Want to move to the hippest part of Nashville? Well, right now, as the world sees things, you move to East Nashville. I mean, it does have a whole magazine devoted to it. It’s a lovely place and in many ways at the peak of its cachet as a site for living, eating, shopping, and entertainment, and is likely to remain that way for a considerable length of time. But if you’re the type who likes to get a jump on things — get in on the ground floor shall we say, Madison is where the zeitgeist is going. Learn it, live it, love it. The way to tell if a place is hip is to measure how few people know about it, and if you’re one of the few and the proud who know that Madison is the future hippest spot in Metro Nashville, here’s a newsy tidbit: It already is. Go have a beer at Dee’s on Palestine Avenue and smell the winds of change.
It’s simple, really. The bohemians are being priced out of East Nashville. Spill a glass of expensive artisanal bourbon in your front yard and watch a condo sprout up in its place. Restaurants are having trouble filling waitstaff, dishwashing, and sundry such jobs, because there are fewer starving artists and suchlike living nearby who will take those jobs. Other businesses have similar woes when it comes to filling the more menial positions in their establishments, the reason being that many of the homes that young (and old) hipsters used to rent have been sold out from under them, demolished, and replaced with two or three McMansions on each patch of land where a single proud and sturdy Southern house once stood. Those mini-mansions, “tall -skinnies” in local parlance, are now the homes of loafer-wearing professionals who listen to Ed Sheeran and sniff bourbon corks in “speakeasy” bars.
As for the music and art scenes, East Nashville remains one of the envies of the civilized world. Or so it would seem. The influx of the above-mentioned urban pioneers, hither hastened by explosive growth brought on by the city’s quest for urban density, has upwardly adjusted real-estate values. Simply put, it requires more money to domicile on the East Side than it did a mere decade ago. A lot more. The artistic community is cornerstone of all hip areas, and artists traditionally have little to none of it — money, that is. They live in hovels where anorak tourists and dilettantes love to visit and stare at the patchouli-redolent performers, painters, potters, and poets like the whole place is a zoo and these are exhibits they can regard with a mixture of admiration, condescension, and more than a little envy. The assumption is being in proximity to the hip and happening rubs off; hipness via osmosis, as it were. But eventually, inevitably, the visitors move into the zoo and change the drapes both metaphysically and meta-fiscally, and the animals then pack up and leave, two-by-two, taking their élan with them.
I hope that Madison fills up with crazies and that East Nashville should struggle to keep as many crazies where they already are right now while there’s still some crazies to keep.
— Todd Snider
Tim Carroll is an East Nashville institution. The dark-haired songwriter and Les Paul picker with a longtime Friday night residency at The 5 Spot, and composer of treasures like “After the Hurricane” and the author’s favorite, “Grandpa’s Got the Marshall Out Again!” well … he’s jumped the parkway. This long-time, proud Benjamin Street homeowner (about as deep into East Nashville as you can get without having to get shots) sold his house, couldn’t afford to buy back into the neighborhood, and future, thy name is Madison.
But moving north of Briley Parkway and having a day-to-day connection to the music in both East Nashville and Madison has not resulted in a great crisis or schism. “I love what they’re doing at Dee’s and I still love the East Nashville where I lived so long,” Carroll says. “I’m still close enough distance-wise to get to anywhere in my East Side haunts I need to get to. I’m seeing Madison becoming more and more like an extension of East Nashville — as the music scene goes.”
Todd Snider, ever the trendsetter and unofficial ambassador of East Nashville — who put the place on the map as much as anyone, says, “I hope that Madison fills up with crazies and that East Nashville should struggle to keep as many crazies where they already are right now while there’s still some crazies to keep.”
In addition to Carroll, Madison is now home to Robert Kern, Carlene Carter, Allen Thompson, Trisha Brantly, Dan Seymour, Darrin Bradbury, Justin Amaral, Kristi Seehafer, Elizabeth Cook, among others. Then there are long-time residents, John England and Mark Robinson for example, who were musical pioneers in the land of Mid-Century Modern Ranch Houses. It’s also becoming the first choice of many who are new to town. Talented (and funny) new kid in town Ryan Sobb moved here from Alabama two years ago. Madison was his instinctive choice for a bear den. “It was closer to Dee’s” he says. Soul of brevity, that man.
Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge (as it is officially christened) is directly behind a sex toy store who are snits about sharing their rear parking lot as if they’re always expecting to sell 45 dildoes in the course of an evening. If you have yet to patronize Dee’s and hear great original music and experience the really harmonious feeling among the people, you are missing the epicenter of a very burgeoning and cool scene reminiscent of what the Slow Bar was for East Nashville 20 years ago, or the Family Wash’s early days deep in the bowels of the East Side. The best part is the leather easy chair halfway back in the music alcove. Sitting in that chair (which always seems to be available) makes it much more relaxing and enjoyable, like watching TV but with real people.
It’s not like Dee’s invented cool in Madison. There was the dearly departed Pope’s, host of many a hot music night, and the wonderfully bizarre Smeraldo’s, with its curious mix of Italian food and beatnik spoken-word jams, plus free jazz in the back room. But even before those loci of live music, Madison had a deep legacy as a musically creative community.
Bordered on the west mainly by Interstate 65, across the top by Rivergate, around the east and southeast by the wiggly moat of the Cumberland River, with the formidable concrete expanse of Briley Parkway guarding its southern approaches, for decades Madison was deemed a hinterland leafy suburbia where retirees trimmed hedges and channel-surfed until they died. That’s what happens to legacies when people forget the actual history. But more than a few of the 40,000 Madisonians do remember their legacy. In the ’50s and ’60s these rolling hills were Nashville’s down-home, god-fearing version of Laurel Canyon. Picture Kitty Wells popping by Mother Maybelle Carter’s house for a cup of sugar. Patsy Cline shopping at the H.G. Hills. Hank Snow cutting demos in his knotty pine-lined home recording studio. Ira Louvin getting in a knock-down drag-out with his wife and ending up at the Madison hospital with four slugs from a .22 in his chest. (He got better.) Madison was even home to Nashville’s first built-in-a-garage, professional-grade recording studio — Wayne Moss’s Cinderella Sound.
These “houses of the stars” were all pleasant but unassuming ranch houses; no Gracelands, no monstrosities with turrets like the John Rich erection on Love Circle. This is where the Everly Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Brenda Lee, and Col. Tom Parker all lived in regular middle-class houses alongside dentists, insurance salesmen, lawyers, and factory workers. They all lived in a normal suburban milieu where they all went to the same grocery stores and churches and lived normally like all their neighbors, albeit with hot hootenannies rockin’ the rafters at night.
Beyond Madison’s real historical legacy as a music community, there’s another factor at work here. As “normal” folks fled the city, the bohemians and weirdos eventually staked a claim. Now that inner cities are being condosized and colonized by the people with loafers and Mercedes, the creative types are discovering the pleasures of the suburbs — adding their own unique twists to the Brady Bunch template.
Nancy VanReece serves on the Metro City Council for District 8 which includes most of Madison. She sums things up far more than this author’s poor power to add or detract. Here she goes …
“What I like [about Madison] is that it’s quiet, I’ve got a place I can build my garden, and there’s a creative class here that supports each other. From a business standpoint, the land is still affordable, still available, and we are banked by two major transit corridors that can be utilized while still protecting that interior suburban southern Madison environment that made us want to come here in the first place.
As developers started over-developing parts of East Nashville, we began to see that the same reason I came to Madison in 1990 is why people are coming here now – elbow room, space to be creative, it’s affordable enough that the creative class can thrive, and from a real estate standpoint, developers have had to swallow hard the notion that we welcome development as long as it’s FOR us and not TO us.”
Thank you, Nancy.
Switching gears, another sign of Madison’s ascendance is the Nashville State Community College campus due to open in 2021. They are erecting their ivy walls on the 11-acre site on Gallatin Pike North (there’s no such thing as Gallatin Road, believe it or not, but that’s another story) where the Rivergate Toyota once stood.
And then we have another biggie. Music City Roots. the long-running and much acclaimed TV and radio series are moving to the area known as Madison Station. Rather than renting out a building like they did successfully for years at the Loveless Café Barn and then at the Factory in Franklin, they decided to sink down permanent roots in Madison soil. Groundbreaking is imminent, and the architectural renderings depict quite the edifice, inside and out. It is projected to be open for business in late 2020.
In addition, a branch location of 89.5 WMOT Roots Radio — the flagship station for Americana music in Middle Tennessee, will set up a fully functioning station adjacent to the new Music City Roots venue to broadcast in consort with the station’s current HQ in Murfreesboro. According to John Walker, the program director of WMOT and majordomo of MCR, the studio should switch on later this year in Madison Station, a historic train station house which is also home the 501(c)3 non-profit Discover Madison, an organization that helps people, well, discover Madison.
But perhaps the best indication that Madison’s legacy is coming back to the fore, is Madison Station itself. Built in 1910 by the L&N Railroad, the Amqui Tennessee Passenger Station and Signal Tower (as it was then known), had a regular visitor in the 1970s, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. He always came armed with ham and biscuit sandwiches for the workers and would work the switches, entranced by the romance of the rails. When passenger service ended in 1979 and the station faced demolition, Cash had the building dismantled and rebuilt on his property in Hendersonville, with a codicil in his will stipulating the structure would be dismantled again and reconstructed in Madison after his demise.
It’s one thing to move a whole building once, but twice is dedication, and a tribute to the building’s history, sturdy old-growth timbers, and Cash’s faith that Madison Station would one day be re-born. Madison is a place full of Zen carbohydrates, and a place where what goes around comes around. Past … Present … and Future, thy name is Madison.