The John Deere tractor stopped on Broadway and went into madness.
On a Friday night in the heart of Nashville, as the crowds and music rolled out of the crowded clubs, he was walking at 5 mph, pulling a canopy trailer with flashing lights and a group of Denver friends sipping drinks and dancing on Shania Twain.
It wasn’t particularly visible. The Big Green Tractor, as it’s called, passed an outdoor school bus full of revelers, then another, and another. He also slipped past a vehicle with women leaning over a railing in tank tops printed with the slogan “Let’s Get Nashty!” “
The tractor hadn’t even driven a mile.
“It’s the Wild West here,” said Ronee Heatherly from her perch behind the bar at the Big Green Tractor, where she served as a security monitor, bartender, DJ, photographer, tour guide and mocker. carpooling drivers blocking the tractor. path. (She blew up the Ludacris song “Move” as she looked them down.)
As Nashville has solidified its reputation as a destination for getaways and singles travel, party vehicles have proliferated, promising a good time and a stop to see and be seen while exploring the city. But there is a growing feeling – among residents, local officials, even some in the so-called transportation industry – that everything has got out of hand.
“We created the monster, and now we can no longer control the monster,” said Steve Haruch, reporter and editor of the “Greetings From New Nashville” book. “This is the plot of all monster movies.”
The Nashville Streets Menagerie includes – but is by no means limited to – a truck with a hot tub, a bus full of electric massage chairs, a Ford van turned into a “party barge” with painted waves on the side and “Ship Faced” engraved on the tailgate, retired military vehicles, a purple bus with drag performers, an old school bus named Bev adorned with antlers, and yet another old bus, with antlers, named Bertha.
City officials estimate that up to 40 companies operate vehicles on weekends. About 20 have been launched in the past six months alone.
The growing multitude of vehicles has raised concerns about safety, noise and traffic, given the parade of angry drivers who often follow them. But dismay also reflects something deeper: For critics, vehicles are a rowdy side effect of Nashville’s growing popularity in recent years that threatens to dilute the soul that made the city so attractive to begin with.
“It’s my fear, that we will lose our sense of who we are, which has built our success,” said Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., describing a version of Nashville – known for generations as the Country Music Capital – with a laid-back vibe and access to exceptional live music any day of the year that now has to coexist with something much more decadent.
“You can have a fun, entertaining and unique experience here,” he said. “There is nothing unique about knocking down 12 white claws at 3 in the afternoon in 95 degree heat.”
The transportation industry’s scrutiny was sharpened this summer after a 22-year-old fell from a party bus which then rolled over his legs, an episode that underscored the near absence of safety rules for vehicles. A petition has circulated accusing the vehicles of “causing more hangovers than they are worth”. The Nashville Metropolitan Council is currently considering a proposal to curb the industry, ban alcohol, require training, permits and inspections, and demarcate limited areas where vehicles are allowed to travel.
Yet vehicles have mushroomed for a reason. The demand is there. They were hired for children’s birthdays and retirement parties; a church hired one to distribute Bibles. But transportation is mostly associated with a cheerful side to the city that has earned NashVegas the nickname, as it draws visitors to trips that – depending on how things go – might end up being unforgettable or completely forgotten. .
Some in the industry argue that unruly outliers overshadow responsible companies, with passengers having a safe time at no one else’s expense.
Hell on Wheels, a company that deploys converted military freight trucks, has strict rules: no music with explicit lyrics. No inflatable penises, a popular hen party item. The last trip is at 10:30 p.m.
“It’s not always about being loud and silly on Broadway,” said Nicholas Lyon, owner of the company, which is named after an armored tank division of the US Army.
That said, he added, Nashville will always be a bustling place and party vehicle drivers have been an ingredient in the city’s success. “These ‘woo’ girls are literally the heart of our economy,” Lyon said of downtown tourism. “If somebody’s looking for quiet Mayberry, you move to Brentwood, you move to Franklin.”
(Brentwood and Franklin are suburbs of Nashville where, coincidentally, residents called police last year to complain about noise and indecent exposure after party vehicles moved through the city’s temporary coronavirus boundaries at the meeting places have ventured further.)
Lyon said he was a reluctant supporter of regulation. He fears that overly heavy restrictions could stifle the lives of companies like his, which he launched three years ago.
Yet he considers the gratuitous nature of the industry to be just as threatening. It is open to virtually anyone with the desire and access to an older school bus. (Craigslist in Nashville listed some for as little as $ 5,800.) There are no safety requirements or insurance mandates specifically related to transportation, and most vehicles are not regulated by the government. local, said city industry and transportation officials.
“We need those bad apples out of here,” Lyon said.
After the city’s pandemic restrictions eased in the spring, party vehicles resumed populating the streets, allowing a weekday afternoon to see two old roofless buses, a converted pink SUV, and a farm tractor and trailer. at a single intersection.
Much of the industry is concentrated in the Lower Broadway neighborhood, the core of Nashville that tourists come to see – a sort of Tennessee on Times Square, with bright lights and beloved old haunts crowded alongside big brands. and giant multi-story bars linked to major music stars (Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock N ‘Roll Steakhouse, for example).
On a recent evening, the Big Green Tractor began its jaunt a few blocks from Broadway in the alley behind a liquor store, where riders could stock up on supplies.
Once the passengers boarded, Heatherly discussed the rules and issued a warning to break them, and she would have no problem stopping the tractor, forcing everyone to leave and walk away.
She pointed to a metal railing around the trailer. “My husband used to say it’s for your safety, not your booty,” she said, quickly moving on to the next edict: “If you throw up on that cart it’ll cost you money. money. “
“Nobody throws up! One of the runners called.
The night turned out to be pleasant: a rainy day gave way to a breeze and an open sky. Denver women swayed and swayed as Heatherly made her way through a playlist of country hits and party staples: Walker Hayes’ song “Fancy Like,” “For Some Sugar on Me” from Def Leppard, “Save a Horse (Ride) from Big and Rich a Cowboy). She moved quickly to get to the good part of the Backstreet Boys song “Everybody”.
The tractor didn’t stay on Broadway for long. The densest section of the thoroughfare was confined to pedestrians, sending the vehicle down a slow obstacle course of narrow streets, jaywalkers, idling Ubers, lifted vans, and 90 degree turns after 90 turns. degrees.
The driver, Cole Canada, appeared to take him in stride.
“It pains me to see Cole driving up there,” Heatherly said, “because my husband should be up there.” Her husband, Rickie, passed away in June; they had been married for 42 years. The business had been the creation of Rickie Heatherly, and he was an expert driver, she said, maneuvering the wagon in tight spaces that others wouldn’t dare to attempt.
Cheree Jubin, whose wedding in the fall provided the impetus for the trip, stood on the wooden bench of the wagon. “Everyone has to raise their glass to Rickie!” She said as her friends cheered her on.
“I absolutely loved it,” Jubin said of the evening. “I didn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it was.”
The tractor had crossed the Cumberland River, stopping at a truck stop for a toilet break. Then he toured the stadium where the Tennessee Titans are playing, heading to the perfect spot for Heatherly to take the group photo. The women huddled together with the neon Broadway and skyline lights looming behind them and reflecting off the river.
But the calm was fleeting. A roofless school bus, with muffled loudspeakers, was already waiting, its passengers eager to get the same shot.