Nashville Q&A

All About Nashville with Local Expert Heather Middleton

AFP 2024 is headed to Nashville this October 20-23. To give us a preview of the city, we invited Heather Middleton, Chief Marketing Officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., onto the AFP Conversations podcast.

Heather has nearly 30 years of PR and marketing experience within the entertainment, sports and tourism sectors, having worked at companies including The Buntin Group, Warner Music Nashville, and USA Networks and HBO, before joining the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp in 2004.

During the podcast, Heather shared what makes Nashville such a popular destination, her must-visit spots within the city, and where to get the best Nashville eats.

Below is an edited version of the conversation.

AFP: What is one word you would use to describe Nashville?

Heather Middleton: Can I use two? I would say friendly and creative are the two words that come to my mind.

We have consistently been named one of the friendliest cities in the country. We're very proud of that. Southern hospitality is real. We want people to have a genuine experience, an authentic experience.

And then creativity, I think, pervades everything we do here. Yes, of course, music, but whether you're talking about chefs or designers or songwriters or makers or entrepreneurs, creativity finds its way in. All that happens in Nashville.

AFP: Nashville was named number seven in Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards 2024 for top destinations in the U.S. And obviously, Nashville is one of the most popular destination cities. What would you say accounts for this?

Middleton: Well, I think some of it is what I just talked about, that friendly, welcoming southern hospitality that we hope everybody feels when they first arrive, quite honestly, in the airport, and then also the creativity.

There are things that people can experience here that you can't experience anywhere else. There are more music museums than anywhere in the world. There are more musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world. I really believe creative people just want to be around other creative people.

AFP: What are your favorite museums?

Middleton: I have three. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is definitely one. It’s a museum that people think they may not like because they don't like country music — which I say you probably do, you just don't know it. That museum speaks to an American genre and the history of an American genre.

Our newest museum, the National Museum of African American Music, is incredible. It really showcases all that Black artists and Black musicians have given to the world of music. You walk through, you get a wristband and you create your own playlist. Everything is interactive.

And then, I grew up with a mom who was an art teacher, so the Frist Art Museum is always one of my favorite stops as well. It's in what was originally the main branch post office, so it's a beautiful piece of architecture. On top of that, they curate their own exhibits that go on to travel across the U.S., and they bring art from all over the world.

AFP: How about the Grand Ole Opry?

Middleton: Oh, I love the Opry. In 2025 the Opry will celebrate their 100th anniversary. It's the world's longest-running radio program, which is pretty spectacular. And in a day when everything's visual, it's still a radio show, and they have done such a good job of allowing visitors to experience country music's past, present and future. When you go see a show, you'll experience a little bit of each of those pieces of country music.

AFP: Nashville fans are as passionate about their sports teams as they are about their music. Describe to us the sports scene and, in particular, what you think could be taking place in Nashville in October.

Middleton: October is a great time because the Titans and the Predators will be in season. We have a fairly new major league soccer team that has its own stadium, the Nashville SB Nashville Soccer Club. It is the largest built-for-soccer stadium in the U.S. and Canada.

People are diehard, and I do believe it's because they were such college fans first. Our pro sports experiences have a real college feel to them. And, of course, there's live music. The Titans, Predators and Nashville SC all have live music played at halftime or intermission. So, it's a great entertainment experience in addition to the sports.

AFP: What is one or a couple places of you always want to take someone new to Nashville?

Middleton: I would say the Ryman Auditorium, which is a historic building right in the heart of downtown. It's really known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry, but there's an incredible history of the building long before the Opry started doing shows there. It started as a tabernacle — it still has all of the original wooden pews. So, the sound of the music in there is incredible, and people have been on that stage all the way from Charlie Chaplin and John Philip Sousa to today's artists like Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen.

And then I would say visiting some of the neighborhoods. Nashville has some really unique neighborhoods that are just across the river or a mile or two from downtown. You really get a feel for Nashville and its people. 12 South is a great neighborhood for dining and shopping, and there are some great coffee shops and a lot of local boutiques. East Nashville is what I always refer to as the creative hub. The coffee shops are packed with entrepreneurs, songwriters, musicians and visual artists. Wedgwood Houston is one of our most up-and-coming neighborhoods. That’s where our SoHo House and some of our top restaurants are located.

AFP: Let's talk about eateries. What are some restaurants or places that our attendees should experience while they're in Nashville?

Middleton: Have you heard of a Meat & Three restaurant? It’s a traditional southern restaurant that’s cafeteria style where you go through the line. The meat changes each day, so they might have a few different proteins that you choose from, and then there are all of the sides, so it's a meat and three sides. There are a lot of great Meat & Threes in town. Arnold's Country Kitchen, which is still run by the Arnolds family. Big Al's Deli is another great spot. Elliston Place Soda Shop was one of the earliest Meat & Three restaurants in Nashville.

The independent chef restaurant scene also has been really exploding in the last eight to 10 years. We have James Beard Award-winning chefs, like Sean Brock, who have multiple restaurants in town and a lot of chef-driven restaurants that are just incredible and on par with any restaurant you'd find in New York or LA or Chicago.

AFP: What about honky-tonks? What are some of your favorites?

Middleton: If you ask the locals, they will tell you to go to Robert’s. They play traditional Western swing with an upright base and just a few guys and gals on stage. The longest-standing honky-tonk would be Tootsie’s. Acme Feed and Seed is an old feed and seed building that was turned into a multi-level, honky-tonk eatery. On Sunday, you'll find a jazz brunch. You might find some country artists in there. It’s a good spot for something different than a traditional country honky-tonk.

AFP: Last question. What sets Nashville’s hot chicken apart?

Middleton: The story of Nashville’s hot chicken goes back to the Prince family. As the story goes, Thornton Prince was quite a ladies’ man. His girlfriend didn’t appreciate that he had been out late on a Saturday night. And so, she thought she would get back at him. And her revenge was to spice up his fried chicken and make it crazy hot. The problem was that he loved it, and he ended up creating Prince’s Hot Chicken, which is still around today and has two locations in Nashville. One is on Fifth and Broadway, which is walkable from Music City Center. It’s still some of the best hot chicken, and it’s still family-owned and thriving. Since then, multiple places have opened. and now, it’s taken off and you see it everywhere. But it did start here in Nashville with the Prince Family.