An Old Star Shines
Nashville, Tenn., moves beyond its country roots and embraces a new, multifaceted role as one of our country’s leading arts-and-entertainment cities.
Long before the advent of the Victrola, much less the MP3 player, the city of Nashville, Tenn., and the sound of music were inextricably linked. Arriving in the late 1700s along the Cumberland River, the city’s first permanent settlers — two groups of European descent — celebrated their landing by buck dancing to fiddle reels. A century later, the music business arrived — first in the form of the earliest song-publishing companies, and then with Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers, one of the country’s first internationally touring groups.
By the time local radio station WSM began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry from the offices of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville in 1925, the city had affirmed itself as the spiritual, if not literal, home of country music. The ensuing 87 years have done little to change Nashville’s reputation, and it has earned the sobriquet “Music City.”
“I guess I was ready for a little change of pace, but I didn’t want to go to the obvious places: New York or Los Angeles,” explains the Black Keys’ lead singer, Dan Auerbach. “I wanted to go to a place that still felt like Akron. And Nashville, to me, still feels like the Midwest. It feels like it’s a small town, but there’s just lots going on here.”
For Joy Williams of the Grammy Award–winning roots-pop duo Civil Wars, the evolution of the city is part of its growing allure. “Just in my time here, I’ve seen Nashville change so much,” says Williams, who moved from Northern California a decade ago. “I think I had the same notion most people have, which is it’s simply a town that percolates around country music. Though country-music history is deep and richly steeped throughout the city, this is a place that’s been expanding musically and culturally.
“It’s been exciting to see people from the TV and film world moving here,” Williams continues. “People coming from Europe and Canada — there are all kinds of different cultures and different music being represented here now. It continues to blossom.”
Australian-born country star Keith Urban, who arrived in Nashville in 1992 and who now lives there with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, says the changes have been tempered by a respect for the city’s roots.
“It’s certainly way more cosmopolitan than it was when I moved here 20 years ago,” Urban says. “The influx of people has brought a much greater diversity. But, for me, the original part of Nashville that I loved is still here. It’s just sort of been added on to.”
And if the city’s fathers have anything to say about it, this expansion won’t stop anytime soon. Local officials are looking to add even more, in order to ensure that Nashville isn’t about a single kind of music, travel or living experience either.
When Karl Dean was elected mayor of Nashville in 2007, he saw an opportunity to build on one of the most recognizable brands in the world. “We knew that the Music City image, or that portion of our identity, was just so vital, and we needed to make sure we worked not only to preserve it but also to develop it further,” he says.
To that end, he helped launch the Music City Music Council in 2009. A partnership between the mayor’s office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Council is co-chaired by Dean and former RCA and Lyric Street label executive Randy Goodman.
“From the outset, the goals were that we wanted to attract creative people to live and work in Nashville, to improve the city’s live-music scene and to develop a system of music education in our public schools,” Goodman says.
Though still in their relative infancy, the efforts seem to be working. So far, the Council has established a partnership with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to help incubate local startup businesses in digital media, music and entertainment. It’s also developed a sweeping education plan, called Music Makes Us, to place the city’s public schools at the forefront of music education nationally. And it’s nearly completed construction on the city’s first low-cost artist residence, the Ryman Lofts. Scheduled to open in late 2012, the 60-apartment community boasts unconventional floor plans, large meeting spaces and an overall setup designed to stimulate creative collaboration between residents. “The entire community was created with artists in mind,” Goodman says. “It’s ultimately a place for them to nurture and grow, individually and together.”
Dean, who is known around the city as the “education mayor,” says Music Makes Us is a vital component in Nashville’s future. “I believe the music and the arts are not frills,” Dean says. “Multiple studies indicate that students with a strong music-education background score higher on SATs and tend to outperform their nonmusical peers. Musical instruction increases students’ mental flexibility [and] helps with reasoning, and there’s a tie to math and science. It’s an essential element in our kids’ education.” Launching this fall, Music Makes Us will offer classes in songwriting and composition, rock band and hip-hop performance, and technology-based production, as well as recording and DJ remixing. “And at the same time, we will preserve traditional curriculum in band and orchestra and choir,” Dean says.
Goodman is also tasked with bringing new business to the city. Nashville’s location, reasonable costs and high quality of life have all served as major draws for companies looking to move to town. Over the past two decades, performing-rights organizations like BMI, publishing houses like Sony/Tree and management companies including Front Line have all expanded their presence in Nashville considerably. Meanwhile, corporations like Viacom — which owns CMT, MTV and VH1— have been shifting people and resources from both the coasts into the area. At one point in the mid-’90s, the influx of former Big Apple residents was so great that a New York–style deli, Noshville, was opened and continues to thrive today with multiple locations.
“A lot of companies, they look at their operations and ask: ‘How can we make this business make more sense?’ ” Goodman says. “And, ultimately, coming to Nashville makes more sense for a lot of them.”
Historically, as an industry town, Nashville has had a hit-or-miss reputation as a place to see live music. But the city is currently in the midst of a renaissance, with a healthy cross section of clubs and venues that have managed to meld the old and the new.
“The great thing is, a lot of the places I went to early on to hear live music are still there,” Urban says. He points to places like 12th and Porter and the Exit/In, which have been Nashville staples for more than 25 years. But their mere presence isn’t the small victory: In all this time, they’ve barely changed.
“Those venues are still happening, and then there are slightly newer places, like the Cannery Ballroom — which used to be a real cannery and is now a club. Or Marathon Music Works, which used to be an automotive place for Marathon Motors that’s been transformed into a venue.”
The city’s downtown area, highlighted by the Lower Broadway section, offers a mix of tourist-oriented destinations (Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Tootsies Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western World), local landmarks (Hatch Show Print, Gruhn Guitars) and a variety of venues, from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to the historic Ryman Auditorium and the Bridgestone Arena, making it one of the more thriving entertainment corridors in the country.
“Downtown has really exploded but kept a lot of its heart,” Urban says. Currently, Nashville is in the midst of building a massive new convention center downtown, and it’s set to open in the spring of 2013. The city hopes the 1.2 million-square-foot, state-of-the-art complex will attract major industry events to the city. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t play host to the Grammys every so often,” Goodman says. “We’ll have the infrastructure in place — and we already generate eight hours of prime-time network programming from here. We feel like Nashville can be as viable a location as anywhere in the country.”
To musicians, the allure of Nashville has long been obvious. “You have a proximity to some of the best studios in the entire world; a proximity to some of the best musicians in the entire world and some of the best songwriters in the entire world,” says the Civil Wars’ John Paul White. “It’s kind of an easy call to come here.”
For others, it’s not just about career concerns but about the quality of life that Nashville affords. “This is a real family-oriented place,” says Urban, who has two daughters with Kidman. “I think when you’re in the South, there is a lot of focus on family. And Nashville’s great with that. Everybody we know has kids, and there’s a real priority on that, which suits us perfectly.”
From the city’s more bohemian East-Side neighborhoods to the pristine Hillsboro Village area, Nashville offers a living experience that’s both unique and familiar. “I live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and houses close together, just like the neighborhood I grew up in,” says the Black Keys’ Auerbach. “Certainly, there is Southernness here, which is totally different than what I’m used to, but there are a lot of really nice people around, so that doesn’t intimidate me.”
“It’s really all things to all people,” adds White. “If you want to put down roots and stay in one place, in this information age, you don’t have to be squatting right in the middle of New York or L.A. to be able to make things happen. We’re a lot more of a commuter nation. So, Nashville’s pretty much got everything you need.”
Travelers to Nashville can experience that same kind of variety. While there is no shortage of iconic destinations — the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; Gaylord Opryland; and the Hermitage, home of former President Andrew Jackson — the city also boasts a trove of unexpected treasures, from the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to the Lane Motor Museum, which has the largest collection of European cars, motorcycles and one-off auto oddities in the United States.
Even as it retains its status as country music’s capital, Nashville continues to move in manifold directions. “We always acknowledge that country music has been the base of everything,” Dean says. “That’s a huge element that we’re extremely proud of. But it’s become increasingly clear that Nashville has a lot more to offer. We have a fairly comprehensive musical environment here and a diverse scene culturally. We feel we’re a truly multifaceted city, and that’s something we plan on letting people know about.”
While country remains its calling card, Nashville is now a place with a dynamic musical identity. In the past few years, a series of homegrown talents have straddled a variety of genres, with pop-punk band Paramore, rockers Kings of Leon and diva Ke$ha all enjoying massive commercial success. The period has also seen a wave of rock ’n’ roll talent relocating to the city. The White Stripes’ Jack White left Detroit for Nashville, where he’s set up his groundbreaking Third Man Records label and retail store. Meanwhile, Akron, Ohio, natives the Black Keys also decided to move their base to Music City.
“When I first arrived in town 20 years ago, I loved going to the meat-and-three joints. Places for funky, earthy food — great cheeseburgers and all that stuff. A lot of those are still around, like Brown’s Diner, Rotier’s Restaurant and a great spot downtown called Jack’s Bar-B-Que. Of course, there are all the higher-end restaurants too. But, to me, if you want something that’s unique to Nashville, those are the places to go.”