As an Englishman living in New York City, I will admit that my exposure to country music had at one time been limited to occasionally hearing the Muzak version of "Rhinestone Cowboy" at a KFC. I'm not a snob; I've just never had any friends who were especially big on country. Or, for that matter, who would even tolerate it.
But exploring Nashville and its restaurants has made a new man out of me--a country-music-lovin' man. My interest had been piqued when I heard that a number of chefs educated at the Culinary Institute of America and other prestigious training grounds were taking up posts in the city. Some were lured by money: Nashville's music industry and university scene have created a demand for restaurants that serve innovative food. But at least one chef I met came because his wife had dreams of making it as a country-music star.
And so I set off for Nashville, with Southern food on my mind and a shiny new George Jones CD in my Walkman. I'd expected the city to have a touch of Vegas-style flash, but physically it is a rather vague place, with gray and brown low-rise buildings tucked into squat hills, divided toward the east by the Cumberland River. The twin antennas of the aggressively modern BellSouth tower (nicknamed the Batman Building) dominate the new downtown and make an interesting architectural counterpoint to Music Row, where multinational record companies are shoehorned among nondescript little houses--a prime example of the deliberate playing down of wealth that, I discovered, is so common in the country-music industry.