On The Beloved & Maligned Home of Country Music – Nashville

“Nashville.”

Oh how people love to wag a dirty finger in its direction as this monolithic homogenized reprehensible blob-like entity looming on the horizon, responsible for all the current ills in country music and some of the cultural filth beyond, and synonymous with everything that’s gone wrong with the country scene since the late 50’s. Nashville is regarded almost as this sentient being with synchronous and unilateral motivations driven by greed, and not just by those standing from afar, but a similar resentment festers in the minds of many of the city’s currents residents, living with the shattered hopes that Nashville manufactures on a daily basis just as quickly as it spits out the next terrible superhit to permeate corporate radio.

To some, if not many, the name “Nashville” has become an outright pejorative, and is recognized right off the tongue as such by audiences without coaxing or qualifiers, often delivered with a sneer, and with no further explanation needed for everyone to understand what is being implied as decades of ill-begotten history rest upon that city’s name. The protest song perforating Nashville with insults has become its own subgenre.

But like native Texan Waylon Jennings once said when paying tribute to Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, Nashville is “The home of country music, on that we all agree.” And to many, Nashville is home, period, including many who are dealing with their own shattered dreams on this day that have nothing to do with country music. And no matter what side of the Red River, or the Cumberland River you’re living on, your heart can’t help to go out to the lives, families, neighborhoods, and communities affected by the devastating tornadoes that swept through downtown, and especially the east Nashville corridor on Monday night (3-2), and devastating a part of the city that is not indicative of the worst of the business practices and commercial output in country music, but represents the heart of what many consider the resistance to it.

But in moments like these, there is no choosing of sides. It’s moments like these where mere tastes in music, or whatever business approach or philosophy one might bring to it seem so incredibly impertinent, it should be graded as insult for the mind to rest upon it. Moments like these bring everything into perspective. Today, Nashville is everyone’s home, country music fan or otherwise. This is where thoughts and prayers will be gravitating toward from all corners of the country, and of the world. Today, we’re all Nashvillians.

Nashville is more than just country music’s home, it’s country music’s Holy Land, with the Mother Church of Country Music—The Ryman Auditorium—residing right in the heart of downtown, The Country Music Hall of Fame with all of its vast archives swelling with an incredible amount of musical history, not to mention all the other museums and memorials and historical markers all across the city that breathe so much significance into the region it can make one’s heart race just standing in the midst of it, or merely thinking about it. All that music, all those legends, all of that history and cultural significance emerging from one small spot on the map near a bend in the Cumberland River is enough to make one misty eyed. Thinking of lost lives, lost homes, and destroyed cultural markers makes tears flow.

One of the areas most affected, principally The Five Points—where a unusual confluence of roads makes for an unusual piece of urban geography—is very much the heart of East Nashville, which is the heart of Americana and independent country in American music. This is not a romantic assessment taken after a devastating natural disaster. It’s the honest evaluation of anyone who’s been paying attention to the independent revolution in roots music that has been brewing over the last dozen years. This tragedy struck at the very heart of what should be regarded as ground zero for country music’s cultural rebirth. The Basement East right down the street from The Five Points is seen as East Nashville’s premier venue. It’s now been reduced to rubble, only it’s defiant mural declaring “I Believe in Nashville” still erect.

But even if the epicenter of devastation had been on Music Row, where most of the shady business of the music industry transpires that the name “Nashville” has become synonymous with as an angry version of shorthand, it would have been no less of a tragedy. Nor is it even fair to cast a stereotypical blanket on the Music Row portion of Nashville. There are plenty of people laboring away there even today, trying to return country music to a semblance of its once past beauty and cultural prominence, let alone the historical significance of many of the buildings there themselves that gave rise to some of the earliest successes of country music, as well as rock, soul, and blues.

And it’s also important for us to not just focus our minds and hearts exclusively towards Nashville. Many areas outside the city have been affected as well, as is often the case, get overlooked in headlines and hard counts by the flashier names that people recognize, just like in country music. Nearby Cookeville suffered the greatest loss of life with at least 16 people dead.

In heated moments, it’s easy to gravitate towards the stereotypes of people, and places. Democrats, Republicans, the rich, the poor, the rural, the urban—“Nashville” as this evil being that has put country music in such a poor place. But in moments of tragedy, the commonality and complexity of people and places comes out, and how important of a lesson this is, especially when many cities and states, including Nashville, head to the polls on an important election day.

Nashville, and specifically the neighborhoods and institutions of east Nashville most significantly affected, will survive and come back. And if the lessons of previous disasters are any indication, they will come back even stronger than before as love and financial support flow from all corners of the country. But hopefully the lessons of such tragedies remain in our hearts, to not judge something or someone off of one prevailing thought—the knee jerk reaction that first fills the mind whenever a proper name is uttered. But that it is regarded with the nuance and complexity it deserves, with a balancing of all the good and bad it’s been responsible for. Nashville certainly deserves this treatment, as do we all. Because without Nashville, there may be no country music industry to care about, to fight for, or rebel against. And that would be a tragedy in itself.
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