Nashville Rising

After decades of Hee Haw kitsch and Garth Brooks mania, Music City is singing a sophisticated new tune. Marshall Chapman listens in.


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.

During the winter of my sophomore year, things started to change: The dividing lines between country, folk, and pop began to blur, and suddenly the Nashville music scene had more of a national presence. In 1969 Bob Dylan breezed into town to record Nashville Skyline. A few months later The Johnny Cash Show began airing to a worldwide audience from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. Cash’s guests included Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, and Kris Kristofferson, who was single-handedly turning the song-publishing world upside down with lyrics like “Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.” Until Kristofferson came along, songs that dealt explicitly with sex or drugs were automatically banned from country radio.

The Nashville music scene of the early Seventies has been likened to Paris in the Twenties. If you were young and talented and could write songs, it was the place to be. “There was an electricity in the air,” says singer Bobby Bare, who moved to town in 1964 and has been making hit records—including Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life—ever since. “There was so much going on. You couldn’t help but get caught up in it. You’d get very creative and want to do something. It was magic.”

But since those halcyon days, Nashville has weathered its share of ups and downs. Things hit rock bottom on October 15, 1990, the day Nashville Mayor Bill Boner appeared on Donahue with his fourth wife (and former mistress), an aspiring country singer named Traci Peel. Boner accompanied Peel on harmonica while she sang “Rocky Top.” I watched with a friend (along with everybody else in town) in fascination and horror. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. When it was over, my friend turned to me and said, “It doesn’t get any lower than this.”

That same year also marked the meteoric rise of Garth Brooks. Brooks is a fine singer and entertainer and writes decent songs, but his sales (more than 128 million albums sold to date) had even industry ­insiders scratching their heads. Some say his success was due to white America’s backlash against rap. Regardless, Nashville in the Nineties was running on trickle-down Garth-onomics. Everywhere you looked, there were moving vans and U-Hauls full of musicians and industry people migrating from New York, Los Angeles, and London. On Music Row, NationsBank and SunTrust opened offices with vintage guitars adorning the walls. Everybody wanted in on the action.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the sleepy town of Nashville became a real city, but I’ll go with 1998—the year the NHL Nashville Predators and NFL Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) moved here. Suddenly everything exploded. You’d look out over the city, and all you’d see were construction cranes. And even with the current state of the national economy, Nashville continues to grow. Unlike Atlanta, though, Nashville is holding onto its character. We still have the best meat-and-threes in the South (look no farther than Arnold’s Country Kitchen, where the roast beef and barbecue pork are served with your choice of three sides)—not to mention the best fried chicken on the planet, at Prince’s Hot Chicken.

Around the turn of the millennium, such stars as Kenny Chesney moved into the galaxy that had once been all Brooks. Soon after, iTunes, MySpace, and the like started to give the tired, big established labels a run for their money. Indie artists and labels all over town began manufacturing and promoting their own music without having to move through the gummed-up, corporate machinery. Every week I hear about some new band that’s blowing everybody away. A few months ago it was husband and wife Adam and Shannon Wright (known as the Wrights), showcasing songs from their new album, Red and Yellow, Blue and Green, at 3rd & Lindsley, a music club near downtown. With Everly Brothers–tight harmonies, well-crafted songs, and Adam’s Dick Dale–meets–Daniel Lanois guitar work, the Wrights transported everyone in the room to another world we didn’t want to leave.

Given the diversity of what’s out there, I’d be hard-pressed to say what country music is anymore. To me it will always be Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton (before Nine to Five). The country music on Clear Channel–controlled radio these days sounds more like Seventies rock with fiddles. One place to find the real thing—or a 21st-century take on it—is at the Loveless Barn, a new venue on Highway 100 where, every Wednesday, the “Music City Roots” radio show plays to sold-out crowds. Featuring Americana, bluegrass, folk, blues, jazz, rockabilly, Western swing, Celtic, cow punk—you name it—it has featured everyone from Emmylou Harris to the eclectic Abigail Washburn, whose trance-inducing tunes blend Chinese folk, modern pop, and clawhammer banjo. Whenever I hear music like Washburn’s, I begin to imagine, in a basement apartment somewhere in East Nashville, a newcomer from Iowa or Maine or Mississippi or ­Nevada writing that next great hit, something so true and poetic and heartbreaking that even Clear Channel will take notice.

As exciting as it is to witness Nashville’s creative rebirth, there are aspects of the city’s rhinestone-studded Hee Haw past that I miss. For instance, there used to be a putt-putt golf course just beyond the airport that was a favorite of mine. Evidently the first owner, a devout Christian, fell on hard times, so he sold the course to an avid country ­music fan, who didn’t have much of a budget to work with either. On one hole, you’d putt through the garden of Gethsemane, only to find an exact replica of Garth Brooks standing at the other end. On another, you’d putt your ball past a swinging piece of cardboard painted to look like the stone that guarded Jesus’s tomb. Once past the cardboard rock, instead of the body of Jesus, you were greeted by a life-size cutout of Reba McEntire. Whenever friends would fly in from New York, London, or anywhere deemed the least bit sophisticated, I would get a perverse pleasure out of picking them up at the airport. “Want to play some putt-putt golf?” I’d ask before driving to the dilapidated course.

The putt-putt place is long gone now, and when a friend arrives in town, I’m more likely to take them to Whole Foods, where they may spot Keith Urban at the hot bar with his wife, Nicole Kidman. Last year it might have been Gwyneth Paltrow, who spent part of 2010 in Nashville filming Country Strong and documenting her discoveries on her website, “Never have I met such warm people, heard such good music, eaten so much fried chicken,” she wrote before offering her assessment of the new Nashville: “Pretty damn great.”

Photo: Ferdinando Scianna/ Magnum Photos.