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.

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.

If the roll call of the new Music City seems heavily laden with testosterone, fear not. Just as it's been the women in country during this decade who have generally made the more interesting and adventurous commercial country albums--I'll take Shania over Garth any day--it could also be the women bubbling under in Nashville's new country scene who take the day. Former major-label singer Joy Lynn White's The Lucky Few on Little Dog Records, Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson's indie, was a criminally overlooked gem packed with winning material sung with awesome authority. It fulfilled the promise of earlier country work by Rosanne Cash and step-sister Carlene Carter, and marked White as the logical '90s successor to Linda Ronstadt's country-rock mantle of the 1970s.

This year's South by Southwest offered a first preview of a singer who may be the great white, red-haired, and gorgeous hope for some kind of paradigm shift on Music Row: Allison Moorer, who can currently be heard on the brilliant, brand-new soundtrack to The Horse Whisperer. The sister of Shelby Lynne (and the secret sauce on much of Lonesome Bob's LP), the 24-year-old Moorer reiterated with awesome force in her all-too-short set the simple yet potent merits of the great singer and the great song. With nary a concession to modern country-pop showmanship (which often tends to be of the most ingratiatingly tacky kind), she would lean into the mike, close her eyes, and the deliver her self-penned tunes--modern carvings from the sturdiest old country-music oaks--as though they were prayers of redemption. With her pipes and material, she just may have the power to slip through to the mainstream on artistic power alone (and her good looks certainly won't hurt that process).

Moorer hopes that her admiration for older, quality country can find its place in the Nashville commercial pantheon. "We love that stuff; we live and breathe that stuff," says Moorer, speaking for herself and for husband and co-writer Butch Primm. "If we can reflect the spirit of that music, part of our job is done. We really do feel an allegiance, and I sort of feel a responsibility to keep that spirit alive, because country music is sort of a beautiful, pure form. That's what I like, and that's why I choose to do what I sing and write.

"I feel like people in Nashville are ready for something fresh, not that I think I'm it at all. I've never considered myself to be fringe, but I guess I am," she laughs. "I feel like my music is just as straight-ahead as anything can be."

But then, all you have to do is tune in to country radio to start singing again that same old refrain: Nashville sucks. The tightly controlled, overly cozy, and almost cult-like rigidity of the major-label Music Row system is still a major part of the problem with country music today. But the solution may well be right there in Music City, outside their back doors, on the other side of the alley.

Cheri Knight performs April 16 at the Dark Room. 6 String Drag performs April 17 at the Dark Room, and the V-Roys open for Junior Brown the same night at the Gypsy Tea Room.

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