Music S—-y: Scene visits Nashville
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Above and behind the third floor bar at Luke Bryan’s 32 Bridge honky tonk, four wax men — hair meticulously cropped, T-shirts tightened, instruments dangling from their shoulders like ornaments — synchronize the animatronic motions of their lips and hips to the inescapable melodies of the Zac Brown’s “Chicken Fried”: a crowd-pleaser to warm things up before the night’s edgier selections (“All the Small Things,” “Mr. Brightside”).
A floor down, four more wax men (strikingly similar, aesthetically speaking) tilt and freak to other snippets in the hitmakers’ songbook (Sam Hunt’s “House Party,” at the moment).
Next door in Jason Aldean’s Kitchen, identical scenes (wax men, big hits) unfold in multiple rooms — every performer and performance keeping with the unwritten code. Down the road, Florida Georgia Line’s FGL House and Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row follow suit.
“Let’s go to [Luke’s, Jason’s, FGL’s, Dierks]! I hear it’s the move!” hundreds scream to hundreds more, the familiar chant of countless cookie cutter college friend groups roaming the streets ready to vanish into the flavorless noise of some new multi-floor, live music mega-dome.
Nearby, an older set sips its beers in crustier accommodations (Tootsies, Robert’s, Layla’s and so on), wherein rag tag crews of cash starved session musicians feed thirsty vacationers a hefty dose of curated authenticity (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Nelson, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings), favored to match grimy walls decorated with black and white images of real country folk: recording giants whose signed pictures make every drink worth its $7 to $10 price tag.
These dual scenes, designed to corral visitors young and old into the overflowing bars of Nashville’s Broadway, work tirelessly to define the culture of so-called Music City. Developed under the watchful eye of UMG, RCA and Warner, they champion the principles of late capitalism, serving only those (Luke, Jason, Johnny and Dolly) who’ve reached the very top of the recording industry, ignoring any (Bully, Pujol) who write and record outside the industry’s ring of commercial viability. Claiming Nashville’s proud musical heritage (the un-fellable songs of the likes of Parton, Cash, Haggard, Jennings and others) as their roots, these scenes betray their source material, using it only as a means to profit off endless iterations (copies of every copy’s copy). They are products of a machine constructed (in Adorno and Horkheimer’s words) “for the stereotyped appropriation of everything … for the purposes of mechanical reproduction.”
Music City, as seen from Broadway, is, in a word, s—-y.
But Broadway’s scenes, with their cavernous bars and pay-as-you-remember nostalgia, depict only a single (if overrepresented) side of a city capable of expressing the weird, vibrant, bright, dark and experimental corners of a broad musical space.
There are, in fact, many more Nashvilles — scenes mixing the Austin’s Americana with Brooklyn’s experimentation and Philly’s DIY spunk — hiding in plain sight, poking their heads out in mom-and-pop record shops (The Groove in East Nashville, Boulevard near Belmont, Third Man Records), around odd-ball venues (Café Coco near Vanderbilt, The Basement East in the 5 Points area) and on an endless string of brilliant records — some of which graze the mainstream (Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” Jack White’s “Blunderbuss,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s “The Nashville Sound”) while most (Bully’s “Feels Like,” Pujol’s “Nasty, Brutish and Short,” Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s entire joint discography) huddle in relative obscurity.
The alternative Nashvilles derive their creative ethos not from the codes of commerce but from Emmylou Harris’s incisive credo: “The reason you write is because there is something you want to say that is important to you — enough to go through all the torture of writing.” Their residents don’t give a flying f–k if their songs chastising the industry (Welch’s anti-streaming anthem “Everything is Free”), painting realist pictures of mental strife (Bully’s starkly feminist “Trying”) and rehashing transgressive pagan rituals (Pujol’s white hot “Mayday”) sell. They care only that their music speaks to something more substantial than a young man’s hallucinations concerning a “beer in the headlights” or a husky gentleman’s euphemistic ode to his “big green tractor.”
This is not to say pop country can’t speak true. The genre, at its best (Kacey Musgraves disco-cowgirl “Golden Hour” and Lil Nas X’s chart-shattering “Old Town Road”), spits shockwaves of nutritious meaning via dulcet tones and danceable beats, owning its pop sensibilities and taking over the world in the process. Rather, I mean to expose the parts of Nashville over which so many fawn — the massive honky tonks and glaring strips — as a disgrace to the music on which they claim to be built and a greedily tarnish on the city’s Music City moniker. I also mean to lift the city’s lesser known nooks and crannies to the status they deserve.
Music City isn’t all s—-y. Most of it’s actually pretty cool. But don’t expect to find the best bits on your Instagram feed. If you really want to experience a Music City worthy of its title, you’ll have to leave the main roads (and all of their easy, expensive offerings), stoke your curiosity and get to searching.