The ABC prime-time country-music-industry drama Nashville could have been a sudsy embarrassment for those of us who actually call Music City home, an over-the-top soap that confirms the worst Southern stereotypes. Worse yet, it could have misrepresented the music that's made here.
Fortunately, the result is a (mostly) loving tribute that gets enough right that we're happy to keep watching. Sure, it's a little campy, and locals roll their eyes at some of the accents or the industry inconsistencies (did they really just book an arena tour in three days?!), but it's fun nonetheless. And most importantly, they get the music right, thanks to the talented T Bone Burnett and a host of local songwriters who've lent their tunes.
So, while we've become hooked on our namesake show, we also want to make sure the rest of you know that Nashville is much more than just what you see on Nashville. Of course, no one-hour drama could really capture the entirety of a city and all it has to offer, but Nashville, good as it is, doesn't even capture all of the local music scene. So here's a deep dive into what you see on the small screen -- and what you don't.
What ultimately makes or breaks Nashville -- and Nashville – is the music. We may not be L.A. or New York, but then again, we're not trying to be. The Nashville soundtrack -- featuring singing leads Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere and others covering catchy, radio-worthy songs -- definitely represents our twangy side. But we're not totally dependent on country music. Bob Dylan, Kings of Leon, Kid Rock, R.E.M., Neil Young, Yo-Yo Ma, The White Stripes and Elvis have all recorded here, too. Nashville does give a minor nod to the local rock scene via Jonathan Jackson's character (Avery, a bad boy with punk-ish overtones given to covering Elvis Costello), but in reality, there's an ongoing shift that means you'll hear more rock in Nashville than country these days. Maybe that diversity is why we were chosen to host the Grammy nominations concert here in December, the first time it was held outside Los Angeles.
In the show, downtown Nashville plays a starring role. It's understandable, as the colorful honky-tonks and souvenir shops on Lower Broadway make for good TV. Too bad no one who lives here frequents them. All those meetings on the walking bridge or takeout lunches eaten along the banks of the Cumberland River? That would never happen.
Instead, struggling musicians and those who've already made it can all be found haunting the trendy restaurants and hipster boutiques of East Nashville, or gobbling organic, gluten-free goodies and grass-fed beef burgers in the 12 South district. In other words, you're much more likely to run into Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban while waiting for a venti nonfat mocha at the Green Hills Starbucks than you are downtown. Conde Nast Traveler just named us one of its top five tourist destinations worldwide, alongside Amsterdam, Seoul and New Orleans; of course, many of the vacationers who venture here will never leave downtown. That's fine with us. It means a shorter line at Pancake Pantry.
Music Row was once home to Nashville's music industry, and yes, these two one-way streets wedged in between Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities are still dotted with recording studios and label offices. But much of the music is made south of town these days. The more affordable Berry Hill neighborhood, for instance, is jam-packed with studios, and the suburbs of Brentwood and Franklin house major labels and artists.
Nashville's portrayal of the music industry may be overdramatized, but the pressures and players aren't too off the mark, and showing tour rehearsals taking place at Soundcheck is right on the money. This large warehouse-like space, in the shadow of our pro football stadium, houses equipment for many of the city's biggest tours. It flooded in May 2009, causing major damage to irreplaceable instruments owned by Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and others, but it has bounced back, and it's still where the busses and semis load up before heading out on the road.
One thing you don't see enough of on Nashville is the songwriters. Even artists who write their own stuff participate in regular writing sessions, usually in writing rooms on Music Row. These tunesmiths for hire are instrumental (pun intended) to the industry, and they aren't all chasing their own record deal and waitressing on the side. Plenty have turned songwriting into a full-time gig. The same goes for musicians.
Nashville regularly appears on national lists of the top music scenes, and with more than 120 live music venues in town, it's easy to see why. There's nothing wrong with The Bluebird or The 5 Spot, highlighted often on Nashville, but clubs like 3rd & Lindsley, Station Inn, Mercy Lounge and Exit/In are arguably all more popular. For bigger acts, the famed Ryman Auditorium can't be beat. Nashville has highlighted the venue on the show, and while its nickname may be "The Mother Church of Country Music," its current schedule includes Morrissey, fun. and A Prairie Home Companion, proving its status as an equal-opportunity stage.
Country music may have its roots in Nashville, but contemporary Christian, gospel, rock, pop and bluegrass have all staked a claim as well. Sheryl Crow, Amy Grant, Jack White, Jars of Clay and Alison Krauss all live here, proving it's not just country artists who feel at home in Nashville. Money goes further here, too. It's definitely cheaper than recording in L.A. or New York, and in-the-know artists realize that many of the best session players and songwriters anywhere are already here. The laid-back vibe also helps the creative process, no matter what type of album you're making.
Travel + Leisure named us the friendliest city in America in 2012, and Today ranked us in their Top 5. Chalk it up to Southern hospitality if you want, but in truth, most of us aren't Southern. In fact, Nashville is a city of transplants -- from California, the Midwest, the Carolinas, Texas and elsewhere. Native Nashvillians are a rare breed, and you can go for days without hearing a drawl. Even Nashville's most Southern-sounding stars, Gunnar and Scarlett, are from England and Australia, respectively. That's why this Southern melting pot allows almost anyone to feel instantly at home here.
Why not come see for yourself? Just don't tell anyone I invited you, because the locals are afraid that if word keeps getting out about all Nashville has to offer, we'll be overrun with people rushing to relocate. But if you were new in town and I was driving you around, the accompanying Nashville vs. Nashville playlist would be our soundtrack. Enjoy.