Is Nashville Relevant?
Here at Trashwire, we’re always happy to take submissions from readers. We recently received this music piece from Will Ables and decided to post it on our site. Check out Will’s article and leave a comment, or submit your own.
Nashville has a lot of stupid nicknames. I tried typing them here at first but they were so embarrassing I just couldn’t leave them. There’s any number of them and they’re all awkward and not particularly sensible.
Long story short, it’s somewhat affectionately called Music City U.S.A. At least that’s what the city, and not necessarily the people, are intent on constantly referring to it as. So here I am, in Music City, and I’m pretty much lacking entirely in musical talent. My dreams of becoming Levon Helm have, tragically but not particularly shockingly, fallen far short. It would seem, as far as I’m concerned, that drumming and singing is the musical Holy Grail of walking and chewing gum.
I can’t imagine you particularly care about my musical talent and, at this point, are probably starting to wonder where I’m possibly going with all this but think of this as a sort of disclaimer. I’m not a musician. At all. So take my opinions on music with a dump-truck of grains of salt.
Nashville is a musical Bethlehem (Yeah, how about that analogy). We’ve given birth, and helped with the “rearing,” of a uniquely American brand of music here. It’s not just country to us. For decades out of Nashville has come an accessible kind of music, sometimes existing over a swathe of genres. But nowadays, it’s like we’ve stalled. Caught between a desire to embrace everything chic (and a bizarre obsession with transforming into a bastardized SoHo) and on the other end a kind of morbid frustration that the Grandparents of our music are dying off and no one is filling their shoes for the masses.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Toby Keith. And in a not entirely healthy way either.
As I write this, I’m sitting up in the tree house section at South Street. It’s the middle of winter and, as you would think, that makes a tree house a fairly miserable place to be. I probably shouldn’t be surprised then that it’s just me and my bartending bud Brian sitting up here. Ryan Adams’ song “Tennessee Sucks in the Summer” is pretty much true. Nashville also pretty much sucks in the winter as well, though I can’t really speak to the degree which the rest of Tennessee sucks during that season.
Brian and I are talking about the music scene in our town, Music from the Big Pink has been blaring for what seems like an eternity out of the speakers, and I think we’re in agreement. As a general rule we’re on the same proverbial page when it comes to music. Mainly because he plays The Band. A lot. It’s kind of a litmus test for people I/We meet. You pretty much have to like Robbie et all or I don’t see us getting along. My Mother does a similar thing with every new girlfriend of mine; God help you if you don’t love Bon Jovi.
Anyway, back to The Band and Brian. The thing is, people in Nashville have really good taste in music, at least the bartenders do, and its easy to find yourself discussing the genius of Deep Purple with your bartender and a few random strangers who just happened to sit down next to you a few hours earlier. And, yes, that has happened to me on at least 3 occasions. I’m not sure what it is about the patrons of South Street and Deep Purple. Perhaps I don’t really want or need to know. The problem is, to get back on track, is that of people like this no one’s really passionate about anything new around here. The stuff that sells to the masses, like say Toby Keith, well, it’s not really worth getting fired up about.
Then again, I do love Toby Keith. And maybe there’s some kind of paradox there.
I called my friend Katie to ask her about Nashville bands. She grew up here before, in a delightfully cliché manner, took off for New York to try and make it in theater. I really have no idea how successful she has been at this but she hasn’t come wandering back crushed yet. It’s probably good she didn’t go to LA. I ask her about her favorite bands from Nashville. There’s a long pause at the other and for several minutes I’m treated to a chorus of what I imagine are New York City cabs blaring away in the background.
I hadn’t called with exactly high hopes but this wasn’t going particularly well. I decide to wait her out and she what she comes up with; Suddenly this seems like some bizarre music related hostage crisis. After a while she relents and releases the women and children.
“I don’t listen to the Kings of Leon, but I hear they’re pretty good.”
Ok, well, they’re from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. But that’s close enough.
“And I do like a band called Everyday Atlas. But they’re kinda doing a Dave Matthews Band-y thingy.”
I don’t really know what that means and I awkwardly change subject. Mainly I’d like to avoid the subject of my somewhat ugly quasi-romantic connection to the band in question. And I’d like to avoid discussing things like this with Katie. I have an unexplainable desire to impress redheads.
She asks me who I think is the best band or artist from Nashville. I mull it over for a few moments before realizing I don’t really know, so I tell her that. She then spends the next thirty or so odd minutes extolling the virtues of country music. At about minute twenty-nine, I come to a kind of realization. Nashville is always going to be Country Music City to the rest of the music world. Other bands from other genres will come from here but Nashville relevancy to music as a whole will inevitably also be connected to country music. So I guess, as I listen to Katie go on, maybe my question should have been: Is country music (read: Nashville) relevant to music?
I ask Katie this, during a breath-break, and things take a turn for the ugly.
“Well, say what you want, but Nashville is the home of country music,” she tells me, “And say what you want about country but it is a brilliant genre that speaks to and for an entire region.”
This does seem to make sense. But just because people tune in doesn’t equate to relevancy. Or maybe it does. I’m not sure and I can see Katie and I are about to start going in circles. Over the course of the next hour we pretty much just talk at each other. She yells. I start consciously thinking, as I’m asking questions, how much I’m going to have to edit out of this conversation. Which is unfortunate because, about 2/3rds of the way in I realize something else; I realize she’s right.
I quickly convince myself that I’m just playing devil’s advocate to internally cover up the fact that I made an ass of myself in front of a red head.
In a nutshell what she says is pretty simple. The way I understand it is like this: Real country artists, real country/music fans, and music aficionado Nashvillians have moved on. Well, at least a lot of them have. Some of them maybe don’t even know it. They’re creating or are fans of a new kind of country. It’s some indefinable amalgamation of “the city” and “the business” and “the radio.” Which is ironic because it’s primarily these three things that haven’t accepted that relevant country isn’t even considered “country.”
She deadpans at one point, while still managing to sound exasperated, “Country now crosses over into other genres while still being uniquely country. Look at Ryan Adams and Shooter Jennings!”
I stupidly try and deflect what I admit now was a pretty good point.
It turns out this was a stupid thing to do.
“So if it’s not on country radio or CMT it’s not country? Please. You can’t tell me that country music and Nashville are irrelevant when Jack White lives off Belmont and Ben Folds goes to Bongo Java. You can’t tell me those guys are there for the public school system. They are in Nashville because it’s a great place to make music and country music influences them.”
She mentions some more very hip and relevant artists. I don’t know who all of them are. I try to tell her they belong in Americana or Alt-Country.
“To me, all that says is ‘We are people who grew up saying that we listened to everything except country because country was tacky and beneath us. And now, instead of admitting that maybe we were idiots when we were young, we have taken the country we like and given it a new name so we look cool.’ ”
At this point I might as well have told her I had an unnatural obsession with Toby Keith.
I don’t. But I’m pretty sure she called me an idiot anyway.
I don’t really know anything about music criticism. I guess I probably should have said that before now but at least it’s out there. My point is that my idea of what goes on at your typical rock magazine are pretty much entirely made up by me, but I like to think my illusions are close enough. I have a sneaking suspicion that, like some of my cinefile friends, rock critics like to try the out-weird each other game. The rules, in my made up version, are pretty simple. Whoever sings the praises of the most bands that no one else has ever heard of wins the game. You are then, as the winner, regarded by your peers as seriously “in the know” and regarded by everyone else as exactly what everyone else can’t stand about music criticism.
But, even with my, to put it kindly, critical naiveté I think I’ve realized something: Country Radio is disingenuous to the genre and it plain sucks.
This may not come as a shock to you. In fact, you may have thought this for years. But I think what I’m saying is something somewhat different. It’s not that the music is bad, it’s just Country Pop, and you can’t hate on any genre of music just because it has a red headed step child called “Pop.” Rap has a Pop-y sub-genre, and some of that’s not bad at all, the same goes for Rock, Alternative, Metal, and those other trendy genres I’ve never heard of. But, to come back to my point, Country Radio sucks because they’ve pretty much co-opted the phrase country and Country Radio is all about the pop country to the point that the two are pretty much synonyms. And since they’ve co-opted Country this means in a sense they’ve done the same thing to Nashville.
But pop music isn’t inherently evil.
No, really, it’s not. I’ll prove it to you. Do a YouTube search for “Toxic Cover.” Click on whatever catches your eye. That goofy song by Britney Spears has more bizarre, off the wall, and crazy good covers than any other song this decade.
I feel dirty typing that but, damn, it’s true!
And Pop-Country isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Toby Keith is fun. He is. But you probably won’t think so. It is junk, we both know that, but it’s a fun kind of junk. And it’s good pseuduo-party music. Which is probably, when you get down to it, just about what any and all pop music is perfect for.
The problem is that the popular conception/presentation (read: Pop Culture) has convinced most people, myself included, that Pop Country is the final word on Country. It’s what the genre has come, or been reduced, to at this point. And what it’s been limited to.
At this point, I’ve got a working theory. Sort of.
Look, just go with me here.
I want to test this theory out, so I conduct a seriously unscientific poll to see how different folks perceive country music and if it really is a genre that’s doomed to it’s trashy pop status. So I ask five friends, four of whom are transplants and one who is from Nashville, what they think of Country Music. To a person they tell me they avoid listening to it, or it’s not really their thing, or ask me if I think they’re some kind of redneck. I ask them who they identify with Country and I get everyone you’d expect: Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Faith Hell.
Everyone I ask responds this way, except one. My friend Anne, the one from Nashville. She asks if I mean “Pop Country” and when I say yes, she informs me that she doesn’t really care for it but she really loves more traditionally influenced stuff. When I ask her for examples she throws out names like Welch, Adams, Prine.
Basically I could swear I was talking to Katie again. It’s a good thing Anne isn’t a red head.
In the end, maybe the case for Nashville’s relevancy to standard music listeners isn’t lost. Maybe the few folks who dismiss Pop Country but like Country and are fans of people like Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams will help Nashville reclaim the genre outside of it’s Pop-y side. And maybe you, dear reader, have dismissed Country as a genre too quickly. If someone told you Rock Music was pretty much defined by Avril Lavigne and Nickleback, would you really feel the need to explore the genre further? Somehow, I doubt you would. And it’s the same thing for country. Try listening to something outside of Toby Keith. Listen to Americana or Alt-Country, just try to remember that all these sub-genres are country music.
And country music is Nashville.