A City Of Works
Notes on Nashville’s Creators and Instigators
This essay was published in June 2015 as the preface to an anthology called Based On: Words, Notes and Art from Nashville, curated and edited by Chuck Beard and published by his bookstore East Side Story. It’s cross published here with Chuck’s blessing and with my hope that you give the project a look. It’s wonderful and symbolic of a special time and place. All else is explained in the essay, which is the most focused piece I’ve written about the spirit and soul of Nashville in a long time. It seems a good time for such a reflection. - CH
Nashville is a calling as much as it is a city. We’re each called in our own peculiar way.
My first impression of its creative romance was the half cheesy, half charming 1993 film The Thing Called Love, which projected a sentimental aura around Nashville’s songwriting culture. The lead characters, played by River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis, shout from a rooftop to the rather modest 1990s skyline: “Look out Music City! ’Cause here I am and I ain’t never leavin’!” I’d never thought about a place that would make somebody holler like that — a place worthy of a vow of determination and fidelity.
At the time, I was living in Washington DC — a Capitol Hill reporter covering politics and the wonky side of the health care business. But I was also a recently converted disciple of bluegrass, country and roots music — a citizen picker and dabbler in songs. I was reading a lot about Nashville’s giants — Chet Atkins and Hank Williams and Bill Monroe — and there seemed no bottom to that story. I also became aware that many of my musical idols lived in Nashville. It seemed that one could hear or perhaps meet Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush or Tim O’Brien in the ordinary course of life. And on the first night of my first-ever visit (a reporting trip for work), I heard David Grier play flatpick guitar at the Station Inn, which for me was like getting to watch Degas draw.
Before long, I was ready to make a new start some place in my native South. While I had no intention of chasing the proverbial Music City Dream, a couple of happy accidents made it possible for me to move into a cute Victorian house on Fatherland Street in East Nashville. It was November 1996.
What a different neighborhood it was then. There was no Margo or Marché. There was certainly no Holland House, Barista Parlor, or East Side Story. A barge building complex lay rusting where today there is an NFL stadium, and the Shelby Street Bridge was for cars — a thrilling narrow skyway into the heart of a transforming downtown. The idea of boutiques or scooter dealers on Gallatin Road would have been implausible at best. My house was smashed into one night while I was at a show, and I was relieved of my guitars and stereo. My neighbor had his air conditioner stolen — not a window unit but a central heat exchanger, which he found had been unbolted from its concrete pad and carted away. I sought camaraderie down at Five Points, but the only bar was a musty joint called Shirley’s with neither charm nor music — only sideways looks from guys from a tough part of town who seemed grafted to their stools.
But there was the Radio Café, the pulsing heart of the proto-new-Nashville, with Lonesome Bob behind the counter, Skip “Play A Train Song” Litz ever present, and Mac Hill booking nationally worthy talent on a charming stage. The newly renovated Ryman Auditorium was open for musical church, with awe-inspiring bluegrass in the summer months. The Station Inn was more like chapel, right down to the Sunday communion of an open jam where an amateur musician like myself could play, engage, and make friends. The week I arrived, there was a big feature in the New York Times Magazine extolling the revival of Lower Broadway’s honky tonk culture and an insurgent, independent music sector. The city was, everyone seemed to agree, on the cusp of something. It would remain on that cusp for many years.
There was a tornado. April 1998. That was something. With one fatality, it could have been much worse, but it seemed pretty dire at the time. Most of the magnificent old trees in our neighborhood were uprooted, and a river of blue roof tarps and lots with collapsed houses stretched miles eastward from a shattered downtown. Was it the end? Far from it. The wind turned out to be a blast of creative destruction that set in motion the kinds of changes all the good government and citizen action in the world can’t plan. Insurance money kick-started things and entrepreneurs did the rest. The growth didn’t negate or deny the Nashville that had been but seemed rather to sprout from its oldest rootstock. In my ‘hood, it was the Turnip Truck and Bongo Java and the revolutionary Slow Bar — a miraculous club whose legacy now lives on at Grimey’s record store and the Basement below, on 8th Avenue. In other parts of town, sleepy neighborhoods roused themselves, becoming more walkable, eatable, drinkable and livable.
While this went on, I had one of the great adventures of my life researching Nashville’s history, particularly the music business and the radio station that made it possible: WSM. The cast of characters I encountered was electrifying. They were dynamos, eccentrics, schemers and visionaries; many of them were still alive and quite willing to recollect. I learned of synergies between companies and their people that seemed to bring out the best in both. With the right balance of structure and freedom, people blossomed. They tried things. They broadcast the sound of a steam locomotive running past the WSM tower to mark the end of the work day. They opened a recording studio in a disused hotel ballroom. They started a DJ convention. And they built a multi-million-dollar national cable network. These were game-changing initiatives that accumulated into an ecosystem and an engine. The life and hum of it, literally broadcast through high-powered towers, drew more people as if by magnetic force — people with still more vigor and ideas.
This immigrant factor can’t be ignored. Nashville’s natives and their multi-generational families are treasures. They have of course played a huge role in shaping the city, but in music circles, even natives will joke about how exceptional they feel in this city of arrivals. Every transplant has his or her own version of the story I’ve taken the liberty of sharing with you about myself — a story of the lure and the decision and the arrival and the settling in. Everyone has a version of what-it-was-like-then versus the Nashville he or she knows today. And this is special. Nashville grew in large part based on its uncanny ability to take in pilgrims and make them feel like home folks in a relatively short period of time. This is a factor of and contributor to the city’s dynamic nature and its productive balance between continuity and change.
What endures in Nashville and what ties today’s city to its golden age is an ethos of respect for creators and creative work.
Now more than ever, it seems there’s appreciation and empathy for artists, even as (and perhaps because) the industries that supported them for years have been shaken to their foundations. Nobody who seriously engages with Music City’s creators — across all media — harbors illusions that art making is a lazy lark. It’s a city of works and a city that works hard. Yet that’s not the most unique aspect of Nashville’s culture of creation. Artists live everywhere, after all. What Nashville has had and continues to have that sets it apart is instigators. Instigators enable creators. They’re catalysts for others. They don’t have titles because they’re in new territory and not being supervised. They make scenes and rewrite rulebooks, and this was the source of Nashville’s bold, improbable rise. In the 1920s and ’30s, Edwin Craig built WSM, a nationally exceptional radio station, on the fifth floor of a conservative southern insurance company. In the ’50s, Owen Bradley gutted a house on 16th Avenue and attached a Quonset hut to it to make records and television shows. In the ’90s, Billy Block bootstrapped his way to a long-running radio show championing underdog music and musicians. All, in their own ways, made history and made Nashville the exceptional place it is today.
Based On: Words, Notes and Art from Nashville is a quintessential collaboration between creators and an instigator. This instigator’s name is Chuck Beard, and he’s a fellow who radiates energy and service. His belief in Nashville’s creative life is as strong as anyone’s. He appeared one day as if conjured. He just reached out, explaining he was a writer and editor who was opening a bookshop devoted exclusively to local writers and authors. East Side Story was envisioned as an entry to a national contest offering development support for an initiative that could transform the cultural life of a city. It won. And what emerged is so much more than a shop; it’s a nexus for interaction and exchange. The place itself is an ever-changing work of art, full of color and light and mixed-media curiosities. Nested in East Nashville’s IDEA Hatchery, one of the most engaging and delightful developments in the city, it’s halfway between Five Points and the former site of the Radio Café — in the heart of the new Nashville in every way that matters.
East Side Story transcends its minimal square footage by reaching out into the community with gatherings and events. When Chuck launched his East Side Storytellin’ nights, which pair a reading with a musical performance, I imagined he’d do several — maybe a couple of dozen — if he was determined. As of this writing, he’s produced fifty-eight of these rich experiences, with plans in place for more. I was so pleased to be asked to be part of one, sharing the WSM story and jamming a bit with the Don Gallardo Band on a perfect evening on the patio of Fat Bottom Brewery. These are the kinds of opportunities that fill the voids left by the frustrations, uncertainties, and low wages of freelancing in arts and culture in a time of cultural upheaval.
So now we have Based On, the latest and perhaps most comprehensive collaborative event yet cooked up by Chuck and East Side Story. The concept was to invite authors to write short fiction set in or somehow inspired by Nashville. Their stories would be matched with songwriters, who’d use the literature to (loosely) inspire a song and a recording. Visual artists would be invited to create pieces based on the stories as well. When Chuck told me about the project and its title, I thought its tone and implications were perfect. Based on: what a delicious, unworn phrase. What a potent acknowledgment of creativity’s many prerequisites. Nothing is sui generis. The wise and humble metaphor about geniuses standing on the shoulders of giants goes back centuries, so it’s a long-acknowledged part of the human adventure. I give nature its due, but nurture is considerably more important to who we are. We are based on each other. We are based on our families, our beliefs and our traditions. We are based on our heroes and even the people we studied in school and forgot. There is no us without them. There’s no Vince Gill without Don Rich. No Don Rich without Chet Atkins. No Chet Atkins without Django Reinhardt. And on and on.
At this writing, I’ve read the stories, some of them still in draft form, but I’ve not heard the songs. So I look forward to joining you in taking in the project as a whole. What I can say is the stories offer a composite sketch of a place wrestling with change and identity — a place possessive of its history yet subject to forces of digital acceleration and commercial homogenization. There’s not much in here directly about the music scene or musicians, with one spectacular exception penned by a veteran musical artist and prose master who knows whereof he laments. Instead, the writings make a fractal tour of a city and its people in various kinds of transition. They borrow from a wild variety of genres as well, including suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. In these diverse approaches lay surprises and delightful reading. Yet the default mood is realism. The writers seem to have been parachuted into random parts of town to bear witness to life in progress and the memories and flashbacks that are part of it. Parts of it feel reported, but all names and events are works of fiction; any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Perhaps.
The only thing these writers have in common besides geography is that they’re all products of their influences. They’re all based on many different somebodies. And they’ve done the necessary work of developing a unique voice that fuses and transcends those influences. Country music legend Connie Smith has said that when she came to town in the 1960s, the general ethos of the record labels and talent scouts was that “there’s room for many but only one of each.” The object of A&R was to find artists who could be recognized in a few notes on the radio, stirring up a bond between artist and fan. Sadly, this isn’t what the big-time country music business is looking for anymore, but it continues to be a touchstone for Nashville’s independent creators.
Meanwhile, Nashville has never been represented with such fervor or financial backing in mass media as a place of dreams, glamour, fame, and celebrity as it is today. New generations of music aficionados are seeing Nashville and the Bluebird Café and the songwriting culture on their screens, and it’s all a lot more glam and sizzle than my early ’90s VHS movie rental. Whether it’s the ABC soap opera that bears the city’s name, the CMA Awards and CMA Music Festival, or our NFL football team, the emphasis tends to be on the stardom rather than the work. It falls to each individual consumer out there to sift the signal from the noise, the substance from the commercial. The gatekeepers have been shown the door, and the public rules with twitchy trigger fingers. There’s undue emphasis placed on “blowing up,” and we creators have been cajoled onto platforms we never imagined, where the raw metrics of our reach and virality are there for all to see and compare. In the Nashville I know and cherish, fame and big time success are not so much the shrine and alter as they are the elephant in the room. We wonder about it and discretely hope something will break that might make our future more secure and our work more visible. For some, only the full rocket ride will do and they’ll adapt to the market to get there. Others steer toward their own stars, heedless of public whims. Neither path is nobler than the other. Nashville wouldn’t be Nashville without the commercial hit and the blockbuster success. There are incredible artists and cringe-worthy pretenders in both sectors. It’s the spirit one brings to the enterprise that matters.
In the 2000s, Nashville itself has become a celebrity, and we’re all along for the vicarious ride. The New York Times dubbed it the new “It City,” and magazines around the world have named Nashville among the world’s best places to live or visit. The population is growing rapidly, and concerned citizens are justifiably pushing back against growth. A wave that was on the horizon for years is now surging, perhaps cresting, and nobody’s sure what it means or where it’s going. But it’s a remarkable place and time to be alive and at work. Instigators like Chuck Beard and creators like those between these covers make it so.