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.
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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.
Poet R.B. Morris's Take That Ride (on John Prine's Oh Boy label) is one of the most stunning singer/songwriter debuts in recent memory, a funky, swampy slice of back-roads white-boy soul that's smart and erudite ("I don't want to die like James Agee in the back of some taxi," reads the title tune's first line). But its overwhelming intelligence never comes at the expense of his songs' irresistible country-folk hooks.
Lonesome Bob, a former Ben Vaughn Combo drummer, released Things Fall Apart on Bloodshot offshoot Checkered Past; he sounds like the bastard product of a union between Waylon Jennings and a Louvin sister. His rocking outing bristles with grit, insight, menace and heart, combined with the sort of wicked wit pioneered by Loudon Wainwright III.
Pan-American Flash, from Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub, draws its groove from the plowed furrows of country's back 40. Think Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys driving that long, black vintage Cadillac down the interstate of modern roots music.
Another Lower Broad song poet, Tom House, calls his publishing company Raw Bone Music, an apt description for the urban back-porch sounds of his The Neighborhood Is Changing CD. Like the Lonesome Bob and Burch releases, it's on Checkered Past, the Sun Records of the Music City underground -- even if it is based in Chicago. For his part, Greg Garing has shifted from the blue yodel of The Other Side of the Alley track "Safe Within Your Arms" to a decidedly contemporary rock effort in Alone, on Paladin/Revolution. Emerging from his residency at the Lower Broadway bar Wolfy's, Jamie Hartford is the offspring of John "Gentle on My Mind" Hartford, and a hotshot picker and songwriter in his own right. His debut, What About Yes (Paladin/Revolution), restores the good name of country rock with its beer-soaked tales of tough and tender love, all driven by a melange of hyper-twang, blues and barroom rock from some of Nashville's fieriest players.
All of the above acts renew the notion that Nashville is, at its heart, a song-centric town, an attribute that Music Row's commercial cliche factory has tried its best to squelch. Further countering the sound-alike dross that is country radio, Nashville's thriving underground songwriter scene is well represented on Kevin Gordon's Cadillac Jack's #1 Son (Shanachie) and Chris Knight's self-titled debut (on Decca, a Nashville major, no less). Both restore real lives to the songwriting equation by exploring varying scenic byways of the American rural-rock sound, following Steve Earle's blue-collar storytelling lead right on into the heartland. Also worth a mention is Lucinda Williams's guitarist Duane Jarvis, another Other Side of the Alley standout whose new album is out on the Watermelon label, while Nashville residents Tim Carroll (former leader of New York's Blue Chieftains) and Gwil Owen (who pens the bulk of Austin country/ blues ingenue Toni Price's material) are readying new albums for release sometime this year.
Ironically, living and working adjacent to Music Row in all its manufactured glory may be both a motivating and liberating factor for underground acts. "I know that those people aren't going to be interested in what I do, so I figure, why not do what I want to?" says Lonesome Bob.
But Bob also maintains that in an industry town, even the cult heroes take the business of music more seriously than in spots like Austin, where the slacker ethos is strong. And even if the Row-affiliated major labels remain largely wary of most good music in their city (genuinely new country acts like Kim Richey and the Delevantes have garnered critical praise but no real airplay or sales), there are heartening signs of indie success. Small labels like Oh Boy and Dead Reckoning -- formed by major-label refugees Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane (of the O'Kanes) and Mike Henderson, along with drummer Harry Stinson and fiddler Tammy Rogers -- have established a firm Music City foothold. (Dead Reckoning's most recent release, Kane's Six Months, No Sun, finds this former Music Row chart contender evolving into Richard Thompson's American country cousin.)
Meanwhile, it seems that those big labels that are taking an interest in new-country acts are all offshoots of pop divisions on the East and West coasts. Steve Earle's Warner Bros.-funded E-Squared imprint has initially focused on more rock-oriented artists such as the V-Roys, Ross Rice and 6 String Drag. But with the release of former Blood Orange Cheri Knight's critically lauded The Northeast Kingdom, E-Squared has inched its way into the roots-music arena. The Paladin/Revolution marriage, run by left-leaning Nashville legal eagle Jim Zumwalt, released the Hartford and Garing discs, as well as an album by RRAF (Roots Rock Action Figures), a project from America's canniest roots producer, R.S. Field. Now, Sire Records has opened a Nashville operation headed by Andy McLenon, whose Praxis management firm and label have been touchstones of the new Nashville ethos for the past 15 years (his former Praxis partner, Jack Emerson, is the second "E" in E-Squared).
And if Music City's alternative roster seems a bit heavy on the testosterone, fear not. Just as it's been the women who've generally made the better commercial country albums (I'll take Shania over Garth any day) lately, female artists may just end up sharing leadership duties with the guys in Nashville's new-country movement. Joy Lynn White's The Lucky Few on Little Dog Records (Dwight Yoakam producer/guitarist Pete Anderson's label) is a thus far criminally overlooked gem that boasts winning material sung with authority, marking White as the logical '90s successor to Linda Ronstadt's '70s country-rock mantle. And this year's South by Southwest Music Conference offered a stunning preview of country's female future in the form of Allison Moorer, the sister of Shelby Lynne and the secret vocal sauce on the Lonesome Bob CD. With nary a concession to modern country-pop showmanship, the 24-year-old Moorer celebrated the unassuming merits of a great singer and a great song. Leaning into the mike, eyes closed, she delivered her self-penned tunes (many written with husband Butch Primm) as nothing less than prayers of redemption. With her amazing pipes, striking looks and sturdy material, Moorer just might have what it takes to woo the mainstream while keeping her integrity intact. Indeed, Moorer hopes her admiration for vintage C&W will find a niche in Nashville.
"We live and breathe that stuff," says Moorer, speaking for herself and her husband. "If we can reflect the spirit of that music, part of our job is done. I've never considered myself to be fringe, but I guess I am. I feel like my music is just as straight-ahead as anything can be."
So, yes, if radio is any indication, Nashville still sucks. Nonetheless, the solution is there for the taking, right outside the label executives' back doors, on the other side of the alley.
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