There are more preconceived notions about Nashville than perhaps any other city in America, especially relating to music. The country music capital of the world? Home of the “Grand Ole Opry”? Nashvegas? The city is—or has been—all these things at one time or another. But there’s a new Nashville brewing that I almost hesitate to reveal. Otherwise, you’ll all want to live here, and we’ve got enough high-rises going up in the Gulch as it is.
Nashville has long moved beyond the image perpetuated by Hee Haw. Nobody here wears overalls or pops up out of a cornfield shouting, “How-DEE!” And no one has relatives who work in a rhinestone mine. The reality is that Nashville is enjoying a sort of golden age. The level of talent these days is mind-boggling—and I’m talking about all kinds of music, not just country. One survey recently found that there are more musicians per capita in Nashville than in either Los Angeles or New York—including those employed by the six-time Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony. The Black Keys, Paramore, and Kings of Leon all call the city home, as do Sheryl Crow, Keb’ Mo’, and Ke$ha. Jack White of the White Stripes moved here in 2005 with his wife, supermodel-turned-musician Karen Elson. Last September Elson and her band appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, but most people in town know her as “that good-lookin’ redhead who opened that cool vintage clothing store next to Bongo Java on Belmont Boulevard.”
That Nashville became a music mecca in the first place is sort of a fluke. Had the National Life and Accident Insurance Company not launched the “WSM Barn Dance” (a live radio show that became the “Grand Ole Opry”) in 1925, the country music capital of the world may very well have ended up 300 miles east in Bristol, Tennessee, where most of the earliest recordings of the genre were made.
I came to town in 1967 to attend Vanderbilt University. My parents thought I was going to get an education, but I was much more interested in Music Row than in Western civ or calculus. My first paying gig was singing in a basement bar near campus, for union scale. Forty years later, I’m still writing songs and recording albums. For brief periods, I’ve lived in London, Boston, Belize, and Ketchum, Idaho, but I always come back to Nashville. For a songwriter, there’s no place quite like it.
In the late Sixties Nashville was a big ole sleepy country town: Other than the strip of bars on Printers Alley, the whole place shut down by 8 p.m. But while the city slept, songwriters like Billy Joe Shaver and Vince Matthews were cruising the alleyways around Music Row, high on amphetamines, cranking out hits like “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Love in the Hot Afternoon.” The music business was wild and woolly in those days, with speed, booze, and all-night guitar pulls the order of the day.