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It was an elegant evening. In a large, columned house on Nashville’s Belle Meade Boulevard last November, the big green lawn outside darkening in an unseasonably warm Tennessee dusk, patrons of the city’s vibrant public library sipped drinks and politely jockeyed for a moment with the guest of honor. They clasped his hand again and again, often reaching out to touch his shoulder; more than a few hesitantly asked for a picture, their faces lighting up when John Lewis said yes, of course.
So it went for a long cocktail hour: the elite of a once-segregated city paying unabashed tribute to perhaps the greatest living civil rights champion, a man who had learned the craft and the power of nonviolence in the city’s American Baptist Theological Seminary more than a half century before. Here was where he learned the patience to endure unimaginable hate—psychological and physical—for a larger cause. It was his bravery—in Montgomery, in Selma, in his words as the youngest speaker at the March on Washington—that helped lead to the end of Jim Crow. “Because of you, John,” Barack Obama wrote on a commemorative photograph to Lewis on the occasion of his inauguration as the nation’s first African American president. Lewis’s first sit-in arrest was part of an effort to desegregate the downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter here.
“Nashville is where it all started,” Lewis remarked quietly that evening at the library party. “The city has changed so much—so much. It’s hard to believe sometimes.”
Lewis, now a veteran Atlanta congressman, was right: Nashville’s current moment is hard to believe. In 2016 Nashville moved ahead of Dallas and Austin on Forbes’s “Best Big Cities for Jobs” list, holding the No. 4 slot nationally, trailing only San Francisco; San Jose, California; and Orlando. Only a few cities, like Denver and Austin, are expected to grow faster in population over the next decade. Roughly put, an average of 72 people have been moving to the Nashville region every day. The school system is home to more than 120 different languages.
Long the capital of country music—a red-state mecca before we called them red states—Nashville has realized the vision of its 19th-century fathers and become the Athens of the New South. The economy is booming; Vanderbilt University is nearly impossible to get into; Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman live here. The prosperity grows out of a live-and-let-live spirit, sometimes called the Nashville code, in which celebrities stand in line unaccosted at Starbucks in Green Hills and hipsters pour into formerly marginal neighborhoods, creating little Brooklyns with a drawl.
At once cosmopolitan and comfortable, Nashville can, depending on what you’re looking for, be slick or sleepy, invigorating or calming. The food scene is James Beard on a bender: It’s difficult to track the number of excellent new restaurants that seem to open with unnerving frequency, each a little cooler than the last. With its eateries and boutiques, the newly redeveloped 12 South corridor feels a little like a Southern SoHo, especially if you’re taking a stroll. Hotels range from a glorious downtown Omni to the charming quarters at Mark Banks’s 404, which helps anchor the city’s thriving Gulch neighborhood that divides the honky-tonks of lower Broadway from the collegiate West End. As you would expect, music can be found nearly everywhere. There is the historic Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, and, for those willing to brave the long lines, the fabled Bluebird Cafe.
My wife and I, both Southerners by birth and inclination, moved our family to Nashville from New York five years ago. We loved Manhattan, where we had lived for 15 years and where our three children were born, but as the kids grew toward their teenage years we began to get restless in the North. We had kept a house in Sewanee, Tennessee, the tiny Episcopal college town where I went to school, and every summer it grew progressively more difficult to pack up for the remigration to New York. On something of a lark, then, we made an appointment to look at houses in Nashville. It was not totally foreign territory. I had grown up in Chattanooga, my wife in Mississippi, and I had spent many pleasurable hours here while working on a biography of Andrew Jackson, so we thought it worth the exploratory trip. We fell in love with the first house we saw—an old neo-Georgian with lots of space—and, through friends, intuited what we now know to be true: The city provides the best of familiar Southern life, with more engaging cultural offerings than any one person can truly experience.
We even have a cool mayor, our first female one: Megan Barry, a former Metro Council member. Greater Nashville is a blue dot in a sea of red, one of only three counties in the state (out of 95) that did not join the Trump tide in 2016. Socially progressive but sensitive to fiscal and business concerns, Barry is that rarest of creatures in the American South of the post-Reagan era: a Democrat with a sky-high approval rating. “Nashville is a city on the move,” she says, “with a vibrant, diverse culture and enormous growth built on an ever-present historical base of music, which fosters an environment of creativity that permeates our food and maker scene and makes Nashville a great place to live, work, and play.
Art—visual, sung, written—is the city’s soul. In the early 20th century, Nashville was home to the Fugitive poets, a band of writers that included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts sits in the middle of town, hosting first-class exhibitions such as “Secrets of Buddhist Art: Tibet, Japan, and Korea.” In music, this is still a place where talented dreamers arrive unknown with hopes of immortality. Tim McGraw showed up one day in 1989, on a Greyhound bus. He’d sold practically everything he had back home in Louisiana and arrived in town with his guitar and a suitcase. It’s a legendary tale that happens to be true. He played at Skull’s Rainbow Room on Printers Alley in downtown Nashville and took on several odd jobs before he got his first record deal.
The city wants to keep the McGraws out there coming. “Nashville’s growth is rooted in being a manageable creative center—L.A. on a neighborhood scale,” says Councilman John Cooper, the son of a New Deal governor. “There are something like 55,000 working artists in a population of 655,000—one in every dozen—and there’s a lower cost of living compared to the coasts. It’s an affordable R+D creative space.”
What’s culturally striking is how the city’s different tribes manage to create a unified sensibility rather than a divided one. There are, among other elements, the old-line families in West Nashville; the music world presided over by McGraw and Faith Hill, Cassidy and Dierks Bentley, and Jack White; and the literary universe centered on Ann Patchett’s Parnassus bookstore. The photographer Jack Spencer is based here, in a converted warehouse on the train tracks; the distinguished author and songwriter Alice Randall is Vanderbilt’s writer in residence. Taylor Swift has a place in town, and Witherspoon opened a store in 12 South.
A few years ago, as the Nashville engine began to run so hot, I asked Thomas Frist III, a board member of the Hospital Corporation of America (which was cofounded in Nashville by the Frist family in 1968), to explain the city’s prosperity. He ticked off “four buckets”: employment stability in healthcare, entertainment, higher education, and government; the “wealth effect” of local corporations’ money generally staying in middle Tennessee; a single Metro government that reduces friction in governance; and a genial, livable culture.
Growth, of course, brings growing pains. The prosperity in some quarters has cast a needed light on those neighborhoods and families left behind. Public schools require more attention and resources; public transit has, to put it charitably, not kept up with the demands of a rising population. The problems are real, but they are the kinds of challenges a city wants to have if there must be challenges—and there always must be. Last autumn, during the party for John Lewis’s visit to Nashville, he and I talked a little bit about an interview we had done for the Charleston, South Carolina, magazine Garden & Gun. He had been kind to give me the time for it, I said. I knew how busy he was. Gracious as ever, he demurred and then turned to greet more well-wishers. As I watched him, I remembered something he had told me in that interview—something about the South and redemption. Later that evening, I looked it up.
“I always felt growing up that in the South there was evil but also good—so much good,” Lewis had said. “We are still in the process of becoming. I am very, very hopeful about the American South—I believe that we will lead America to what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community.’ I travel all the time, but when I come back to the South, I see such progress. In a real sense a great deal of the South has been redeemed.” Nashville now feels like a vital part of that larger story—a place where old and new meet, and move forward, together.