Separating Music City From Music Row

Nashville Skyline NightNashville was lucky. During the early 20th Century, many cities could have ended up with the “Music City” moniker. Tulsa had a bustling music scene, with Bob Wills playing weekly at Cain’s ballroom. Bakersfield, CA had the best recording studios west of the Mississippi and was a magnet for the Southern talent that had migrated during the Depression. Shreveport, LA had the Louisiana Hayride, where Elvis got his start, and so many others.

But Nashville had WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. And the Grand Ole Opry had Hank Williams.

We tend to trash Nashville so easily these days. I am as guilty as any. It’s hip, and it’s only fair because Nashville deserves it . . . or at least institutions that call Nashville home do.

A while back Chris Scruggs of BR549 and other projects said in a Nashville Scene interview:

“People say, “Oh, you know, country music went bad,” and they like to blame it on Nashville. People say, “I can’t stand Nashville for what it’s done to country music.” Nashville was the home of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. To blame Nashville for the state of country music is like blaming the house for being robbed. People came, cheapened it, and they took away a lot of the magic. That’s not Nashville’s fault, it’s the industry’s fault, and it’s the same industry that’s responsible for a lot of the mediocre rock music you get nowadays too. Country fans feel so betrayed by Nashville as a city and I’d like to champion Nashville and say that no, Nashville is still a good place.”

Yesterday it was revealed in The Tennessean that Dale Watson, performer of “Nashville Rash” and other anti-Nashville songs recorded his latest album at the Hilltop Recording Studio in Music City, and used Nashville players. Dale defended the decision by saying:

“People say, ‘What are you doing? You hate Nashville.’ But I don’t hate Nashville. I hate what has been done to the music that I love, the music that came from Nashville and that was invented in Nashville. I’m 100 percent inspired by what Nashville was.”

So should we separate the city from its seedy industry? Not so fast. Distinguishing the industry from the individuals that call Nashville home, or recognizing the history is one thing. However remember back in February, when the Nashville City Council voted to eminent domain the Musician’s Hall of Fame? They bulldozed a site dedicated to music to erect another tool of industry. The President of the Musicians Union at the time said:

“…all people are gonna remember is that the city of Nashville took a building that was honoring musicians in an eminent-domain court proceeding and that to me is a black mark on the city of Nashville…and that’s not gonna go away overnight.”

This year Nashville sent Janet Miller of the Nashville-area Chamber of Commerce to Austin’s SXSW Festival to “Defend the Music City Brand.” They passed out this survey to some 20,000 attendees to “find out how Nashville is perceived.”

Nashville on the surface seems to understand that it must preserve its “Music City” name, but their approach seems to be all symbolism and no substance. Billboards, commercials, and little music notes on manhole covers downtown will not replace actual notes of music being played in Nashville, or preserved in historical landmarks threatened by eminent domain. If the trend continues, those manhole covers will be like the tombstones of what Music City was.

There is a battle right now for the heart of country music, and as goes that battle, so does the city that country music calls home, for now.

“You can’t grow if you rip your roots out of the ground,
It looks like that Nashville Rash is gettin’ around

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