Their Town: ‘Nashville’s’ Callie Khouri is a little bit country


Rachael Hester performs at Robert's Western World in downtown Nashville. (Brian McCord/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 24, 2013

At Peter Nappi Studio in Nashville, Callie Khouri walked into the former meatpacking plant and hooked a hard left to the wall of handcrafted Italian leather shoes. From beneath a curtain of false eyelashes, she scanned the styles on the shelves, then pointed out the ones now residing in her closet.

“I have those and those,” she said, directing my attention to a pair of roughed-up laced boots and Oxfords, to which she added, “I wear them without the shoelaces, like that.” As a visual aid, the store had displayed a model of the shoes sans laces, the strips of leather open like a mouth paused mid-sentence.

Details: Nashville


Peter Nappi, named after a 19th-century Italian immigrant shoemaker, doesn’t sell cowboy boots, despite its hometown address in Music City. And what a coincidence: The creator and executive producer of the TV show “Nashville,” which plumbs the country music scene, doesn’t wear the trademark footwear, either.

“I went through that phase,” she said. “I’m over it.”

Callie’s boots of choice — 15-year-old Ann Demeulemeesters — shatter the stereotype of hee-haw Nashville, as does her preferred form of chew (toothpicks, not tobacco or straw). She also steers her show, which debuted on ABC last fall and returned to its Wednesday night spot on Jan. 9, away from the cliched dirt track — although some of the characters do sport sequins and cowboy boots. Therefore, it was of little surprise that on a recent tour of Nashville, with Callie calling the shots, the Academy-Award-winning screenwriter (“Thelma and Louise”) flipped Music City over, revealing its rare B side.

“I just love Nashville. There’s something about this place,” she said. “The music, well, it’s not just that. This town has a wonderful creative energy.”

Concerts everywhere

I met Callie on a sunny Saturday in the parking lot of the Ryman Auditorium, the legendary live music venue that hosted the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974 (it returns for a few months in the winter). She was dressed in the bicoastal uniform of fitted black coat, skinny jeans, petal pink scarf, diamond studs and those boots. Her sidekick and fellow executive prodicer, Steve Buchanan, was trailing a few steps behind. When he caught up, we three became the starter kit for a band, or a mini-entourage in Nashvillewood.

We set off down Fourth Avenue North toward Lower Broadway, the Bourbon Street of Tennessee, minus the hurricane cocktails and the harlots draped like curtains in the doorways. Signs trumpeted beer, barbecue and heel-stompin’ tunes. Cacophony is Nashville’s loud mistress.

“See that ‘CKS’?” Callie said of the only letters visible through a tangle of neon. “I hate to admit it, but it’s really good barbecue.” (The remaining letters: JA--- Bar-B-Que.)

Callie has her culinary limits, though. “I never had it and I never will,” she said of the fried bologna sandwich at Robert’s Western World.

Few visit Robert’s for the vittles, except to sop up the booze puddled in their bellies. They come for the music, no matter the hour (roughly 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.) or the musicians (Rachael Hester & The Tennessee Walkers, Monte Good & Honky-Tonk Heroes, the Don Kelley Band, Jesse Lee & Brazilbilly).

“It’s a really great place to go dancing,” said Callie, who later showed me video footage of cast members twirling and dipping on the dance floor.

At the bar, Steve bumped into bassist Dave Roe, a Robert’s regular who has performed with such marquee names as Chet Atkins and Faith Hill. He also appeared on John Mellencamp’s 2010 record, which — small world alert — was produced by Callie’s husband, T Bone Burnett.

“You run into some of these musicians and say, ‘Wow, I wonder if people know what they are getting,’ ” said Steve, president of Grand Ole Opry Group. “These are some of the greatest sessions musicians.”

On the main drag heading toward the Cumberland River, we passed singers, guitarists and other quasi-instrumentalists, including a man with a child’s keyboard and a plastic tube that he blew like a trumpet. Every few yards we were treated to a brief concert.

Born again

“This town is actually thriving,” said Callie. “The music industry is going through the worst downturn in the last 30 years, but the town itself is incredibly vital.”

A high-energy supplement is definitely racing through Nashville’s veins; the city is on a redevelopment streak and shows no signs of taking a nap. Seminal moments in the resurrection of downtown and the waterfront include the reopening of the Ryman in 1994, following a fallow period; the construction of Bridgestone Arena and the creation of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, both in 1996; and the Old Spaghetti Factory’s bold and brave decision to move into an old shipping warehouse on Second Avenue back in 1980, when the area was a snake pit of vices.

“It reminds me of Pottersville,” Callie said of downtown, “but a cleaned-up version. It used to be really shady.”

Within the past three to 10 years, the revitalization shock waves have fanned out to such neighborhoods as 12th Avenue South, Five Points and the Gulch, proud recipients of new restaurants, stores and coffee joints, the gold star of gentrification. Urban designers have also circled Fifth Avenue for some special attention, with plans to transform the street into an Avenue of the Arts, complete with large shade trees, widened lanes, Old World street lamps and galleries.

“There are just so many nooks and crannies in this town,” Callie said. “If you want to take someone around, it’s not easy.”

We wrapped up the Lower Broadway portion of the tour, which was thankfully straightforward, at Hatch Show Print, a letterpress shop of museum magnitude. Posters paper every flat surface, a living diorama of a teenager’s band-crazy room. In the middle of the pulpy tornado, an employee rolled out prints of a Japanese samurai. The store has created show posters for the Canis Majoris of music, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Manager Jim Sherraden also designed a limited-edition piece for the “Nashville” pilot.

“We should have a new one done, because now we’re full-blown,” Callie said to Sherraden, referring to the show’s full season of 21 episodes.

Another “Nashville”-Nashville collaboration.

Living local

Before piling into Callie’s SUV, we squeezed into a table at Southern Steak & Oyster, on the ground floor of the Pinnacle at Symphony Place (the office building was a “Nashville” filming site). The table struggled for open space as the waiter delivered plates of oysters (Long Island, Japan, Canada) and steak and biscuit Benedict, hold the eggs.

Between bites and sips, Callie explained her ties to Nashville. Family: Her mother, sister and cousin live in the area, in addition to assorted friends. Husband: Burnett, a multiple Grammy-winner who often works with local artists and is executive music producer on “Nashville.” Personal history: From 1979 to 1982, she resided in Nashville, waitressing around town and interning at the Advent Theatre, now Ocean Way recording studio. TV show: The series films on location.

Callie divides her time between her residence in Los Angeles and her hotel room at the Hermitage in Nashville. Yet she says, “If I say I’m going home, I’m going to Nashville.”

Though she grew up in Paducah, Ky., she talks like a local — meaning with the insider’s confidence of place. At lunch, for example, she debated such potentially divisive issues as dessert: “You’re damn right this is a pie town,” she said, throwing out such tasty candidates as the Loving Pie Co. and the Loveless Cafe. She also opened her heart, explaining how Nashville makes it flutter.

“If I have to say what causes this good feeling, it’s hearing live music every night. I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “It’s just jaw-dropping how good the musicians are. The bench is 20 deep.”

One of the creative centers in the show — and in the real Nashville — is the Bluebird Cafe, a greenhouse of songwriting talent. The Green Hills venue typically holds two shows a night, featuring artists up and down the ladder of success. On a recent Saturday evening, for instance, a quartet of songwriters sat in the round and belted out original tunes associated with such big names as Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, Rascal Flatts, and, yes, the “Flashdance” soundtrack. For the finale, Dennis Matkosky pounded out “Maniac” on his keyboard, prefacing the song with a story about his inspiration: It was not a blue-collar woman pursuing her passion to dance but an imaginary serial killer living next door to him.

Calories and blue jeans

But Nashville can’t subsist on music alone. It needs to eat, a lot.

“The restaurant scene is exploding,” said Callie.

Brace yourself for the ka-boom: Catbird Seat, Lockeland Table, Rolf and Daughters, Silo, Watermark (which appears in the show), City House, Margot Cafe and Marche. During our driving tour, we also picked up Urban Grub on 12th Avenue South, Virago in the Gulch and the Mad Platter in historic Germantown, where you “can seriously, seriously hurt yourself” on the Southern cuisine, she said.

Callie’s family’s tradition is to stuff themselves with country ham and cheese grits at Loveless Cafe, a former motel, then wobble it off at Radnor Lake State Park. You might need to do several laps around the lake.

For this afternoon, however, our calorie burn was minimal. I practiced the art of the head swivel as Callie provided commentary on the passing attractions. I rotated my neck for the darling Craftsman bungalows in historic Edgefield and Lockeland Springs, and for Marathon Motor Works, a repurposed factory that houses retail shops such as Bang Candy (Callie recommends the marshmallows). We drove up Music Row, shouting out the names of studios and publishing houses like roll call: Ben Folds’s Ben’s Studio, Reba McEntire’s Starstruck, Garth Brooks’s Allentown Studios.

With so many neighborhoods to cover (nine, including Broadway), we stopped the car only twice. Taylor Swift’s house did not make the cut, but Peter Nappi and Imogene & Willie’s shop did.

At the tiny denim store on 12th Avenue South, rows of empty sewing machines dominated one half of the room. In the warmer months, bands perform in the back yard and food trucks line up out front. Depending on the tightness of your jeans, which should be second skin, you might not be eating or dancing much.

“They are so freakin’ skinny,” said Callie, who was wearing a baggier pair, despite instructions to wear them super-fitted and to not wash them for a few months.

We ended the tour at our starting point, the Ryman. Before going our separate ways, I asked Callie for suggestions for evening activities. She recommended the Grand Ole Opry show (“Nashville” star sighting: Jonathan Jackson, who plays Avery on the show), followed by speakeasy cocktails and sliders at the Patterson House (I couldn’t find it). I drew the night’s curtain at Bluebird Cafe.

Callie, meanwhile, had tickets to the Nashville Predators hockey game (against “I don’t know who”) and had received an invitation for drinks and dinner at Rolf and Daughters and Silo.

“You can tell I love Nashville, can’t you?” she said in the parking lot. “I couldn’t do a show about a place that I didn’t have a connection to.”

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