Now/It's: An Interview with Lyon Porter (Urban Cowboy B&B)

Regardless of however long your tenure in Nashville has been, it's likely that you've experienced some form of "perpetual craning." For those who may be unfamiliar, perpetual craning's meaning operates in twofold - the constant craning of the neck upward toward new additions to the Nashville Skyline that seem to be erected in perpetuity, and the continual role of construction cranes as fixtures of Nashville's constant growth. Love it or hate it, perpetual craning is a real thing throughout the city. But it hasn't always been the most obvious indicator in Nashville's growth. There was a simpler time when innovators and first movers would politely enter a community and work to ingratiate themselves. People like Lyon Porter - the boutique hotelier behind Nashville's Urban Cowboy B&B, real estate savant, and communal proponent - took the time to enter the community of East Nashville, and understand the nuances of the East Side versus downtown. Porter thrives upon and imbues an energy of unique creativity that continues to surge through Nashville. His projects aim to champion and continue a more communal approach to building up business Nashville, not only with Urban Cowboy B&B, but also his newest motel property on Dickerson Pike, which will aim to replicate a community resurgence on Dickerson the same way Urban Cowboy did on Nashville's East Side.

Now/It's met with Lyon Porter at his boutique hotel, Urban Cowboy B&B, in East Nashville.

Lyon - Hey man.

N/I - Hey. Nice to meet you.

Lyon - Come on in. Nice to meet you too.

N/I - Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.

Lyon - Of course man. It’s been a crazy day.

N/I - I’m sure.

Lyon - We bought a location on Dickerson, so we’re in full on renovation mode. That’s why I’m all dusty.

N/I - I would imagine.

Lyon - Have you ever been in here before?

N/I - I have not. I’ve seen a bunch of pictures and stuff.

Lyon - Right on. This is the kind of community parlor, here.

N/I - Right.

Lyon - There are about fifty instruments laying around. Parlor chairs.

N/I - Cool.

Lyon - This is Lindsay and Jersey. They run the joint.

N/I - Hey guys.

Lindsey and Jersey - Hey!

N/I - How are you guys?

Jersey - Oh, just working away. Monday.

N/I - Good to hear.

Jersey - All Valentine’s Day stuff, you know?

N/I - Yeah. Do you guys have a lot of Valentine’s Day bookings?

Lyon - Well, it’s a Wednesday, so that kind of makes it weird. A weird day for people to make time for.

N/I - Sure.

Lyon - So we’re about half full or something. We’re doing a little promotion of chocolate, milk bath, flowers, to appeal to the staycationers.

N/I - That makes sense.

[Points at bar]

Lyon - This is the internal bar…. Have you been to the Public House out back?

N/I - I have been to Public House.

[Lyon moves through doorway and into a room]

Lyon - Cool. And since we have a little tour going on now, here’s a little example of what one our rooms looks like. All the rooms have clawfoot tubs in the bedroom, not the bathroom.

N/I - Has the clawfoot tub become something of a calling card?

Lyon - Yeah. We did it in our Brooklyn property in the cabin there, and it turned into such a photo-worthy place that we put them here. You’re on vacation, so you have time to take a bath. You have time to take pictures. You’re just excited, right? It’s your [truest] relaxation. When was the last time you took a bath, right?

N/I - Probably years.

Lyon - Yeah. So some people haven’t taken a bath in five years, and they come here and they’re like “That was amazing!” They can get a massage in the room, take a bath, and remind yourself you’re on vacation.

N/I - Sure. Very therapeutic. Lot’s of R&R, when possible.

Lyon - Therapeutic R&R with a photo booth option.

N/I - Exactly.  

Lyon - Anyway, this is our Midnight Rider suite.

[Lyon exits the Midnight Rider suite and heads toward the Parlor]

Lyon - I figure we can do the interview right here.

N/I - Sounds good.

Lyon - So tell me about the magazine. What’s the deal?

N/I - You know, I’ve worked for some larger publications in the past, and I’m younger than most writers, so I came to realize that if I were to try and reach certain thresholds that I wanted to, it would be a while. There’s a lot of politicking - which is fine - I just figured I would take a gamble on myself, so to speak.

Lyon - Go for it.

N/I - Right. Go for it and see what happens. And I grew up here, so the city has always been an interest of mine. It’s been going pretty well, and this year, I’m trying to move toward interviewing more than just musicians, which I love, but I want to diversify the types of people I talk to.

Lyon - Like the actual Nashville lifestyle.

N/I - Exactly.

[Lyon’s business partner calls]

Lyon - Sorry man. I’m in the middle of my Monday.

N/I - No worries. I understand.

Lyon - He was calling about something in New York. I go back and forth between here and New York bi-weekly. I live here. I’ve actually moved my entire life here, but I’m still very active as a real estate broker in New York, which is kind of crazy.

N/I - I would imagine so…. I know from reading other interviews with you, what led you to start Urban Cowboy BnB here, but what led you to move here entirely?

Lyon - It’s the people. I mean, you’re interested in people in Nashville, right?

N/I - Absolutely.


Lyon - The people here are just absolutely the most genuine, supportive, and amazing people that I’ve ever met. I’ve lived in twenty cities in the United States - I used to play minor professional hockey - so I live in fifteen different cities in ten years. There’s just something about Nashville that has absolutely blown me away, in the sense that, I was in New York for fifteen years, bounced around before that, I’m originally from Ohio. [Nashville] kind of reminds me of Ohio in the sense that when you meet them and they say they’re from Ohio, you’re like “Oh, hey. What’s up?” You know they’re a good dude. Granted, there are some less than stellar people from anywhere, but overall, you’d be in New York, people would react with a stunted “Oh, you’re from the Midwest.” Nashville doesn’t have…. It’s not mired so hard in the sticky molasses of the Deep South…

N/I - Right. But there are aspects of it.

Lyon - Sure. Granted, parts of Tennessee might be.

N/I - Absolutely. That’s fair.

Lyon - But especially this enclave of Nashville, and specifically, East Nashville, the energy I feel here is the same energy that I plugged into in Williamsburg, Brooklyn fifteen years ago. And I wasn’t getting that same spark from New York. New York is New York, and it will never not be.

N/I - Right….

Lyon - But the relationship that I was having with it had changed, and the overall unaffordability of it had stifled people’s ability to be creative.

N/I - So subsistence instead of existence.

Lyon - Yeah! Exactly. And I would come down here, and people would say “Hey, what’s up dude? You want to hang?” and I’d pull out my phone and look at my calendar, but I wouldn’t even realize what I was doing. It was just “Where do you want to go,” and I’d think “Oh, you mean right now?” And all of a sudden, I thought, “I’m a fucking asshole,” because you just get so into that mode of go, go, go to pay rent, to advance your career, to get to the next thing. People down here are more like “Sure, I’ll work my ass off, I need the money,” and I’ll say “Great. Can you work this Saturday?” and they’ll respond with “I’m broke, but I can’t cut into my drinking time,” and I’ll say “But you just said you needed more work?” and then it’s “I’ll be here Monday any time you want.” So the priorities here can be - if you’re building something - infuriating, but when you’re working and living here, it can be magical, because you actually create these real relationships with people in your life that have the time and space to be creative. They have the time and space to have a conversation like this, and not be like….

N/I - “I have to leave right on the dot.”

Lyon - “It’s fifteen after, and I told you that I had to leave at ten after.”

N/I - Right.

Lyon - It’s more like “I’m going to try and do one of two things today. I’ll do my best at them,” and it’s not all about drinking…. Like people here go on picnics. People make time to go on hikes. It’s not like taking a train, renting a car, getting on a plane to experience nature.

N/I - Yeah. You’re in it. There’s enough time to parlay any one part of town into a “natural” experience. On the West Side there’s Vaughn’s Gap and Edwin Warner, and there’s Shelby Bottoms on the East Side.

Lyon - Just right over there. Exactly. I go for a run in the morning. I’m running around a pond, next to a swan - sure, it’s a man made lake, and there’s a train going by it - but in an hour, I’m settled. I have a five year old son…. That’s the other thing - I moved my five year old son down here. Him and his mom. He goes to Lockeland Springs.

N/I - Okay. Great!

Lyon - Yeah. And we’re hosting the PTA, or PTO event here on Tuesday for the whole school.

N/I - Nice.

Lyon - I always say…. So I grew up in Ohio, Cleveland. It’s a great place to grow up, but it’s also a great place to leave. And I had this whole idea in my head that I would start a family somewhere that my kids wouldn’t want to leave the second they were old enough. And I think Nashville is that perfect place where you might leave it, but it’s not a bad place to come back to.

N/I - Not at all. At least, not right now.

Lyon - Not right now. And yeah, maybe that will change as it grows and gets bigger and busier….

N/I - Sure. You never know.

Lyon - You never knew about Brooklyn. It was cool, and people jumped the horse, but it’s still not Manhattan. East Nashville still has a long way to go in that sense. Not a “long way to go” in the sense of never going to…. Actually, strike that. What I would say is that it’s perfect right now for me and where I am in my life. I tell people it’s like Leave it to Beaver with tattoos.

N/I - I can see that.

Lyon - I’m best friends with the parents across the street, and I found their house for them - it was the same owner as this one. I walk my son to school, I pick him up at 3, his mom lives four blocks away, her best friend works here. It’s the best, because I can sit at my bar and have a drink and a bite with my son, sitting around a fire - and we live in the house behind here, too. To live this way - to have this quality of life in an LA or New York - you would have to be a banker, an accountant, a doctor, or a tech entrepreneur who cashed out, whereas here, you can still sing for you supper. You can be an artist - I’m an artist, I designed this whole place - and also be in real estate and make money that way. I feel like everyone here [in Nashville] is an artist, or at least has an artist’s sensibility. Your doctor could be in a band, your lawyer is in a band, your barista is in four bands.

N/I - It’s pretty pervasive.

Lyon - And that lifeblood of creativity is what draws people, because the weather here is extremely hot in the summer, and the winter is brutally frigid. This cold is colder than in New York. It’s bone chilling.

N/I - And it’s been pretty bad the past few years, it seems. More so than usual.


Lyon - Yeah. And who knows why, but it’s weird. But other than that, it’s the people. So long, long answer - the people got me. They’re the most supportive. We’re so lucky to have opened a business here when we did. I don’t know if we could afford this now. But we were in the right place at the right time, and we feel really fortunate to be a part of the community.

N/I - Well yeah! What I’ve always liked about Nashville, and it serves as the driving force behind this magazine, it’s mostly the people. I’m trying to talk to as wide a swath of people around town.

Lyon - There are so many amazing people.

N/I - Exactly! And you get all these different stories. You get your story, where it’s almost like you’re living on…. the word “commune” comes to mind, but almost entirely in the sense of community, as opposed to utopia. But ostensibly a “commune” of a community, if that makes sense.

Lyon - It one hundred percent is. And I think that’s what’s so interesting. Take these Victorian bungalows - they’re close together, they’re big, but they’re not huge, they’re no two stories, but you can make them two stories. They kind of lend themselves to affordability. The master planning of this community was something from the 20s. The 1910s and 20s version of this American dream, but there’s nowhere to park, because….

N/I - Cars had only just been invented.

Lyon - Right. There were horses. I mean, the horse stables for this place is now the Public House. The guy that owned this house was a doctor - he was the doctor - and he had a horse and buggy, never had a car. Where we are now was the waiting room, and where we just were [the Midnight Rider suite] was the doctor’s office. But then you come full circle to now in the sense that he [the doctor] still had an apartment in Downtown Nashville. I can get downtown in two minutes if there’s no traffic.

[Lyon receives a call from a contractor]

N/I - So if you helped the folks across the street find their home, does that mean you’re still working real estate in both Nashville and New York pretty actively, on top of the hotel?

Lyon - Funny enough, I can’t really help myself. It’s just kind of in my blood, I guess. I do residential, brokerage, and advising on condos and penthouses up in New York. Here, I do things like finding my neighbors that building. I was in a coffee shop and they were like, “I’m looking for something,” and I knew what they had in mind and happened to have something off market. And I’m not even a broker here. I just sold a building down the street from here in Cleveland Park for a few million. They wanted me to do a hotel there, and I said it wasn’t the right fit, but I did have a guy in New York who would buy it, and then the deal was done. It’s more that kind of stuff here. Like the Key Motel, for instance, I just bought that on Dickerson, I mean, it’s…. It’s going to be gnarly.

N/I - Well what drew you to it? Was it because it was already there and could be moved upon pretty quickly?

Lyon - That ownership group that I flipped the Cleveland Park church with said, “Well, if you don’t want to do one here, how about here?” And it was just crazy enough to make me think it would be worth it. There’s four thousand apartments being built around it, in the next five years. So you know what happened on Gallatin….

N/I - It blew up.

Lyon - But there’s that one pocket where it’s really going up. Well that’s happening times ten on Dickerson. The mayor just announced that they’re putting up light rail, as well.

N/I - Right. I’ve been keeping tabs on that. At this point, it’s a $2.5 billion initiative.

Lyon - And I don’t see why they wouldn’t go right up Dickerson. Probably quicker than Gallatin…

N/I - Logistically there’s less development to go through.

Lyon - And it can push to and fro throughout the community. Nashville needs that artery. What’s even more interesting is that there are other things planned to go in on Dickerson, but we’re going to be the first thing. Literally.

N/I - Sure. You plant your flag there and you can help welcome other people, or as you put it, “things,” to the area. And on top of that, you reap the benefits of first mover status.

Lyon - And what those “things” are, I don’t know. It’s not like I’ll be the mayor over there, but I think it’ll be really interesting to see what goes up over there. Because if you think about it, we were the first boutique hotel in Nashville, pretty much.

N/I - More or less.

Lyon - And I remember thinking that was so bizarre, because there were so many chain hotels, more or less, depending on what you think of certain projects as.

N/I - If they fit within your idea of a corporatized hotel versus a boutique one.

Lyon - Right. It’s like, yes, we’re a bed and breakfast, but we’re also a bar, restaurant, and hotel. [The Nashville property] is a lot bigger than what we did in Brooklyn. So why Dickerson? People told me I was crazy thinking I was going to get over one hundred dollars a night here.

N/I - Really?

Lyon - No banks in Nashville would lend. Everyone was saying you could get an Airbnb for fifty bucks. And I got that, but this is the Brooklyn of Nashville. Every one of my peoples want to stay here. They don’t want to stay downtown. They don’t want to be on Broadway. They’ll Uber there in five minutes.

N/I - And that’s a byproduct of the perverse conception of Nashville being cowboy hats and honky tonks as far as the eye can see. There are legitimate versions of that, sure….

Lyon - You have your Robert’s and your Tootsie’s, but then you go down and it’s Jimmy Buffett…

N/I - Right. The more branded, namesake bar fronts.

Lyon - Exactly. So we’re just really lucky that this, Cowboy, is looked at as a welcomed addition. We’re a neighborhood bar, a neighborhood restaurant, a neighborhood inn. But we also bring an international magnifying glass to East Nashville through a lot of the travel and leisure glossies that get published. And we hope to honor the neighborhood in a good way. Like when we opened - we’re really close with the Crying Wolf and 308, we love Dino’s. Surface Magazine just featured us in their “Nashville Guide,” and it was really cool - you should read it if you haven’t - it was really well written, and it was like “the second generation of Nashville development.” The first one was honky tonks and bachelorette parties.

N/I - Right. “Wooo girls.”

Lyon - And now, you can go to the Noelle, and you can go to…. name any new restaurant.

N/I - There’s Ludlow & Prime, Deacon’s, Oak….

Lyon - Oh my god, there are so many places. There are so many new places, and it’s not stopping. The food and beverage usually goes quicker than the real estate, and we got in really quick, beating everyone - and a lot of those places were in the pipeline - but they were three hundred room hotels calling themselves “boutique” hotels. But I love that 21C opened here. I love that the Noelle opened here. I think the more the merrier, there’s always room for it. But at the same time, I am cautious about things coming here when they don’t really make sense, whatever that means.

N/I - Sure. I think I know what you mean. It’s one thing for you guys to show up here when you did, and that opens the door for similar business models, and like you said, the more the merrier, because it facilitates tourism, people need places to stay.

Lyon - Yes. And the right people.

N/I - Right, the right people, but within the same thought…. I’ll just use Bass Pro Shop as an example. They’re already here, so why would someone like Cabela’s need to come here as well?

Lyon - Well, it’s like, you have a Jimmy Buffett’s, you don’t need a Hard Rock Cafe next to something like… oh, what’s it called? There’s a plan for a Jimmy Buffett hotel, or something.

N/I - And with too much of that, it can lead to market cannibalization.

Lyon - Well, it becomes Disneyland. And it already is in a way.

N/I - That’s fair.

Lyon - But then, when East Nashville has a Starbucks next to a Forever 21 next to an American Apparel….

N/I - And then there’s a Dunkin Donuts next to that.

Lyon - All in a row. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about this area right now, the retail is so affordable. I think if you talk to anyone from five to ten years ago, they’ll say it’s crazy.

N/I - It’s increased, sure.

Lyon - They’d say it doesn’t make sense, it’s already too much. But with that said, it’s a really interesting time to be here. It’s a fun time to be here. I feel a sense of opportunity here that I felt in New York when I moved there, and I think it’s still there, but it’s in the air here, man. The way it used to be in the air in New York, but now you have to go into a dark alley.

N/I - You have to get creative up there.

Lyon - You have to do something outside the box. And I did do something outside the box, and that energy of creative collaboration exploded here. The artisans that I had do this building, the people that stop by, the mixture of that local energy, and that authentic time and space to create. You’ll be here, sitting in a bar, having a conversation with somebody, and they’re actually there with you. Whereas, I find that a lot of other places in the world, be it LA or New York, or any of these “cultural hubs,” they’re so expensive that they don’t allow the space to pause and to breathe, and to try things, where if it doesn’t work, you’re fucking done. So that’s what’s fun about here, we have roots down now, and we’re based out of here, and we love it here.