In Deep Dive, VICE asks writers around the world to explain how their favorite bar represents their city’s history and culture.
A large tapestry hangs on the wall near the karaoke station at Fran’s Eastside in Nashville, Tennessee (2105 Greenwood Ave.). Peering out from the smoke-infused fibers of the decorative wall-hanging is a white cat, its lips parted slightly, a curiously small pink flower gripped between its paws.
“A friend of mine who died of cancer when I was at the old bar gave that to me,” says Fran’s owner and operator Frances Adams of the famed cat rug. “He was a sailor. I don’t know where it come from. As far as I know of, it’s an original.”
You could say that of most things affixed to the yellowed cinder-block walls of Fran’s—original. From the decades-old wooden depiction of the Nashville skyline to handwritten signs taped up behind the bar. Reads one: “The bank don’t sell beer!! The bar don’t loan money or give credit.” Another: “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” with various words underlined for emphasis.
Even though it has the dingy aura and weathered clientele of a place that’s been open since the 1970s, the bar—cash-only, beer-only, and one of the last establishments in the historically rough-and-tumble neighborhood that still allows smoking indoors—opened in the building it now occupies, formerly a beauty salon, in March 2008. For 18 years before that, Eastside operated out of a building about a mile-and-a-half west, now home to a bar called Cobra. By her recollection, Fran has run somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 bars in Nashville over the past half-century.
“I remember, years ago, you couldn’t walk on these streets out here,” says Fran, who still tends bar during the daytime. East Nashville has been gentrified radically in recent decades, but crime is still a factor. As it happens, a pair of young patrons was robbed and shot to death in the Cobra parking lot just this summer. Back in 2012, a musician was carjacked and shot in the neck while loading his gear out of another bar just across the street from Fran’s.
The city is still peppered with bars like these, though there used to be more—bars where the respective worlds of the hipster and the redneck converge. Both crowds are well-acquainted with blue-collar work, both are fond of cheap longnecks, and both chain-smoke Pall Malls or Winstons until they’re chased out at about a quarter till 3. Fran’s is open every day of the year, and Mondays and Tuesdays are pool nights. Wednesdays through Saturdays are karaoke, and Sunday is both—first one, then the other. Karaoke nights, around midnight and onward, are when you’ll see Fran’s brightest lights shining through the haze of lingering smoke.
The karaoke stage is less a stage and more a small patch of empty floor by the front door. (The front door is not the entrance—that'd be the back door by the gravel parking lot.) Fran’s regulars are relics of what locals call “Old Nashville.” That’s shorthand for a time in the city before a massive real estate boom drove up housing costs and brought condo developments and what are known as “tall-and-skinnies”—narrow two-story homes built in place of demolished one-story houses—to the East Side. But you’ll also see swarms of 20- and 30-something barflies celebrating a birthday, or a crowd of out-of-towners dipping in for what they’ve heard is an authentic Old Nashville experience.
Fran’s daughter Katrina Head—who just goes by Trina—is there most nights of the week. Word of mouth and appearances in music videos by artists including Sam Hunt and Margo Price bring in the occasional gaggle of new locals, but according to Trina, they’re often better behaved than the old-timers. “These people that move to Nashville, they come in and spend money, they’re quiet, they have fun,” says Trina. “They don’t bother nobody.”
I stop by to talk to Fran and Trina on a particularly slow Monday afternoon in late November. Amid talk of Thanksgiving plans and cutting up with customers, Trina points out that the place technically isn’t even named Fran’s. It’s just called “Eastside” on the beer license, and much of the signage says “Eastside Tavern.” The “Fran’s” bit was tacked on by regulars and fans of her mom. Now, to most, it’s just Fran’s.
Fran brings up some of the press attention her establishment’s gotten, including a recent Nicole Kidman photo shoot. When I express disbelief, she pulls out a copy of British glossy Love Magazine from beneath the bar and plunks it down on the countertop. Sure enough, there’s the beloved movie star and Nashville resident, staring back at me from the sidewalk right outside Fran’s. Inside the mag is a several-page spread—Kidman nursing a beer just two seats away from where I’m perched, and dancing freely in front of the cat rug.
“I was the first one to do a video in Fran’s,” Justin Collins later tells me. Collins is the frontman of local rock ’n’ roll outfit Justin and the Cosmics, and he’s produced work for Deer Tick and Diamond Rugs, among others. “I was the first. Right after that, Margo [Price] did something, and her shit blew up.”
With his mop of curly brown hair and toothy smile, Collins is a couple decades younger than the average Fran’s regular, but he’s been a supporter since before the dive made the move to its current address.
“It was real fuckin’ nasty,” says Collins of the first Eastside location. “The AC in there was dripping all kinds of nasty, weird shit in the corner.”
For a time, Collins tells me, he’d spend six-hour stretches at Fran’s two or three nights a week. The karaoke helped him hone his chops as a singer and performer, he says, but it also earned him an unlikely new group of friends. Among those is the man Collins calls the “heart and soul” of the establishment, Sam Sen, who runs said karaoke several nights a week.
“The stressful part ain’t this,” says Sam, gesturing to his soundboard when I visit him at the beginning of his shift one Saturday night. “The stressful part is not the singing or keeping up with the equipment. The stressful part is keeping up with the darn list. That’s the biggest stress factor, especially when it gets busy.”
Sam is an older guy, svelte with a thick mane of wiry hair and dark, glassy eyes. He’s been a Fran’s patron for the better part of a decade, but he started running karaoke nights when the last guy doing it suffered a stroke a couple years back. A pro bassist—some heavy Googling will turn up a ’70s psych band from the Philippines called Destiny that one Sam Sen has bass credits with—he took over at Fran’s right around the time he was starting to find it difficult to lug around his rig.
The ultimate compliment? When Sam draws a second mic from the drawer of his desk and joins you on your song with his warm, gravelly tenor, something like that of Neil Diamond. But Sam also rules with an iron fist: He’s a polite and funny guy, but if you mess with his equipment or wander too far outside the karaoke zone with one of his mics, he’s quick to let you know you’re on thin ice, shooting you a glare or shouting at you over the music.
Sam lost his wife to cancer two years ago, and—though somewhat guarded about his personal life—volunteers how kind the Fran’s family has been to him over the years. “They’ve been very good to me," he says.
Sam, like the bar itself, is beloved, with a reputation that travels. Karaoke nights even draw in occasional celebrities, from local news anchors to NSync’s Chris Kirkpatrick, who performed a Backstreet Boys song about a year back. (“They ordered I don’t know how many fuckin’ pizza rolls,” says Trina of Kirkpatrick’s crew.)
“It’s a great flight simulator,” says Sam of karaoke nights, when you’re as likely to hear a Flo Rida song as Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” or Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” “I’ve always maintained, whether you’re coming across good or bad, the classic test is your audience. They won’t lie, and they can be cruel as hell. Sometimes, nothing—dead. Crickets. Hey, that’s how it is.”
On social media, it can often feel as though a battle is being waged for the soul of the city. Many argue Nashville’s recent rash of growth has been handled irresponsibly, with developers buying out longtime businesses and bulldozing the buildings to make room for cookie-cutter condominiums and multi-use developments and neighborhood rebrands. And sometimes rent increases force out establishments that seem to be doing just fine, until they’re suddenly gone. Just across the street from Fran’s is Cafe Roze, a truly great upscale brunch-and-coffee spot that, according to Trina, recently gave one of Fran’s regulars his breakfast on the house just out of neighborly kindness. But it’s been home to a number of different restaurants and bars over the past decade—turnover is quick for businesses in this part of town, and people have short memories. A beauty salon today could be a karaoke bar tomorrow, and the bungalow up the block could be two tall-and-skinnies just as quickly.
It’d be foolish to assume Fran’s will be here for decades and decades to come, or that it won’t be forced to relocate once again. But as long as it’s here, it serves as a reminder of the strange Southern camaraderie that springs up in Nashville’s oldest neighborhoods, where bottles of High Life and Budweiser are $2.25 apiece, and a six pack of domestics, served on ice in a bucket, goes for $13.
Fran suggests that the cheap prices are what keep her customers coming back, but Sam isn’t so sure that’s all there is to it.
“There’s something else going on here,” he says. “I’ve suspected that a long time. It’s not just the place, because it’s just any old dive bar. What is it about this place? If you ever put your finger on it, let me know.”