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In the heart of US’ Nashville, rolling parties rage at every stoplight

The John Deere tractor pulled onto Broadway and rumbled into the madness.

On a Friday night in the heart of Nashville, as crowds and music spilled from packed clubs, it lumbered along at 5 mph, tugging a canopied trailer with flashing lights and a group of friends from Denver sipping drinks and dancing to Shania Twain.

It wasn’t especially conspicuous. The Big Green Tractor, as it’s called, passed an open-air school bus crammed with partyers, and then another, and another. It also crept beside a vehicle with women leaning over a railing in tank tops printed with the slogan “Let’s Get Nashty!”

The tractor hadn’t even made it a mile.

“It’s the Wild West out here,” Ronee Heatherly said from her perch behind the bar of the Big Green Tractor, where she served variously as safety monitor, bartender, DJ, photographer, tour guide and taunter of ride-share drivers blocking the tractor’s path. (She blasted the Ludacris song “Move” as she stared them down.)

As Nashville has cemented its reputation as a destination for getaways and bachelorette trips, party vehicles have proliferated, promising a rollicking good time and quite a stage to see and be seen while exploring the city. But there’s a growing sense — among residents, local officials, even some in the so-called transportainment industry — that it has all gotten out of hand.

“We made the monster, and now we can’t control the monster,” said Steve Haruch, a journalist and the editor of the book “Greetings From New Nashville.” “It’s the plot of every monster movie.”

The menagerie on Nashville streets includes — but is by no means limited to — a truck with a hot tub, a bus packed with electric massage chairs, a Ford pickup retrofitted into a “party barge” with waves painted on the side and “Ship Faced” stamped 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 as many as 40 companies operate vehicles on weekends. About 20 were launched in the past six months alone.

The expanding multitude of vehicles has stirred concerns about safety, noise and traffic, given the parade of fuming drivers often trailing them. But the consternation also reflects something deeper: To critics, the vehicles are a rowdy side effect of Nashville’s soaring popularity in recent years that threatens to dilute the soul that made the city so alluring to begin with.

“That is my fear, that we are losing our sense of who we are, what built our success,” said Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., describing a version of Nashville — for generations known as the capital of country music — with an easygoing vibe and access to exceptional live music any day of the year that now must coexist with something much more decadent.

“You can have a fun, entertaining, unique experience here,” he said. “There’s nothing unique about downing 12 White Claws at 3 in the afternoon in 95-degree heat.”

Scrutiny of the transportainment industry sharpened this summer after a 22-year-old man fell off a party bus that then ran over his legs, an episode that underscored the virtual absence of safety regulations for the vehicles. A petition circulated blaming the vehicles for “causing a bigger hangover than they’re worth.” Nashville’s Metropolitan Council is now considering a proposal to rein in the industry, barring alcohol, requiring training, permits and inspections, and delineating limited areas where vehicles are authorized to operate.

Still, the vehicles have multiplied for a reason. The demand is there. They have been hired for children’s birthdays and retirement parties; a church once rented one to hand out Bibles. But transportainment is mostly associated with a revelrous side of the city that earned the nickname NashVegas, as it draws visitors for trips that — depending on how things go — could wind up being unforgettable or entirely forgotten.

Some in the industry contend that unruly outliers overshadow responsible businesses with passengers safely enjoying themselves at no one else’s expense.

Hell on Wheels, a company that deploys converted military cargo trucks, has strict rules: No music with explicit lyrics. No inflatable penises, an item that is popular with bachelorette parties. The last ride is done by 10:30 p.m.

“It’s not always about being loud and ridiculous on Broadway,” said Nicholas Lyon, an owner of the company, which is named after an armored tank division of the U.S. Army.

That said, he added, Nashville will always be a lively place, and the riders on party vehicles have been an ingredient in the city’s success. “Those ‘woo’ girls are literally the heartbeat of our economy,” Lyon said of downtown tourism. “If someone is looking for quiet Mayberry, you move to Brentwood, you move to Franklin.”

(Brentwood and Franklin are Nashville suburbs where, coincidentally, residents called the police last year with complaints about noise and indecent exposure after party vehicles displaced by the city’s temporary coronavirus limits on gathering places ventured farther afield.)

Lyon said he is a reluctant supporter of regulations. He worries that restrictions that are too onerous could choke the life out of businesses like his, which he started three years ago.

Yet he considers the free-for-all nature of the industry just as much of a threat. It is open to pretty much anyone with the desire and access to an old school bus. (Craigslist in Nashville has some listed for as little as $5,800.) There are no safety requirements or insurance mandates specifically related to transportainment, and most of the vehicles are not regulated by the local government, people in the industry and city transportation officials said.

“We need these bad apples out of here,” Lyon said.

After the city’s pandemic restrictions were eased in the spring, party vehicles started populating the streets again, making it possible on a weekday afternoon to see two roofless old buses, a converted pink SUV and a farm tractor and trailer at a single intersection.

The industry is largely concentrated in the Lower Broadway district, the nucleus of the Nashville that tourists come to see — a sort of Tennessee take on Times Square, with bright lights and beloved old haunts crowded alongside big brands and behemoth multistory 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 started its jaunt a few blocks from Broadway in the alley behind a liquor store, where riders could stock up.

Once the passengers boarded, Heatherly discussed the rules and issued a warning: Break them, and she would have no problem stopping the tractor, forcing everyone off and riding away.

She pointed to a metal railing around the trailer. “My husband used to say, this is for your safety, not your booty,” she said, moving swiftly to the next edict: “If you puke on this wagon, it will cost you some money.”

“Nobody puke!” one of the riders called out.

It turned out to be a lovely night: A day of rain gave way to a breeze and open skies. The women from Denver swayed and shimmied as Heatherly worked her way through a playlist of country hits and party staples: the Walker Hayes song “Fancy Like,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” She fast-forwarded to get to the good part of the Backstreet Boys song “Everybody.”

The tractor wasn’t on Broadway for long. The densest section of the thoroughfare was limited to pedestrians, sending the vehicle on a slow-moving obstacle course of narrow streets, jaywalkers, idling Ubers, lifted pickups and 90-degree turn after 90-degree turn.

The driver, Cole Canada, seemed to take it in stride.

“It hurts me to see Cole up there driving,” Heatherly said, “because my husband should be up there.” Her husband, Rickie, died in June; they had been married for 42 years. The business had been Rickie Heatherly’s creation, and he was an expert driver, she said, maneuvering the wagon into tight spaces others would not dare attempt.

Cheree Jubin, whose wedding in the fall was the impetus for the trip, stood on the wagon’s wooden bench. “Everyone needs to raise their glass to Rickie!” she said as her friends cheered.

“I’ve really 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 restroom break. Then, it wove around the stadium where the Tennessee Titans play, headed for the ideal spot for Heatherly to take the group’s photo. The women stood huddled together with the neon from Broadway and the lights from the skyline looming behind them and reflecting off the river.

But the quiet was fleeting. A roofless school bus, with speakers thumping, was already waiting, its riders eager to get the same shot.