Preservation Efforts for Exit/In Parallel Country Music’s

Over the last couple of weeks there’s been a big fight in Nashville over the fate of the iconic venue called the Exit/In. Opened in 1971, and named for the fact that the entrance was in the back, it’s one of those venues that’s housed so many memories and iconic moments, they’re almost too numerous to list.

One time Waylon Jennings played a show in the small venue when he was one of the biggest things in country, and guests included Jessi Colter, Dickey Betts, and Johnny Cash. Imagine being in the audience for that. Tyler Childers played a 3-night residency there in 2018 right as his career was exploding, and people who could score a ticket still rave about the experience. Sting can be seen in an Exit/In shirt on the cover of a Police album. Comedy is also a part of the venue’s legacy, and it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite places to perform.

Though the 500-capacity venue near Nashville’s Parthenon started out as mostly a listening room and catered to a lot of country artists, by the 80’s it had morphed into a rock club, and one of the anchors of an area now affectionately referred to as “The Rock Block,” even if country and Americana acts still regularly play shows there.

The fight to preserve the Exit/In is a worthy one, and the concerns raised when it was revealed on April 2nd that the property was under contract with developer AJ Capital were valid. A Go Fund Me drive launched by the current business owners Chris and Telisha Cobb to try and buy the property outright (the building is leased) has now raised well over $220,000, and public pressure forced AJ Capital to promise not to bulldoze the property. But after previous threats to the building over the years, the only way the current business owners feel they can be assured the iconic venue won’t be threatened again moving forward is by owning the property outright.

The current fight for the Exit/In is a good illustration of a point I often try to make about country music. Many people in the Nashville community and beyond find it appalling that the forces of Capitalism and progress would dare endanger such and important cultural institution like the Exit/In, but for some reason don’t see the same parallel when it comes to the effort to preserve the cultural markers, history, and traditions inherent in country music that face similar threats.

When it comes the country and roots music specifically compared to other genres, this point is important to underscore. Unlike other genres of music outside the roots realm, country music has always been about preserving and paying forward the musical history of America’s agrarian and rural people. It’s their story set to song. When Ralph Peer set up shop in Bristol, Virginia in 1927 to record The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and the others of country music’s “big bang,” they weren’t performing the contemporary music of the day, the were playing the music of their ancestors, and were looking to shepherd it forward to a new generation.

Country music was nostalgia from the start. That’s why much of it was originally referred to as old-time. That was also the inspiration for Bill Monroe and the formation of bluegrass—to pay forward the fiddle tune tradition of Kentucky, just like Roy Acuff had done with the mountain music of Appalachia.

All the different origination points and influences of country music comprise musical dialects that must be practiced, preserved, and played to remain vital. This goes for all roots music, including regional folk and blues styles, Cajun and Zydeco, certain versions of jazz and boogie-woogie, and now even rock & roll as it is quickly becoming endangered as well. Just like the Exit/In, if we’re not careful, these musical institutions will soon disappear if people do not stand up to make sure they remain protected and preserved.

Yes it’s also true that if country music is going to continue to survive as a commercial enterprise, then it must evolve and change at least to some extent. This most certainly is not an argument for country music to always sound exactly the same as it always has—though this is the common stereotype assigned to the argument. It’s important for today’s creators to innovate and contribute their own new traditions to country music’s legacy.

But with country music specifically, those efforts to offer up new expressions should still remain tethered to the roots of the music, and inferred by their influences and teachings. In roots music, you can’t grow if you rip your roots out of the ground, and you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. That’s just the nature of the music.

The reason there’s an effort to raze The Exit/In and other iconic music venues in Nashville, Austin, and other locations across the country—especially in the face of a year of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—is because the places constitute an inefficient use of resources and real estate. But the idea is as soon as you bulldoze something such as the Exit/In, you remove the reason there’s such an appeal to so many to move and develop Nashville in the first place.

The same logic goes for country music. Sure, taking the wrecking ball to country’s traditions to replace them with shiny new pop and hip-hop sounds might result in more revenue per square inch. But at what cost and cultural impact in the long-term? Instead of having a cool building brimming with history, you have just another cookie cutter development that you can find anywhere else in the country. Making country songs indistinguishable from pop and hip-hop songs renders the same gentrifying result.

Not every old building is worth preserving, just like every country music tradition may not be worth holding on to. Some of the racially problematic history of country music should be abandoned, though not necessarily scrubbed entirely from the consciousness, lest it repeat itself.

But no different than a historically significant building, business, or a piece of memorabilia sitting in a museum that enjoys virtual consensus behind protecting it from the reach of the profiteers, the sounds and modes of country music mean so much more to American culture than just the maximal amount of revenue they may be able to be generated from them. It’s who we are, and without them, life is just a series of strip malls.

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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