Nashville smells like pecans and bourbon. The bourbon is obvious; poured, spilled and consumed as ceaselessly as the music plays in a near 24-hour rotation. The pecans less so. Their sweet scent is like embers in the air, discernible but ghostly.
It’s a fitting match for Music City where the sounds emanating from the honky tonks are familiar and warm, sweet too, but mostly full of kick. Unsurprisingly, the shot of choice on lower Broadway, Nashville’s main drag, is cinnamon whiskey.
Our first “holler an’ a swaller’” comes just before noon, an early bird salute of sorts from the hard core who belly up in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge as soon as the doors open. The band has already been playing for an hour, which means we’ve been drinking for an hour, and that means I’m itching to dance.
My two-step is perpetually a half-beat off. This isn’t as obvious in Tootsie’s, where there’s only room enough to stand. I’ll tap and stomp and break my boots in on floor that has felt the steps of everyone from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and feel at home.
The indecency of swilling booze in the mid morning is tempered by the thumpings and twang of the band. They’re full of swagger, wearing belt buckles that outweigh the gear, and prime with the kind of talent so strong it appears effortless. Four, sometimes five musicians arrange themselves on a tiny corner stage raised maybe a foot off the ground and play for tips that are deposited in a barrel or pickle jar that’s passed between sets.
A few steps to the left and the music at Layla’s slants toward rockabilly and bluegrass. We stop there next, pausing briefly for sunshine and smoke on the sidewalk between buildings. Crowds are forming along Broadway by now. Cowboy hats, sports jerseys, and flip-flops color the area as passersby listen at doorways and take photos with life-size Elvis figures.
One waxy Elvis is missing some fingers. The King absorbs relentless sunshine and the sticky embrace of tourists on most days of the year, while at the same time being lovingly covered in the honky tonks. At Layla’s, a three-piece with an upright bass rollicks through “Don’t Be Cruel” while another door or two down a gorgeous woman in Robert’s Western World will simultaneously croon “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
As for me, I want a grilled cheese sandwich. This is my snack of choice between drinks and the only place I’ll eat it is Robert’s, where the “honky tonk grill” is coated in decades of grease and the only bread they use is Texas toast. If I was so inclined, I could also buy a pair of boots here.
The later afternoon takes us to Legend’s. There is room to two-step here, to country music that is more recent and modern. But more often we meld into the crowd to sway and stomp and clink glasses as we call out lyrics. Country music is by design conducive to camaraderie, unless, of course, the glass clinking with strangers is too familiar, or the winks too salacious. A pert blonde eyes my man and it occurs to me that there is room here to fight, also.
I do not have the wherewithal to physically take down any woman, blonde or not. And I have no reason to, not when my guy’s lips are on my cheek and we two-step in place to our favorite song. More bourbon will pass our lips and we spend the remainder of the afternoon in back by the jukebox where it is quiet and we can share secrets and eye album covers that line the walls. I see the 45 cover for “Islands In the Stream” by Dolly and Kenny and it makes me smile.
Dusk brings more crowds. We wander to Rippy’s for dinner, where the most casual service in the world pales in comparison to the luscious BBQ pork loin melt, onion rings, and ribs. A hunk of cheddar is served alongside meals, ambiguous and warm from the heat of the food. I bite into it and it gives way softly. It is bliss.
A woman in the bathroom talks on her cellphone as I rinse sauce from my fingertips. The band up front is loud and she shouts to make sure her story is heard. It would seem that her man has packed up and moved to Hawaii, taking everything but her gold earrings and dog. She didn’t much like him to start, but rails anyway that Hawaii’s too good for him. I spot her later that night back in Tootsie’s, dancing.
We head out again on Broadway. Under the darkening sky the neon lights buzz with current. Girls wearing lace dresses walk next to men in blue jeans in a steady rhythm. We fall in step toward another bar with more music, more booze to coax our fluid souls into dancing.
And there as we walk, faintly in the air is the scent of pecans, struggling to be recognized over the din of steel guitars and fiddles and laughter.