You were wrong about a few things. First: You were born here in Nashville, and it’s never exactly felt warm to you, has it? It’s not a warm place, emotionally speaking. It’s fine if you like church, country music, or ham, and you only like one of those. You can take ham home; the rest, you can live without, and that’s your relationship with Nashville, a place you were born but never really from, exactly.
That part is still true. You’re not really for this place, and that’s fine for both of you. Nashville works really well at a low boil. That lukewarm feeling is sort of by design: It’s a hub for the healthcare industry and banking and a lot of other businesses that spend most of the day figuring out how to hedge bets against mortality. It is a city that makes most of its bank trying to be something like Las Vegas without the sin, and with a nice sideline on figuring out the optimal way to overcharge patients for IV bags. It’s a place that turned country music into an office job with regular hours. That’s about as Nashville as it gets, historically speaking.
For instance, I parked at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts — paid for by a lot of that drudgery turned into profit— and then walked down Demonbreun Street to Bridgestone Arena to listen to Faith Hill sing the national anthem at an event. That all makes sense. You wouldn’t be surprised by that, or that eventually someone would figure out a way to take all those lovely brick buildings downtown and gentrify them into something profitable and shiny.
You’ll be wrong and surprised about why. You’ll be surprised to hear that the anthem was happening for an NHL game, and that Nashville would mark out for it like it was an SEC tailgate. This is not a typo: A hockey game will be the biggest thing in town, and Nashville will show the hell out for it like nothing you’ve ever seen there.
Oh, by the way, Nashville has a hockey team. Should have led with that. They do, and Atlanta doesn’t, and if you’ll give it a minute only one of these is really surprising to either of us.
You’ll be surprised because Nashville doesn’t really mark out for much that isn’t country music. The Titans won’t really inspire much passion. They shouldn’t, because they are an NFL team, and NFL teams have an allergy to fun, anyway. There’s an SEC team in town, but for the most part that passion will be housed safely and securely several hours away. Most Nashvillians’ sporting embarrassments will be kept in Knoxville, Oxford, Athens, or in other nice sheds visited on fall weekends. You and the team can both fall on your face and say hateful, insane things — and on Monday, it will all be a distant, well-contained mess.
You’ll be surprised that all those Michiganders and Ohioans who come down for the auto industry’s big move south are contagious. Nashville hasn’t ever exactly been deep, deep South — it’s landlocked, there’s a kind of Ohioan blah to the winters here, there’s a permacloud that never moves much in February. Boating under the influence arrests only happen on lakes here, and that feels like an important distinction from places with a coastal option like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. The superstation in Nashville for you isn’t TBS — it’s WGN out of Chicago. Listen to Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” and you’ll remember that people from here have followed the auto industry back and forth. There’s a lot of country in Middle Tennessee, but squint when you’re downtown and you’ll see a little bit of Cincinnati, too.
It will be Midwestern-compatible in another sense: For some reason, hockey catches fire here. This will happen long before the Predators make the Stanley Cup Finals, and pretty much on arrival in 1998 when they play their first season here. The backbone of the fan base will have a core of Detroit Red Wings fans. That’s good DNA to start with, you’ll note, a really useful cheat code to have when trying to anchor a winter sport on the northern fringe of the Sun Belt in a medium-sized market where football rules over all. All those kids you go to high school with who miss Michigan, and winter, and hockey? They adapt with a quickness, and start throwing catfish instead of octopi on the ice.
You’ll see people in camp chairs posted up on Broadway on a humid, warm summer night and realize how ripe this place was for this. Along with Birmingham, Nashville is one of the two places in the South where people would watch two drops of rain race down a windowpane if you put it on television. You’ll also see how the Predators’ dedication to making everything as unserious as possible worked in a college sports town with a healthy respect for stagecraft. The mascot will jump from the rafters; The crowd will theatrically thank arena announcer Paul McCann when he notifies them that there is one minute left in each period. For the playoffs the big surprise will be running out a different country singer for each national anthem, saving the pocket ace of Faith Hill for the last home game of the year.
You’ll note that, in its own very country music kind of way, that was a flex. Hell, they even just had an extra Luke Bryan hanging around, and put him on top of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to play a pregame concert. You’ll probably think that took some intense planning, but it didn’t: The idea was hatched on Thursday by the Predators, approved on Friday by the city, and on Sunday night big ol’ doofy Luke Bryan was standing three stories over a packed Broadway and singing.
By the way, a Luke Bryan is a country singer. It’s a confusing thing, but in 2017 most male country singers now look like scholarship golfers. The future is terrifying in many ways, and this is one of them.
You’ll also have no idea what he was singing about, because this isn’t for you, and never has been. You’ll also pay zero attention because every Luke Bryan song is the same pop-country mad-lib about trucks, cold ones, that girl, etc. You’ll be OK with this, both because there are way more harmful things in this world than redneck fantasy music that really doesn’t hurt anyone, and also because you’ll have long since realized there are other places where you’re supposed to be. That’s how adulthood works. Pieces are sorted randomly and settle largely where they are supposed to be, and you’re a piece that sorted its way into a place you belong.
You’ll also see all the pieces that are supposed to be here: Guys in realtree camo hats. Guys in bad fedoras. Guys in fishing shirts and Under Armour gear, and especially the guy in the shirt that says “I’ll have what the guy on the floor had” who bumps drunkenly into you sideways on Broadway, listing with a vape pen in his hand. (Vaping is just smoking with expensive accessories. People LOVE it.) You’ll see the guys in Predators shirts with twin hockey sticks and women in boots and Preds jerseys and flimsy rompers, and the dads in Dri-FIT shirts desperately trying to remember where their car is while holding the hands of overwhelmed kids who’ve never wandered through a crowd this big.
You’ll see them throw the catfish, and think how it’s something beyond a joke. A catfish is a bottom-feeding trash fish, the countriest of all country-ass fishes. A catfish is the opposite of glamour, the accident you catch while fishing for other things. You’ll see them throw it and think about the Cumberland River, and how your grandfather would show you the sign he took off a building in downtown showing the high-water mark from a flood there. He kept it propped up against something in his garden, and it said the water got up to 34 feet over First Avenue. A catfish could have swam through the second floor of an office. You’ll like to think one did.
You’ll see Nashville at full flood over a hockey team and think about how in all that not-belonging you’ll see a catfish and feel your own rush of belonging. It won’t last long, but it’ll be there, swimming through the undercurrent, an ugly, amiable fish with ancient DNA that can come through the window at any moment. You’ll see Nashville turn out 50,000 people on Broadway for a hockey team. Even if it isn’t for you, there won’t be anything lukewarm about it. You’d think otherwise, but you would be wrong about that, too.