We’re a little obsessed with the South right now and were thrilled to discover Taylor Bruce’s Wildsam Field Guides. The guide to Nashville came out last fall and the guide to Austin this May. The guides are an amazing mix of travel tips, best-of lists, essays, memoirs, and interviews with everyday citizens as well as resident celebrities–overall, tributes to two American cities that appeal to tourists and locals alike–and peppered throughout with awesome hand-drawn maps and other illustrations (our favorite being a map of different taco joints in Austin). We think that the guides make for fantastic gifts for just about anyone (and particularly good father’s day gifts). We were lucky enough to catch up with man behind Wildsam, Taylor Bruce, and talk to him about Austin and Nashville–keep reading to learn more about the field guides, how and why Bruce came up with them, and even a tidbit or two that didn’t make it into the printed pages.
How did you come up with the idea of doing field guides—did you see a particular need in the market, or feel you wanted to do things differently than other guide books?
It’s a good question, one that I’m still asking myself. The quick answer is this: The idea to make a series of small books about American places—taking nods from almanac, memoir and traveler’s journal—came when I was about to tear my hair out writing a novel. I needed some breathing room. And in the few weeks away from the novel, my previous career in magazine-writing snuck in and shone a light on what’s become Wildsam.
But the Sunday-drive version of the answer of where Wildsam came from is a bit more complex. It’s been a long time coming, I think. All I can say is that road trips without plans have always really appealed to me. Early-morning roaming, unfamiliar cities, conversations with strangers. My wife, Robin, is like that, too. We’re just pretty curious people. And it all points to Wildsam. So the sensibility of the field guides is something that’s been brewing for a while now.
You made the decision to refer to your books as “field guides” as opposed to “guide books” or “travel guides”—what’s in the name?
When I think of travel guides, I think of straight service. Wildsam is more about soul. It’s the “wild” part of our name—exploring those rough edges to a city, the gritty and even broken parts. Travel guides often gloss over those parts of the map. But a “field guide” takes it all in. Magnificient and mundane. Like in the best stories, a character is never good or bad—they are a little of both. Cities are the same. When we talk about place, we use a phrase: “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” and that’s what we’re looking for. As many real stories as we can fit into 140 pages. In Nashville, we mapped out our favorite comfort-food joints and also included a newspaper account of a violent civil-rights protest. In Austin, you can read about Whole Foods’ history, turn the page, and read the final statements from 25 death-row inmates. It might not make sense to some, but it feels right to us.
The second half of our name, “Sam,” nods to a character in Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. He’s an Irish immigrant in California, easily amazed and quick to dream. There’s a sentence used to describe his state of mind early in the book that’s become a guiding thought for everything we do: “The world was peopled with wonders.” With that perspective on cities, we thought “field guides” fit us best.
Tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship to travel.
I grew up on a small farm in Georgia. We took a few trips as a kid, but nothing exotic or international. Mostly driving down to the Gulf Coast. My first real adventure was the Christmas after 9/11. Airfare had bottomed out, so a college buddy and I bought last-minute tickets to Europe for New Year’s. We didn’t even have a hostel picked out and ended up getting stranded on a Scottish train one night. It was fantastic. After college, I took several trips—a month in Spain, three months in South America—and I routinely made zero plans. One step above hitchhiking. Something about the discovery part made me feel so alive. It was just before iPhones and Yelp and such, so you could really just roam. Fewer plans usually equal more conversations—and that is a gift.
What’s your process for choosing cities? Do you have personal ties to Nashville and Austin? Or is there something on-trend or interesting about certain cities that makes you want to explore and share what you find?
For Nashville and Austin, I’ve lived in both cities. (I went to college in Nashville and spent my first year of marriage in Austin before moving to New York.) And I knew that to populate the books as I hoped, it couldn’t be a one-man-band thing. There were probably 30 people in both cities pointing me the good directions, introducing me to people, spilling a few secrets. And it just so happens, both Nashville and Austin are cities with an unmistakable sense of place. That’s key. But Wildsam cities don’t need to rank high on all the Forbes, best-of, move-here-now lists. I’m just as interested in a city like Detroit, in deep rebuild mode, as I am Seattle or Miami. The choice has absolutely nothing to do with trends.
We love how your guides are such a mix—best-of/don’t-miss lists, offbeat historical information, wonderfully rendered maps (like the one depicting swimming holes or where to find tacos throughout Austin), interviews with citizens of note and locals. How do you go about gathering all this great information?
Tons of conversations. If it made it into the book, there’s likely someone attached to it—no matter how circuitous the connection. The best example is probably the Johnny Cash note in the Nashville field guide. I met his granddaughter, the songwriter Chelsea Crowell, early on in the process and recorded an interview for the book. At the end of that conversation, she said I should talk to her mom, Rosanne Cash. A few months later, I found an amazing essay Rosanne had written 15 years prior for Oxford American magazine (which we reprinted). And when we were talking about the essay, she mentioned a note of her dad’s, this small scribbled thing he’d had taped to his mirror. It was like an artist’s manifesto to self, and Rosanne had it in her kitchen in New York. I almost fell out of my chair. She snapped an iPhoto of it, and we put it in. Making the field guides is a lot of unplanned luck. That and a bunch of Saturdays in the archives.
What’s the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about the cities you’ve covered?
Back during the Civil War, Union forces rounded up all the prostitutes in Nashville, boarded them onto a steamboat, and shipped them up the Cumberland River. The boat was called the Idahoe. Spelled like that. And for Austin, I learned that you can spot an out-of-towner at a black-tie wedding by finding the guy wearing a tuxedo. Dressing down is the law.
Without giving too much away, what would, say, your ideal day in Austin look like? Nashville?
Ideal for Nashville starts with a strong coffee at Barista Parlor, an old transmission shop on the East Side, and ends at the Station Inn. It’s a sanctuary for live bluegrass. If I were in Austin (preferably not in August), I’d figure out a way to get over to Barton Springs, the spring-fed public pool downtown with plants growing on the bottom. It feels like purest kind of community over there. And I’d probably get drinks at a courtyard table at the Hotel San Jose once the sun went down.
Favorite characters you’ve met during your research for the guides? Any crazy adventures you’d care to mention?
There are hundreds. But the first that comes to mind was the day I interviewed former Tennessee senator Bill Frist in Nashville. He wanted to do the interview at Whole Foods in his Green Hills neighborhood. Which was a surprise. But what was more surprising was that we hardly spoke about politics or the Bush years. We talked for about an hour about his mom and dad, who was a local doctor who’d worked his way through college and med school. That meeting was in the morning, and later that afternoon, I had the most memorable interview of the entire book. It was with a woman named Anita, who’d battled homelessness for the better part of two decades. We sat in a booth at McDonald’s drinking Fanta orange sodas. She was so honest with the dark stuff she’d seen. Her candor and grace were stunning. At one point, she said, “God keeps his promises. I might not keep mine, but he keeps his.” It was one of those rare moments when you feel like you’ve known a person for a long, long time.
Anything fantastic about either city that didn’t make it in the guide that you can share?
We tried to use anything that was fantastic. I’d say that in Austin, something I wish I could have done more of was dive bars. That city wins the contest on dives. We only included seven, but there were 10 others. And the Broken Spoke. I totally left it out. And in Nashville, the coolest thing right now is called the Peach Truck. A young guy named Stephen Rose drives peaches up from his family farm in Georgia. All the restaurants are begging for them, and he parks his green ’64 Jeep all over town.
What’s up next? Future cities? International guides?
We’re working on three cities right now, all in different phases. But we love the Austin field guide so much, we’re having a hard time concentrating. As for going international, who knows. A few months in Paris sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?
Where can we find your field guides?
Right now, the field guides sell on wildsam.com and in Nashville and Austin shops. In Nashville, Ann Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus, carries the book, as well as Imogene + Willie, Billy Reid, Antique Archeology, and Emil Erwin, a local leather-goods company. In Austin, the book sells at men’s shop Stag, BookPeople, Hijo, Spartan, Billy Reid, and Helm Boots, as well as Liz Lambert’s two spots, Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia.