Secret City: Caitlin Rose’s Nashville

The country singer and Nashville native takes photographer Reto Sterchi on a tour of her favourite haunts, including blue-collar dive bars and the diner she earned a crust at before making it in the biz
caitlin rose outside bobby's dairy dip

You could describe Caitlin Rose as Lena Dunham with a twang. The singer is gracious, hilarious, likes swimming pools and has a deep understanding of country music. She describes her personal style as somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and a substitute teacher and when people come up to her and give her compliment, she blushes and give them a hug in return.

A Nashville local, Caitlin took me on a tour of her favourite bars, grill and book stores, and showed me why “West is best” in Music City…

headquartersrhino book store caitlin roseBobby’s Dairy Dip

Bobby’s Dairy Dip is the retro ice cream shop Caitlin used to work at before she had her breakthrough as a musician. “Did I slam the door in your face?, she asks when I mention I likely bought ice cream from her. “I used to do that a lot”, she adds with a grin.

On the wooden benches outside, off Charlotte Avenue, we sit and eat hotdogs. Bobby’s is close to where Caitlin grew up, and it’s customary among locals to distinguish between East-siders and West-siders. Caitlin is among the latter.
We discuss recent developments to connect the hip East Side with the grittier West. Almost none of the people I’ve met welcome those changes in their city’s skyline. Garland, a photographer says to us, “You want to go to the great spots? Come back 4 years ago.”

Rhino Booksellers

After a quick stop at the tiny Headquarters coffee shop, we continue down Charlotte Avenue to Rhino, a used bookstore. Unlike her band mates, who visit record stores, Caitlin prefers to visit bookshops when she’s on the road. “There’s less snobbiness about books. And they’re easier to travel with than records” she says, flicking through a paperback.

Amongst her reading favourites, besides Donna Tartt’s recent novel, The Gildfinch, is David Foster Wallace. “I revisit his commencement speech whenever I’m not in my right mind and need something to inspired me” she says. The title alone (This is Water) is refreshing. It calms the nerves.”

Caitlin says she reads a lot of poetry and generally prefers short form literature because “it’s hard to get into and through a novel sometimes”.

caitlin rose Betty's

Betty’s Grill

The first thing you notice upon entering Betty’s Grill is that everyone yells. After lots of speculation, and ruling out cocaine and other drugs, we come to the conclusion that it must be some kind of alpha-ritual among the dive bar’s rowdy, blue-collar male crowd. Caitlin gets up and drops some quarters in the jukebox. Joe Cocker, Merle Haggard, Jim Croce and Men at Work play while the men off work play darts and drink Budweisers.

Grimey’s Record Store

If you ever come through Nashville on a Saturday around 5pm, stop by Grimey’s Record Store for a free beer. They hand out PBRs and host a showcase on Saturday afternoons.

About 50 percent of the store is devoted to vinyl, the rest to CDs, and it seems the recent decline in the sales of both has not affected them as it has the rest of the world. A quick fact: United Record Pressing in Nashville just opened a second facility due to the steep increase in vinyl production.

Grimey’s itself is a music lover’s paradise. As we’re browsing the store, we overhear passionate conversations about recent shows and smashed guitars among its customers.

Crowd surfin at Cailtin's gig
cailtin melrose placeMercy Lounge, Concert Venue

On the way to meet Caitlin at the Mercy Lounge, I receive a text from her that reads: “Opry is live right now on 650AM. Cheesy and great.” I tune in and the White Sisters play ‘Making believe’. Caitlin has played three times at The Opry, also known as the “mother church of country music”. The first time came as a complete surprise and only after the show did she see how big the venue really was: “You only see the first two rows when you’re on stage”. The second time she was so nervous called her mom (Grammy Award-winning songwriter Liz Rose) who told her: “It’s not about you Caitlin, it’s about The Opry, about performing for the audience and being honest”.

Like The Opry, Mercy Lounge is an iconic venue in its own right. The two-storey building in downtown Nashville hosts the famous 8 off 8th show, in which you see eight bands play a three song set in one night. A true Nashville moment comes when I met Caitlin’s friend and frequent collaborator, Pete, who claims it’s only his second night “out of the hat”. He’s always worn a Stetson and nobody’s ever seen him without a cowboy hat.

When we’re talking, Caitlin tells me every song she’s ever written is true. When a fellow songwriter asked her for advice on finishing the lyrics for his record, she quoted Hemingway and said: “Just write one true sentence and then another. And then another. And then another.”

“What if it’s about spaceships and shit?” he replied.

Words & Photography
Reto Sterchi

Caitlin’s album The Stand-In is available now