A string of bars and restaurants from male country stars is turning Music City’s honky-tonk district into “country music Disneyland”
Our night in downtown Nashville begins in a bank-turned-tattoo-parlor-turned-Luke Bryan-themed restaurant with a pickup truck dangling over the stage where a band is covering Maren Morris’s “My Church.” The space has six levels, eight bars, numerous light-up “Luke Bryan” signs and more flat screens than a Best Buy. But we are on the roof drinking Coors Light and eating fried sushi.
“Same kitchen, different bars,” a hostess says, referring to Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar located next door, as if she has explained it a thousand times. The two restaurants might look separate from the supersized names out front, but they indeed share a cooking space, a head chef and Ohio-based ownership. As we popped crazy rolls (salmon maki, deep-fried, with eel sauce) into our mouths, we surveyed the scene over Broadway’s canyon of bachelorette hoots and woos. Across the street, partiers are downing beers on the roof of Ole Red, Blake Shelton’s place. Dierks Bentley’s joint is a short walk from Luke Bryan’s, along with Florida Georgia Line’s FGL House, Alan Jackson’s Good Time Bar and John Rich’s Redneck Riviera, with its glowing neon image of the Big & Rich singer alerting tourists, like Krispy Kreme’s hot donut sign, when the owner is inside the bar.
All told, seven male country acts have opened bars in Nashville’s Lower Broadway district since 2016, with construction under way on another, a Kid Rock steakhouse. That might sound shocking, but it shouldn’t. Country music artists and eateries have long gone together like squash and casserole. Hank Williams Jr. had a barbecue restaurant. Naomi Judd opened a fine dining outpost called Trilogy. Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw sold hot chicken. There was also Tex Ritter’s Chuck Wagon, Roy Acuff’s Cannonball Kitchen, and Minnie Pearl’s fried chicken chain. Marty Robbins even had a Mexican restaurant (named Rose’s Cantina for the bar in his 1959 hit “El Paso”) near the speedway in Smyrna, Tennessee. The list goes on.
But even with such a history, Nashville is presently sitting in the throes of a country music restaurant revival. Given the bright lights and soaring spaces of this modern era, however, some locals and even tourists wonder if they’re taking the Vegas in “NashVegas” a little too far. (These aren’t just eateries, but Instagram destinations, as tourists pose around the John Deere inside Aldean’s or the motorcycle in Bentley’s.) Or if the bro bars — all of the branded outposts thus far are affiliated with male stars — reflect the disparity of men vs. women on country radio. As Luke and Jason score Number One hits and plaster their names on buildings, the women of country — Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman, among them — are hosting cooking shows or peddling cookbooks. In June, Maren Morris poked fun at the trend, tweeting in part, “There are so many dude artists opening bars downtown. When I’m rich, I’m seriously opening one called ‘My Church.'”
While a woman-fronted star bar may still be down the road, we nonetheless descended upon Broadway over a recent 24-hour period to take in the food, drinks and testosterone of the new watering holes.
Of all the celebrity bars, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row may boast the most authentically Nashville of digs. It’s housed in the former home of Gruhn Guitars, where Bentley would test-drive acoustics and banjos when he arrived in town from Arizona in the mid-1990s, a time when Nashville’s few honky-tonks sat between adult bookstores and pawnshops. George Gruhn moved his guitar showroom away from Lower Broad in 2012 as hoards of tourists, eager to play but not pay, swarmed the shop. (Another Nashville musician outpost, Corner Music, recently announced its own plans to leave the bachelorette playground of the 12 South neighborhood for a new location after 42 years.)
“Nashville has always been ground zero for the best country music in the world, and we have always talked about bringing Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row to Nashville to come full circle, because that’s where Dierks cut his teeth on live music,” says Ryan Hibbert, CEO of Arizona-based Riot Hospitality, who has opened three Arizona restaurants with Bentley.
Whiskey Row certainly embraces the history of its building, with more than 20 vintage guitars hanging over the second-floor stage. But on this Thursday night, the guitar fireworks are on the main floor, as a band tackles Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and we sip frosé out of plastic champagne glasses. Any chance at conversation would involve shouting, but for the bulk of the crowd, socializing is done via drinking, with bites thrown in to sop up the alcohol. Here, the fare focuses on things in pairs: chicken and waffles, catfish and grits, fish and chips, mac and cheese.
Perusing the menu, it’s hard not to recall a joke from Chris Rock’s set at Nashville’s Third Man Records last year: How do you people survive your diet?
Further up Broadway, across the street from the proto-honky-tonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, cigarette smoke and stale beer linger in the muggy air as live music from open club windows and doors clash like a radio stuck between stations. As a band plays George Strait’s “Ocean Front Property,” the neon silhouette of Alan Jackson hanging above his Good Time Bar guides us like a north star. Which is a good thing, since the shotgun space, formerly the honky-tonk the Wheel, seems mainly dark inside until our eyes adjust.
“As soon as I walked in there, I just loved it,” Jackson tells Rolling Stone via email. “It was plywood floors, simple, and just like the places I played earlier in my life in other cities — just a real bar and honky-tonk. I wanted to keep the tradition alive and carry it on by just playing real country music in there.”
Along with an edict to only feature country bands — not cover groups with Bon Jovi and Journey in their set list — Jackson outfitted the joint to make it his own.
“Have you checked out the other floors?” the bartender asks of the themed levels to AJ’s bar, including one based on Jackson’s boating hobby. But before we can explore, we’re lured away by tales told of that Nike-bashing John Rich, who, a couple from Maryland excitedly says is tending bar at his patriotic outpost Redneck Riviera. They even have the iPhone photo to prove it.
Alas, Rich is nowhere in sight. But his brand of partying in the U-S-A is. We watch a woman climb onto the bar to wail out a version of Canadian Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and a bartender hand out test tubes of kryptonite-colored shots.
There’s a commotion on the second floor, where a woman is taking money from fans eager to witness what is being billed — politically incorrectly — as “Extreme Midget Wrestling.” “We do this all over the world,” she says proudly. Cutting a hasty retreat, we pass a wrestler in spandex following his handler up the stairs, and land back on the bustling Broadway sidewalk, where we’re passed by a goat on a leash and a pedal tavern full of guys chanting, “Chug, chug, chug!”
These days, Lower Broad, much like the Vegas Strip, has a way of drawing you in and then turning on you. One minute you’re feeling it — the energy, the booze, the escape from reality — and the next, the lights come up to expose a sometimes harsh reality.
Restaurateur Tom Morales owns several hotspots, including the popular Acme Feed & Seed at the far end of Broadway on the Cumberland River. A longtime food-industry pro, he’s surprised by the changes to the honky-tonk highway. “The whole thing is kind of bewildering to me,” he says, calling it a “country music Disneyland.”
When Morales opened Acme in 2014, he brought Alan Jackson onboard as an investor but didn’t want to laser-focus on a fan base by using the “Chattahoochee” singer’s name in his business. “I’m all for [country stars] coming back downtown and lending their names to it, but it’s micro-targeting an existing fan base that in three, five years, if [an artist] doesn’t have a hit song, [their bars] are going to become irrelevant.”
That seems unlikely for an artist like Jason Aldean, who is one of the genre’s most consistent hitmakers and live draws — he sold out Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Friday. But country fans cannot live on songs alone, which means the food has to be up to snuff.
At Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar, the peach cobbler is highly touted, with the recipe attributed to the Georgia native’s mom. Taking a seat at a bar built around a John Deere tractor — a not-so-subtle nod to Aldean’s 2009 hit “Big Green Tractor” — we say blood sugar be damned and order a cobbler. It arrives in a skillet, with what appears to be an entire can of peaches under a blanket of dough, a scoop of ice cream and drizzle of caramel. Just like everything else in the restaurant it’s oversized and tastes great until it doesn’t anymore.
Ole Red may be operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties — the company that owns the Opryland Hotel, the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium — but it’s heavily associated with Blake Shelton. The sad-dog logo and name comes from Shelton’s 2002 hit; there’s a sign for Tishomingo, Oklahoma, Shelton’s hometown and the location of the first Ole Red bar; and his Smithworks line of vodka is the clear spirit of choice.
Making our way to the rooftop — dubbed the Lookout at Ole Red — a hostess with a nametag indicating she’s from Kansas leads us to a table while singing along to the Spice Girls. We order glasses of white wine, because it feels like the thing to do. The Ole Red rooftop is a sleeker space with umbrella-covered tables and exudes a hip vibe. Still, this being Nashville, there are jean shorts as well as cocktail dresses.
Chef Garrett Pittler is aware of that dichotomy and reflects it in his menu, perhaps the best of all the bro eateries. Here, the burrata is made with the Southern staple pimento cheese, the fried chicken is marinated in Miller High Life and served in champagne buckets, and the calamari is spiced Nashville hot. The steak is of the cauliflower variety, a bone tossed to vegetarians (it’s actually vegan).
Think of it as an elevated and irreverent take on wholesome dishes served at Sunday dinners, fellowship hall potlucks or at family gatherings. Even if a “Kiss My Country Ass” sign, another Shelton song title, hangs outside the restrooms on Ole Red’s second floor.
“Lower Broadway is a centerpiece of Nashville,” Shelton provided in a statement to Rolling Stone. “There’s so much great music, food and fun going on down there all the time and it’s exciting to now be a part of it. It’s always been a dream of mine to create something like this where people know they’re going to have a good time as soon as they walk in the door.”
Sure enough, that’s what tourists are doing on Ole Red’s roof: drinking beer, enjoying the view and taking selfies with the neon lights of Lower Broad behind them.
“I think [Shelton] did a really classy job compared to the other places,” says Anna Sekerak of Cleveland, Ohio, an aspiring songwriter making her fifth visit to Nashville. “It doesn’t feel like a honky-tonk — much needed on Broadway.”
But not all tourists are thrilled with the newer, shinier spots.
Shaya Dawson of Garden Grove, California, came to Nashville in 2012 for her bachelorette party and appreciated the “unique feel” of the bars. On this trip, she’s surprised by the “commerciality.”
Even though she’s a Jason Aldean fan, she didn’t venture into his slick kitchen or rooftop bar.
“They probably feel like slapping a name on it is appealing,” Dawson says, “but I’d rather go to a dive bar and find my own treasures.”
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