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VOL. 35 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 3, 2011

Music City’s roots

‘Silicon Valley of Music’ label fails to honor city’s rich, varied traditions

By Tim Ghianni

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While some national writers have dubbed Nashville “the Silicon Valley of Music,” it’s not.

It’s Music City, a brand worn proudly, with a rich heritage to back it up, unlike that San Francisco Bay boomtown populated by start-ups, coders, guys with pocket-protectors and unshaven techno-visionaries.

Those who are the people behind the Music City brand here – leaders in the music business – are proud of the moniker and what it represents. But they do see some comparisons to the capital of start-up technology companies as well as some concepts and even people that could be borrowed in order to move their business and the city forward.

“There is wisdom in what built this business,” says Mark Montgomery, a guitar picker-turned-digital entrepreneur. “This music business got so great because it was driven by really smart guys. Now we need to in inject some youth back in to that equation.”

In other words, don’t overlook the path and the people that earned Nashville its moniker in the first place, but give it the nourishment it needs to grow.

Nashville’s musical roots are healthy and deep. And it’s hardly been stagnant. While Music City is best known for twang and “Howdee,” change and evolution of music and the music business have been constants.

The most recent in that cycle of change has been catching national attention and fueling these latest Silicon Valley comparisons. Headline-grabbing imports like Jack White, The Black Keys and Taylor Swift, as well as homegrown stars like Kings of Leon and Ke$ha have, put the city in the spotlight and changed perceptions.

Dave Pomeroy, among the city’s best bass guitar players and president of Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians, agrees in part with the Silicon Valley analogy because there is obvious growth and the city is turning more attention to its worldwide calling card.

But he also laughs at how there was a push a few years ago to throw the hillbillies out with the bathwater. “There was a point, 10 years ago, when they were talking about changing the name from ‘Music City USA.’

“I was wondering what they were going to change the name to, The Printing Capital of North America?”

Despite its hillbilly heritage, current community leaders have embraced what image makers refer to as “the brand.” The mayor has formed and co-chaired the Nashville Music Council, which has a stated goal of “cultivating and advancing” the Nashville music community and solidifying the city’s image as “the global music capital.”

This Council is reinforcing what musicians and businessmen have known for decades: Nashville is a great place to make music, but there’s no need to settle for the status quo.

But the Silicon Valley of Music? “I think that is a matter of perception,” Pomeroy says. “The rest of the world is finally figuring out what we’ve known for many, many years.”

If it is music’s “Silicon Valley,” it is because of what was here to expand upon, says David Macias, president of Thirty Tigers, which does everything from manage and market artists to aid in record distribution.

He even has a side job as label chief of Thirty One Tigers, on which he is working hard to get the stutter-stepping career of country traditionalist Elizabeth Cook to flourish.

“One of the reasons this is such a great place to do music business is the fact the country and Christian industries are here. That’s important,” Macias says.

“You need a certain amount of infrastructure to grow business. There have to be studios here. There has to be a thriving union.

“There’s such a big infrastructure that you can go grab a burger or a beer and meet with any number of people who understand the inner workings of the interactive media world.”

Ben Blackwell, an exec at Jack White’s Third Man Records, agrees with Macias’ assessment.

“There is a music business infrastructure here,” he says. “And for the longest time it only served country music, because country music was the only thing that happened here.”

“But there were all of these recording studios, these pressing plants, anything that you remotely needed to get things done right here.”

Blackwell, who relocated from Detroit two years ago as a part of White’s move to set up shop in Music City, taps deeply into the city’s heritage to help his business grow.

“I deal with the manufacturer that literally manufactures all of our vinyl. I coordinate with them all the materials,” he says.

And Blackwell doesn’t have to go far to get the job done for the vinyl-focused label. He’s maybe a mile or so from his vinyl manufacturer, United Record Pressing on Chestnut Street. URP began operations as “Southern Plastics” in Nashville in 1949, according to the company history. Its stock-in-trade was not limited to local product.

In fact, one of the company’s biggest clients was a little combo from Liverpool, England. Southern Plastics pressed The Beatles’ Vee Jay recordings, The Fabs’ vinyl launching pad into America before Capitol decided the quartet might have some talent after all and took the reins.

The URP plant has been in the same location since 1962, changing its name from Southern Plastics in 1971.

This company in the shadow of Greer Stadium is just one example of the existing infrastructure that helps new businesses and new ideas to flourish.

Third Man handles many of its own needs, with store, studio, performance venue and administrative offices under one roof at 623 Seventh Ave. South.

But having a vinyl pressing plant perhaps five minutes away is the type of amenity that encouraged White and associates to abandon Detroit.

“Jack had moved here in 2006, around there. He just lived here for awhile. Once he had two seconds – between the White Stripes and the Raconteurs – he had the idea to start up a record label here,” Blackwell says.

He emphasizes the distinction between Nashville and Silicon Valley.

“When I think of Silicon Valley, I think of a lot of young upstart businesses in an industry that was still emerging and finding its footing.

“I don’t feel that in Nashville. The music business is by no means in its infancy or on its way up. I kind of feel it’s the opposite,” Blackwell adds.

He’s not saying that the business is on its way down, but only that while younger artists have been moving here and grabbing headlines, the magic and machinery that drew them here already existed.

It’s the vibe that has allowed White to make remarkable recordings with the likes of Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, hardly “young Turks” (Turkesses?) of the music business.

“Maybe for 40 years, the studios only did country music, because that’s all that came in,” Blackwell says.

“But it’s not like we only do country music here. Anyone can book a studio. Anyone can press a record on United. It doesn’t matter what your content is.

“It kind of mirrors the music business infrastructure that also is in New York and L.A. What’s here is up to par, but it’s at a fraction of the cost.

“The studios, manufacturing … all that is available here. Complete with being one of the best places in the country to live.”

Digital entrepreneur Montgomery, the self-described 43-year-old “rabble –rouser” moved here in 1991 chasing the typical Nashville Cat’s dream of becoming a successful songwriter and guitar player. He fell a little short of that, but found success in the digital delivery and by embracing the “what’s next?” ideal.

“Our company and a couple of other companies put Nashville on the map digitally,” he says. “In a lot of ways the community has been very slow to change. That being said, it really does have the opportunity to change and be the new epicenter of the music business.”

Montgomery, whose newest venture “Flo thinkery” is geared toward helping Fortune 500 companies make best use of the rapidly changing technology, thinks most of the elements are in place for the Music City brand to continue its spread.

“Nashville has the concentration of creatives that is 2-1 ahead of any city in the U.S. Nashville has all the business infrastructure, the lights, touring, recording. Anything you need is here. And the city is within a day's drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population.

“There is a legacy of innovation here. A lot of publishing is here. But we are known as ‘Music City.’ We have a brand that other cities would die for,” he says.

“The problem is the narrative associated with that brand needs to be updated.” That brand need not be completely defined by Hee Haw, hillbillies and hay bales.

For example, Nashville was at one time among the R&B capitals, with late producer Ted Jarrett and others putting out great music by the likes of Arthur Alexander, Gene Allison, Roscoe Shelton, Earl Gaines and Frank Howard and the Commanders.

That music was the focus of an eye-opening exhibit – and companion Grammy-winning CD compilation -- by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum six years ago.

At one point it was not uncommon to find the world’s top R&B performers playing on Jefferson Street and recording in Nashville, with those records sold on clear-channel radio station WLAC (1510 AM) from the heart of what most considered “hillbilly central.”

Arguably rock’s most famous guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, began his musical career as a member of show bands on Jefferson Street and in Printer’s Alley. Billy Cox, his bass player in the post-Jimi Hendrix Experience group Band of Gypsys, uses Nashville as home base while participating in the Hendrlx tribute business.

Looking further back, Scotty Moore, Elvis’ first guitar player and manager, has called Nashville home for decades. He owned a Music Row studio at one point, and later recorded pals like Carl Perkins and Cox at his home in Joelton.

D.J. Fontana, the drummer who joined Elvis, Scotty and Bill Black in the Blue Moon Boys, also lives here.

And, of course, while Elvis started at Sun in Memphis, he did the bulk of his recording at RCA Studio B on Music Row. It was not unusual in the early 1970s to see the black-suited Memphis Mafia hanging around outside the RCA complex on 17th Avenue South.

The albums considered by many the heart of Bob Dylan’s career – John Wesley Harding, Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline all were recorded here.

Others who’ve tapped into the city’s studio expertise and pool of musicians include three Beatles. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney both recorded here. McCartney also “borrowed” one of Nashville’s signature musical treasures by using steel guitar ace Lloyd Green in sessions in England and France. Similarly, “Quiet Beatle” George Harrison borrowed Nashville steel man Pete Drake.

Looking way back, it should be noted that the explosion of Nashville as a recording center can be traced to a pop record, “Near You,” recorded by the Francis Craig Orchestra in 1947. The song was a huge national hit and spurred pop and country recording sessions and pressing in Nashville. Craig, whose orchestra was a popular attraction at the Hermitage and other downtown hotels, also is responsible for Vanderbilt fight song Dynamite.

All of which is to say that the musicians and the infrastructure have existed and evolved here for decades, and while the city is best known for country music, all genres have been recorded here.

Another big element in the city’s growing music business is the city itself.

As Macias puts it: “Nashville can certainly make an argument for being a more attractive place to live than Los Angeles or New York.

“People like the livability and the navigability of being here in Nashville.”

So, Nashville isn’t Silicon Valley. But, as digital entrepreneur Montgomery says, Music City needs to “update its brand” by stealing some of the Left Coast brainpower.

“The idea that we are country music city is a great foundation to build on,” Montgomery says. “But we have to expand the narrative and talk about this city’s potential to innovate beyond just that base.”

He said the key is to use music as a way also to build the city’s technological base.

“Coders (computer geeks) are very much like musicians. They are weird. They like to do weird stuff. The city has this image that we are the buckle of the Bible Belt, so there is going to be a little tension in telling the new narrative.

“We need to be able to tell these coders that ‘hey man, this town’s weird enough for you.’

“We need to recruit better. We don’t really have the technological talent now to solve the digital problems. The interesting thing is that the same technological resources the music business needs are the technological resources the health care business needs.

“Music is the big shiny ball the Chamber of Commerce offers, but some of those kids, those coders, will show up and then take jobs in the health care business,” Montgomery adds.

Youth and youthful dreams is where the Silicon Valley analogy comes into play. Music City can keep its brand healthy by embracing new ideas and new ways.

There may be those hankering for the good old days, for the way it’s always been on Music Row.

“The reality is that the horse left the barn 10 years ago, and we ain’t going to put the horse back in the barn,” Montgomery says. “Old men can’t dream the dreams of young men. They just can’t.”

“This is going to be a young man’s business again. In a way we are really at a new beginning.”

Tim Ghianni spent almost 3½ decades as a columnist and editor for daily newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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