The show has already started as I coolly bypass a line outside. With the go-ahead from the guest-list girl, I step in, only to uncoolly stumble on the odd sloping wall. Who puts a curved wall in a dark music venue?, I think.
Jack White does. The rocker of White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather fame transported his Third Man Records label here in 2009 and has since been a credible reminder, if not a complete validation, of Nashville's varied music scene. There's a reason it's billed as Music City and not Country Music City, and residents likely wonder when Nashville travel stories won't have to note that their hometown is more than honky tonks, twang and two-stepping.
I find myself at Third Man because it's one of 12 venues at the fifth annual Next Big Nashville, a four-day, late-September union of rising indie, hip-hop and other noncountry acts that belt out, "We're here, too!"
Some say that in a more pleasing-to-the-ear way, which is why I'm grateful when Cheap Time makes way for The Ettes, a Nashville garage rock group that has opened for Northeast Ohio's own Black Keys. The band hooks me with the pulsating "Red in Tooth and Claw," but it's soon time to move to the more expansive Cannery Ballroom for Yeasayer. As I discovered on the first day of the fest when I traveled from Mercy Lounge to the Basement to 12th and Porter, venue-hopping allows me to make the most of the all-access wristbands.
Before and after shows, I seek dining with less touristy fuss and more Southern swagger. Areas around the city's universities are smart places to look. Near Belmont, PM serves sushi and Asian-inspired dishes at reasonable prices, only one entree and a few sushi platters top $20. In Hillsboro Village near Vanderbilt, I like to satisfy a craving for comfort food at Cabana. The idea here is contemporary, upscale Southern cuisine by nationally recognized chef Brian Uhl. The spicy shrimp and cheddar grits has plenty of flavor, but I'm missing the pork loin with corn and bacon macaroni and cheese that I devoured on a previous visit.
For late-night, I snag a table at Patterson House, where pre-Prohibition-style cocktails are pricey but strong. Here, crafting these drinks is more like an art, and the staff is knowledgeable. After all, they know which of their several types of filtered ice is best for any glass, and they make bitters and fresh juices in-house.
My days are slower, filled with meandering through attractions. A little more than eight miles southwest of downtown, Cheekwood is a lovely stop with expertly managed gardens, by which some guests enjoy picnics, and an art museum inside a grand, circa-1932 mansion, once home to the Cheek family, creators of Maxwell House coffee. In Nashville, not all historic homes are created equal, but I also enjoy nearby Belle Meade. There, I'm engrossed in stories about the 30-acre plantation's rise and fall and its ties to Kentucky Derby legends, including Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
Although there's much to see, taste and do, this trip is really about the sounds. Not ready to retire on my last night at Next Big Nashville, I head to the Rutledge, which tonight is host to Forrest Day. Previously unknown to me, and apparently most people as the crowd is thin, the alto-sax-toting frontman and his bandmates from San Francisco put on one of my favorite shows. And that, I conclude, is what's great about this town: With so many venues, from more intimate listening rooms to stadiums for music's biggest players, there's always talent to discover.