Falling Back in Love with the South in Nashville

I adjusted my rear-view mirror to get a glimpse of the "Welcome to South Carolina" sign passing by as I was exiting the state. It was my virtual "middle finger" to not just South Carolina, but the south, as this represented what I hoped to be the last time I had to voluntarily visit the south (not including trips to visit the family). Sounds a bit harsh, right?

It wasn't that there wasn't anything redeemable about the south, because let me tell ya, few places in the U.S. can compete with the south's BBQ, meat 'n' three, sun dresses, honky tonks, sweet tea, seersucker suits, fall foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and offbeat beaches. But after a season of life that involved losing my dream job, months of popping from minimum wage job to minimum wage job, piling up debt, a divorce, and the passing of my father and grandmother, I was over the south.

Earlier that day I walked into my current job with a briefcase in hand, but walked out with a backpack, and was embarking on a nine-month trip that would eventually land me on the west coast for good. I peaced out on the south that day with no intention of ever returning. Yet just a few days ago I found myself back in the south for the first time voluntarily (outside of work assignments and family visits) in over three years since that day.

I was in Nashville for the inaugural KEEN (Keeping Entrepreneurs Engaged and Networking) Digital Summit, which my good friend and colleague Kristin Luna had started and invited me to speak at. Upon arriving, it appeared that the south was just as I left it, after a cab ride from the airport to downtown Nashville left me as uncomfortable as I had ever been during a cab ride. "Next thing you know, Al-Qaeda will be running the White House, especially with who we have in there now," responded my cab driver upon seeing a billboard promoting the Al Jazeera television network that just recently started airing in the U.S. That statement actually being one of the lesser offensive statements of his five-minute tirade. "Welcome back to the south, Spence," I muttered under my breath. I felt so uncomfortable that I told him to let me out and that I'd walk the remaining few blocks to my hotel.

Four days later and I'm already plotting a trip back to Nashville before the end of the year and found myself saying for the first time ever that I could see myself living in the south one day again (my friends' jaws dropped when they heard me say that). So what happened in those four days that would have me singing a different tune (<<Get it? Sing a different tune in Nashville...) about the south? Am I drinking the Kool-Aid? Have I experienced a case of amnesia?

What I came to find in Nashville was this intersection of old and new Nashville. There's a certain charm, history, and perception that the south will have that is rooted in its heritage. Many of these deep-rooted characteristics are desirable, while others aren't, often making the south the butt of many late-night comedians' jokes. But at least in Nashville, there's a movement toward change, as both locals and transplants advocate for a city that holds onto those desirable qualities of old, while also advocating progressiveness. But in a way to not just keep up with the leading metros around the world, but to set its own benchmarks and come into its own. Below I talk about how the past week in Nashville showed me this intersection of the old and new coming together to help build a more cultured and progressive south.

1. The music. "It's called Music City, and not Country Music City, for a reason," said Nashville entrepreneur Mark Montgomery during the closing keynote at KEEN on Sunday at the new Omni Nashville Hotel. Yes, Nashville knows a thing or two about honky tonks, and you'll hear more country music blaring from bars than any other genre, but Nashville has a deeply-rooted history in music that is unparalleled. When I visited the historic RCA Studio B in Nashville, I stood in the room that over 35,000 songs had been recorded, resulting in more than 1,000 top ten American hits from the likes of Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and The Monkees. Nashville is also home to some of America's most iconic music venues, including The Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium. But there's a new wave of music culture taking root. Music festivals are making a splash, such as the recent Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, which included performances by Jason Mraz, Kenny Chesney, John Fogerty, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Willie Nelson, and more.

2. Food. Having put in my time in the south, I like to think I know a thing or two (or 100) about southern food. Yes, southern food may be all the rage in west coast cities right now, but there is nothing like pulling up a stool at a soda fountain or filling up your tray at a "meat 'n' three" in the south. And another thing, you've reached "bad ass" status if you're a meat 'n" three and you only have to stay open four hours a day during the weekday and have a line outside your door into the street the entire time you're open. That's what you'll find at Arnold's Country Kitchen in downtown Nashville. However, it's really the up-and-coming food scene that you should take notice of, like Kings of Leon's bassist Matthew Followill did, recently commenting in an article about how the Nashville food scene has taken a turn for the best in the last few years. Last year alone saw nearly 75 new restaurants open in Nashville. Kings of Leon evidently knows a little somethin-somethin about food, since they partnered with world renowned chef Jonathan Waxman to launch Music City Eats, a multi-day music, food, and drink extravaganza that is back for round two next year.

3. Drinks. Yes, drinks do get their own category, and not just the alcoholic kind. I mean c'mon, you can't come to the south, and especially Nashville, and not have a pitcher of sweet tea (pronounced sweet teeeeeeeeeee). What Tennessee has long been known for though is whiskey. The North American Free Trade Agreement defines Tennessee whiskey as "a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee." Two of the world's most recognizable whiskey brands, George Dickel and Jack Daniels, are front and center on Tennessee's Whiskey Trail. However, they do require at least an hour's drive from Nashville. In Nashville itself you'll find Corsair Distillery, which is open daily for tours, and has a long line of spirits they produce, including absinthe, spiced rum, and pumpkin spice moonshine (yes, legal moonshine with all the flavor that you love from a pumpkin latte but with an added kick). Take a walk down the streets of Nashville and you'll also notice the presence of craft beer, such as Jackalope Brewing Company (downtown Nashville) and Fat Bottom (East Nashville). All total, the state of Tennessee has approximately 30 breweries (though compare that to Portland, which has 50 in the city alone).

4. Growth. Insert whatever word you want before growth, be it economical, technological, or tourism, it's all happening in Nashville, and I think it says a lot about a city when you have growth taking place like it is in Nashville. A recent article stated that Nashville is seeing some of the fastest economic growth in the U.S., with nearly 5% growth the last few years, which is double the national average. This is getting notice from the likes of Google, who recently announced that Nashville would be a new tech hub for them, along with a handful of other North American cities. The tourism sector has seen some of the largest growth, with an 8.5% increase in 2012. The problem that it has presented, however, is a shortage of hotel rooms, although there are 10 new hotels that will be opening in downtown Nashville in the next few years. With this growth across multiple sectors, it's only natural that a digital summit like KEEN would take up residence in Nashville where there's such an intersection of food, drinks, technology, entertainment, and travel. The weekend saw a speaker lineup that included representatives of BuzzFeed, HubSpot, Entrepreneur Magazine, Southern Living Magazine, Newsweek, and Jeff Corwin, just to name a few. While I've been to my share of travel conferences, I experienced a different sense of innovation, professionalism, and ambition from spending time with creatives who are challenging the status quo of life and business.

5. Prodigals return. When Kristin told me a couple years ago that she was uprooting her life in San Francisco to move back home to Nashville, it did a little more than just raise my eyebrows. Knowing that we had mutual feelings toward the south and that she loved to travel more than me (having visited over 100 countries), I just wasn't buying it.  Like many people said to me the first time I moved out of California, I told her, "Oh, you'll be back." Yet when I talked to her and Scott this past weekend, it was clear that Nashville was "home." I think there's something to be said for millenials who would move from some of the world's most progressive cities to one that's not generally considered so. It says something about the vision, hope, and future of that city. And I think that is what's happening in Nashville.