One of the 30 most populous cities of the United States — and the largest city within the state of Kentucky — Louisville is an ideal year-round destination for travelers of all ages, backgrounds, and professions. As Louisville International Airport offers direct flights to and from countless major cities — including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, New Orleans, Denver, and Philadelphia — it is easier to get to than many Americans may realize. Those who prefer driving to flying also ought to be aware that Louisville is within 300 miles of Nashville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St.Louis, Toledo, Columbus, Fort Wayne, and Lexington.
While Louisville is primarily associated with bourbon (its Bourbon Row includes destinations related to Old Forester, Angel’s Envy, and the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.), baseball (Louisville Slugger is based there as are the Louisville Bats baseball team), and horses (it is of course home to Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby), there is so much more to the town. I had the pleasure of visiting the city during the 3-day Louder Than Life music festival — one of three multi-day music festivals hosted in Louisville in September 2019 beyond the NuLu Festival — and learning more about its many contributions to the global landscape beyond bourbon, baseball, and horses.
Among the people available for Q&A to help educate me and the readers of UrbanMatter were:
- Jim Higdon – Author of The Cornbread Mafia & Co-Founder of The Cornbread Hemp Company
- Gill Holland – Owner & Founder of sonaBLAST! Records
- Jaxon L. Swain – Musician, Vice President of sonaBLAST! Records & Host of Party Pants on WXOX
- Shawn O’Donnell – DJ & local Turbojugend chapter member
- Richard Sullivan – Artist and former professional baseball player with the Atlanta Braves
- Eron Plevan – ALEX&NDER and Copper & Kings
- Sara Brown Meehan – Director of Lifestyle Communications for the Churchill Downs Racetrack & The Kentucky Derby
What do you enjoy most about Louisville?
Jim Higdon: The corner bars in the old neighborhoods have a New Orleans vibe with a late last call, not that I’m ever awake late enough to take advantage of it.
Gill Holland: The independent-minded folks — what other city could have produced Thomas Merton, Muhammad Ali, Hunter S Thompson, and Jennifer Lawrence!? — the great culture/arts/music scene, amazing parks and the best local food joints of any city in the USA.
Jaxon L. Swain: Honestly, the majority of people here are ridiculously nice. It can be hard to put into perspective because it is so extreme. Combine that with incredible music and arts scene, and our crazy nightlife, and you have a recipe for FUN TIME.
Shawn O’Donnell: It’s really easy to live here, across the board. The job market is good — and very creative-friendly — there are plenty of things to do every week, people are generally courteous to each other, and there’s a huge sense of community, especially in the music and arts scenes.
Richard Sullivan: Louisville has so many amazing neighborhoods that each have their own identity and uniqueness to them. As a visual artist, I love how many old historic buildings and homes we have in our city. There is so much rich history here. Being able to ride my bike around town and explore different places is fun for me. I work in the Portland neighborhood and I love being able to have a studio space in what used to be Civil War Hospital. I think that’s really unique!
Eron Plevan: I really enjoy seeing how connected the Louisville industry scene is. People come together over 3 things: great music, great food, & great drinks — all of which Louisville does really well on a local level. When all 3 work together in one space, it creates a special experience that gives our city its charm. It seems like everyone is either a musician, chef, or bartender, and sometimes all 3! Louisville is filled with artists and it’s a very cool thing to see.
Sara Brown Meehan: It’s hard to beat a city that boasts world-class horseracing and great bourbon. It also has a spectacular museum and unbeatable parks, including a fantastic waterfront and multiple parks by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York.
What do you wish more people knew about Louisville?
Jim Higdon: The cost of living is great, but so are the chances that you will have seasonal allergies.
Gill Holland: In addition to the culture scene, that Louisville is super-progressive — a dark blue city in a red state, the redder Kentucky becomes, Louisville just gets that much cooler to balance it out! I used to get so tired of folks being so “surprised” at how cool Louisville is, I think they would sometimes write us off cos we have “comma KY” after our name or something! So it is nice to see the good word is definitely getting out now.
Jaxon L. Swain: Louisville is one of only a few progressive enclaves in Kentucky. You can come here and have a modern cosmopolitan experience if you want, or you can do the more traditional things that Kentucky is known for, but you’ve got to let go of negative preconceptions about the state! I mean everyone knows we have the worst governor in the country, and at least one really really bad senator. But that won’t affect you much in Louisville.
Shawn O’Donnell: Coming from the northeast, a lot of people confuse Louisville with other parts of the south. Nothing against the south, but it’s a bit more midwestern here than anything, and doesn’t conform to what a lot of people’s notions of southernness might be. Also, people here don’t know how to drive in the rain, so watch out for that.
Richard Sullivan: I wish people knew more about the history of Portland and the West End and how amazing the people are. Being in Portland for almost 4 years now has changed the way I look at Louisville in a really positive way. If you are interested and in town, check out the Portland Museum online.
Eron Plevan: There’s SO much more to Louisville than Derby and bourbon and Louisville Sluggers! We have a back-to-back champion USL soccer team, annual neighborhood street festivals, a thriving live music scene, farmers’ markets, parks, a waterfront area that is gorgeous year-round, and new restaurants and bars that continually will make your Louisville bucket-list daunting. Louisville isn’t your stereotypical Kentucky experience.
Sara Brown Meehan: How alive Louisville becomes during Kentucky Derby week. Visitors come from all over the world to attend the big race, but the local celebration starts a week before Derby. Parties are held throughout the city all week to benefit local philanthropies, the racetrack is hopping, the restaurants and bars are packed and businesses that aren’t doing Derby business close early. The schools are even closed on the Friday before the Derby! Louisville’s Derby energy is contagious.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Louisville?
Jim Higdon: Hammerheads, because it’s an awesome BBQ joint in a former speakeasy in Germantown.
Gill Holland: Aside from my wife’s historic Harrods Creek restaurant The Pine Room? I also frequent The Table Cafe (pay what you can!), Mayan Cafe (insane lima beans and ceviche) and Farm To Fork Cafe for lunch.
Jaxon L. Swain: Mayan Cafe on East Market Street!
Shawn O’Donnell: We have so many restaurants! My favorites are Lupo (Neapolitan pizza, oysters, a great negroni), Eiderdown (German-influenced, an excellent burger, nice beer list), and New Wave Burritos (fucking rad).
Richard Sullivan: I’d have to say the Table, on Portland Avenue. I go there almost every day for lunch. They have such an amazing mission and the food is top-notch!
Eron Plevan: It’s super-hard to choose just one! I think I’m more chef-driven, so I try to follow the work of chefs. A few come to mind: Bobby Benjamin (The Butchertown Grocery), Dallas McGarity (Portage House, Fat Lamb, ALEX&NDER), Patrick Roney (Ashbourne Farms), Adam Burress (Hammerheads, Ostra, Migo), and Andrew McCabe (Bar Vetti).
Sara Brown Meehan: Jack Fry’s.
What was the last concert you saw in Louisville?
Jim Higdon: I went to the Friday of Bourbon & Beyond, and saw Joan Jett, Flaming Lips, John Fogerty, and the Foo Fighters.
Gill Holland: Carly Johnson and then Frederick The Younger at NuLuFest!
Jaxon L. Swain: You could go out every night of the week here and see something different, it’s so great! I find myself hitting multiple shows in one night all the time. The last show I saw was Jane and Ouzelum at Nachbar and they were amazing.
Shawn O’Donnell: Hank Von Hell, formerly of Turbonegro. We have a small Turbojugend chapter here, and we made up about 30 percent of the audience. It was not a well-attended event, but he put on a strong show.
Richard Sullivan: Bourbon & Beyond was the last concert I went to. I just made it to the first day of the 3-day festival. The Flaming Lips put on a great show and I loved seeing Nathanial Rateliff perform as well.
Eron Plevan: Anderson.Paak at Forecastle — incredible.
Sara Brown Meehan: Louisville recently hosted 4 major music festival, including the Forecastle Festival, Bourbon & Beyond, Hometown Rising and Louder Than Life. But the last performance I saw was Carmen by the Louisville Opera.
Is there any city in the world that reminds you of Louisville?
Jim Higdon: Louisville is like Providence with a bigger river.
Gill Holland: New York City’s East Village in the 90s reminds me of Louisville today. Tons of artists and creative types living here ‘cos of the cheap rent, lots of locally owned stores and food joints/coffeeshops, walkable and just feels like a nice community! Louisville feels a bit like Austin 20 years ago and Nashville 10 years ago too, but hopefully, we are blossoming in a more organic, better way and will learn from the mistakes of those cities!
Jaxon L. Swain: Louisville is equal parts New Orleans, Nashville, and Austin. All the music cities coming together!
Shawn O’Donnell: Not really, but that could be because I don’t travel as much as I’d like to. This is a pretty special place. Nothing compares to Louisville.
Richard Sullivan: That’s a tough question! I don’t think I have been to a city that reminds me of Louisville, but maybe that’s because I haven’t gotten out enough! We are a midsize city that has so much to offer. The food and bar scene is on-par with a lot of bigger cities. I think what makes us unique is how vibrant each neighborhood is.
Eron Plevan: Interestingly, I moved from the Austin area to Louisville and one of the first things I noticed was how many things Austin and Louisville share in common. Both cities share a lot of the same cultural rhythms, except for barbecue & Mexican food. Both cities are supportive of their local industries, both are weird, and you can thrive as an artist or entrepreneur on multiple platforms. The restaurant and bar scenes are very comparable. The locals are super nice and welcoming. If you are bored in either of these places, then something is definitely wrong.
Sara Brown Meehan: I’ve definitely been to cities that remind me of Louisville, but I always think “Louisville is cooler,” so I won’t say who they are!
Finally, any last words for the kids?
Jim Higdon: Check out my SoundCloud: CornbreadHemp.com.
Gill Holland: Move here already, what are you waiting for? Where else can you get a nice house for $50,000 in a historic part of a great city — Louisville’s historic Portland neighborhood!?
Jaxon L. Swain: Hey shorties, Jaxon Lee Swain here. Form your own opinions and trust your instincts! Listening is better than talking! Be excellent to each other.
Shawn O’Donnell: Don’t be a d**k, support community radio — and feel free to listen to Power Trash on WXOX from 6:00 to 8:00 PM EST on Wednesdays via www.artxfm.com) — wear deodorant in public, and tell your friends you love them.
Richard Sullivan: Oh, man. This is hard, too! As an athlete and an artist, I have never really felt like I fit in anywhere, and it was hard when I was young. I was a shy, introverted artist that found a home on the baseball field. Now I thrive off of having found my passions in life and I am so grateful to be able to pursue them. I think I would tell young people to trust your intuition and to wake up every day and ask yourself, what can I do today to get better at something I love? Because I truly believe the universe wants you to find their purpose but it’s not easy getting out of your comfort zone. For more about my story and artwork, my website is www.richardsullivanillustration.com. Thanks!
Eron Plevan: Louisville is both big enough and small enough to plant roots, develop professionally, start a business, experience various neighborhood cultures, make a ton of friends, and network across multiple platforms. I recommend it. It’s only getting better!
Sara Brown Meehan: No matter where you’re living, go out and do the activities that the community offers. If you move later, you’ll be glad you did.
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Featured Image Credit: Louisville