– Honky Tonk Highway
Nashville’s Lower Broadway is ground zero for the city’s thriving live music scene.
Depending on who you ask, for Nashville – with 26 cranes in the air and traffic clogging the major highways like it’s the new Atlanta, it’s either the best of times, or the worst. The Tennessean, the local daily, reported on March 28 the second consecutive year of 100 person-a-day growth.
With freeway arteries clogged like those of lard-gargling couch potatoes, making rush hour an ordeal that echoes the “L.A. Freeway” Guy Clark sang about, Nashville is booming! It’s been coming for a decade; quickened with ABC’s “Nashville” creating an “Entourage”-like mystique for Music City. But beyond perception, there’s reality: the 6-1-5 is truly becoming Music City—not just Country Music USA.
Over the last few years, Jack White has opened Third Man; The Black Keys have explored solo careers; and the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have made Nashville home. Nashville has also suddenly becoming a dining mecca with Jonathan Waxman opening Adele’s, Sean Brock bringing Husk, and Levon Wallace creating Gray & Dudley at the boutique art hotel chain 21c’s downtown outpost.
“It’s becoming an unbelievably vibrant place with all kinds of interesting people doing all kinds of interesting things,” WME Nashville co-head Greg Oswald says. “Music and healthcare continue to thrive here, but it’s tech start-ups, industry and other businesses. The restaurants are cool as hell, even if you’re not a foodie, and that extends to entertainment, cultural offerings and sporting events.”
The buzz of the new is palpable. Suddenly, Nashville is an “It” city, attracting some of the brightest young professionals. It’s seen iconic Rounder Records move its label entirely, and Concord Music bring its back room operations to Davidson County. New West Records also has a Nashville office.
If Callie Khouri’s nighttime drama “Nashville” captured people’s imagination, in much the same way “Entourage” seemed to offer a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes nitty gritty of fame, it also ignited a perception of Nashville as a flashy world of music business glam. Though ABC opted to cancel the show, CMT: Country Music Television responded to the massive Twitter campaign for the program to continue.
We can’t prove “Nashville” sparked the current explosion. But we can trace the show’s success to a rising sense the city is capable of realizing network-level television production with the launch of “Pickler & Ben,” a nationally syndicated daytime chat show featuring “American Idol” alum Kellie Pickler and veteran NYC journalist Ben Aaron.
“Attracting talent on the level of our Executive Producer Lisa Erspamer tells you everything about where Nashville is currently,” says Sandbox Entertainment founder Jason Owen, who also manages Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, and Midland. “She had been one of Oprah’s key producers for years, and when we wanted to develop a different kind of program, we both agreed that it had to be the first of its kind, that it was actually shot in Nashville. The city had to be the backdrop because it represented everything we felt the show was, and should stand for.
“Being in the middle of the country, we have a different mix of guests, stories, things we do … The fact Lisa’s here, and making the show so successful is exactly what we’re talking about. We just got renewed for season two, and it’s the number one new show in daytime syndication.”
Part and parcel of this increased sophistication bleeds over into the touring business’ continued growth (see page 6). For Owen, it’s about being international, but also able to hit the road no matter where you are in your career. As he explains, “The way the agencies are so integrated, Nashville is as much, if not more, of a powerhouse. Logistically with a U.S. tour, we are eight hours from 80 percent of the country, so getting and keeping an artist on the road is much more accessible. For a young act, that means being able to reach the fans is a much easier process than being on a coast. They can build from there and keep building.
“However, they also think globally. Every one of my artists has an international presence. We start that relationship the same time we do everything else, and the agencies here understand that. I think it’s why you see Jack White, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Dashboard Confessional and so many other non-country acts not just move here, but flourish here.”
The notion of decidedly non-country or Christian acts in Music City isn’t new. Sheryl Crow, John Oates, and Kim Carnes have made Nashville home for years; but the influx of more cutting-edge rock and roots artists suggests there’s an energy to Nashville. Jed Hilly, the director of the Americana Music Association, thinks it’s community.
“When you can live in a place where John Prine or Emmylou Harris lives, and truly lives and is part of the community,” he says, “that’s going to draw young creative people. Look at Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – he’s from Alabama and Athens, Ga., she’s from Texas, and they’re part of that same vital creative fabric.
“In 2007, Mayor Karl Dean set out to make this city more than country music, and it’s working. Because creative people get inspired by other creative people. I can honestly say, the collaborations I hear about are because these people are living in the same city – and they’re here to spark off each other.”
Spark, indeed. For Hilly, whose Americana Music Festival & Conference and Awards have attracted Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Gregg Allman, as well as the Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, and Mumford & Sons, it is an authenticity of the music that can’t be negotiated which attracts.
“We do events at Lincoln Center, the Grammy Museum in the L.A. and now have the UK Americana Awards,” he explains. “People are hungry for the real stuff, which is what defines so much of what’s going on in and around Nashville. Brittany Howard or Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale or the Lone Bellow can live anywhere, but they’ve moved from Alabama, L.A. and Brooklyn to Nashville for a reason.”
It’s a lot to consider when you’re stuck in traffic at the I-65/24/40 merge’n’split because of a fender bender, or told it’s two hours for a table. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter. With digital marketing companies popping up, brand specialists arriving daily and big content users sniffing around the publishing companies and labels, the rush is hotter than at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish.
– Charles Esten
Art Imitating Life Imitating Art: Charles Esten, who plays Deacon Claybourne on the show “Nashville,” which helped bring wanted and unwanted attention to the city, performs at the Nokia Theatre L.A Live (now known as Microsoft Theatre) in Los Angeles May 9, 2015.
“When Triad merged with William Morris [in 1992], there were nine of us,” Oswald remembers. “Now we have right at 120 people, and the amount of services we provide is extraordinary. There’s international, digital, branding, analytics, genre-crossover, festivals and yes, touring. Most of those things we’d never done, but it’s how Nashville’s evolving, and it’s exciting.”
With the airport expanding, major hotel chains and boutique hotels creating the number of rooms to turn an already bustling convention town into a national leader, there is no sign of a slowdown.
Nashville’s Department of Property Appraisals announced a 37 percent increase in property values since 2013 in the spring of 2017. As Oswald offers, “The strength of the economy here is so solid. People believe they have an opportunity to do well: you can buy a house, get a raise, move from a state with income tax and come out 10 percent ahead.”