Now more than ever, Nashville’s story is a tale of two cities. The first is the one you’ve likely heard about: the thriving Southern city where you can find more hospitality and history than you could ever hope to explore in one weekend. The second is of “New Nashville”—a term locals use with derision and marketers with glee. It’s the Nashville that’s littered with honky-tonks and high rises, that teems with bros and bachelorettes, and that—if the Pop Country Machine had its way—would have already been renamed “Blake Shelton Presents A Good Ol’ Boy’s Honky-Tonkin’ Hell-Raisin’ Music City, sponsored by Gaylord Opryland.”
However, all that noise says much more about how Nashville is perceived than who we are. Without question, country music is the city’s biggest (and loudest) machine. But locals will be quick to tell you that much of what Nashville pumps out these days bears no resemblance to authentic country music, and that there’s a lot more to Nashville than just music anyway. There’s a spirit here that survives no matter what else changes. In every corner of town (yes, we still call it “town”), you can find a place that’s full of warm people, cold beer, tall tales, old friends, and open mics. Sure, those places might be harder to find now, amidst all the flash and fuss, but they are here—you just have to know where to look.
THE NASHVILLE SOUND
Nashville’s reputation as Music City attracts thousands of songwriters and would-be stars. While some are just looking to score a glossy record deal, the majority are earnest music-makers, and they come packing talent. That means music lovers, on any given day, have hundreds of opportunities to hear great, undiscovered acts as well as established names.
That live music tradition in Nashville goes back a long way. In the 1800s, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers toured Europe singing African-American spirituals. Their efforts helped fund the school’s mission of educating freed slaves, and also put Nashville on the musical map. Some sources say it was Queen Victoria of England who, upon hearing the group sing, said they must come from the “Music City,” giving Nashville its nickname.
By 1902, the city had its first music publisher. The Benson Company was a gospel outfit, and Nashville still hosts several annual gospel festivals today. But for most people, the history of Nashville in the 20th century is the history of country music. Fiddle music at dances had been a part of the culture from the arrival of Tennessee’s first settlers, but it was not until the early 20th century that city folks began to pay attention to “hillbilly” music. While that term isn’t considered politically correct today, it originally contained some arguably positive connotations. One of the first recorded usages is from a 1900 “New York Journal” article containing this definition: “A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Tennessee, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” Now, if you’re from the South like I am, I’d wager you have at least three relatives who would be happy to be described as such—and who’d probably pay good money get that printed on a T-shirt.
In 1925, radio station WSM-AM began broadcasting a show called the “WSM Barn Dance,” which featured live country music performances. Two years later, it renamed the show the “Grand Ole Opry.” Still staged live every week, the Opry is America’s longest-running radio show, in continuous production for more than 90 years. The same year the Opry began, Victor Records sent an engineer to record traditional Tennessee music, which exposed it to a wider audience. Interest in country music began to spread throughout the South and across the nation.
The “WSM Barn Dance” originally followed a broadcast of classical music. One night, the announcer remarked that, "There is no place in the classics for realism." Opry presenter George Hay then joked: “Dr. Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However . . . for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the earthy . . . We have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’” The rest is history.
In 1942, Nashville’s first country music publishing house opened, followed by its first recording studio in 1945. By the 1960s, there were dozens of studios and more than 100 music publishers in Nashville. Country music skyrocketed in popularity, and all the major record companies opened offices here. Leading the industry at the time were brothers Owen and Harold Bradley, who opened the city’s first non-Opry recording studio. CBS and RCA followed suit. Many of the industry’s biggest and most familiar names first recorded in Nashville at this time, including Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Dottie West, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and Perry Como.
During this period, country music evolved from its rough hillbilly origins to a cleaner, more urban sound, which was largely developed by music producers to compete with rock ‘n’ roll. This famously became known as the “Nashville Sound,” which often included smooth strings and tempos, catchy choruses, and sophisticated background vocals. Today you can tour the old recording studio where many of those hits were recorded at Historic RCA Studio B.
Today many corporations have their headquarters in Nashville, including Bridgestone Americas, Caterpillar Financial, Gibson Guitar Corp./Baldwin Pianos, Dollar General, Lifeway Christian Resources, Nissan USA, O’Charley’s Inc., Tractor Supply Co., and hundreds of healthcare businesses, including HCA Healthcare (Hospital Corporation of America).
In 1972, a country music theme park opened on the east side of Nashville: Opryland USA. Two years later, the Opry moved from the downtown Ryman Auditorium, its home of more than 30 years, to the new Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland, which is now owned by Ryman Hospitality and managed by Marriott International. The hotel, entertainment, and shopping behemoth has a staggering annual economic impact of more than $860 million.
In recent years, country music has taken a sharp turn from its roots, once again adapting to maintain listenership. While overproduced, arena-pleasing acts like Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, and Florida Georgia Line thrill the masses, there are distinct countercultures of music in Nashville that feel more authentic to many listeners. On any given night, you can find acts playing Americana (Jason Isbell, the Civil Wars, Gillian Welch), return-to-its-roots country (Sturgill Simpson, Steve Earle, Chris Stapleton), rock (Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, Jack White), as well as rap, classical, and everything in between.
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