It’s been a prolific pandemic for the Chattanooga-born, Los Angeles–based actor Leslie Jordan. He soothed millions with his hilarious, Southern-accented Instagram posts— “What’re y’all doing, my fellow hunker-downers?”—and took the time to chat with Garden & Gun about his new projects for our December/January 2021 issue.
Since then, he has released Company’s Comin’, a star-studded gospel album on which he narrates scripture and personal stories—“I’ve been baptized thirteen times and I just wanted to make sure one of them took!”—and sings his tender heart out. Dolly Parton lends her epic voice to “Where the Soul Never Dies,” Morgane and Chris Stapleton share a beautiful performance on “Farther Along,” and “In the Sweet By and By,” with T.J. Osborne, is a quietly powerful tear-jerker. Such musicians as Brandi Carlile, Tanya Tucker, and Eddie Vedder give star turns, too. This month, he’ll release a zippy tell-all essay collection, How Y’all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived.
Jordan spent part of the last year in his hometown of Chattanooga to be near family. Although the Tennessee mountain city has changed quite a bit since Jordan was growing up there (he was born in 1955), he still has a handful of go-to spots—and memories of what the new spots used to be—that he shared with us.
Where to Stay
Where to Walk
“We have so many beautiful bridges that go across the Tennessee River, like the old Market Street Bridge and the Walnut Street Bridge that they’ve made into a walking bridge. It leads you to North Chattanooga and all kinds of restaurants and drinking spots with the college kids. There’s a part where I think they tried to do what San Antonio did with the River Walk, but it’s a real quaint area with wonderful boutiques, and one of my favorite things to do is wind along the park by the river and stop into the shops. One place that’s been around a long time is the Boathouse—it’s where you go for seafood on the river.
A Fancy Spot
“I can remember a time in Chattanooga when we had one Mexican restaurant at the foot of Lookout Mountain, and you’d go there for tacos. We had one spaghetti house where you’d go for Italian spaghetti and meatballs. We’ve always had a very big Greek population and we’d always go to the Acropolis. Now we have a real fancy restaurant called St. John’s. It’s very young and hip and up on all the latest food technology and local sources. It’s where you go when you want to get dressed up.”
“This is an institution in Chattanooga. I remember they had this big lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and you’d eat with people you didn’t know. And the dishes were fried chicken, everything—oh my gosh is it good. When I was growing up, a lady named Granny ran the place, and she was so much fun.”
An Area Full of Memories
“The part of downtown that’s gentrifying used to be a place we called John’s Railroad Salvage. It’s where you’d see all the scrap or get a washing machine. Well now it’s a mall with Anthropologie and J.Crew. I was at one restaurant there—it’s good, I had catfish, which used to be poor-people food—called Tupelo Honey. I was telling the servers there that when I was a sixteen-year-old gay boy, near there was a gay bar called the Powder Puff Lounge. I had to sneak in. All the big drag queens came up from Atlanta.”
The Bend in the River
“This is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains, and a lot of the old people with the old Coca-Cola bottling money live up on the mountain. Well, it’s beautiful when you come into town, there’s a bend in the river, that’s Moccasin Bend. There’s a psychiatry hospital right there in that view. I’ve had a few family members out there, and they do really good work.”
Rock City and Ruby Falls
“You want to go to Lookout Mountain, Rock City, and Ruby Falls. This was a big part of my childhood. With all the elves and everything, it’s like going back to a simpler time. I always go back. There’s a part called Fat Man’s Squeeze. It’s two rocks together, and you have to have about a twenty-eight-inch waist. I always measure myself to see, am I fatter than last time? Life is fine if I can get through the Fat Man’s Squeeze.”
A Barbecue Place Lost to Time
“There was a barbecue joint out in the country. As kids, we were just feral, running around from the minute the sun came up. We would go out to this barbecue spot and we’d buy one Coke to share. The owner, she’d tell us to run along, and we’d say ‘Hey, we’re customers, we have a Coke!’ And she’d say, ‘Go circle the parking lot one hundred times. If you do that, I’ll give you a cheeseburger.’ She just wanted us out. So we’d circle and holler, ‘thirty-eight!’ It would take us all day long to get us a cheeseburger. Then we’d run off to the creek and swim in our underpants.”
A Spot that Spurred His Love of Horses
“Right near Chattanooga was the Happy Valley Farms Saddlebred stables. Those horses have a wonderful gait. People think you have to be rich to have horses, but Lord no. I grew up right in the suburbs, as middle class as it could possibly be. I had a pony named Midnight and we had him a little shed my dad and I built him. He’d lay down at night and rest. I let all the neighborhood kids ride him, and I had that pony until I was fourteen years old. Now, I’m taking horseback riding lessons in Los Angeles—I’d never taken a lesson until recently. I’m embracing it again.”
A Taste of Home
“Yardbird was the only place that I knew of in Los Angeles where you could get sweet tea, fried chicken, and an order of mac and cheese. I hope they made it through the pandemic. My family cooks Southern, old family recipes from my grandmother. When I’m back in Chattanooga, I just want to spend time with my family. At any meal when we’re together, we’re just fighting to get a word in.”