Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Season in the Sun

Nashville's recording industry blossoms

By Jim Ridley

JANUARY 11, 1999:  Usually, you can't tell much about how the year for music is shaping up until April or May. On the local scene, 1998 started shaping up as a good year pretty early--in January, to be exact. That month, I went to a local coffeehouse one bitter Sunday morning, and I kept noticing how cool the music was on the stereo. I complimented the guy behind the counter on his taste, and we struck up a conversation. Turns out the guy is a musician. He tells me he's recorded a CD, and would I like to hear it? Well, sure. I don't want my latte poisoned.

So I take the CD home, dutifully place it on my stereo, and listen for a few songs. Within a week, it's all I want to hear. By summer, the secret is out: Josh Rouse's Dressed Up Like Nebraska has been released by a subsidiary of Rykodisc, home to the back catalogs of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Frank Zappa. He tours England, opens for Son Volt, gets raves in the music press here and abroad, even pours a few more cups of coffee.

By all rights, Josh Rouse, an underdog Nashville pop musician who released one of 1998's best records anywhere, should've been the story of the year. And he might have been--in any other year but this one. Three months into 1998, music writers were deluged with exceptionally fine albums from mainstays of the local club scene: Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Duane Jarvis' Far from Perfect, Kevin Gordon's Cadillac Jack's Son, Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub's Wire to Wire, Tom House's This White Man's Burden. A fluke, right?

Not as it turns out. As the year progressed, the amount of first-rate music being released by Nashville musicians never let up--from Tommy Womack's mordant rockers to Lambchop's newfound R&B punch; from Jerry Douglas' instrumental prowess to Allison Moorer's smoky vocals; from Beegie Adair's snappy Nat King Cole tribute to the percolating riddims of O.J. Ekemode & the Nigerian All-Stars; from Bare Jr. blasting the cobwebs outta Tootsie's to Jason & the Scorchers and Emmylou Harris live and triumphant at the Exit/In. Add to those some pop acts such as Sixpence None the Richer, Wes Cunningham, and the Evinrudes who actually managed to eke out some radio and video play. By December, the evidence was damn near irrefutable: 1998 was the most remarkable year for local releases in recent memory.

So the local music scene has never been in better shape, right? Not exactly. Any year that contained both a new Lucinda Williams album and a Jason & the Scorchers live recording--the equivalent of two comets crisscrossing the night sky on the same summer evening--is already out of the ordinary. But in some ways, the sheer overabundance of outstanding local releases is a mixed blessing--a wave of intense heat that may herald chillier times to come.

Part of what made 1998 such an extraordinary year for local music was a convergence of circumstance and unrepeatable conditions. No one galvanizing trend swept pop music as a whole in 1998: the genres that did show signs of activity--Cubanismo, swing, sampledelia--were so marginal they hardly spawned legions of imitators. (Perhaps that's because in each case, not just anybody can jump onstage and wing it.) Fortunately, that stymied only the copycats. It also cleared the field for performers like Rouse, House, and Womack, who've honed their craft through years of club-level gruntwork.

Therefore, if any one genre dominated the year in local releases, it was that amorphous whatchamacallit "Americana," the catch-all home to stubborn individuals with a folkie bent and otherwise hard-to-classify work: Williams, Womack, Rouse, House, Gillian Welch, Paul Burch, Kevin Gordon, Greg Trooper, Doug Hoekstra, Victor Mecyssne. In 10 years, if Y2K hasn't ravaged civilization and turned CD players into buzzing killer robots, you can gather these records in an armful and have a fuzzy but generally accurate picture of the local club scene in the year of our Lord 1998--a focus on singer/songwriters as opposed to bands; a rejection of alt-rock in favor of country, blues, folk, and jazz idioms; an emphasis on craft and storytelling over naked confession.

However, that doesn't mean anyone's going to make any money putting these records out. One of the year's most frustrating developments was watching Sire Records and its affiliated label Watermelon scoop up several of Nashville's most promising Americana acts--especially Duane Jarvis--only to bungle them with an indifferent release strategy that ranged from carpet bombing to midnight burial.

Jarvis is in good company: Sire or Watermelon releases this year by Don Walser, Jolene, Mike Ireland & Holler, Parlor James, and Nashvillian Hayseed all fared just as poorly--and none of them deserved their hasty consignment to cut-out-bin obscurity. Eric Babcock's Chicago-based label Checkered Past has done better by its Nashville artists by keeping its roster manageable, its releases limited, and its overhead low. But the label's indie ethic, though admirable, hasn't yielded much in the way of widespread exposure for its artists--only enough to preach to the converted.

What's doubly disappointing is that all of these acts have practiced artist development on their own for years by touring, building fan bases, and sharpening material--another reason many of 1998's local releases were so strong. So what are they to do when faced with a bloated industry that's less and less willing to devote a tiny portion of its economic power to promoting musical iconoclasm?

All they can do is persevere, secure in the knowledge that they're making good music at perhaps the most meaningful level: the grass-roots level. A heartening sign is the number of artists who tried to circumvent the major-label route, either by releasing their own records or by signing with a small, focused indie. But that kind of gamble is meaningless unless artists are willing to take aesthetic risks as well. Lucinda Williams struggled on indie labels for the better part of a decade, fought to release the records she wanted to make, and got branded as a loon and a troublemaker for the effort. Her triumph this year on a major label is a vindication for all those uncompromising local talents who refuse to learn their place. 1998 was her year, and it was theirs.

As for Josh Rouse, he goes into the studio in February to record his next album. Until then, you can find him where I did: at Sam & Zoe's Coffeehouse, playing cool music.


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