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No amount of Taylor Swift could prepare me for the reality of Nashville

No amount of Taylor Swift could prepare me for the reality of Nashville

Charlie Mathers (with red hair, red lipstick and sunglasses) in front of a wall of vinyl discs

Whenever asked about my feelings on Taylor Swift, I’ve always said I am a fan of Country Taylor.

Red, Speak Now – Incredible albums.

I grew up listening to and loving the likes of Back to December and Teardrops on my Guitar.

For as long as I obsessed over her stunning country creations, I obsessed over where Taylor started – Nashville.

So being able to visit the music city during Pride, especially, felt like a dream come true.

The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, and Nashville Municipal Auditorium | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

The only music that felt appropriate was country

The city really holds its music heritage close to its heart. It is not hard to see why Nashville is called the Music City.

My experience of the city, though, started long before I stepped foot in any museum or venue.

Live music echoes through the airport. Nash FM, the city’s country music station, blared out of my Lyft driver’s car.

As the car traveled through the city, I watched as streets upon streets of honky-tonks with neon signs flashed by.

For those not up to date on the country lingo, a honky tonk is a bar with live country music.

With every obnoxiously large guitar sign and advert for cowboy boots, I was sucked into the crazy world of Nashville.

Throughout the duration of my trip, it felt like every doorman, waitress or guy on Bumble I spoke to worked part-time as a musician in a honky-tonk.

As a teenager, my parents regularly ferried me into the city center as a teenager. I averaged about two gigs a month. Every single wall in my bedroom was plastered with band posters.

At every gig I’ve ever attended, I always pick a moment to hold my breathe because then you can really feel the vibration of the sounds in your chest.

As I stepped into Nashville, I did the same thing. I held my breath and for a moment I could feel the vibrations of the city in my chest.

This was going to be something special.

A wall of vinyls in the Nashville Country Music Museum
Inside the Country Music Museum & Hall Of Fame | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

‘In a city in the South’

Prior to arriving, I was wary of how comfortable I’d feel in the city. Tennessee is considered a safe Republican state. It is generally very conservative and voted Republican in presidential elections since 1996.

Nashville is different. I knew this from the moment I stepped onto the streets for Pride.

I watched the Parade from the newly opened Downtown Sporting Club (where I enjoyed the best cup of tea I had on the entire trip. Seriously. America, is it too much to ask for just a classic cup of tea?).

A storm the night before and a drizzly morning threatened the spirits of the Pride goers. But this didn’t put anyone off.

As the first few hundreds of people lined the streets, Downtown Sporting Club co-owner Ben Goldberg pointed out that it felt like there were already more people lined up to watch this Parade than there are people who watch the city’s annual Christmas Parade.

Balloons spelling out the word 'Love' being carried by people in the Nashville Pride parade
Thousands lined the streets for the Parade | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

‘A conversation piece in the community’

This made me all the more excited to see the Parade. As time passed and the sun came out, more and more people got in position.

There was a grin on absolutely everyone’s faces. The number of people who also went the extra mile in terms of their own Pride outfit was an appreciated surprise.

I’m sure this was a relief for the Pride organizers to see too.

Nashville Pride has previously hosted an Equality Walk but this year was the Pride’s first Parade in over 10 years.

Matthew Gann, President of Nashville Pride, explained that bringing back the Parade had been a ‘conversation piece in the community for quite a few years.’

They began the official conversation and work to bring it back two years ago.

Matthew added with a smile: ‘Today we had over 6,000 people in the Parade and estimations of tens of thousands of people that were in the audience, in a city in the South – Nashville. So it’s been a great experience and I think it was needed for the community.’

It was later confirmed that the Parade drew in crowds of over 25,000 people with over 100 groups, floats and bands taking part.

Picture of Nashville Festival
The Nashville Pride festival | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

Nashville is the dream queer escape

So as a queer person with anxiety travelling alone to a city that is surrounded by counties of Trump supporters, I’d say it was pretty understandable that I was nervous.

Would I have to deal with spotting the occasional MAGA hat? Would the famous Westboro Baptist Church show their faces?

There wasn’t a single MAGA hat in sight.

While the Westboro Baptish Church did stage a small protest outside of the Pride festival, a group of young queer people fought back by kissing their partners in front of them.

Nashville genuinely does care about its queer residents and that’s easy to see.

In February 2019, it became the first Southern US city to recognize LGBT owned businesses.

I had dinner with the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce CEO, Joe Woolley, on my first night in the city and hear about how crucial the program has been in supporting those businesses – along with just how proud the city is of this.

Hatti B’s Hot Chicken | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

Cut to twenty minutes later…

We ate at Margot Café and Bar. They use locally sourced produce so the menu changes daily to reflect what they have in.

This is where I discovered that peas on pizza is the way forward. Don’t judge. Just try it.

As someone with a naturally small appetite, having three courses every meal was a big change. All the food was incredible so I was happy to try and waffle down everything I could.

My body wasn’t exactly happy with that though.

I made the vital error of telling the manager of Hatti B’s Hot Chicken that I had no idea what to order so she should just surprise me.

The restaurant is famous in the South. Customers who brave the restaurants spiciest chicken, named Shut The Cluck Up, get an exclusive bumper sticker to commemorate their achievement.

One of the staff turned up after five minutes with two pieces of chicken (each the size of a slice of bread), three tubs of sides and two tubs of desserts.

Cut to twenty minutes later and only a third of the way through the food, I realized my stomach absorbed one bit of chicken too many. I had to make an emergency dash to the restroom to vomit.

It was a bit embarrassing. I’m still the joke of my family group chat. And I’m gutted that I didn’t get to finish the banana pudding, because it was heavenly.

Picture of a honky tonk bar in Nashville
Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

The sung heroes

When I wasn’t stuffing myself with food, I was satisfying my appetite for musical history. I did this by visiting every museum I could.

The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum was particularly interesting. When thinking about the careers of famous musicians, most people wouldn’t really give much consideration to all the people behind closed doors. It’s these people – the managers, publicists, studio musicians – who are the unsung heroes.

I learned all about the incredible Marion Keisker Macinnes. She was the first person to lay eyes on Elvis Presley when he turned up to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee to self-record.

Years later and Elvis would inform audiences that ‘she’s the one who made it all possible. Without her, I wouldn’t even be here.’

I saw the piano that Elton John wrote Philadephia Freedom and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me on. It’s also the same piano that appeared in a Rolling Stone Magazine portrait with Michael Jackson.

The Taylor Swift Education Center featured stations for her fans to learn all about the process of writing a song. A costume from her 2017 Look What You Made Me Do music video stood proudly in the entrance.

Then, in the Country Music Museum & Hall of Fame, I got to bask in the presence of costumes and instruments played by the likes of Elvis himself, and the Everly Brothers.

The Taylor Swift Education Centre, inside the Country Music Museum & Hall of Fame | Photo: @charlie.mathers Instagram

If that doesn’t speak volumes…

Everywhere I went, everyone was friendly and absolutely did what they could to help out.

I briefly visited The Hip Zipper, a vintage store in East Nashville. Not only did I leave with a cool shirt, I also left with an entire recommendation list of places to visit during the remainder of my stay.

I walked the 40 minutes back to my hotel one evening after having dinner (and a cocktail in a literal bag) instead of getting a cab.

This is never something I would have thought I’d be okay with doing. Not only was I in a new area of the city, I was in a new city – New continent even.

But it was fine.

It was the combination of the city’s authentic embracing of the LGBTI community, the kindness of every single local and the music that made me feel at home.

I’d easily consider a move to Nashville one day (were it not for the city’s severe lack of public transport. Love you TFL).

I don’t even feel comfortable travelling home alone in London sometimes. If that doesn’t speak volumes about how incredible Nashville is, then I don’t know what does.

Taylor Swift explained in an interview that growing up she knew everything she wanted to happen could happen in Nashville, ‘so it became [her] number one goal to get there somehow.’

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering why Taylor was just so drawn to the city. Now I know that it’s something you can only understand by visiting there yourself.

This ability to make dreams come true in the Southern city isn’t exclusive to being a cis straight woman with blonde hair though. The city is open to everyone.

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