Nashville is famous for hot chicken but spicy fried bird isn't the only thing that's hot about Music City. Right now, it's packing such serious heat that greater Nashville's population is swelling by nearly 100 people a day.
They're drawn by an energy that's evident in shiny new hotels such as the Westin and JW Marriott that make downtown's skyline look like a bristling pin cushion from Nudie's, the legendary Hollywood tailor whose outrageously spangled western wear was worn by luminaries such as Hank Williams and Gram Parsons.
Cranes hover above even more developments, both downtown and up in the neighbouring Music Row neighbourhood where entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is building a Virgin hotel and a billboard congratulates Newcastle's own Morgan Evans on hitting No. 1 with his single Kiss Somebody.
Nashville, Middle Tennessee, also houses creative types who could live anywhere they want – but they've chosen to make their homes here. Some are country music superstars – Australia's Keith Urban, Emmylou Harris, John Prine – while others, such as rockers Kings of Leon and Jack White, of the White Stripes, reflect the breadth and depth of the city's musical talent.
Yessiree, it's all going on. In 2017, Nashville clocked 14.5 million visitors. Among that number are posses of young women seeking the same kind of wild weekends that bachelors have long enjoyed in Las Vegas.
Nashville has carved out an unusual niche as the world capital of bachelorette parties. It's easy to see the attraction: you can dress in rhinestones, hats and boots to roam the compact area of Lower Broadway where country music rolls out of the neon-dipped honky tonks. Pedal steel, drums and strings mingle with classic hits pumping from the party buses and bicycle-powered "pedal taverns" that tootle around downtown more frequently, it seems, than public buses. Lower Broadway is, to put it in a peanut shell, the Bourbon Street of Nashville.
Yet Nashville doesn't dance only to the tune of country music. Of course you can tour the genre's icons – such as the Country Music Hall of Fame – and pore over weird and wonderful memorabilia in museums dedicated to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and George Jones. At night, you can park yourself on a (very hard) pew to see a gig at the Grand Ole Opry out in the burbs or at the downtown Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music that's easily the city's most cherished venue. But there's more – much more – to Nashville if you care to scratch beneath the glitzy veneer.
To glimpse Nashville's glamorous side, head into the Frist Art Museum, housed within a stunning art deco building that was once the city's main post office. It's right next to the Union Station Hotel, fashioned from a historic train station built from Kentucky limestone and Tennessee marble. Look up and marvel at the extraordinary barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling featuring replica Tiffany stained glass panels.
Or ride the Westin's elevator to the 27th floor where a glass-sided pool offers turquoise tinted city glimpses. Order a cocktail, watch the freight trains roll through town or spot the snaking Cumberland River – the waterway that almost brought Nashville to its denim-clad knees.
When John Oates, one half of Hall & Oates, the best-selling musical duo of all time, moved to Nashville, it coincided with this almost biblical event. "I moved here when the city was almost at its lowest point," says Oates, gazing at his adopted city from his publicist's office in SoBro (South of Broadway). "Prior to the flood of 2010, it was the old Nashville. It hadn't changed very much from the '50s and '60s. It wasn't very cosmopolitan. It still had that real country feel."
Residents recall that even a decade ago, you could still park on Broadway right outside the honky tonks, which were relatively modest affairs. These days, some of them have the names of their superstar owners – such as Jason Aldean – up in lights. Others, such as Acme Feed & Seed, take a cooler approach, choosing not to broadcast celebrity connections (singer Alan Jackson co-owns the former farming supply store that bookends Broadway and champions original music).
I'm on a return visit to Nashville, timing it to coincide with AmericanaFest. This sprawling event takes place in 50 venues around town, from famous clubs and listening rooms to the record studios of Music Row.
It's impossible to see and hear everything or even to follow up on hot tips such as Aussie singer Catherine Britt's favourite place for hot chicken (Hattie B's, three locations) or burgers (Mill Creek Taproom at 12 South). But this time I do stretch to east of the river, bunking down for a night at Urban Cowboy – an eight-room B&B in bohemian East Nashville. Australian musician Josh Rennie-Hynes moved to the neighbourhood earlier this year to put a band together and cut a new record. He says he doesn't leave the East Nashville bubble often, not when he can entertain himself at places such as Fond Object – an outdoor performance venue run by a record store where you can bring your own drinks – and Fran's Eastside, an old-school karaoke dive bar.
I make it to East Nashville's The 5 Spot – a dive bar that plays a key role in the city's Americana scene – and travel further out, to Madison, to see why rising Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price recommends Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge, a blink-and-you'd miss-it bar tucked behind Jenna's Adult Toy Box.
It's here, in Dee's car park, that I finally understand something else that pulls people to Nashville. I ask a trio of exiting patrons if they're heading downtown, hoping to swing a lift. The ladies are going home but insist on dropping me right outside my next stop, the Cannery Ballroom near downtown.
Nashville, you see, might look a little naughty but it's as nice as pie. People will go the extra mile and then wish you a blessed day. When Hotel Preston's shuttle guy drops me at the airport, we linger in the van - he wants to tell me how Nashvillians looked after each other in the aftermath of that flood. It's a story of southern comfort, served neat and straight from the heart.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of United Airlines, Union Station Hotel, Urban Cowboy and Hotel Preston.
Nashville is the capital of Tennessee. United flies from Australia to Nashville via Los Angeles and Houston. See united.com
The city's public transport options are limited. Download the Uber or Lyft app before leaving home, or rent a car.
Book early – downtown hotels can fill quickly when there's a major event. The Union Station Hotel is within walking distance of downtown attractions. In hip East Nashville, Urban Cowboy offers eight boutique rooms – fans of Kasey Chambers might choose The Captain, tucked into the garret. Hotel Preston, near the airport, was recently renovated and includes dramatic local art and guitars you can borrow from the front desk. See unionstationhotelnashville.com urbancowboy.com hotelpreston.com
AmericanaFest is a six-day annual event that takes place around Nashville each September. See americanamusic.org
TOP TIPS FROM LOCAL STARS
The Station Inn [in The Gulch] is a little concrete block house that goes back to the old days of bluegrass. It's a basic little bluegrass venue but there's other music that's played there. It's folding chairs, beer, popcorn, cash-only. You sit down right in front of the stage – the stage is a foot high – and you'll hear the greatest music. It's down-home and it's real. I've played there many times - I just love playing there. On Tuesday nights, they have a country music satire show called The Doyle and Debbie Show which is an absolute must-see. See stationinn.com
John Oates' latest album is Arkansas.
John Prine goes to Arnold's once a week on meat loaf days. It's cafeteria style so you pick what you want from the hot bar but right where you walk in they have desserts first so you're going to get chocolate pie because it's at the beginning and you're like, 'Oh, I'm hungry right now'. Right next to Arnold's is Carter Vintage Guitars. After I signed my record deal with Third Man and had money to buy a new guitar, I went to Carter Vintage and got a beautiful 1965 Gibson J-45. See arnoldscountrykitchen.com or cartervintage.com
Margo Price is touring Melbourne and Sydney from October 10-16.
My favourite place to see a show is the historic Ryman Auditorium. It's the Mother Church of Country Music and the place to play as well. There's so much history there and so much mojo.
Tommy Emmanuel will play the 2019 Byron Bay Bluesfest.