Nature provided a surround sound of music as I tended to the mundane. The “over” watering of mint to smell its fresh, vibrant fragrance was accompanied by a chorus of songbirds, the undulating kettledrum of cicadas, and the buzz and chirping of hummingbird combat. The tiny birds jostled with each other for a sip of sugar water from an array of multi-colored feeders hanging from a weathered wooden beam. There were more songs than an empty jukebox could hold. Between the notes, the silence of butterflies dancing the jitterbug from one flower to the next. Each sound and every silence are in harmony with the other. Nature’s Mantra calms my spirit and my brain. I feel like I’m witnessing the synchronicity of commonality that forms the basis of community.
A proposition for the next mayor
What if you could run a city like nature? where our common good is considered first? I thought of a genuinely symbiotic relationship in our community that would benefit us all. The dozen mayoral candidates offer their version of sugar water. We need our next mayor to be a policy wonk, aka a “sidewalk builder.”
To think that our city will not continue to experience momentous growth is unrealistic; the Nashville cat is out of the hat. Bigger is not better. It is incorrect to assume we have no control over this. We are at the tipping point, and this next mayoral election is where our destiny will be determined, good or bad. We cannot sit passively by and hope. We must be active. Nothing will change without first acknowledging the need for change and, more importantly, what needs to change. We must organize from the bottom up to gain the volume necessary to affect the politics of money and the State. It’s a hard, cruel fact that money is a controlling influence in the government’s decision-making. The State attempts to control our lives, physical bodies, and local government. We sit today without a true representative in Washington, DC, for Nashville. Emotional arguments will not win the day, just effective organization and votes. Our mayor will have to, also, be a community organizer.
We have the most talented and creative people across our community than any city our size on this burning planet. Creativity is our sugar water, the nectar attracting businesses and the following skyscrapers.
We give tax breaks and incentives to the allure of corporations while neglecting to invest in what got us here: Nashville IS the music city. What we think as locals and say aloud is the best or worst advertising. I like to say, “A skunk gets its reputation from the advertising it gives itself.” We are now shouting to the world, “Come to Nashville and party in the street!” They do come, and many puke on our sidewalks. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can all win. We will first have to learn to work together.
The current state of play
I recently stopped in to meet with Deana Ivey, the new director of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. (known locally as the CVC). She is tasked with branding and selling Nashville to travelers and conventions. I was greeted with “We are Music City” emblazoned on the lobby wall. That resonated but left me wondering, “Where did we get sidetracked?” Deana is a good listener. I wanted to voice my opinion as a small businessperson, an entrepreneur, a rent payer on Lower Broadway, and a lifelong Nashvillian. I have spent half my adult life trying to save Nashville landmarks, but now I feel like I’m trying to save Nashville.
It was 1992, and Lower Broadway was broken. Porn and pawn shops dominated the famous street, where singers often came with just a guitar, a song, and a dream. If they could get on the stage of one of those honky-tonks, they could become a star. Patsy Cline was not a star when she came to town. She wanted to get on the Ryman stage to become a star. In the late ’80s, there were a few remaining honky-tonks, just shells of what once was. There was talk of selling off the altar of Nashville, the great church called the Ryman. I shook my head in disbelief as distant childhood memories replayed.
Ed Stolman, a true visionary and successful entrepreneur, bought and renovated the Merchants Motel. George Gruhn bought another building which became his famous vintage guitar business. I saw what they saw; those old, dilapidated historic buildings were like the pews in a great cathedral of discovery. Songs had been honed by the great writers there, sometimes traded for a beer. A gut’s hour rendition of a song, written, as Harlan Howard would say, using “three chords and the truth,” could become a hit. Harlan would become one of the most prolific songwriters in Nashville’s history. That tough little farm boy from Michigan had made it, and he had mailbox money to show for it. That creative seediness was marked by boots putting a cigarette butt out on the honky tonk floor while sipping a tall boy. Having grown up here and tasted the hiSTORY of these five blocks, I invested in 408 Broadway and the “cowboy park” next door. I intended to open a restaurant.
We started the renovation (more like a rebuild). We did it “certified historic,” which added significant cost to the project. We moved our movie catering business into the building, along with the 10-foot-high repurposed trash cowboys collected from the rubble of lower Broadway. Protected now, these earth day statements by their creator Olin Calk were rescued from the elements as he had requested. Next, we brainstormed. The problem was evident there were no locals downtown, and the tourists feared what it had become. How could we change that?
Our answer was “Dancin’ in the District.” Mayor Phil Bredesen gave us the blessing to try it on Capitol Square Boulevard, and if we could make it a success there, we would be allowed to move it to the riverfront. That first show Clarence Gatemouth Brown, wrangled by our partner WRLT, would not go on because it was sprinkling, and we had no roof on our makeshift stage. We had a freestanding concession tent, and with a workforce led by recently retired fighter pilot “Moose” Moore (my partner in this adventure) leading his homeless army, we lifted the tent and covered the stage. The show went on. Clarence played for 3 hours, and Nashville’s most significant music happy hour was born. I remember 300 people for that first event. By the end of the summer, we had a regular crowd of 2000 people.
Mayor Bredesen told Vicki Olglesby, his chief of staff, that we had riverfront park for the next year to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and make it happen. She did, and the City of Nashville was our partner. The first event the following spring, 6000 people showed up. The crowds grew to 10,000 plus people by the end of the summer. People were no longer coming down after work but going home, changing into their “look at me” clothes, and coming back. Future spouses were met there. We got the best bands either on their way up or down. We could not afford them at their zenith. We showed that our (down) town was vibrant. The city used our event to host the recruitment of the Titans, the Predators, and numerous businesses considering Music City as a destination for their location. New bars and restaurants followed the excitement and invested in the streets long since abandoned and given up for dead. A generation of Nashvillians danced along the riverfront. We had brought the music back downtown.
Growing up in Nashville, our world image was two-sided — unbelievable musicians and hillbilly music. It bordered on pride and embarrassment for most locals. Jukeboxes were the influencers of the time, like social media is today. Get your music in a jukebox, and the next stop was the radio, hand in hand. Nashville was a discovery platform. Jukeboxes counted plays; they were today’s algorithms. Social media and what is portrayed on it become our reputation, like it or not.
As I survey our present-day landscape, I can’t help but see that we are presented with the same problem as a city in the early ’90s. We need the locals to RE-embrace downtown Nashville and the tourists to feel that it is a clean and safe area.
A simple plan
We are at a crossroads as a community. The message is broken that we are sending to the world. On my first day as mayor, I would launch a campaign to recapture the moniker any city would love to have, “Music City.” It would cost us nothing and, like a rising tide, would lift all boats. The effect would ripple through our town like a pebble hitting a pond.
My plan would be simple. Work with CVC as a partner to redirect a portion of tourist dollars used to promote Nashville to support music and the arts directly (currently in the 35–40-million-dollar range per year that’s generated primarily through the Hotel/motel tax and funds the CVC). Instead of just big stages in the streets, we have a “creative live performance trust fund” to activate performing arts in the venues. This money would go directly to the artist so that they continue to create what has made this city great. This would indirectly help the small venues, as they now have assistance with their talent budget. We would recapture the magic in a few years, and the social media echo chamber would trend back to what’s authentically cool about Nashville. The hotels would be full of people wanting to share that experience 365 days a year, not just on event days. Our locals would have a reason to return downtown to hear the music, see the art, and feel the creative experience. This action would include discounted parking for Davidson County residents in all metro-controlled garages.
On Day 2, as mayor, I would change the narrative. “Bigger is not better” My second-day move would be to suspend any new commercial building permits for six months. Let’s finish what’s on the plate before filling it up again, allowing us time to identify our infrastructure needs. Many of our towers have sat virtually empty since Covid has moved workers home; this is a looming problem. There’s an exodus of businesses from a downtown core clogged with pedal taverns and loud noise. The CVC has led the way. Our Metro Codes offices are overworked and understaffed. Subsequently, the semi-controlled development means we all suffer. Let’s take an inventory. Many solutions are simple; let’s take a deep breath and get it right. The brief respite will give us time.
We as a community historically have been proud of our identity whether you are in the towers that represent the strength behind a diverse economy or living three deep in a one-bedroom apartment holding down, as I say, “A day job and a dream”! We have this hospitality engine that helps generate 10 billion dollars in tourism. It needs workers. No parking, no efficient mass transit, no affordable housing nearby, immigration solutions factor into this, as well. These all need to be addressed immediately, and with national, state, and local say in these issues re-enter the policy wonk.
The heavy lifts will be affordable housing, efficient transportation, and parking. These issues are complex, but there are tools to address each, and all three are linked. There are several corridors into Nashville proper that are suited for the development of low-cost housing. Specific zoning ordinances could eliminate or reduce parking requirements based on projected occupancy. Old buildings could then be converted into housing, and quality apartments built without minimum parking requirements become affordable, which could help stimulate neighborhood revitalization. Map these zones with efficient mass transit, and suddenly people can live near and ride to their work. It would also eliminate traffic and the worry about where and at what cost to park. This is a federal, state, and local problem, and that’s where the policy wonk comes in.
I would ensure affordable parking for all Nashvillians downtown with city-sponsored garages. The new stadium should have dedicated free parking for those working downtown connected to 24-hour shuttles. Why should that be important to you? That specific Nashville core of businesses, specifically the five blocks that make up lower Broadway, is the largest tax generator in the state. This would benefit the employees and the employers. Quit paying for businesses to locate and take care of the ones that are here. There should be plenty of tax money for it — there was for a domed stadium.
Education is the root cause of our social discord and is integral to our neighborhoods. Schools would be another venue to re-emphasize the arts alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Live Performance fund could be used to inspire. Teachers are underpaid, underappreciated, and forced to work with their students in an unsafe environment. Let the teachers tell us their needs and then “make it happen!” I would use the bully pulpit to favor red flag laws and background checks for gun purchases.
A safety net for people experiencing homelessness. They have a story, too, and it’s not what the talking heads often tell us. I remember a 5th-grade civic project my twin sons were tasked with. It required them to do something for the community. Many lemonade stands popped up in the neighborhood, raising money for various causes. I had befriended Ingrid McIntyre, a social justice warrior. I saw in her my mother minus the ten kids. I told her of the boy’s school project, and she just smiled and said, “Meet her at 10 AM the next Saturday and bring as many gallons of water as you can. I alerted my boys, and they grimaced and started the “Why can’t we just …” song. We met that Saturday, loaded into one car, and started our adventure, delivering water to the homeless camps along the river. We came into this one camp with a homeless veteran living there. He had “macgyvered” a home out of repurposed jetsam from the Cumberland River, complete with a 55-gallon drum leveraged between trees that served as a shower. The boys did not want to leave; they were fascinated with his ingenuity, so he told us his STORY. He was a marine trained at Camp Lejeune; as he continued, I knew his story could have been straight out of a novel. He had been selected to be part of a special forces unit that went into Nicaragua as part of a clandestine mission Ollie North was running during the Reagan administration. We stood gape-mouthed. When things went south, the Pentagon wiped his records clean. He no longer existed in the military, which meant no VA, pension, or resume. He did have one thing: his enrollment paperwork and order to report. Meantime, his mom, who lived in Nashville, was dying of cancer, so he moved there to care for her. He went broke, and she died. A homeless hero who did not drink or do drugs. Ingrid found an attorney who worked the case pro bono and, after a 20-year struggle, could collect his benefits. If we as a city could have a tenth of Ingrid Mcintyre’s compassion, we could solve this problem. I would make her the
Every great city has unique neighborhoods, and these areas deserve the next mayor’s genuine support; after all, they raised the taxes on all of us. Each community has its personality, but we are linked like a chain, one to the other. We depend on each other; this is the time to unite us all with a shared vision.
When I was growing up in Madison, it was during a time when Country music wasn’t cool across town. We celebrated with “Hillbilly Day,” complete with overalls, straw hats, and bare feet. A parade day with marching bands, amusement rides, and country music stars in antique cars. The “river rats” from Donelson would venture over. The parade would form on Gallatin Road, and Inglewood and East Nashville families would ease in. We could laugh at ourselves. We had fun, and you could rest assured that political candidates would be waving from the back seat of a shiny new convertible.
As mayor, I would focus on revitalizing the Jefferson Street corridor, where the music began. The gentrification of this neighborhood is in full swing. The “tall and skinny” threatens the historical charm. The footprints of the buildings that gave the black music greats their stage still exist, and first-hand memories of people like Charles “Wigg” Walker, who sang with the legends, need to be memorialized in this effort. Government bonds, tax incentives, and development funds could be used to target specific landmarks. Historic properties could be the first recipients. Again, the Creative Live Performance Trust fund could fill the stages.
You all know what happens on the seventh day; we rest. I turn off the hose, pick some peppermint leaves, place them between my cheek and gum, and find the hammock.