Nashville: Heat’s on in Music City

You’ll visit Nashville for the live music and you’ll stay for the food, finds Oliver Pelling.

I’m not supposed to say this, but hot chicken is stupid. That is my opinion. You didn’t ask for it, but you can have it.

This is not a popular opinion among my friends (nor the cult-like following that hot chicken has amassed in recent years), for whom the spiciness of the fried poultry they stuff into their faces represents the gastronomic equivalent of a dick-swinging contest, but I don’t care. My friends are idiots.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I eat food for flavour. And heat comes at the expense of flavour. It’s quite difficult to taste something when you are dribbling into your lap and the entire inside of your cranium feels like it’s been plugged into an electric radiator and set on fire. It’s science, goddamnit.

What isn’t stupid is reasonably hot chicken. That is, chicken with enough heat to smack you up a bit (without risking any permanent damage), and enough flavour to encourage a mild to severely life-altering addiction.

And incredibly addictive reasonably hot chicken is exactly what I’m having as I sit at a table inside Hattie B’s Hot Chicken — a Nashville institution — where the heat level ranges from southern, mild and medium; up to hot, damn hot!; and shut the cluck up! A piece of medium followed by a piece of hot, I discover, offers a blissful balance of heat and flavour. For reasons given above, I have opted not to cluck with the hottest option.

It’s important to remember that nobody cares what I think, and Nashville’s sweaty affair with hot chicken dates all the way back to the 1930s. One James Thornton Prince can lay claim to the first hot chicken shop, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which he opened in 1945 and handed down to his great-niece, Andre Prince Jeffries, in 1980.

But why so hot? Legend has it that Thornton Prince was something of a serial philanderer and his girlfriend at the time, having had enough of his nonsense, attempted to burn the Lothario out of him with a batch of secretly spicy chicken. Unfortunately for this particular vexed damsel, Thornton Prince liked it, and took it upon himself to burn the dish into Nashville’s culinary lexicon for good.

Hattie B’s is what gentrified hot chicken looks like, sure, but it’s brilliant. And it’s popular — there are now three Hattie B’s in Nashville, one in Birmingham, Alabama, one in Memphis, one in Atlanta and even one in Las Vegas. The business model has transcended the United States, too. “Do you know Belle’s Hot Chicken in Melbourne?” asks Hattie B’s owner Nick Bishop after I tell him where I live. Yes, I do. “Those guys came over here, saw what we were doing, and took the model back with them.” Even KFC pinched the “Nashville hot chicken” moniker for a spell in 2016, the cowards.

There’s barbecue here too. And Martin’s Bar-B-Que Downtown dishes up some of the city’s finest slow-smoked hunks of dead animal. The massive, relatively new establishment makes everything from scratch, every day, and specialises is West Tennessee’s whole-hog barbecue tradition.

When you’re done with chicken and barbecue, consider Nashville’s honky-tonks, where you may opt to have a quiet drink and enjoy some rowdy country music or, as your writer opted, to lose a fight with tequila. Lower Broadway — or “Honky Tonk Highway” — is where you’ll find them in all their garish neon, country-music-slangin’, booze-soaked glory. If you visit one, make it Robert’s Western World. If you visit two, head for AJ’s Good Time Bar too. And if you visit three, may God be with you.

If I’m being honest, and I am, I’m not sure how many Nashvillians frequent the honky-tonks. They seem to be more to the tastes of the temporarily-in-town-types — Americans travelling on business or overseas tourists. I say this because most of the people I talk to in the honky-tonks are either Americans travelling on business or overseas tourists.

I want to go where the locals go to watch live music, though, and The Mercy Lounge, a venue built inside an old flour mill on Cannery Row, is where I go. The club has something of a reputation for showcasing the best local talent, and hosts international touring artists too (even Midnight Oil have played here). During my brief visit, my ear’oles are exposed to the sweet, soulful sounds of both Alanna Royale and Lee Fields. I bought both of their records, had them signed, and will one day give them to my daughter, if she puts me in a good retirement village.

For music history, Nashville is home to the Johnny Cash Museum. Featuring the world’s largest collection of Johnny Cash stuff — from clothes to guitars, handwritten letters to furniture — it’s officially endorsed by the Cash family, and has apparently been voted the #1 music museum in the world. I don’t know about all that, but I do know that, for fans of Cash like me, this place is a mecca.

And if you like that, RCA’s famous Studio B — where Elvis, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson have recorded — is just down the road. The truth is that there is too much of Nashville to fit into the 1000 words I have been allotted. I’ve run out of space to talk about the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the uber-hip 12 South neighbourhood, Jack White’s Third Man Records, or Pinewood Social — a restaurant with bowling alleys, karaoke rooms and an Anthony Bourdain-sized stamp of approval. There’s even a cupcake vending machine … Oh, and did I mention the chicken?



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