Nashville nightlife really doesn’t get started until after hours. (Photos: Andrea Morales)
It’s nearly 2 a.m., but the crowd at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar doesn’t appear to be throwing in the towel anytime soon.
The packed dance floor has all the visual jumble of a candy store — everything from Mohawks to overalls, sequins to denim, T-shirts to fur — and the crowd is gyrating as one to the insistent blues-funk of local favorite Emoni Wilkins. Tables and booths have been abandoned, along with plates of spicy Cajun food, as revelers toss back cold beer and, periodically, toss beads into the air. (Yes, everyone gets handed a bunch of beads when they walk into this bar. Don’t ask…)
“Those are my people!” exclaims Andrew Atkins III, pumping his fist in the air as he spots two of his friends and high-fiving them after we squeeze through the crowd. They’re not only his friends; they’re also his guests. Atkins, a magnetically affable gentleman in his early 50s, is the Lead Navigator for the Renaissance Nashville Hotel, and he takes his job seriously. Especially when it involves the serious pursuit of a good time.
Tonight, Atkins and company are exploring some of the city’s best late night hangs, including Bourbon Street, an anchor of historic Printers Alley, the former hub of Nashville’s publishing industry. “Gretchen Wilson used to be a server here,” Atkins exclaims. “She’d get up on stage and sing Patti LaBelle. The crowd would go wild!”
Given the not-exactly-sedate state of the room, that’s easy to imagine. But, according to Atkins, in order to get truly wild, you have to hit way more than one spot. To do proper justice to late-night Nashville involves his time-tested trail: Start at the Cumberland River, work your way up Broadway, stop off in midtown, then make your way back downtown, a little — or a lot — the worse for wear.
So, intrepid explorers that we are, we head down to the river — specifically, to Acme Feed and Seed, at the corner of First and Broadway. Don’t let this four-story, 22,000 square foot behemoth intimidate you: Inside, Acme offers four distinct experiences, one of which will surely fit whatever mood you happen to be in.
Tonight, the first floor is fairly crowded, with plenty of tourists taking advantage of the late-night menu. Atkins ushers us up to the second floor which, he says, “has a different vibe — still downtown, but a bit more chic.” He’s right. The huge room is filled with mismatched Victorian-inspired couches and chairs that beg for lounging, the walls covered with antique black-and-white photos showcasing scenes of Nashville past. We don’t linger long, as Atkins urges us to keep moving on up.
After a quick pit-stop on the third floor, which is basically a blur of partying 20-somethings, beer, Jell-O shots, and… beach balls (again, don’t ask), we ascend to the main attraction.“This is the best rooftop in Nashville,” Atkins enthuses, waving his arm as we gain the crowded summit. “With the breeze coming through from the Cumberland, on the right day, it can feel like the Caribbean.”
After a spin across the dance floor, our fearless Navigator decides it’s time to hit midtown, so we run outside and hail a cab.
On a Saturday night, Lower Broadway looks like an alt Disneyland. As we weave up the street, we pass a gang of young men dressed in Elvis costumes; hoards of tourists in bedazzled boots; more bachelorette parties than you can shake a stick at (not that one should ever shake a stick at a bachelorette party); and the infamous, ubiquitous pair known as the “Bang This Twins” (just Google it, really).
“See, this is what I tell people — you can wear anything when you go out,” Atkins remarks, laughing. “Dress up, dress down. And it’s not just about the hats and boots. I always have to remind people that while we embrace our country music — and it’s better than you will find anywhere else — we’re ‘Music City.’ We also have rock, blues, Americana, rockabilly, jazz… we have everything.”
The taxi deposits us at Losers, which is filled with a youthful clientele, heavy on kids from nearby Vanderbilt and Belmont universities, and Atkins leads us to a narrow stage in the back. Actually, it’s not so much a stage as a sectioned-off corner — a notional barrier to protect the three guys with guitars from the swaying crowd.
“This is SO Nashville!” Atkins exclaims as a group of kids yell the chorus to “I’m Yours” along with the band behind him. “What’s crazy is, you could run into Miranda Lambert, Kid Rock, Jamey Johnson … you just never know who’s going to show up here. You could be this close to them while they’re playing.”
He’s not exaggerating; we could easily reach out and touch the guitars. (Some members of the crowd do, but the musicians take it all in stride.) As much as we enjoy feeling like we’re still in college, Atkins is now tempting us with tales of the Red Door Saloon. He high-fives one of the guitar players on the way out (the guy doesn’t even miss a beat) and hangs a right, pointing to a large bar on the corner marked by a glowing red sign.
The Red Door “has a style I haven’t seen in any other bar,” says Atkins of the midtown mainstay. As for what that style is… well, if Dracula lived in Chicago and drank Old Style instead of blood, this is where he would do it. The ceilings and walls are drenched in skeleton art and figurines, interspersed with retro Chicago Cubs and Bears memorabilia. The only really evil thing about the place, though? A drink dispenser behind the bar filled with pineapple chunks soaked in vodka.
“Do not eat the pineapple,” Atkins cautions as a wobbly guy teeters toward us. Unsure whether he is in search of human blood or vodka-soaked tropical fruit, we step aside and decide it’s time for our next stop. We hail a cab and head back to Lower Broad, where the crowd has thinned. Sort of.
“I gotta see where my ears tell me to go,” Atkins says, walking towards Tootsie’s, a giant purple monster of a bar at Fifth and Broadway. It has an equally giant line, even at this ungodly hour. We bypass that mess and head a few doors down to Robert’s Western World, with its marvelous boot-lined walls and steadfast rule of featuring bands that only play traditional country music. No bro country here, my friends.
Atkins expertly guides us through the world’s smallest dance floor, which likely sets a nightly record for how many people it can accommodate. We dodge gleefully spinning couples of all ages and head back to the bar, which is still cloaked in the tantalizing aroma of Robert’s famous fried bologna sandwiches. Alas, the kitchen is closed, so… more beers all around.
The stage at Robert’s is always filled with the best of the best — sometimes it’s Brazilbilly, led by Robert’s proprietor Jesse Lee Jones, and if you catch it on the right night, you’ll see one of the hottest young guitar players in town, Daniel Donato. As the band winds down and the bartenders — all of whom look like pinups, in that easygoing Nashville way — make their last call, Atkins takes us out the back entrance, which happens to be directly across from the backstage door to the famous Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of music.
“See, that’s where all the guys used to come out the stage door, and go right into the back doors of these honky tonks,” Atkins says, laughing. You can easily imagine the Opry stars of yore stumbling across the narrow alley.
Also a short stumble away is the Renaissance, just around the corner and up the street. As we walk back to the hotel, Atkins reflects upon the current “it-ness” of his beloved city, his home for 20 years. Because, being dubbed an “it” thing — whether it’s an It Girl, an It Bar, or, in Nashville’s case, an It City — brings with it the danger that the associated fame, or success, may be fleeting. But according to Atkins, Nashville has nothing to worry about.
“The groundwork was laid a long time ago,” Atkins explains, noting the city’s rich history of more than two centuries as a center of education, arts, culture, and commerce — hence Nashville’s nickname, the Athens of the South. “It’s in our blood, it’s who we are, and it makes it easy to show the city off.”
And showing off is what this city does, every night of the week. Even Music City, though, has to go to sleep eventually. And so do we.
This story first appeared on Medium.com as a part of Gone – smart, surprising and compulsively readable travel stories, launched in partnership with the Marriott portfolio of brands.