Nashville is fast becoming the US's capital of music, but it risks losing its identity in the process.
Nashville gets a bit more than its share of the real estate in this column. That's due in part to the fact that I live there a good part of the time, but Nashville also gets a bigger bit of the spotlight here because it simply deserves it. More than New York, more even than Los Angeles, Music City is increasingly becoming the locus of music recording in the US.
As county music more deeply penetrates the mainstream charts, it's taking its nominal hometown with it. The Black Keys, Jack White, Cheryl Crow and other non-country notables have become residents, and artists and producers including Dave Stewart, Elvis Costello, Alabama Shakes and others regularly come here to make new records. The city is also the locus of the burgeoning Americana music genre, one of the few in an increasingly hybrid music universe to secure its own Grammy category, at a time when the Recording Academy has actually been shedding them.
This had been a relatively quiet transformation until recently, and much of it has been driven by simple demographics. Even though deep-catalogue LP titles are still long-tail champions for physical and download sales, and even as classic rock acts continue to outsell many newer acts on the tour circuits, pop music is rarely kind to its elders. In Nashville, on the other hand, no one seems to care how old you are; in fact, age has achieved a certain level of veneration hereabouts. This has created a magnet for ageing but still vital production talent, which starts looking in this direction once the number of candles on the cake hits 45 or so. This has a very liberating effect on many people, because once the anxiety over age is removed, all that money directed at hair care and chin tucks can be redirected into gear acquisitions.
The city is an equal draw for the young. It's been remodelling itself to conform to the ongoing renaissance of the urban core, with thousands of new condominiums in glittering high-rises that still seem somewhat alien to the Nashville skyline.
There are other reasons for Nashville's ascendance. Many of the recording facilities here have had a change in status, in some cases becoming true non-profit propositions, like Ocean Way and RCA Studio B, or they have been acquired by very wealthy people who might view them as financial chess pieces or as purely real-estate plays. But they still remain available, something that can't be said for many of their cohort on the coasts. And there is still a huge number of other very capable commercial facilities in the city, and these are buttressed by an uncountable number of personal and private studios (uncountable because their legal status is still a bit murky) that are often just as capable. Then there is the sheer amount of engineering and production talent here, in droves large enough to match the musical talent. Basically, Nashville is Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but with lots of free parking.
All of that's possible because of a generally lower cost of living that doesn't necessarily bring about a lower quality of life. In fact, the influx of immigrants from the coasts has compelled the city to raise its epicurean bar, to the point where Nashville has become a food destination. That's a far cry from 20 years ago when I recommended that friends travelling here bring a snack. Culinary enhancements are hardly the only lifestyle improvements — the city has a world-class symphony hall and a new convention centre, the latter of which AES's executives were reportedly given a tour of recently. (If they're still on the fence, they should know that October in Middle Tennessee is quite nice.) These are several of many pieces that have fallen into place here in the last few years.
A non-ageist environment, lots of musical talent, plenty of excellent recording facilities, good food and low overheads seem to make for the perfect confluence of events. It may mean that Nashville will become the primary music-production destination in the US, regardless of genre. Not since Seattle, in the early '90s, have we seen that kind of geographical gravity at work. Miami tried but sputtered, the first location casualty to Internet-based workflows and distribution, in a string of them that goes back to Minneapolis, Macon and Muscle Shoals. Nashville even has an eponymous hit network television show that acts as a huge media billboard, beckoning aspirants far and wide with the lure of a place where music still seems magical and attainable.
Unfortunately, all this may also prove to be Nashville's undoing. Much of the attention the city's been getting has to do, understandably, with country music's recent rise in mainstream popularity. But that has come about in part because country has changed itself to widen its appeal. Where country was once criticised for too closely emulating pop music, it's lately become more like rock — Eric Church's performance at the ACM Awards in November drew jeers for its sheer volume. Then there's the proliferation of 'hick-hop' (the integration of rap vocals on country tracks), which sounds appealing from a social perspective but in practice sounds awful.
Ironically, it's been country's historical semi-isolation from the mainstream that helped it weather the industry. Sure, Nashville was one of the first places to employ digital recorders 25 years ago, but you can also still buy new album titles on cassette at Cracker Barrel stores. This time around, country's interaction with the larger culture is more pervasive, and you can see it manifest in Nashville: in the architecture, in the restaurants, in the craft-beer emporiums that are replacing the honky-tonks. It won't happen overnight, but the fact that Rolling Stone magazine announced in December that it would open a bureau in the city suggests that Nashville's 'It' status is already on the downslope. In the process of becoming just like everywhere else, Nashville's music community could end up like... everywhere else. Well, there's always Austin.