Nashville now

Can Music City save country from Music Row?

For most anyone with a taste for real country music, Nashville is generally seen as the center of the Evil Empire--a place where Darth Brooks and his ilk are conspiring to close up the honky-tonks and replace them with a national chain of spit-shined and sanitized line-dance emporiums. Nashville sucks is their convenient rallying cry, a contention borne out by the suburban pop pablum that litters today's commercial country radio playlists. A large part of the pseudo-movement known as "alternative country" takes the anti-Nashville ethos to heart; "real" country is made far outside Tennessee, in places like Austin or Raleigh or...well, anywhere but there.

But maybe it's time to draw a line between Music Row and Music City: While the Nashville-based major labels are circling their wagons for trouble as sales wane and country radio audiences are starting to decline, the barbarians are already at the gate. Aside from the corporatized Grand Ole Opry and the annual Fan Fair, Nashville still remains an office and bedroom community for the country music industry, but now, there's a restless and creative litter of country and roots acts kicking about in the belly of the beast.

And while the pages of No Depression magazine, the alt-country bible, are chock full of articles, reviews, and ads touting what must be hundreds of acts taking a crack at the strum and twang that's at the heart of any music that even nominally considers itself country, the Nashville underground has actually been the source for some of the most creative and interesting records presenting a genuine alternative to the processed cheese that's being sliced and packaged by Music Row.

"Nashville gets a bad rap because of country charlatans. But there's some great stuff comin' out of there. Ya oughta hear 'em."

--Jason Ringenberg, frontman of the Nashville-based Jason & the Scorchers

Like any genuine musical movement, this rise of the Nashville underground has its lineage, one that remains still active and vital today. In the late 1970s, among what little music could be found in Music City were David Olney and the X-Rays--who, thanks to Olney's cheeky and literate songs, were the Southern-fried kin to Elvis Costello & the Attractions. On his most recent Rounder Records release, last year's Real Lies, Olney continues to push the envelope of the American song with his probing intellect on numbers such as "Death, True Love, Lonesome Blues, and Me"--a pretty fair list of the essential ingredients of genuine American populist roots music from Jimmie Rodgers through Hank Williams until now.

Likewise, Jason & the Scorchers emerged in 1981 and all but defined twang-core, but by 1990 had imploded from bad business deals, bad habits, and the rigors of the road. Yet almost miraculously, the band reunited a few years later with a renewed vitality that continues to gather additional steam and is hot-iron branded into the digital bits of their upcoming live album, Midnight Roads & Stages Seen. On the album they perform with an adrenal urgency that leaves the stage shows of such leading major alternative-country contenders as the Old 97's and Whiskeytown eating their dust.

Similarly, Steve Earle's emergence in the mid-'80s seemed to signal a possible sea change in the nature of contemporary country. But the back-to-basics charge he led after the pop excesses of the Urban Cowboy years only ended up being co-opted by the succeeding slew of hat acts whose starched jeans and carefully blocked Stetsons belied the suburban family values of the new Nashville songwriting system that supplanted country's traditional themes of heartbreak, hard times, boozing, and the blues. But like a phoenix, Earle has re-emerged from the depths of drug addiction and a short stint in the slammer during the first part of this decade with an even more expansive vision--from string-band picking to metallic twang--while establishing a rebel beachhead with his E-Squared label and Twangtrust production team with engineering genius Ray Kennedy.

Another sign that all that glitters in Nashville isn't cheap lame has been the success of the Mavericks. On their latest disc, Trampoline, these smart country-rockers (from Miami, no less) have reasserted Nashville's heritage as a Southern recording city, not just a country-music town. The album embraces the playlists of 1960s Top 40 AM radio; it takes pop, rock, soul, blues, and country and mixes in some Latin spices from their native Miami, and the result is proof that country going pop need not be a bad thing.

But the true new Nashville actually arose on Lower Broadway, a former strip of dive bars, pawn shops, and beckoning hookers. There, the current booming downtown entertainment district was presaged by the burgeoning new roots-music scene unfolding in such venerable Nashville joints as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western Wear. Though the movement's original home base has been overtaken by the tourist trade, it was well documented on the Chicago-based Bloodshot label's third "insurgent country" compilation, Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley. (Bloodshot released the Old 97's' second album, 1995's Wreck Your Life.) Many of the 17 artists on the prescient collection continue to emerge with albums rich with promise and interest.

The best-known act to rise out of "Lower Broad," as the locals call it, is BR5-49, whose engaging, if lightweight, honky-tonk has been the scourge of barroom country purists, especially down here in Texas. Yet BR5-49 has succeeded where few other purveyors of the new country haven't by selling hundreds of thousands of albums. Nothing beats back the critics like a fistload of cash.

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