Dickerson Pike was always on my list for the first four installments of the Pikes Project, and I’ve had a lot of time to explore it while working on my portraits of Gallatin, Nolensville and Charlotte Pike.
Before I-65, Dickerson Pike/US 41 was the main road between Louisville and Nashville, and the vintage signs of the pike’s motels are the most striking sights on the street. They recall a time before interstate freeways homogenized regional cultures, and they remind me of how exciting it must have been to be a tourist, a business man or even a wannabe country star arriving in Nashville for the very first time after a long, slow drive.
Dickerson Pike also holds a mirror up to Nashville’s future: the buffalo statues in Buffalo Park stare down that riverfront skyline full of glass and steel and cranes, and places like Rocketship Academy are preparing the neighborhood’s youngest minds to blast off and meet the challenges of the future.
Up and down the pike you’ll also find a thriving entrepreneurial network of mom-and-pop restaurants, stores, groceries, automotive garages and barber shops — their hand-painted signs speak to the vibrant creativity and ingenuity of the folks that call Dickerson Pike home.
Dickerson Pike is also like Charlotte Pike in its transition from downtown blocks to farms and wild spaces. There’s an awful lot to see and explore on this pike, and in the last year I’ve watched countless changes come to this dynamic, long-lived and storied strip.
I took a drive down Dickerson Pike from Buffalo Park to Goodlettsville. Here’s what I saw:
Last Chance Liquors
From a photographer’s perspective, Dickerson Pike’s vintage signage is one of the road’s most eye-catching offerings. Lots of restaurants, hotels and beer and liquor stops on the pike offer bold fonts, bright colors and expert old-school designs to announce their presence. Last Chance Liquors isn’t the only liquor store on Dickerson Pike today, but this sign points back to a time when it might have been. I’d raise a glass to this emerald beauty.
The entrance to Troy’s Barbershop offers one of the many, spinning, red-white-and-blue barber poles you’ll see along the pike, and Troy’s place is located just up the street from Music City Barber College. Barbershop culture offers one of the most visible examples of the Dickerson Pike community’s entrepreneurial spirit while also keeping the men and boys in the neighborhood looking their best. This great decal on Troy’s front window presents the barber as a martial arts master armed with clippers, scissors and comb.
Red, Yellow, Green
This sign reads like a multiple choice quiz to some existential nowheresville: Should I stop going left? Should I proceed to the left with caution? Should I definitely go left? But where to, and why? This sign is an emphatic mystery.
Some of Dickerson Pike’s coolest vintage signs mark the motels that dot its path. These beauties point to the middle of the last century, a time before Interstates sucked the life out of numbered highways like U.S. 41. Traveling from Louisville to Nashville back in the day, this sign might’ve caught the eye of any weary traveler looking for a warm bed and a cool pool.
Every time I spot a phone booth on a pike, the discovery is always accompanied by an emotional trill that seems to exclaim “Ha, ha! Good luck!” If you spot a phone on a pike you should always pull over, stop and pick up. It might be for you.
The combat sports fan in me wants this place to be a beer and whiskey joint decorated in old gloves, trophies and photos, while new and old fights and fight films shimmer on screens and flicker on walls. Luckily for everyone else in Nashville, this watering hole is a pike staple that features live music, karaoke and cornhole. It’s worth the stop just to see the massive mitts on this mural. That guy coulda been a contender.
King of Media
The signs and lights in the parking lot of a closed Kroger store loom above the pike in a tableau of a well-lit ghost – the electrified spirit of the place. The store is closed but Mac Allan is open for business and offering his services, making use of an empty newspaper box as a space for his royal signage. Long live the King.
Who could say no to this sweet little bear requesting tips on the counter outside the window at Panaderia y Taqueria Andrea? This little guy literally has a smile on his stomach, and he offers divine blessings to all who might bestow their generosity. Like all the pikes I’ve profiled, Dickerson Pike is a diverse place that’s home to Nashville neighbors from all over the world. Andrea offers a taco truck in front of a brick and mortar bakery. These pike tours inevitably become food tours so here’s my tip: two carnitas tacos with everything, followed by one of those shortbread cookies covered in red, white and blue nonpareils. Wash it all down with a limon flavored Jarrito soda, and get back on that pike.
I grew up in a union family in Detroit, and I’ve loved this sign since the first day I saw it. Compared to most retail signage this one is on the massive side. From the ornate work on the sign itself to the linear frame where our friend stands, this one is definitely one of the best signs in the city. Dickerson Pike’s working class neighborhoods have a real icon here, and it reminds me that we’re all lifted in our labors when we labor for the people and the places that we love the most. Keep up the good work, workers.
I lucked out on my trip down the pike when the carnival came to town. The rides, contests, concession stands and ticket booths were still being set up, and the whole place was fenced off with these handsome white-washed iron barriers. This Fireball ride is like a looping roller coaster that’s all loop and no rolling. The coaster part looks like a blue snake engulfed in red-and-yellow flames — The Fireball! Add six waving flags for America the beautiful, cue the sound of upside down screaming, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like summer.
Nothing notes the dynamic changes happening along the pikes like the obsolete signage: signs pointing to the ghosts of storefronts; abandoned signs offering their exclamations in secret cyphers; and mute messages like the one on this green sign across from the big, yellow billboard for a gun show. Maybe this is just visual clutter or even a possible traffic obstacle given its proximity to the pike. It’s also austere and mysterious, and it makes me feel calm, with its lazy lean and its friendly turning-in towards passersby.
The Starlite Dinner Club was founded by Mary “Sis” King who built the music venue on a former cow pasture on the pike. The club opened on Christmas Eve of 1952. At the time of King’s 2012 passing at the age of 91, the Starlite was the oldest continuously operating nightclub in Nashville. I found a band on Facebook mentioning a gig at the Starlite as late as 2014 — the club was known for its country dance music and downhome fare. The property is currently listed for sale.
Registered Guests Only
The pool’s grown over, but the gated railing and the stern rebuke of would-be pool-jumpers stays the same. The parasols have seen their better days, but this is another scene that points back to that time when Dickerson Pike entertained a steady stream of tourists headed to Music City. That famous Nashville skyline looks great from the pike.
Hailey Salvage and Building Supply Company
The red-on-white of the Hailey Salvage Company sign offers one of the Dickerson sign scene's most striking palettes. Their plain bold announcement of themselves speaks to Hailey’s more than six decades on the pike. And, much like the street itself, Hailey’s is a place where a pair of open eyes can always spot a treasure.
Just like Charlotte Pike, Dickerson Pike leads from Nashville’s urban center out to rural communities at the city’s edges. All along Dickerson, if you keep your eyes peeled, you can spot pastures, farm supplies, and abandoned commercial spaces overgrown in unrelenting greenery. Johnson’s Honey Farm’s patriotic sign display beckons with star-spangled sweetness.
The White’s Fish & BBQ Facebook page lists this spot as a “Soul Food Restaurant - Fast Food Restaurant – Seafood Restaurant.” Why would you go anywhere else? One of my favorite Nashville meals is a deep fried filet of whiting on white bread with mustard, pickles and onions. But White’s is also slinging whole slabs of ribs. I call decisions like these “Pike Problems,” and I’ve got no problem with that.
How do you know the breakfast at Charlie Bob’s is good? They do it all day. The place was a café in the 1940’s, a drive-in with roller skating carhop waitresses in the 1950’s, and it became Charlie’s Restaurant in the 1960’s. The spot’s been owned and operated by the Douglas family since 1972. On road trips, it’s a good idea to fuel-up on breakfast. I recommend a Western omelet with a biscuit and a black coffee before you leave Nashville on your next world tour.
As you move north along the pike, sidewalks give way to dirt pathways, and concrete walls dissolve into green spaces, twisted trees, and sprinkles of white clover. The pike’s rural past is still a part of Nashville’s present, and one can imagine urban community gardening playing a big role in Dickerson Pike’s future.
The sign at Mallard’s Family Restaurant is a standout on the pike — I love the fading, red brush strokes; the lyrical script for the Mallard’s name; the yellow roof backdrop. The walls inside Mallard’s are decked out in photos of country musicians and cowboy movie stars, and they host live music on a small stage in the corner of the dining room. Just look for the sign. You can’t miss it.