Someone you’ve never heard of is singing her heart out to you. Sitting on a stool, alone on the stage, she’s got a guitar and a microphone and, you decide, a really good set of pipes. She’s singing about heartache – is there more heartache here than in other cities? – and revenge, and you sip your beer and realize you’re having a great time.

And you’re still in the airport.

Music, mostly country, radiates from every corner and spills out of every cracked door in Nashville. It is as inescapable as fatty southern food. Even if you’re not a country music fan, the ubiquitousness of live music and the mostly anonymous talent paving the sidewalks of this old railroad town are indisputably impressive to anyone with a pulse.

But I didn’t know any of that until I left.

Recently, Nashville has been named one of Conde Nast Traveller’s top five destinations worldwide.  Days later, The New York Times wrote that Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself What is going on here? When I used to say I was from Nashville people asked, “Is that where Elvis is from?” Now people are like, “I love Nashville.” I never know what to say. I went back for a visit a few years ago, and suddenly people were talking about buying condos in “Midtown.” Midtown? You mean in Atlanta? No, overnight, Nashville grew a Midtown. Then I started hearing about Germantown, and EVEN “Little Italy” !! I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a Little Italy in Nashville? When I lived there, Italian food was Mr. Gatti’s.

Growing up in Nashville in the 1980s and 90s meant going to the movies, playing laser tag, watching Star Wars, riding bikes, swimming, eating ice cream, and going to school. It also meant field trips to the Country Music Hall of Fame and having classmates who were the children of country music legends. One Grammy-winning singer sang at my 8th grade graduation ceremony, for all 45 of us and our parents. As an adult, I have seen my good friend’s father’s face tattooed on his fans’ arms. When we were kids, all I knew was that it was just my friend’s dad. I used to go swimming in the enormous guitar-shaped swimming pool belonging to a man who had his song spend 21 weeks at number one in 1955. I was friends with his granddaughter. But all of this stuff was just the wallpaper of childhood in Nashville, or at least – full disclosure – on the private school circuit. Always in the background, but never a big deal. Instead, there was geometry to get through and boys to die over.

What I really remember is that Nashville was a pretty safe, wholesome place to grow up. Of course, every place was probably more safe and wholesome before the Internet. I remember flannel shirts and combat boots more than I remember cowboy hats and cowboy boots. The live music I remember was rock ‘n roll, usually performed by someone I went to high school with, in places like Guido’s Pizza (my name is, to this day, etched in the sidewalk cement outside the building, which is now something else). I remember Elvis and the Beatles, not Garth Brooks, played at my house.

I left for college in Texas in 1998 and have never lived in Nashville again. But I love visiting. When I visit, it’s still mainly couch-time with my mom and dad, or movie in Green Hills, or maaaaaybe a drink on West End Avenue with high school friends Sarah and Margaret. That’s what Nashville represents to me, not 2nd Avenue. Although country karaoke at Lonnie’s is really fun.

Living in Italy, when I say I’m from Tennessee, everybody says “Whiskey!” and if you visit Nashville, please please please make the lovely drive through horse farm country to Lynchburg to go on a (free!) tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery. It’s loads of fun and you’ll be surprised how rinky-dink the whole operation looks. But who wants to see a giant, sterile factory? And unlike some drinks with multiple worldwide plants, the Jack Daniel’s you buy in Shanghai or Rome all comes from Lynchburg’s limestone-infused spring. While you’re there, eat at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, and reserve a couple of weeks in advance.

In Lynchburg, TN, on the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour. That's not Lenin, that's Jack.

In Lynchburg, TN, on the Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour. That’s not Lenin, that’s Jack.

Also, eat at the Pancake Pantry on 21st Avenue. This is one of the few touristy things I often do when I’m home. There will be a long line snaking around the corner, but it goes really fast. The pancakes are, well, adequate, but what’s so amazing is the variety. This Christmas, my father had classic pancakes, my mother had buckwheat, my cousin had chocolate, and I had “Swedish pancakes” – crepes filled with linden berries and cream.

My Swedish pancakes at the pancake pantry. Amount of dribbles and lipstick on the coffee mug are directly proportional to my enthusiasm for it.

My Swedish pancakes, and potatoes, at the pancake pantry. Amount of dribbles and lipstick on the coffee mug are directly proportional to my enthusiasm for it.

As for live music, any guidebook is a better resource than I could ever be. But trust me, it is everywhere.

I was never into it before – in the ’90s I was into Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails – but now, this is my jam. I just love how Waylon says that you can tell a girl’s from Nashville by the way she walks. Maybe that’s why I get whistled at when I walk by in Italy (sometimes) – they must be able to tell that I’m from Nashville.