Cougars and Cowboys
A tale of two Nashvilles, one custom boot maker, and the best pancakes in the South
Article by Christen Fisher
The first thing you should know about Nashville is that packs of stray cougars roam the streets all hours of the day and night.
Nash-Vegas, as its affectionately called these days, is the bachelorette party capital of the US, and a regular destination for girls’ weekends as evidenced by the gaggle of young-ish women—blonde, buxom, and bedecked in white feather boas and sparkly tiaras—congregating in The Hutton Hotel’s very swanky lobby to await their turn on the magical mystery tour known as Uber. The look in their eyes as a line of Toyota Priuses pulled up to the doorman told me to keep my feet in my Manolos and my hands on my man because shit’s about to get crazy.
Though their call was loud, I didn’t follow the pack into the boozy, banjo-ed wilds of the city. Instead I snagged my own magic carpet ride out to Brentwood, a posh suburb to the south. On the way, my driver/real estate agent/expert fisherman/bluegrass musician/self-help-guru-with-a-reality-show-contract-in-the-works pointed out the unusual, diamond-shaped tower of the WSM radio station. An iconic and not especially attractive piece of human engineering, I wondered what sort of omen this might be for my trip.
WSM was established in 1925 and soon after launched a live weekly radio show dedicated to honoring the country music tradition of the American south through a mix of classic and contemporary performances. Known the world over as the Grand Ole Opry, it is the longest running radio broadcast in US history and currently boasts members like Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and Carrie Underwood. It is “the show that made country music famous,” and turned Nashville into the epicenter of the American country music industry giving the city its original nickname, Music City.
As it happened, I was on my way to meet custom cowboy boot maker, Wes Shugart of Music City Leather, a business name that first gave me pause as I imagined factory-like conditions and billboard advertisements urging would-be customers not to pay any mind to their newest competitor Nash-Vegas Boots who was giving away a free jigger of Jack Daniels with every purchase. Fortunately, my imagination is both wild and grossly inaccurate because what I discovered tucked away in the rolling hills outside the city was a soulful artisan who prides himself on bespoke excellence and upholding one of the longest standing sartorial traditions in America, cowboy boot-making.
The exact origin of the cowboy boot has been lost among the folklore, but to be sure it is a descendant of the Hessian boot of Germany, the Wellington of England, and shoes worn by the Mexican vaqueros. When the American Civil War ended in 1865, former cavalry officers heeded the call for beef in the northern cities by embracing the Mexican tradition of working cattle on horseback. Here the American cowboy was born, and as we all know he wore boots, but it wasn’t until the 1930s with the arrival of film star Gene Autry that he started to sing. From then on, country music embraced the cowboy boot as its own.
“Cowboy boots in Nashville are more about fashion than work,” Wes says, “but if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter.” His pristinely white studio, where he fits clients and journalists alike, is in his house, which he says does a lot “to keep the cuckoos away.” After his dog, an Australian heeler, approved of my partner and me, we were instructed to photograph anything we liked, except the client list on the wall because “you never know who’s on it.” When I took a peek—camera obediently hidden behind my partner’s back—I saw why. Although not nearly as pricey as other boot makers (Music City Leather boots begin at $2,000 US.), the list reads like a veritable who’s who of country icons, Hollywood royalty, and music industry tycoons.
For all the glamour of his clients, Wes is as down to earth as they come. He spends most of his days in head-to-toe denim mainly because it wears like iron. And though he sounds like a podiatrist when he talks about why he takes eight measurements to make a last instead of the requisite five, he usually wears flip-flops or Uggs. There is a cow skin rug on the floor and a kitschy statue of the late, great John Wayne in the corner, a gift from his nearly grown musician son. Against a wall stands a steel rack layered with rolls of every color, weight, texture and type of leather you can imagine. His wife’s artwork hangs over one of several industrial sewing machines he uses to create his award-winning stitch patterns.
Wes doesn’t consider his work art, although looking at his designs and listening to him explain his process, it would be easy for me to argue the point. He believes it’s merely craft or functional art because of “all that space at the top of the boot to do stuff.” He finds stitching itself very meditative and could easily do it all day. Preferring flora to fauna, at least as an aesthetic or perhaps philosophy, most of his stitch designs go from the bottom up. “A boot should flower up around you,” he explains, “root you to the ground and then let you stand tall.”
“You try for perfect,” he says, “but [your work] is infused with the human-spirit which is imperfect.” Now to me, that’s art in a nutshell, but for Wes it seems the meditative quality of the work is its most salient feature. His entrance into the field started as a sobriety project which after studying under legendary boot makers in Arizona and New Mexico took on not only a life of its own for Wes, his illustrious client-list, and the beautiful boots they create together, but also serves as a poignant metaphor for my own experience of Nashville’s two very different personas—Nash-Vegas and Music City.
Country music is about storytelling. And from the women in the lobby who returned early the next morning— bars close at 3 am in Nashville—to my colorful array of Uber drivers, everyone in Nashville had a story to tell. Some, more fauna-like, were shrouded in the glittering, alcoholic mist of a night spent on the prowl while others tended toward flora starkly painting the artist’s struggle to grow tall toward the warm light of fame and fortune. Compelling and exhausting, Nashville is a complicated city, except for one thing: the pancakes.
Whether your choice would have been to follow the pack for some fun downtown or stick with me to enjoy the meditative musings of a local artisan, there’s one place you can go to recover from or reflect on your life choices—The Pancake Pantry. Although it opened in 1961, I discovered The Pancake Pantry on 21st Avenue South in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood of Nashville about 10 years ago while in town for a wedding.
The simplicity of its offerings and the perfection of their execution has haunted me ever since. Boasting 21 different kinds of pancakes in addition to waffles, a wide variety of eggs, meats, and grits with or without cheese (get the cheese, trust me), The Pancake Pantry is the perfect place to nurse a hangover or feed your soul. The staff are warm, friendly, and refreshingly competent.
While I favor good, old-fashioned blueberry pancakes above most other things including at times oxygen, the sweet potato pancakes and the Santa Fe corn meal pancakes made with cheddar, pieces of bacon, and roasted green chilies are not to be overlooked. The line can be long, so it’s best to go either very early or very late in the day, but even if you do end up in the queue, there’s complimentary coffee to bolster your nerves.
I left Nashville in the wee hours of a rainy Monday morning. By wee, I mean the time after the very last diehard cougar has found a den and before even the most dedicated artist gets up to practice prior to his or her day job. Both versions of the city and strangely enough my Uber driver were silent. When we arrived at the airport, my partner set about unloading our bags and his camera equipment, while the driver took my hand and quietly thanked me. For what, I asked, a little unnerved by physical contact with a stranger so early in the morning and before my first cup of coffee. For comin’, he said with a wide smile, hope you had a great time in Nashville, found whatever you were lookin’ for, and ya’ll will come back to see us real soon.
Enquiries: Wes Shugart of Music City Leather, Brentwood, Tennessee, USA | 615.533.4882 | www.musiccityleather.com
The Pancake Pantry, 1796 21st Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee, USA | 615.383.9333 | www.thepancakepantry.com
The Hutton Hotel, 1808 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee, USA | 615.340.9333 | www.huttonhotel.com