Nashville now

Can Music City save country from Music Row?

Three of the strongest and most visionary albums in the last year or so to fall under the rubric of "Americana"--a roots radio chart in the Gavin trade magazine that has yet to become a genuine programming format--are all from contributors to The Other Side of the Alley. Poet R.B. Morris' Take That Ride (on John Prine's Oh Boy label) is one of the most stunning singer-songwriter debuts in recent memory, a funky and swampy slice of backroads white-boy soul that's smart and erudite--"I don't want to die like James Agee in the back of some taxi," reads the title tune's first line--but never at the expense of his songs' irresistible country-folk hooks.

Former Ben Vaughn Combo drummer-turned-frontman Lonesome Bob soon followed on the Bloodshot offshoot label Checkered Past with Things Fall Apart, which sounds like the product of some bastard union between Waylon Jennings and a Louvin sister, a rocking disc bristling with grit, insight, menace, and heart mixmastered together with the sort of wicked wit pioneered by Loudon Wainwright III. Pan-American Flash by Paul Burch & The WPA Ballclub draws its groove from the plowed furrows of country's back 40, sounding like Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys driving that long black vintage Cadillac down the interstate of modern roots music.

Another Lower Broad song poet, Tom House, calls his publishing company Raw Bone Music, an apt description for the urban back-porch sounds of his The Neighborhood Is Changing CD (like Lonesome Bob and Burch's albums, on Checkered Past, the Sun Records of underground country, even though it's based in Chicago). Meanwhile, Greg Garing has shifted from his blue yodel of "Safe Within Your Arms" on The Other Side of the Alley to record a decidedly contemporary rock album on Alone (Paladin/Revolution), which has enjoyed a little modern-rock success.

Also emerging from a Lower Broadway residency at the bar Wolfy's is Jamie Hartford, son of John "Gentle On My Mind" Hartford, and a hotshot picker and songwriter in his own right. His debut, What About Yes (also on Paladin/ Revolution), restores the good name of country rock with its beer-stained songs of both tough and tender love. It's a musical melange of hyper-twang, blues, and barroom rock played by some of Nashville's most fiery players.

All of the above acts renew the notion that Nashville is, at its heart, a song town, something that the Music Row commercial cliche factory of recent years has made it hard to remember. Further counterweight to the dreck and dross being drawled on country radio is provided by the Nashville underground songwriter scene. Following Steve Earle's cue of tractor-pulling Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar storytelling into the heartland, Kevin Gordon's Cadillac Jack's #1 Son (on the New York folk label Shanachie) and Chris Knight's eponymous debut (on Decca, a Nashville major label no less) restore real lives to the songwriting equation on two discs that explore different scenic byways of the American rural rock sound.

Also coming through the pipeline from The Other Side of the Alley is a just-released new album from Lucinda Williams guitarist Duane Jarvis (on Austin's Watermelon), while such other Nashvillians as Tim Carroll (former leader of New York's Blue Chieftains) and Gwil Owen (who writes the bulk of Austin hippie country-blues singer Toni Price's material) are about to step up to the plate with albums sometime this year.

Ironically, being adjacent to the belly of the Music Row beast may actually be both motivating and liberating for a number of these acts. "I know that those people aren't going to be interested in what I do," says Lonesome Bob of the Nashville country-industry hierarchy. "So I figure, then why not do what I want to?" Yet he also acknowledges that being in an industry town sets a pace where even the underground takes the business of music more seriously than perhaps in other spots (such as, say, the rebel country haven of Austin, where the slacker ethos still remains strong).

And even if the Music Row major labels remain largely wary of all the good music in their city--genuinely new country acts such as Kim Richey and The Delevantes have garnered critical praise but no real airplay or sales--fires of industry insurgency have begun to crackle on the Nashville scene. Indies such as Oh Boy and the Dead Reckoning collective--the latter formed by major-label refugees Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane (The O'Kanes), and Mike Henderson, along with drummer Harry Stinson and fiddler Tammy Rogers--have established their own firm beachheads. (Dead Reckoning's next release--Kane's Six Months, No Sun, coming in May--finds this former Music Row chart contender growing into Richard Thompson's American country cousin.)

The majors taking the most vigorous interest in the Nashville real music scene are all offshoots of the East and West Coast pop divisions. Steve Earle's Warner Bros.-funded E-Squared has initially focused on more rock-twinged acts like such as V-Roys, Ross Rice, and 6 String Drag. But with former Blood Orange Cheri Knight's critically lauded The Northeast Kingdom, E-Squared is also starting to stake its claim to the roots music farm.

The Paladin imprint with Hollywood's Revolution Records, run by left-leaning Nashville legal eagle Jim Zumwalt, released the Hartford and Garing discs and is readying for May an album by RRAF (Roots Rock Action Figures), a band project by America's canniest roots record producer, R.S. Field, who has recorded such acts as Hartford, Morris, Webb Wilder, Sonny Landreth, and Billy Joe Shaver (on the extraordinary Tramp On Your Street album). And now Sire Records, which has already been skimming much of the cream from the big milky vat that is alternative country, has opened a Nashville operation headed by Andy McLenon, whose Praxis management firm and label was the spearhead of this new Nashville ethos for the past 15 years, managing Jason & The Scorchers and The Georgia Satellites and recording Shaver, Landreth, and Wilder. Indeed, his former Praxis partner, Jack Emerson, is the second E in Steve Earle's E-Squared.

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