for not noticing Nashville’s watery devastation, but city looks even cooler for (mostly) taking care of its own.

JUNE 2010:

Karen Elson and Jack White join renowned fashion editor Grace Coddington for a Nashville Vogue shoot.


JUNE 10, 2010:

Conan O’Brien, then a media darling after his shafting by NBC, stops by Third Man for a recording and performance.

JULY 2010:

PM/Suzy Wong chef Arnold Myint makes a strong showing as a contestant on Top Chef. Extra pity points when his dimwitted partner’s undercooked pasta gets him tossed.


Nylon’s second Nashville music scene spread.

OCT. 14, 2010:



Now one of the world’s top rock acts, Black Keys Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney move here and set up a studio space.


Tandy Wilson, chef at popular Germantown restaurant City House, learns he’s a nominee for Food & Wine’s honor as The People’s Best New Chef 2011 and the only Tennessee chef nominated among the semi-finalists for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast.

MARCH 29, 2011:

Nashville gets its own Fashion Week

APRIL 17, 2011:

Jerry Lee Lewis performs for a Third Man live LP. Yes, that excitable guy onstage with him is actor Edward James Olmos.

JULY 6, 2011:

“The country music capital, with its low housing prices and pro-business environment, has experienced rapid growth in educated migrants, where it ranks an impressive fourth in terms of percentage growth. New ethnic groups, such as Latinos and Asians, have doubled in size over the past decade.” So says Forbes magazine, naming Nashville No. 3 in its ranking of “The Next Big Boom Towns in the U.S.” Suck it, No. 47 Los Angeles.

SEPT. 16, 2011:


FALL 2011:

The Catbird Seat opens to immediate acclaim from The New York Times, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, the Today show and more.


DEC. 7, 2011:

Lou Reed says he doesn’t want to be a “Nashville” type of songwriter. Cool points!


NOV. 16, 2011:

Responding to the closing of Nashville institution Davis-Kidd, Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes open Parnassus Books in Green Hills. Major authors begin to visit Nashville regularly, and also Rachael Ray


Sean Brock announces he will open second outpost of Husk Restaurant in Nashville.


Quick learner Dan Auerbach takes Bon Appetit on a Nashville food tour. Auerbach and writer Andrew Knowlton hit the trifecta of The Catbird Seat, Martin’s Bar-B-Que and Mas Tacos Por Favor — oh, and Prince’s. “But it’s not just food (and drink!) that’s making Nashville the South’s City of the Moment,” Knowlton writes. “In my week on the ground, I felt the energy of a city in motion.” Good thing Tandy Wilson’s driving.

FEB. 20, 2012:

Patchett temporarily short-circuits Stephen Colbert’s forcefield of irony on The Colbert Report.

FALL 2012:

Twenty-two-year-old Kendall Morales of The Southern named Hostess of the Year by Esquire.

MARCH 24, 2012:

Britain’s Observer profiles “East Nashville’s” “GarageRock Scene.”

APRIL 2012:

GQ declares The 5 Spot’s Keep on Movin’ the “most stylish party in America.” Nashville achieves peak fedora.

APRIL 26, 2012:

Extending Nashville’s conquest of Colbert across three nights, Jack White’s three-part interview amounts to a Third Man infomercial. Well played!

JULY 2012:

GQ declares us “Nowville.”


OCT. 10, 2012:

The ABC series Nashville arrives, bearing heavy buzz. The show’s fake mayoral candidate is almost as boring as the real mayor!

OCT. 26-27, 2012:

Skrillex headlines With Your Friends Fest at The Lawn at Riverfront Park. Johnny Cash turns over in his grave, says something about “cool spaceship.”


Online fashion arbiter The Sartorialist shoots Nashville street style, suggests there is such a thing.

DEC. 5, 2012:

Music Row hails the Grammy nominations concert at Bridgestone and hints we’d very much like to host the real deal. Even if it doesn’t come with LL Cool J and Maroon 5 attached.



Nashville designer Amanda Valentine announced as contestant on Lifetime’s Project Runway.

JAN. 8, 2013:

The New York Times declares us the “It” City. Consider it an overnight success — 237 years in the making.



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