Meandering Through Music City

Music City. Despite all the recording studios and records that come out of New York and Los Angeles, Nashville is the unsuspecting place that gets the “Music City” distinction. Now I understand why.

Everywhere you go, Nashville screams music. From the bars, also called “honky tonks,” lining Broadway that feature bands every day beginning at 11 a.m., to the famous Grand Ole Opry, to the metal transformer-like boxes blasting music into the streets of downtown, tunes permeate the city.

I went into the experience thinking Nashville was going to be all country, all the time. I was fine with that. Country music and its culture is not my thing, but I do like experiencing phenomena that are outside my frame of reference. How boring would it be if we only sought out things we’re familiar with?!

Anyway, I didn’t understand the complexities of the country music industry until witnessing it firsthand. Some people arrive in Nashville expecting to hear covers of traditional country acts like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Kenny Rogers; others yell out requests for currently popular acts like Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood. I was intrigued by the tension between between the groups… not everyone buys into the battle, but more people do than I expected. As it turns out, uninformed folks like myself who assumed country is country are grossly mistaken.

Most aspiring musicians do a great job of mixing old and new songs during their sets, but some audience members occasionally would mumble a quiet comment about the lesser quality of the “new stuff” or tiredness of the “old stuff.” It became obvious that the genre’s infighting is no different than, let’s say, rock purists who are die-hard fans of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Guess Who quietly battling it out with those who adore the likes of Maroon 5 or the Arctic Monkeys. All of those band serve their purpose, it’s just a matter of fans’ personal taste.

I had heard that Nashville had been embracing rock more over the past decade or so. For instance, Jack White launched the Third Man Records studio south of downtown in 2009, and the Black Keys followed with their own studio a year later. Rock-centric bars typically are a little off the beaten path in Nashville, but they definitely exist and they definitely are growing in number. I stayed in East Nashville and rock largely prevailed over country in that up-and-coming neighborhood.

Whatever your musical preferences, it’s clear that Nashville is, in fact, Music City. Few places I’ve visited have had such a musical focus.
Nashville band

Some bands play modern country and original music.
Nashville band

Others played hits from crossover bands like the Eagles and Tom Petty.
Nashville band

And still others played a little bit of everything, including Janis Joplin.
Nashville band

And you know what? The musicians are good. I’m so used to having to pay a cover for hit-or-miss local bands that I couldn’t believe the plethora of amazing artists filling the Nashville bars at no cost to patrons. But it struck me how many of the bands — or a lone person with a guitar, as the case may be — talked about playing with “big-name artists” whom they wouldn’t actually name. It seemed like poorly executed humble bragging. Person after person, in between songs, talked about how they were about to put out their own record and had helped a mystery famous person on their last record. I understand that some big-name artists make accompanying musicians sign confidentiality agreements, but the amount of not-quite-name-dropping I saw seemed a little over the top.

When the umpteenth guitarist I’d watched at a music venue began talking about making it big, I looked out the window and saw yet another guy walking down the street with a guitar on his back. That’s when it hit me… everyone thinks they’re about to make it big as a musician in Nashville, just like everyone thinks they’re about to make it big as an actor in Los Angeles. It became even funnier when I saw this shirt:
Nashville t-shirt

I thought, “Sure, pal. You and everyone else.” I thought, heck, why don’t some of these aspiring artists just go to that MyStudio kiosk I saw at Opry Mills mall that allows you to step inside and create your own demo video. I didn’t see anyone use it because the mall was deserted and I got kicked out thanks to that crappy ice storm, so I am not sure if it is popular and actually creates a decent product. Somehow I doubt that this kiosk, which touts itself as “the future of entertainment and talent discovery” delivers on its promise of providing “recording studio quality sound.”
MyStudio recording kiosk

Big studios like Sony and RCA have deep roots in Nashville and are known for signing big stars, but nearly every third building in the city now houses a hip, fledgling studio. At first upon seeing “studio” signs I thought some of them were art studios, but almost all are recording studios. Largely gone are the cowboy hats and thick Southern drawls. Taking their place are musicians in tight jeans with hipster-esque beards. It sure seemed like few up-and-coming musicians I encountered were interested in true country; their music sounds a lot more like crossover country-rock or country-pop. I actually found myself tapping my foot to some of the tunes. The transformation from the more conservative, strictly country Nashville of yore to the hipper, more experimental Nashville is fascinating to witness.

Even if the idea of spending a couple days listening to country music makes your eyes glaze over, like it does mine, still consider taking a musical journey through Nashville. You might be surprised to find that country music haven no longer is a one-trick pony.

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