“Nashville could just as soon be called Punk City or Rock City. You are just as likely to find the word artisanal hanging over the door of a sandwich shop or a cupcake shop or the slow-drip-coffee laptop zone as anywhere in the land of man buns in the cities of the North.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
By the end of this post, you will see that I love Nashville, TN. In April of 2018, my wife Corinne, brother Jeff, sister-in-law Lauren, and I traveled to the hip, fun, and lively Music City. This trip brought tons of fun and left me wondering why I had never considered Nashville before. Filled with the NFL Draft, breweries, a half marathon, tons of BBQ, and side trips to historic sites, my trip to Nashville proved far better than I could ever imagine. What started as a trip to run the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon turned into a beautiful memory that, especially during this pandemic, can easily be called upon to provide happy feelings when I am feeling down.
My brother and I run a half marathon every October or November and have done so since 2014. After an incredible trip to Denver in October of 2017, we wanted to find another fun and unique location. After some research and internet scouting, I discovered that the Rock n’ Roll Marathon series was going to be in Nashville, and it just so happened that the NFL would be holding the draft the same weekend. I talked to my brother and my wife, and we decided to make it a group trip to the city. We booked our flights, registered for the race, and secured an Airbnb in East Nashville. We were ready, but was Nashville prepared for us!
On Friday, we arrived in Nashville, rented a car, and immediately recognized that this would be a busy weekend in the city. There were signs for the NFL draft, the half marathon, and several other significant events, as well as what we recognized later were tons of Bachelorette parties. After getting the car and being that we were hungry, we headed to the Belmont area for some BBQ. We decided to go to Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. I had seen the owner on the “Nashville” episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and this episode, like every episode, was excellent. His thoughts on Nashville, the music, culture, vibe, and food, were exciting and thought-provoking. This episode truly made me excited to visit Nashville. Knowing that Bourdain was friends with the chef/owner of Martin’s BBQ, was as good a recommendation as I could get. So, needless to say, I was eager to try this famous BBQ place and convinced everyone else to follow.
I make it a point that if we are going to a new city and Bourdain’s Parts Unknown filmed there and Bourdain had something to say, I always watch the episode first to get an idea of what to expect. I miss Bourdain’s show and the way he carried himself while visiting all the locations he explored. He always seemed so respectful of the people, culture, and food of those places. I seek to be as respectful of the places I visit and I follow his direction and guidance as I travel, so getting a crash course by watching his episodes first is always fantastic.
I love barbecue. While I am not the biggest meat eater, I enjoyed Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint thoroughly, so much so that I would visit it twice on this trip. Once to start the vacation and once to end it. Eating grilled chicken, ribs, and having a fantastic local beer to start our Nashville time was perfection personified. The restaurant’s atmosphere was so inviting, hip, and allowed us to relax after our flight and before we checked into the Airbnb. Before selecting Nashville as our trip and race destination, I did not know what to think of the city. But I love music, got a good idea from Bourdain’s episode, and our first stop in Nashville, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, definitely led with a beautiful impression. While I may not have thought much of Nashville before, I instantly knew this was a city I was going to revisit and one with a vibe, esthetic, and style that I would not be able to stop thinking or talking about.
“If you haven’t been there, you probably know it as— What? A country-music capital. Grand Ole Opry. And it is Music City. And there is indeed plenty of country music—both genuine and fake-ass. But it’s way more than that.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
After a well-deserved and enjoyable lunch, we headed to our Airbnb to check-in, settle down, and get ready for a night out. After all, it was Day One of the NFL Draft, and while not the most important thing, we wanted to partake in some of the festivities and explore the city’s breweries. The Airbnb was fantastic. It had an excellent Nashville style and plenty of room for four people. It was in a great area very close to breakfast options, groceries, and easy access to Nashville’s vibrant downtown by driving or taking a quick Uber. All in all, once we saw where we were staying, we were pretty pumped. Funny enough, my wife and I have recently been decorating our home with a bohemian/Nashville style, and the blanket we bought for our bedroom, we learned later, was the same one from our Airbnb. Small world, or just great style; I argue the later. Ok, soon after checking in and looking around, we decided to go to a local grocery to get snacks, breakfast staples, coffee and cream, and pretty much anything else we might need for the weekend.
While my wife and I would be staying three nights/four days (Friday – Monday), my brother and sister-in-law were only staying two nights, so we planned our food buying and events around them. The only thing required of us was to go to the Rock n’ Roll Race Expo on Saturday and run the half marathon on Sunday. After getting our food supplies, then some relaxation, we got ready for a night out. It would be a night of breweries, downtown football draft parties, late-night wings, and more beer. The one thing my brother and I have learned from our trips to run half marathons; always do your heavy eating and drinking night one! Day two, you rest, and day three, you run. As you will see, Day One in Nashville was conquered and crushed, and we left it all on the table, well the ping pong table.
“The carpetbagging interlopers are welcome here in a way that they are not in a lot of places—whether it’s restaurants or music or art.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
The Uber picked us up, and we headed to the first brewery of the night, East Nashville Beer Works. We were all feeling good and excited to spend this time together, and what better way to do that than with some craft beer. I had selected several breweries to go to and knew that the craft beer scene in Nashville was wonderful, but we would never be able to go to all of them. So I selected a couple randomly, and East Nashville Beer Works was our first stop. The beer was terrific. I will always gravitate towards wheat or Kolsch, and East Nashville beer works had Trigo Azul, which is a Blueberry Wheat and Cumberland Punch, both of which were outstanding. The Trigo Azul, was my absolute favorite, as I am always going to select a fruit-infused wheat beer. The brewery’s vibe was fantastic and had outdoor seating, which allowed for us to hang out, drink, chat, and take in our surroundings.
After East Nashville Beer Works, we took another Uber to Little Harpeth Brewing. This place was just ok, and while it was in a cool industrial building with tons of space, and had a massive TV so we could watch the first pick of the NFL Draft get selected, Kyler Murray to Arizona, the beer was not my style. It was not bad. It just was not my favorite. I tried the Chicken Scratch, an American Pilsner, and thought the flavor was solid, not special. My brother ordered the Sunny D because he likes an IPA when he visits a brewery. He said the beer was fine but uninspired. Again, Little Harpeth was not bad, but we were the only ones there, it offered no outdoor space, and the beer was satisfying, even if it didn’t leave an impression. It was a cool industrial space with a friendly vibe, but we had a couple of beers, stayed for around an hour, and then decided to leave, call an Uber, and head to another brewery closer to where we were staying in East Nashville. We headed to Smith & Lentz Brewing Company.
I liked Smith & Lentz Brewing Company the most. We had some fantastic pretzels, beer, watched the NY Giants make their draft selection (Daniel Jones, are you kidding me!), and my brother and I had an epic match of ping pong. There were tons of beer choices, but I knew what I was getting immediately, the Wolf Kolsch, which is dry-hopped with Styrian Wolf. It was freaking amazing, and with the Trigo Azul, Blueberry Wheat from East Nashville Beer Works, those two beers were my favorite of the entire weekend. If I could get them in Massachusetts, I would! I also tried Mrs. Socrates, the Belgian Ale, which was fantastic, and my brother went for Mosiac IPA and Utah, Get Me Two!, another IPA, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
We enjoyed our time at Smith & Lentz for a couple of hours while eating some great pretzels, and, as I said earlier, my brother I played ping pong. Ok, my brother and I are competitive. Not in the wrong way, but we always try to get the best of one another. I am the younger brother, so I never win, except that one time when I passed him during a Half Marathon in Portsmouth, NH, and finished before him. That was a great day! We had three epic ping pong matches, of which I won the second and my brother won the first and the third. Jeff was the champ of Smith & Lentz ping pong this evening, but we will be back, get the beer and ping pong ready. After a couple of hours there and feeling the beer taking over, we needed to get some food. So, we walked a couple of blocks away to Noble’s Kitchen & Beer Hall, where we got burgers, wings, fries, possibly more beer, and watched more of the first round of the NFL Draft. After this, we had enough; back to the Airbnb we headed and called it a night. Saturday would bring us to the race expo, fun in Downtown Nashville, and some live music.
“People who grew up here will tell you the city is in a state of perpetual, never-ending change, and the rate at which things are changing is accelerating.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
Nashville has a ton of coffee shops. So on our second day, we decided to stay close to our Airbnb, and my wife, who always find the best places to eat and drink, chose Stay Golden. We went here twice since the food and coffee was outstanding. I had a regular coffee, my wife had an espresso, and I dove into the Avocado Toast while my wife took on the American Breakfast. Like most, if not all, coffee houses in Nashville, this place had pretty sleek decor, inspired menu, and hip atmosphere. They have all your coffee options, and we were not disappointed. After breakfast, we headed to downtown to get an early start at the Race Expo.
I discussed all the details about the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon Series expo in a previous blog post, My Top 4 Half Marathon Races – Part ONE. I have done a few of them, Brooklyn, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Denver, and New Orleans, so I am a pro at these expos. But I should, at the least, say that I enjoyed the expo more than most. For one, it was straightforward to get to and navigate. Sometimes it can be confusing or stressful, like when I ran Brooklyn, I had to go to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan to get my BIB, but the race was in Brooklyn. That wasn’t very pleasant. Rarely is the expo a problem. But it also happened when I was in New Orleans, and the convention center was so large I had to walk almost a mile inside the convention, and there were pretty much no vendors. So, terrible expo experiences can occur, but not in Nashville! My brother, sister-in-law, and I were quickly able to check-in, get our BIBS, t-shirts, and then walked around taking in the race atmosphere, which is always electric at a Rock n’ Roll Series event. That’s why I keep running them and will continue to do so.
Overall, we were probably at the expo for an hour, maybe slightly longer, but we navigated it with ease and got what we needed and then decided to walk around some of the downtown areas closest to the convention center. We knew we would see a good portion of the city as we ran, which makes these “run-cations” fantastic. So, we walked around, had some laughs, and then got some lunch at Moto in the Gulch District, which is Haute Italian fare, and was hands-down delicious. I mean, if you are running a half marathon the next day, you need some carbs, and Moto provided those delicious carbs. Overall, our second day in Nashville was going exceptionally well, and we were enjoying the sights, sounds and the vibe of this incredible city. But, you can’t, I repeat, cannot go to Nashville without hearing live music. After lunch, we headed back to the Airbnb, got some rest, and then back downtown for music and drinks.
My brother was able to get us tickets for live music at The Listening Room Cafe. As I said before, you can’t go to Nashville and not listen to live music. It was a great night, a perfect way to cap night two and the evening before the race. We enjoyed delicious food, astounding drink, and singer-songwriters playing guitars and singing some of their newest or most experimental melodies. For those who read my blog about live music, When Time Stops, you will understand how important it is for me to see live music performances. While the three musicians are not mega-popular, they sang their hearts out, and I appreciated their passion. After hearing their set and finishing our meal, we decided to head to the NFL Draft party and walk around amongst the people and the action. It was so busy, but we took some pictures, watched a couple of draft selections, and then decided to call it a night. Overall, fantastic night, but tomorrow was our half marathon, so we headed back to the Airbnb and prepared for 13.1 miles.
“Nashville’s Lower Broadway or Music Row—it’s what Nashville is selling. It’s what the tourists want.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
The morning of the race was like all others; breakfast, coffee, stretch, get ready, and off we went. My wife drove us to the race start since we were not close enough to walk, and we had to go earlier since roads around our Airbnb were being closed off because the full marathon would traverse through our neighborhood. In my previous half marathon blog post, I said that selecting a place to stay close to the race start is always preferable. But with the NFL Draft, tons of Bachelorette parties, and other events going on, getting a hotel downtown, near the race start, was hard and expensive, and we had heard great things about East Nashville, so we decided to sacrifice race morning ease for a more rewarding environment. And it was perfectly fine. We did not have a long walk, and the one we did have was pleasant with amazing views of the city as we walked by the Titans Stadium. This morning, the weather was cold, and the race anticipation was at a high, exactly how you want pre-race to be! We arrived at the Starting Line and proceeded into our corrals. My sister-in-law Lauren and I were in a higher one than my brother, so we stayed together and started at the same time. As I would soon find, the racecourse was one of my favorites, and while I may not have had a personal record, it was a fantastic race experience.
The Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon is a point-to-point course. The race starts directly downtown on 8th and Broadway and, for the first few miles, is pretty smooth and travels around downtown Nashville and heads south, as HalfMarathon.net points out, “passing by the campus of Vanderbilt University. From there, the unfolds along a hilly and sometimes challenging route, with plenty of rolling hills throughout” the half marathon course, “and ends on the other side of the Cumberland River that cuts through the city, on the grounds of… the home field of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.” Along the course, there were tons of spectators, and as we ran down Music Row, there were tons of bands, which is part of the appeal of a Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. Since this race was in Nashville, music was a central component with “dozens of bands blasting all kinds of music out for” us, which included “country, rock, blues, jazz, and more” as we passed by one of the many stages along the course. The course also took us outside of downtown to some of the residential areas south of the city like Belmont, where we went the first day in the city to eat at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. We ran by the joint, and I was ready to dart in and grab some chicken and ribs!
Overall, the first half of the course had gradual ups and downs, peaks and valleys, so to say, but I felt terrific and enjoyed the sights. As we left the beautiful Belmont area and headed back downtown, the second half of the race was much more of a gradual decline, and I felt my pace start to pick up, helping me finish the race strong. The race’s final stretch brought us “past the Tennessee State Capitol building and Bicentennial State Park before they head over the bridge at Woodland Street, to the finish line at LP Field.” The end of the race was excellent and included a fabulous spectator presence, nice downhill finish into the Titans Stadium parking area, and fantastic guitar shaped medals with blinking lights – freaking awesome! I hate to be the person that continually makes callbacks or shameless plugs about old blogs, but if you had read my previous Half Marathon blog, then you know I love race medals. Getting a unique race medal from a Nashville Half Marathon, which I consider one of my favorites, was the icing on the cake! It’s always a great feeling when you finish a race. A sense of pride, satisfaction, accomplishment, and completion all come to the fore, but also my hope to do it again, and soon. Since COVID has canceled races, this feeling seems alien, but I wish to reclaim it. I know I will, hopefully, sooner than later.
After the race, I found my brother and sister-in-law and walked back towards our Airbnb, to get away from the large crowd. Then I called my wife, and she was able to pick us up and bring us back to the house to shower, rest, and get ready for lunch! Nothing has my name written all over it than running 13.1 miles and then going out for BBQ. We did not have a ton of time seeing as though my brother and sister-in-law were leaving in the early evening for a flight back to Boston. As I said earlier, my wife and I stayed one full extra day, and then some. So, we needed to get some lunch and choose a delicious BBQ place in East Nashville called Edley’s Bar-B-Que. Similar to Martin’s, this place has fantastic food and did not disappoint. It was an excellent way for the four of us to celebrate our trip, time together, half marathon journey, and our love of Nashville BBQ meat!
“If you’re looking for iconic Nashville, what’s bone-deep, local, even deeper than the dive-bar culture, you would be talking about a thing called ‘meat and three.’”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown
We ended up dropping them off at the airport shortly after our meal and then got some rest at the Airbnb before setting out for another unique eat in East Nashville, in the late evening, to close out our third day in the Music City. The one thing that my wife and I love to get, no matter the city, is Pho or Ramen, usually a nice hot bowl of noodles. My wife is the most amazing person, and who I enjoy traveling with most. She has this amazing skill where she is able to find the best, most unique, and absolutely amazing places to eat and drink. Well she did it again this evening! We ended going to Far East Nashville, which had the best Pho, sushi, and an avocado ball filled with the poke. It was divine, and we could not stop talking about it for days later. The place was unique inside with very hip and sleek decor, while also paying homage to the cultural dishes that served as the menu’s backbone. It was a wonderful experience and a fantastic meal that capped off a long, emotional, and memorable day in Nashville.
Our last day in Nashville was not a relaxing or diminished day. Not at all! Our flight was not until the early evening, and we didn’t need to check out till noontime, so we decided to make the most of our day together in Nashville, and we did. In the morning, we went back to Stay Golden for breakfast and coffee. We had, not surprisingly, another delicious meal and bold, rich, and necessary coffee. It isn’t often when we are on a trip that we go to the same place twice, but Nashville offered that opportunity not once, but twice, for breakfast and lunch. After our second visit to Stay Golden, we headed to the Airbnb, checked out, and bid farewell to a fabulous lodging and waved goodbye to our unique and wonderful stay in East Nashville.
Even though we checked out, we had our rental car and many hours until we needed to arrive at the airport. So, seeing how we knew that my brother would be leaving one day early, we decided to save our historical sightseeing until they left. On our last day and after another great breakfast, these two historians toured several areas outside of Nashville center and then headed to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. But, before discussing anything further, I feel it necessary to provide some context as to why we would make the trek outside Nashville to the home of a polarizing, controversial, and very problematic historical figure. My wife and I are both American Historians and first met at graduate school in Providence, RI, taking a course on the Age of Jackson. We appreciate the knowledge we gained from the course about that critical time in American history. While we find Jackson a monstrous figure, we found it essential to visit this site, not to pay homage to the man, absolutely NOT, but to learn and come face to face with the history of the area, and those whose lives were cut short and whose history Jackson’s slaveholding, and personal desires for greatness, attempted to erase. Our time at the Hermitage was filled with historical reflection, sadness, and deep anger towards the country’s history, for those held in bondage here and throughout the entire US, and left with the continued belief that history, as Howard Zinn once wrote,
“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”– Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, visiting the mansion, the garden, Jackson’s tomb, and of course, the plantation and the grounds of the “slave’s quarters.” Walking near and inside those sites was horrifying, and vitally important. As a Historian, I walked around these tainted grounds where black Americans suffered and died. All for what? It left me with a horrific feeling, as it should and I will never forget that feeling. It was an emotional experience and reminded me why I decided to study history and pursue a Higher Education career as a Professor. America’s narrative must be told from each American voice, not those with power, privilege, and “grand” names found gracing the archways of buildings and cross-streets all across America. We must listen to the voices of the protestor, the abused, enslaved, the factory worker, women, immigrants, indigenous peoples and, of course, many more – all those who built America and whose identity and agency Jackson sought to oppress. With that said, I will move back to my trip.
After our historical journey to the Hermitage, it was back to the Belmont area for lunch, and yes, we headed back to Martin’s for some delicious BBQ so that I could buy a hat and t-shirt. I mean, I had to commemorate my multiple trips for Nashville BBQ. After lunch, we wanted to find a place to get some coffee and possibly a sweet treat. As I said in a previous blog post my wife and I always search for great coffee. Well, we found it in Nashville at Ugly Mugs Coffee & Tea, which was located next door to a place we could get our chocolate fix, Five Daughters Bakery. For a little over an hour, we sat outside in East Nashville, under a lovely April sun, and drank delicious hot coffee and ate a fantastic and wonderfully oversized variety of donuts. Not a terrible way to finish our time in Nashville before heading to the airport and venturing back to Boston.
A little historical exploration, some incredible BBQ and beer at local restaurants and breweries, listening to fantastic live music, a fun and beautiful half marathon, and, finally, spending time with family exploring a new exciting city – all made up our time in this vibrant and electric city. In Nashville, we sought to make memories that can be called upon at difficult times, like now, to remind me of a world outside this pandemic. Bourdain was utterly right, Nashville is a fantastic city, and I will 100% visit again and probably stay in East Nashville for a second time. I loved it, plain and simple. Hopefully, sometime soon, Half Marathons will start up again and, when travel becomes safer, I will be off to the next city. Join me?
“A welcoming place, a forgiving one. I feel right at home.”– Anthony Bourdain in “Nashville” of Parts Unknown