The last 10 years in Nashville's music scene have been more fruitful than people realize
By Michael McCall
JUNE 28, 1999: For the last 10 years, Nashville's non-country music community has repeated one cry over and over again: We need a rock act to score a huge commercial breakthrough. From the first articles I wrote for the Nashville Scene in 1991 to more recent stories on the local rock scene, the song remains the same: Should one local act hit the top of the charts and sell several million albums, then the parade will begin; should one Nashville rock act become the toast of MTV, then the world will suddenly realize that Music City USA is home to a multitude of talented non-country musicians; should one local act wind up on the cover of Spin magazine, then suddenly many of the city's unheralded talents will gain the recognition they've long deserved.
In truth, the Nashville rock community has grown immensely in the last decade. It's now stronger in every way: There's more talent, more diversity, and more means of support for performers to sustain a living from their craft.
It has taken the city 10 years to reach this point, for it was a decade ago that deserving members of the local music scene just started to receive the attention they needed to garner record deals, put together tours, and make the kind of records they wanted to make. At the turn of the '90s, Nashville's rock scene was at a crossroads: Local bands had been chasing fruitlessly after major-label deals, but as they emerged into the new decade, they finally started to figure out that to encounter success, they had to lay the groundwork themselves--by making better music, by putting out their own records, by creating a grassroots network of fans and fellow musicians.
Since then, the scene has only broadened and deepened. Loads of contracts have been signed, and nearly as many records have been released. Many of them were good, and a few of them even got attention. That's pretty much how it works for rock 'n' roll in the '90s--there haven't been a whole lot of big national rock breakthroughs in the last decade, so Nashville popsters and guitar-slingers shouldn't feel so slighted.
In truth, Nashville's music scene is as healthy as it could possibly be. It's a forest vs. the trees situation: Everyone cries about how no single hardwood has grown into an unmanageable monstrosity like Nirvana or Sublime or Hole; in the meantime, a whole field of fine, strong timber has established roots here.
That's exactly what should be encouraged too. Instead of generating the next big hype, Nashville has made room over the last decade for all kinds of music. Look around: The city is now home to a wide array of successful acts, from country to jazz to Christian to blues to, yes, rock.
At long last, a credible black music scene is starting to take root, and its diversity is promising: All that Count Bass-D, Iayaalis, Ruby Amanfu, Cynthia Williams, and Utopia State have in common is skin color and the talent to compete with anyone on a national scale. But the fact that they're emerging within the Nashville music scene, rather than moving to Atlanta or New York, is an important local development.
Right now, rock acts from Nashville (and the mighty Murfreesboro) currently have more major label deals than ever before, and a handful of highly touted independent-label bands are taking their Nashville-bred music to places as far-flung as Germany and Japan. Maybe one, or several, will soon sell millions of albums. Maybe they won't.
What's important is that these performers are getting a shot--something that didn't happen very often in the '80s. Just as important is the fact that local musicians are beginning to realize that they can't bank their whole careers on getting a major-label contract. Local musicians of every stripe have begun to learn that longevity depends on more than a hit single or two, and that there's more than one way to establish a fan base. Right now, there are dozens of local artists generating national attention (and record sales) without the benefit of radio play or hit singles. The list is as long as it is diverse, ranging from Jason & the Scorchers to Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, from the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies to Take 6, from Maura O'Connell to Iodine, from Cece Winans to the Teen Idols, from Lambchop to the Del McCoury Band--and that's only a sampling.
Not by coincidence, the last 10 years have also seen the rise of a multitude of indie labels in Nashville, and many of them are running strong even though they're still young. That list includes Compass, E-Squared, Dead Reckoning, Skaggs Family, Ceili, Eminent, Green Hills, and others, all of whom have joined John Prine's Oh Boy Records as national players with effective national distribution. Spongebath Records in Murfreesboro continues to feed major-label-ready rock acts to corporations based on the coasts. Two of its bands, Self and The Katies, will have records out within a month on DreamWorks and Elektra, respectively.
So why is there always a grim prognosis whenever local insiders talk about the Nashville rock scene? That can be traced back to the '80s, when the aftermath of punk and new wave resulted in strong local rock scenes in cities across the U.S. The Nashville scene's brightest hope, Jason & the Scorchers, drew critical raves with a sound that was as striking and as strong as anything else being created at the time.
As good as the Scorchers' initial albums were, however, and as undeniably transcendent as their live shows were, they never achieved the commercial breakthrough of R.E.M., their pals from Athens, Ga., nor did they earn the media attention of Minneapolis' The Replacements. So while the media crowned Athens and Minneapolis (also home to Prince, arguably the most influential and important pop musician of the '80s) as important breeding grounds for rock and pop, Nashville's rock scene continued to be overshadowed by the country music industry.
But in the years since, Athens and Minneapolis have experienced peaks and valleys in their credibility, and Nashville has weathered its own ups and downs. In the late '80s, the local scene was probably hitting its nadir. At the time, a few local highlights were hitting the streets. John Hiatt's Slow Turning album was on the radio, and Steve Forbert's great Streets of This Town was garnering favorable reviews. In addition, the Questionnaires--whose mix of attitude and craft perhaps best represented the possibilities of Nashville rock at the time--released their commendable debut.
But the fact that the Questionnaires' debut didn't get much attention also shows how poorly corporate labels served local bands at the time--a harbinger for what Nashville, and many other communities, would endure for the next 10 years. In 1989, Capitol Records shelved Pat McLaughlin's outstanding second album, and A&M Records seemed to ignore the fact that they'd signed the Scorchers the year before. As a result, the band's new Thunder & Fire album went largely unheard.
That same year, a similar fate was met by Walk the West on Capitol, by Royal Court of China on A&M, by Judson Spence on Atlantic, by Paradise Lost on MCA, and by Intruder on Metal Blade. Capitol never even got around to releasing a full album by Sepia, a renamed version of the city's most popular African American band, Autumn.
Those failures had Nashville's rock scene limping into the '90s. Looking back at the Nashville Entertainment Association's annual Extravaganza showcase in the early '90s, it seems as though the city's powers-that-be were starting to force-feed the music-industry machine with performers who were underdeveloped or undeserving. In 1992, for example, the Extravaganza's 20-strong list of unsigned acts included the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies; Jody's Power Bill, a band that included Ben Folds and Will Owsley; Jeff Black; Brad Jones; Jeff Finlin; Wild About Harry, which later evolved into Swan Dive; Latter Day Saints, which featured Floating Men frontman Jeff Holmes; and The Blue Million, which featured then-unknown lead singer David Mead.
Eventually, each of these artists, or at least one member of each of these bands, would go on to impact the local rock scene and to garner some measure of national attention. But at that point, Nashville was in transition. The talent pool of a previous generation had been picked over by major labels and, for the most part, tossed away. Disappointments abounded, and newcomers were vying for the same major-label ring, no matter how tarnished it had become.
Those who survived the last decade have learned some hard lessons. As a result, Nashville is now home to a wiser and more self-sustaining musical community, one that includes a more active local club scene and a more experienced support system for getting talented acts widespread exposure.
Quite likely, that huge commercial breakthrough--the one that will put Nashville on the map--will come someday soon. After all, the locally based Sixpence None the Richer has one of the hottest, most successful pop singles of 1999 with its pervasive hit, "Kiss Me." But that shouldn't be the focus. To realize why, just look at Seattle and Sub Pop Records in the aftermath of Nirvana's enormous (and uncontrollable) success.
Instead, members of Nashville's local music scene need to recognize that they already hold the keys to much deeper and more lasting success. At a time when the youth-obsessed record business doesn't seem able to foster career longevity, Nashville performers are creating a solid foundation for themselves. They've established Nashville not as a trendy new hotspot, but as a place that will continue to make enduring music, regardless of the latest trends. That's exciting news, and it should be the proud legacy of the Nashville music community in the 1990s.
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