Nashville: from country mecca to music industry powerhouse

The town has long been a place of pilgrimage for country musicians. Now the Tennessee city is booming, thanks in part to its own TV show, and the rest of the music industry is turning up in the honky tonk bars of Nashville

 

Dolly Parton travelled there from the tiny community of Locust Ridge, Tennessee, at the age of 18. Texan Willie Nelson made his first journey there in his 20s. Tammy Wynette tried her luck, three daughters in tow, from her adopted home in Alabama. Would-be stars have been making the pilgrimage to Nashville for generations.

This weekend, in Dublin, London and Glasgow, at the fourth annual Country to Country Festival, another crop of Nashville missionaries will cross the Atlantic to underline just how international country music has become. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church headline the bill.

Further down the bill are sweet-voiced duo Maddie & Tae further down the bill, who moved to Nashville aged 17. They seem to be the embodiment of the country-music dream. Despite the early arrival of a songwriting deal, the duo say they teetered on the edge of anguish until making it big with their breakthrough hit on American radio, Girl in a Country Song.

“We had been living in our apartments, by ourselves, for six months, no family, no friends, just each other,” says Tae, aka Taylor Dye. “You get lonely, and scared, and doubtful: am I doing the right thing, am I in the right place, am I being stupid thinking I can do something like this? There’s all these weird doubting days, and the homesick meltdowns.”

“It’s crazy what dreams make you do,” says Maddie, born Madison Marlow. “We could obviously have had a more practical, realistic dream, and maybe go to college, but music was always number one.”

Nashville, as a music capital and an industry, is enjoying one of its most dramatic upswings in profile and potential on the worldwide stage. The popularity of the ABC network drama named after the town certainly helps (it is on its fourth series on American television).

The superior soap of its storylines gives the place a gloss finish that is sometimes at odds with the gritty struggle that most musicians have. But when you visit Country to Country and ask young converts what attracted them to the music, they will cite the series as an influence, just as they acknowledge the widespread airplay support of BBC Radio 2 and the ability to cuddle up close to their favourite new artists via social media.

Relentless expansion

The relentless expansion of Music City earned it a place on Forbes magazine’s list of the US’s 20 fastest-growing cities of 2015. A population increase of some 1.4 per cent last year, to about 635,000, was complemented by a job-growth rate of 2.75 per cent, figures as attractive as a cost of living considerably below the national norm.

On the latest of countless trips to this most infectiously creative hub, I am easily reminded of the ruthlessly commercial imperative driving the place. As east Nashville becomes the centre of artistic ambition, in a city with some 20,000 music industry jobs, all manner of new construction continues to reshape the Tennessee city in a modern image.

New-build homes replace old properties, and restaurants and bars appear on the horizon with relentless regularity. Then, looming incongruously into view as you walk downtown, close to the honky-tonk bars of legend, is the Music City Centre, a convention location opened in 2013 at a cost to the city of $623 million.

Nashville’s expansion might have made it almost unrecognisable to some of its own long-time musical residents, but most seem sanguine about it. Vince Gill, who was born in Oklahoma, has become one of Nashville’s most respected representatives; his new album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, is one of his finest. As I am walking to an elevator to meet him, someone hears Gill’s name and says, “Ah, the mayor of Nashville”.

“I haven’t been paid yet,” he says with a laugh when I mention the appellation. “I love it here. I love to chip in and do my part. I made my first trek here 42 years ago, and made one of my very first records in 1975 here. I moved here from southern California, which is 75 and sunny every day. I showed up here and it was 17 below zero. ‘What have I done!’

“But I’ve always been drawn to the city. I love the community of it, the spirit of it, the kindness of it. I don’t mind the growth or the extra traffic. I don’t mind more people being here. The infrastructure’s not that good, for the growth, but it’ll catch up eventually.”

Richard Wootton is a music publicist who has decades of experience working with they city’s biggest artists. “When I first went to Nashville it was something of a musical oasis, largely untouched by musical influences from the east and west coasts,” he says.

“Country was music for the people who lived and worked in the ‘flyover’ states, particularly in the south, and the music didn’t cross over much to pop radio. But gradually it’s changed. The stars of the 1990s were influenced by the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt more than by Loretta Lynn and George Jones. And today’s country stars are often more influenced by southern rock, and in some cases rap, than the 1990s stars.”

The influence of hip-hop on modern-day hit country music might seem incongruous. But it is undeniable, and evident in the so-called “bro” country wave of recent years, typified by multiplatinum duo Florida Georgia Line, and in current pin-up Sam Hunt, also on Sunday’s Dublin Country to Country bill. The “speak-singing” style of Hunt’s hits, including Break Up in a Small Town, are more hip-hop than hicksville.

Nashville has long extended its welcome to artists from beyond the country discipline. Rock guitarist Peter Frampton was born in Bromley, England, but calls the Tennessee city his second home. British singer-songwriter Lucie Silvas lives there and last year married John Osborne, half of one of country’s big new acts of 2016, Brothers Osborne. And Steven Tyler, frontman of Aerosmith, has been residing in the city for the past year as he makes a country-flavoured album that has already yielded two singles.

Arduous sessions

There is evidence that years of paying your dues in the Nashville honky tonks can still produce results. The arduous sessions that singers and bands play around the clock in the bars of Lower Broadway have, in the past, helped artists such as Terri Clark and Gretchen Wilson to successful recording careers.

The latest graduate, Tara Thompson, sang in the Tootsie Orchid Lounge, and after many further steps along the way is now completing her first album for Big Machine, the label that discovered Taylor Swift.

“’I’m a hillbilly from east Tennessee,” she says. “As soon as I turned 18 I moved to Nashville. Then I started singing in the honky tonks downtown, working for tips, because I thought that’s how you get signed. Four-hour shifts, and sometimes I did triple shifts, so I’d be singing all day.” Years of shopping her demos and self-funded projects later, Thompson is finally where she wants to be.

“Country music has changed with the times and now appeals to young people all across America who like country music as much as rock,” says Wootton. “But thank goodness it still has that twang, that connection to southern roots and instrumentation which can make it so distinctive. Nashville is still the place musicians want to come. The big thing that has remained unchanged is its southern hospitality.”

“I think Nashville’s changing every day,” says Thompson. “I go downtown now and it just feels different. But not in a bad way. It’s just growing.”

  • Country to Country 2016 is at the 3Arena, Dublin, Friday to Sunday. See 3arena.ie . Paul Sexton’s Country Class of 2016 is on BBC Radio 2 Country tonight, March 10th, at 6pm 

RISING STARS OF COUNTRY: NEW FROM NASHVILLE

Aubrie sellers: A prime example of country music’s generation game, Sellers is the daughter of long-time favourite Lee Ann Womack. Her debut solo album, New City Blues, has style and sass.

Ashley Monroe: Monroe landed her first publishing deal when she was 14. After a false-start debut album, she built her name in trio the Pistol Annies. Her current solo set, The Blade, was nominated at the Grammys. She plays Country to Country Dublin .

Brothers Osborne: John and TJ Osborne signed their publishing deal five years ago, but their debut, Pawn Shop, didn’t arrive until January. It was produced by Jay Joyce, whose credits include Emmylou Harris, and went straight into the top three of the country chart, fuelled by infectious hit single Stay a Little Longer.

Maren Morris: In a shining year for new female talent, many observers are backing Morris as a good bet for honours, based on the confidence of her first EP. Morris has opened for Loretta Lynn and written for Tim McGraw.

Ashley Campbell: You will know of Ashley if you saw Glen Campbell on the poignant farewell tour that preceded his descent into Alzheimer’s. His daughter was an impressive band member on vocals and banjo, and made a moving contribution to the documentary I’ll Be Me with her song Remembering.

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