Nashville is the state capital and largest city in Tennessee. The city itself has a population of 690,000 but if you include the metropolitan area around the city, that rises to around two million people. For comparison those are similar numbers to Manchester/Greater Manchester here in the UK. 63% of the population is white, 28% black and 10% Latino. Nashville is also the home to many smaller minority ethnic groups attracted by a relatively low cost of living and good job prospects. The city is home to the United States’ largest Kurdish community numbering around 15,000 but also is home to significant numbers of South Asian, Arabic and Somali communities.
Nashville is the base for over 300 private health companies, including HCA, the country’s largest provider of private hospitals. CoreCivic, also based in the city, is America’s largest private ‘corrections’ company – that’s prisons to you and me. There is also a large finance and insurance sector, Nissan has its US headquarters in the city and well-known companies such as Amazon, Philips and Bridgestone have a significant presence too. Nashville also boasts six universities including Vanderbilt University and Medical Center which is the largest employer in the city with 24,000 people working there.
Yet despite all of this, Nashville is still best known around the world as the home of country music. The big three record companies all have offices in the city as well as countless (and rather more interesting) independent labels. Nashville is second only to New York in music production and music contributes around $10 billion a year to the Nashville economy. As well as the recording, production and marketing of music, tourism and a thriving live music scene add to the importance of music to the Nashville economy. There are around 56,000 people employed in the Nashville music industry in one way or another.
Whilst Nashville is synonymous with country music it hasn’t always been a happy relationship. For many country fans, the big music corporations, rather than promoting country music, have sought to dilute it down, sanitise it and make it more appealing to mass crossover audiences. From the ‘Countrypolitan’ sound of the early sixties to the ‘Bro-Country’ of the last decade and many other abominations in between, country music has been twisted and contorted away from its rich heritage for the sake of a quick buck.
Thankfully there have always been those willing to push back against this process and to keep the true spirit of country music alive, not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing, dynamic and artistically developing musical genre. These ten songs are by some of those artists and/or recognise the other side of Nashville.
Pee Wee King ‘Blame It All On Nashville’ (1950)
Right let’s get this straight. Nashville, especially in the early days, produced some great music. The blame that Pee Wee King apportions to Nashville is all positive. If you’ve got that country music bug, then you almost certainly caught it from Nashville, either directly through its great roster of artists or indirectly through the very many musicians and songwriters that it inspired. So despite what you are about to read, it ain’t all been bad. Maybe this article should more accurately have been called ‘nine songs from the other side of Nashville and one from its early beating heart’. However that wouldn’t have fitted either the header space or the ‘ten songs about the same thing’ format, so the more succinct, if slightly less accurate title won out.
Waylon Jennings ‘Nashville Bum’ (1966)
There are many stories of aspiring young musicians and songwriters who’ve gone to Nashville hoping to hit the big time only to end up broke, ripped off and let down…. but still dreaming. ‘Nashville Bum’ was one of the first songs to encapsulate that thin line between hope and hopelessness. The third verse sums up perfectly the vulnerability of the desperate artist:
“Well now here’s a song I wrote by myself note to note
With a lot of help it might make No 1
You can change a word or two and I’ll give half of it to you
I’ll be a star tomorrow but today I’m a Nashville bum.”
Dwight Yoakam ‘Guitars, Cadillacs (1986)
It’s a sad reflection on Music City that twenty years after Waylon released ‘Nashville Bum’ Dwight Yoakam was repeating the message in equally spectacular style. Taken from his debut album ‘Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc.’ one of the finest country records ever made – and don’t let anyone tell you differently, the song again sets dreams against sometimes harsh realities:
“Girl you taught me how to hurt real bad and cry myself to sleep
You showed me how this town can shatter dreams
Another lesson about a naive fool that came to Babylon
And found out that the pie don’t taste so sweet.”
Lindi Ortega ‘Tin Star’ (2013)
Canadian songwriter Lindi Ortega, like so many before her, moved to Nashville in search of a big break, only she was too authentic, too country and too good for the mainstream. Nevertheless, she spent five years in the city chasing that dream. Talking to Songfacts she explained the meaning of the song: “It’s about living in Nashville and doing what I do and living amidst a city where people come to see stars ….And kind of being in the underground of that…. It’s really about just struggling and then holding onto your dream and trying to make it in the face of maybe not having the huge success… But doing it because you love it.” In 2017 Lindi Ortega moved back to her native Canada having decided that she’d had enough of struggling to make ends meet and chasing that elusive dream.
Robbie Fulks ‘Fuck This Town’ (1997)
The last of our quartet of songs about the frustrations of trying to make it in Nashville brings us to the inimitable Robbie Fulks. Taken from his second album ‘South Mouth’ Robbie pulls no punches in letting fly at Music City. These two lines from the chorus pretty much encapsulate the whole song:
“Can’t get noticed, can’t get found
Can’t get a cut, so fuck this town”
The contemptuous scorn of these lyrics are complemented by Fulks’ customary wit and humour. The song is not bitter, but rather it is a celebration of liberation and escape.
Bob Neuwirth ‘Nashville’ (1996)
We move on. As well as the frustrations of trying to make it in Nashville, another common gripe has been the city’s abandonment of the music that put it on the map. This song from Bob Neuwirth’s criminally under recognised ‘Look Up’ album laments the loss of those traditional sounds and how country music is nowhere to be found in Nashville, “I don’t know why they call this Music City, I can’t find the country music here at all” He also touches on Nashville’s attempts to gloss over its past by declaring “I’m not ashamed to admit I’m silly hillbilly at heart”.
Heather Myles ‘Nashville’s Gone Hollywood’ (2002)
After first hearing Heather Myles on Andy Kershaw’s Radio One evening show, she became a firm favourite in the West household – well at least in my corner of it anyway. Here she takes aim at 21st century Nashville, its trashing of traditional sounds and the ‘stars’ that it now produces.
“You won’t need a steel guitar in your watered down rock ‘n roll.
An’ you might even find yourself on the cover of The Rolling Stone.
You’ll be lookin’ mighty fine in your designer clothes.
An’ you won’t need the Opry; you’ll be singin’ on Jay Leno.”
Rodney Crowell ‘Nashville 1972’ (2017)
Despite the bashing that Nashville has received so far, there have always been those that have bucked the trends of the day to produce some of the finest music to reach these particular ears. This nostalgic Rodney Crowell song is part tribute to some of those people, part celebration, but also expresses misgivings about the city and what it has become. It illustrates the dichotomy of Nashville, a place that is capable of producing genuine greatness but frequently chooses to produce slush instead.
Steve Earle ‘South Nashville Blues’ (1996)
Steve Earle moves us on again, this time to consider that like any big city, Nashville has its less salubrious areas. In search of a fix Earle ventures into one such area “I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill, I had everything I need to get me killed”. In fact, Nashville does have one of the highest crime rates in America, with the chances of being a victim of any crime in 2019 being 1 in 19 and of being a victim of violent crime 1 in 87.
Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon ‘Let’s Go Burn Ole Nashville Down’ (1994)
We end with the most brutal of attacks on Music City. In 1994, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys fame teamed up with Texas psychobilly performer Mojo Nixon to record the album ‘Prairie Home Invasion’ which by the way good folks out there in AUK land, is most heartily recommended. The album was a set of covers and parodies including this little ditty which is performed to the tune of ‘Old Joe Clark’. It is an attack on ‘90s ‘country’ with Garth Brooks and producer Jimmy Bowen (known for the introduction of digital technology) coming in for particular stick, which is probably reason enough to like it on its own. It also happens to be brilliant cutting satire and great fun.