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

Nashville was never limited to country music

By Tim Ghianni

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Pundits may look at the fact that Jack White and other young artists and support staffs are moving in and say the city is fast evolving past its traditional country music identity.

But while Nashville is the capital of country music and the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the city never has been limited to twang and fiddle. The music has continued to evolve, as has technology, which has traveled from 78 rpm to 45 to LP and CD formats and now MP3.

For example, the current “buzz” in Nashville is Americana, with its own convention and subculture. But at its heart, it is rootsy country and folk music, a new stage in the evolution of Nashville’s musical stew.

Artists like David Olney, Todd Snider and Webb Wilder helped establish a foothold for that genre after Foster & Lloyd made their mark in the late 1980s with a jangly form of country-rock.

And what could be more Americana than the “relentless rock and twang” offered by the incendiary cow-punk artists Jason & The Scorchers since 1981. With a whirling dervish of a fringed-leather-clad front man and three sidemen who could hold their own with the city’s best session players, the Scorchers were heralded at least briefly as America’s “Next Big Thing.”

John Prine, John Hiatt and Janis Ian all exemplify great artists who could have settled anywhere but came here for the musical climate and amenities like studios, musicians and proximity to other creative types.

Steve Earle came up from Texas with a guitar and a dream to be the next Hank Williams before turning his attentions more to gritty folk-rock that could be played side-by-side with stuff by Springsteen.

And before them came others, like Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson, songwriters who made the words themselves dance. They were part of a wild and rowdy time in Nashville, and contemporaries like Tom T. Hall, John R. Cash, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson all were offering up songs that would be Americana charters now.

And rock royalty abounded as well, with fellows like Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins settling here.

All of them owe huge debts to previous boundary-busters like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams.

Tubb, Scruggs and that group are, in turn, indebted to Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon.

Maybelle Carter and her daughters moved to Nashville, at least part-time, and John Carter Cash now is attempting to revive the Carter Family sound for another generation. It is a music as far from the commercial country of Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban as Waylon’s music was from Roy Acuff’s.

Experts herald Jack White’s move here as an indication of the change in culture here, turning it to a “Silicon Valley of Music.” There also is an effort to modify the city’s image in order to recruit young technologically savvy outsiders to add their tones to the mix.

That’s a long stretch from the thinking decades ago in the Athens of the South, when the establishment looked down pedigreed noses at the newcomers, “hillbillies” drawn here because of the creative scene and growing industry. Despite their wealth, country stars weren’t welcomed in Belle Meade.

So a smart businessman with a mellow singing voice named Eddy Arnold bought up land in Oak Hill, at the county’s southern edge, plus much of what was a small town called Brentwood. Country artists had a place to build their mansions.

The cluster of creativity and the studios and expertise has long made Nashville and the surrounding area long a haven for rockers seeking a life away from New York or Los Angeles. Current and past residents include the Young Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, guitar monster Duane Eddy, Steppenwolf’s John Kay and Kim “Bette Davis Eyes” Carnes, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Winwood, Peter Frampton and King Crimson’s Adrian Belew.

Heck, Rolling Stones pianist Nicky Hopkins died here. The band’s favorite sax man, Jim Horn, continues to call Nashville home base.

Leon Russell still lives here. But for a time so did J.J. Cale and the Allman Brothers. In the early 1970s, Neil Young was a common, if perhaps shaky, sight around town.

And to this day, the imports continue, as Little Richard – the Georgia peach who was a hero of Jefferson Street – has settled into a downtown hotel.

Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler called Nashville home for years, mostly so he could hang around with Chet Atkins, the brilliant guitarist and producer who moved here from East Tennessee and played music behind guys like Hank Williams.

Perhaps the greatest pure talent to call Nashville home from childhood to death was multi-instumentalist, vocalist and songwriter Bobby Hebb. He was a part of Opry great Roy Acuff’s show when he was a kid, made magic on Jefferson Street and went on to conquer the world with his song “Sunny.”

He came home late in life and died a proud man surrounded by family.

Of course the city is known for its Christian and gospel music, with stars like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and the various members of the Winans family.

Guys like the late John Hartford and Vassar Clements picked up the bluegrass music mantle from Monroe and kept it such a vital part of the city’s soundtrack that the International Bluegrass Music Association relocated here.

Heck, Nashville’s even home to the Barbershop Harmony Society.

And while musical talent is questionable, Kid Rock moved here a few years ago so he could be close to his “father figure” Hank Williams Jr.

John Oates, half of ’80s blue-eyed-soul outfit Hall & Oates, recently joined the local union, as has long-time Lou Reed and Alice Cooper guitar-slinging sideman Steve Hunter. As for Cooper, he still calls Arizona home but has been been showing up at enough golf tournaments and Predators games here to raise eyebrows -- or make black mascara run.

And, of course, there is Emmylou Harris, who could have chosen any place to live after she rose to stardom. Her mentor, the late Gram Parsons, had affection for this city and had more musically in common with Porter Wagoner than he did with his pal, Keith Richards.

When it was time for Emmylou to sink deep roots, there was no question. She chose Nashville.

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