Why Rodney Crowell’s “Nashville 1972” Is the Song of the Year…and the Most Important
In my most recent piece, I included Rodney Crowell’s Close Ties in my list of top ten favorite albums of the year. I also mentioned that “Nashville 1972” was probably the best song of the year. Yet not only is the song the best of the year, it’s also the most important to the country music community.
To recap, “Nashville 1972” is a poignant vignette of Nashville in the early 1970s, long before the resurgence of Lower Broadway in the 1990s and the boom Nashville is currently undergoing. Great characters lost to all but the most dedicated fans of country music like Skinny Dennis Sanchez, David Olney, and Richard Dobson are referenced in the lyrics along with more well-known legends like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Harlan Howard.
There’s a melancholy, accepting feeling to the song. Crowell knows his place in the pantheon of country music greats. He fondly looks back on his early years in Nashville while still wishing some of his friends were still around. Crowell’s legacy is firmly secure, with five number one singles, a couple of Grammy’s, and countless songs recorded by other great artists. “Nashville 1972” is Crowell’s understated way of accepting all he’s done.
The lyrics are matter-of-fact with one particular line standing out to those worried about the over-population of Nashville (as many as 100 people are moving to the city each day). Crowell sings Things have changed round here you bet/But it don’t seem much better yet. Perhaps a little bit of hyperbole, sure, but the point Crowell is making remains. Nashville is in danger of losing what made it so special in the first place. Small writing sessions and guitar pulls risk becoming a thing of the past entirely, and Crowell is doing the industry a great service by being another individual to bring attention to the problem.
Yet the song is also a history lesson, in my opinion. If anyone wants to be involved with country music in whatever fashion- singer, songwriter, executive, music business, or blogger- he or she should know the history of the genre. The best bloggers and individuals I interact with on Twitter know the genre and know what makes country music special. They all have different opinions, of course, but they know what makes country music tick. They understand the quality of songwriting from Harlan Howard, Tom T. Hall, and Bob McDill. They appreciate the poetry and vivid imagery of Townes van Zandt.
“Nashville 1972” is also a history lesson for the Americana crowd. We’ve seen time-and-time again that artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson want nothing to do with the mainstream country music community. Isbell especially has been outspoken about not appearing on stage at places like the CMA Music Festival. This just confuses me. Why would he not want the opportunity to expose his music to a larger amount of people? If Isbell and Simpson truly care about the genre, than they should care about carrying on its legacy. Artists like Crowell, Steve Earle, and Guy Clark all made a dent or influenced the mainstream. Crowell and Steve Earle directly infiltrated mainstream country while Guy Clark was a huge influence on many mainstream acts. They did not shy away from trying to make a dent in the industry. It is my firm opinion that Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell have a responsibility to at least try to change hearts and minds inside the mainstream community. The best example of this comes from the recent piece on Luke Bryan in the The New York Times. For all of Luke’s faults as a country music artist, he does seem like a genuinely good guy. Apart from his ill-advised comments on outlaw country, Bryan has never said anything negative about his critics. In the Times’ piece, Luke admits he admires Sturgill and wants to sit down for a coffee with the alt-country star. Sturgill responded basically with a solid “no,” even if he was somewhat misquoted. Yet what could be better for mainstream country than one of its biggest stars sitting down with one of the patron saints of the alt-country/Americana crowd? I think Sturgill and others should realize the good that could come from it. For now, however, we have to come to terms with the fact that Sturgill and Isbell want nothing to do with mainstream country. Revolution in Nashville, as I have written about before, will come from inside the industry. Rodney Crowell and many others proved it and are now enjoying beautiful legacies inside and out of the country music community.