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Under(ground) Achievers

Can Nashville's creative underbelly save country from Music Row?

For most anyone with a taste for real country music, "Nashville sucks" is a convenient rallying cry, and a contention easily borne out by the suburban pop pabulum that litters today's commercial country-radio play lists. A large part of the pseudo-movement known as alternative country takes the anti-Nashville ethos to heart, while in a rebel hotbed like Austin, Nashville is generally seen as the nerve center of the Evil Empire, a place where Darth Brooks and his ilk conspire to board up the honky-tonks and replace them with a chain of spit-shined, sanitized line-dance emporiums.

But maybe it's time to draw a line between Music Row and Music City. Because while the Nashville-based major labels are circling their wagons in anticipation of trouble, as sales wane and radio audiences decline, the barbarians, it seems, are already at the gate. As recently as 20 years ago, true country enthusiasts vigorously lamented the creatively anemic state of Music City (aside from the corporatized Grand Ole Opry and the annual Fan Fair, Nashville remains an office/bedroom community for the country music industry). That no longer holds true in the present. These days, there's a restless litter of C&W and roots acts kicking about in the belly of the beast. And while the pages of No Depression magazine -- alt-country's bible -- are chock full of articles, reviews and ads touting what must be hundreds of acts taking a crack at a grittier strum and twang, Nashville has actually been the source for some of the most interesting options to the processed cheese lining Music Row conveyer belts.

Like any artistic movement, the Nashville underground has its lineage; but alt-country's forebears are a long way from dead. In the late '70s, among the few quality acts in Music City was David Olney and the X-Rays. Cheeky and literate, they were the Southern-fried kin of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Their sweat-soaked set one night at the Springwater (a juke-'n'-puke joint nestled behind Nashville's plaster Parthenon) was an evening of the most honest music I experienced in Nashville during those years. On his most recent Rounder Records release, 1997's Real Lies, Olney continues to mix intellect and country music. Tracks such as "Death, True Love, Lonesome Blues and Me" provide a pretty fair list of the ingredients essential to populist roots music, from Jimmie Rodgers through Hank Williams right on up to now.

Likewise, Jason and the Scorchers emerged in 1981 to all but define twang-core, but by 1990 imploded after enduring rank business deals, bad habits and the rigors of the road. Yet almost miraculously, the band reunited a few years later with a renewed vitality that is hot-iron-branded into the digital bits of its new live album, Midnight Roads and Stages Seen. On it, Jason and the Scorchers perform with an adrenalized urgency that leaves younger alt-country contenders eating their dust.

On a related note, Steve Earle's mid-'80s emergence seemed to signal a potential sea change in modern country. But, alas, the back-to-basics charge he led after the pop excesses of the Urban Cowboy years only wound up being co-opted by the succeeding slew of hat acts. During the first part of this decade, Earle re-emerged from the depths of drug addiction and jail time to reveal an even more expansive vision -- from string-band picking to metallic grind -- while establishing a rebel beachhead in his E-Squared label and Twangtrust production team (with engineering genius Ray Kennedy).

Yet another sign that all that glitters in Nashville hasn't gone lame is the success of the Mavericks. On their latest disc, Trampoline, these sharp Florida exports have reasserted Nashville's heritage as a Southern recording hub -- and not just a country music haven -- with a collection that's as stylistically all-embracing as the play lists of 1960s Top 40 AM radio. Effortlessly, they take pop, rock, soul, blues and country, mix it with some Latin spice from their native Miami, and prove in their masterful execution that sophistication need not be a bad thing.

One could argue that the quality-minded Nashville underbelly arose from the streets of that city, specifically from Lower Broadway, once a strip of dive bars, pawnshops and beckoning hookers. It was there that the current downtown entertainment boom was presaged by a burgeoning new roots scene, which unfolded in venerable joints like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western Wear. BR5-49 is likely the best-known act to emerge from "Lower Broad." The band's engaging, if lightweight, honky-tonk has been the scourge of barroom country purists, especially here in Texas. Yet BR5-49 has succeeded where few other new-country purveyors haven't -- by selling recordings in the hundreds of thousands.

Unfortunately, Lower Broad's hip edge has been dulled significantly by the tourist trade. But the scene's heyday has been well documented on the Chicago-based Bloodshot label's third "insurgent country" compilation, Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley. Many of the collection's 17 contributors have continued along career paths rich with promise. Three, in fact, have made the strongest, most visionary albums to fall under the industry-friendly rubric of "Americana," which charted in the Gavin trade publication but is not yet a genuine -- or particularly successful -- radio format.

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