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Nashville Grows Up

Alumnus reflects on key changes in Music City's core industry.

by Craig Havighurst (WCAS88)

Video: The Music City Scene — Northwestern graduate Craig Havighurst,
a music journalist and documentary producer, provides an inside look at three prominent music events that speak to the artistry of Nashville's vibrant scene. See more videos from Northwestern News.

The Nashville skyline pictured on the back of Bob Dylan's 1969 album of that title scarcely merits the attention. Two modest office towers poke up on either side of a smoggy, low-rise downtown. It's no wish-you-were-here postcard, unless the idea of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash working together at Columbia Records Studio A quickens your pulse, as it does mine.

Forty years later, Nashville is spiky with glass high-rises and construction cranes building more of the same, and the city's Old South/New South contrasts have perhaps never been on starker display.

The "country" records made on Music Row sound like 1980s rock. The venerated Station Inn, a historic bluegrass bar with a plywood floor and neon beer signs, has of late become surrounded by luxury condos and fine dining. A new $130 million, Viennese-inspired hall for our Grammy Award–winning symphony is a mile from a semipro stock car track. It's a city of for-profit health care and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a hot corporate relocation market and a Greyhound station where lonesome strangers still get off long-haul buses with guitar cases and hearts full of hope.

That striving singer embodies the flat-as-a-movie-screen idea that so many Americans have about Nashville. But in truth, the city has a complex soul rich with dichotomies. We are Vanderbilt University and the Grand Ole Opry, highbrow and hillbilly, cosmo and corn, intertwined in a cultural yin-yang. The city's paradoxes and culture clashes have made it a hospitable environment for artists and eccentrics, and their exploits and accomplishments over a century have made a tale of many cities.

But these are hard times for the industry that imbued Nashville with its core identity. The record business that gave us Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams and so many more is experiencing a reinvention, a technological and cultural revolution and/or a fiery comeuppance, depending on whom you ask.

CD sales have declined steadily since 2000 and are now in precipitous free fall. The culture of rip, burn and share is overwhelming the culture of copyright to the indignation and bewilderment of singers, songwriters, record labels and, most of all, the song publishers, the biggest source of wealth in Nashville's portfolio.

It also may have come to your attention that country music isn't what it used to be. When Dylan made Nashville Skyline, country music giants such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton were in the fertile middle years of lifelong careers. Today this great American genre has been industrialized and straitjacketed into an ordinary radio station format, stripped of regionalisms, hard edges and most of its musical foundation in the blues.

In 1970 the country music business drove so little money up to its Los Angeles and New York corporate parents that the major label chiefs let Nashville largely do its own thing. Nowadays the international media companies that own the big labels measure Nashville's output against the aberrant fortunes made by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the 1990s, a veritable recipe for overthinking, corporate interference, risk management and artistic disappointment.

• • •

Nashville has been shaping and reflecting American culture for more than 80 years. Its first significant music businesses were radio stations, back when radio was the locus for the discovery and cultivation of emerging talent.

Between the 1920s and 1950s, the 50,000-watt beacons of WSM and WLAC reached most of the nation with fast-paced live programming, extravagant productions and local musicians. Country music was but a small piece of Music City's sound. WSM broadcast pop music, swing, gospel and classical most of the week. WLAC revolutionized popular music nationally by being one of the first white-owned stations to play black music in the '40s and '50s.

Music Row, the stretch of offices that forms the backbone of Nashville's music business, took root in the 1960s, and stars of all kinds of music came to take advantage of the studios, the sidemen and the vibe. Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Perry Como and both Elvises — Presley and Costello — are among those who made records here.

More recently, a crazy range of musicians including Ben Folds, Sheryl Crow, Mark Knopfler and Kid Rock have put down roots here. Recent breakout bands like Paramore are Nashville based. Ask them why, and they'd likely tell you it's the song writing community and the creative ferment that energizes the air here, even when it's thick with humidity.

During those fertile decades for popular music in the latter half of the 20th century, talent development and artist investment shifted from radio to record companies. For years, talent scouts and producers signed and cultivated new artists in a belief that the finest music would ultimately be rewarded in the marketplace. It wasn't a perfect system, but because of artist champion executives, big labels were patient with geniuses such as Dylan who didn't sell big numbers quickly but who achieved historic careers. It had room for sophistication and even eccentricity, making household names of complicated artists like Frank Zappa.

Those days are over. The incredible Internet has smashed the music distribution system into pieces and infected millions of people with the corrosive notion that recordings are and should be free. In this environment, big record labels have no choice but to be as conservative and hit driven as possible. Where once they were at least somewhat curatorial, labels today feel stiflingly corporate and unresponsive to artists who don't fit the radio mold.

As a result, a surprising number of the young artists of all genres streaming to Nashville aren't even looking for a major label deal anymore, instead striking out as troubadour/entrepreneurs who want to own their own recordings and control their own image. They're refreshing the Nashville sound with a diversity far beyond the confines of corporate country.

But they can't anchor their income with a weekly gig on radio like the old days, and while it costs less than ever to record an album, it's still an investment of many thousands of dollars. Who pays for that, if not a label? Who pays for the web site? Or the gas for the van? These questions have deep ramifications in Music City, where so much depends on a steady flow of economic prosperity from songs, records and tours.

So it's a touchy time in this city of dreams, but there are also hundreds of businesspeople and musicians working behind the scenes to help Nashville reinvent itself, yet again, for the next musical age. There's too much history here and too much beautiful mojo to think it won't succeed, because Nashville has never been nearly as much about its skyline as about its horizons.

Craig Havighurst (WCAS88) is a music journalist and documentary producer. He wrote Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City (University of Illinois Press, 2007).

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Nashville skyline
The Nashville skyline