Writing On Roots

Deconstructing the Nashville sound: before, after, and from now on

If you have ever asked yourself what the heck the Nashville Sound is (and you only know the White Stripes), here you have a guide to the past and present of this productive machine of radio-oriented country smash hits and folk tunes. It’s not as shiny as it seems…

What is the Nashville Sound?

Nine years ago, when I thought “Nashville,” I thought cowboy hats. Honky-tonks. Bleached blondes in rhinestones. You get the picture. Little did I know that I’d end up recording my first record in Nashville a year later, and living there the next almost seven years.

I realized that there was much more to the picture than the postcards would have you believe. Nashville is a micro-universe packed with some of the most experienced music folk of every possible ilk. I learned a lot.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was what not to do. In spite of the ever-increasing diversity in Nashville, I remained something of a black sheep, as I never tried to fit into the cookie-cutter mould of the pop country mainstream market. But these days, there are more and more black sheep in the flock, and against all odds, it’s changing the face of Music City for the better.

Here is my attempt to demystify what it popularly known as the “Nashville sound” – the good, the bad, and the alternative, and how that particular combination has made and continues to make Music City what it is.

"In 1960, Time magazine reported that Nashville was producing more music than Hollywood, and was only slightly behind New York"

Nashville is known for Country music, with a (very) capital “C.” Country music used to be just that -- music from people who came from the country. They sang with a twang because they talked that way. They wrote about what they knew. They played acoustic guitars instead of Telecasters because they couldn’t afford shoes for the whole family, much less electricity for an amplifier (see Loretta Lynn’s biography). There wasn’t any kind of angle or strategy about it. It was what it was. And it grew.

Once people in the cities realized they could make money off of this home-grown stuff, the game changed. They put the country singers on the road. They dressed them in custom suits. They put them on private jets. They stuck them on the radio and on TV, right next to Elvis. People came to listen. People paid to listen. And everybody wanted in.

In 1960, Time magazine reported that Nashville – formerly a good-sized Tennessee town with little to brag about -- was producing more music than Hollywood, and was only slightly behind New York. The times they were a-changin’.

In the era of the 60s and 70s, the nasal backwoods-sounding vocals were replaced by smoother pop sensibilities and gaggles of backing vocalists. String sections replaced lone fiddles. Electric guitar and pedal steel took the place of a simple acoustic or banjo with a little dobro sprinkled on top. And instead of simply telling a story, the songs took on the now-familiar structure of the pop radio hits of the day. A very small group of producers using an equally small group of musicians made a large number of records; as a result, a certain common element or “sound” became inevitable. The concept of the “Nashville sound” was born, and since the late 1950s, countless records have been churned out of Nashville’s recording studios with specific elements in common.

"The inherent idea behind Pop(ular) music does not clash with the idea of mass marketing. Country is the ultimate mainstream music of white America"

Fast forward fifty-odd years. Country music is big business, and like any business, it needs to keep its investors happy. There is R&D (research and development) involved. There are statistics and sales reports. Meantime the pop and rock giants have made television and the public image of the artist as important, if not more so, than the music itself. Country music has changed with the times, and the modern version is closer to pop than to anything you might have heard in the hills of the Carolinas or Kentucky a few generations ago.

If you’re wondering why this is a problem, think about it. The inherent idea behind Pop(ular) music does not clash with the idea of mass marketing. But the soul of music from the countryside – think land, sun, the simple life – is lost or at least heavily compromised when a hair and make-up department, tour buses and beer sponsorships are involved in the thought process that goes into making and then marketing the music. Hence pop country. And voilà, country is the ultimate mainstream music of white America.

Most music fans who consider themselves to be “real” music people or “serious listeners” consciously or unconsciously try to avoid the mainstream. They don’t like the idea of being spoon-fed. They don’t go in for anything that they consider to be pre-packaged stuff. (Or if they do, they’d never admit it in public.) But if that’s the case, why is this Frankenstein’s monster version of country music so successful? Is it just the magic of marketing, or is there value in the hybrid formula? Some argue that there is something to be learned from the machine. Others say we’re experiencing the death throes of the music as we knew it.

What Makes The Machine Work

First of all, it’s important to recognize that there is a formula. And like any recipe, it can be prepared well or badly, and can be adjusted to taste.

When I lived in Nashville, I was told by the powers that be that the ideal length for a song is two-and-a-half minutes. According to (somebody’s) statistics, that’s the ideal listenable length for a radio single. Never mind that U2 or the Beatles or whoever else you can think of regularly broke that rule – we’re talking country radio, people. Rules is rules.

Intros that last longer that ten seconds should be avoided at all cost, or you’ll lose your audience. Repetition and catchy hooks are gold. Complicated chord structures or deep metaphors are not. “Your listening public is the women who are shopping in the bulk aisle at Wal-Mart at 8am – write for them” is what I was told at a song-writing seminar. Power to the lowest common denominator. Take a cliché or snappy saying, wrap it in some lap steel and telecaster riffs to make it sound “authentic,” and press the big red record button.

Subject is important. You want to talk about tractors, whiskey, moonshine, broken hearts, cheatin’, (skip the “g” in order to achieve the appropriate country twang), pickup trucks, beer, prison, and your mama – preferably all in the same song. You want your audience to identify with the storyline, and as you’re aiming for a theoretically huge mass of listeners you need to make the story as general and as easy-to-swallow as possible.

You are basically trying to come up with something that millions or billions of people will understand and like at first glance. Think the musical equivalent of white bread or vanilla ice cream; therefore, by default, this “something” cannot be too exotic or challenging. I personally prefer some decent chicken curry to white bread, but there’s a reason that you see white bread on every shelf in every grocery store in almost every country in the Western world. It’s plain. It goes with everything. It’s easy to digest. No surprises.

Following that thought pattern, what does white bread music contain that millions want or think they need? Why do they buy this stuff -- assuming they’re buying and not just ripping MP3s off of a friend’s computer? Is it just because they’ve heard the same song on the radio fifty times, and familiarity equals Pavlov’s dog I-like-it syndrome? Or does it go deeper than that?

In order to discuss what makes music appealing, Nashville-style or otherwise, we need to delve into meaning-of-life stuff for a minute.

What Do We All Want Anyway?

Everyone wants to be understood. When life gives you lemons… it’s helpful if you can turn on the radio and think, “ok, someone else can relate.” Or when life is going splendidly, and you feel the need to celebrate, there’s nothing better to amp up the evening than a three-chord party song. Even those of us who are uber-independent (often irritatingly so, to our families or significant others) are hard-wired to want to belong to something, to know that we’re not alone in sorrow or in anger or in joy, even if it’s only for only a couple of verses and choruses. This is one of the great gifts that music gives us.

So it stands to reason that people who want to sell their music to a mass audience by definition need to make music that folks understand.

That doesn’t excuse lazy art or copycat song-writing. But before we write off the entire new generation of country or roots music artists, we need to stop and think about whether there might be guys (or girls) out there who do it well -- who make music that is well-crafted and also has something to say. This is the spark of originality that makes a song art instead of just a product to sell. Is there a way that we can learn from the machine without succumbing to it? What positive elements, if any, does it bring to the table?

Popular Doesn’t Have To Mean Bad

"The danger is that it is possible to craft the song to death in an effort to achieve theoretical perfection"

There is music out there that challenges us, that pushes the envelope and strives for originality, but still adheres to what is considered to be a “popular” format. It’s interesting, the lyrics and arrangements might be saying something fresh, but it’s just familiar enough that it doesn’t sound like something from another planet. That’s where Nashville has a few positive points to offer.

The arrangement, production, the sounds of the instruments, and the craft of the song itself – that’s what we can learn from Nashville. Nowhere else in the world will you find more experts in the latter. The craft of the song itself is Nashville’s speciality. I venture to say this after having spent time in most of the major music capitals of the world, from LA to NY to London to Berlin. The danger is that it is possible to craft the song to death in an effort to achieve theoretical perfection. In the quest to write the next “great hit song,” a writer can grind the life out of an idea. Then it is no longer a thing of art, but a colourless copy of what is known to have “worked” in the past. However, there are many artists out there – most of whom you’ve never hears of -- who walk the line with elegance and a style all their own. They’ve learned the rules, and they break them beautifully.

East Nashville, and Making Magic Within the Machine

If you search the internet – or walk the streets of East Nashville -- you’ll run into a ton of great music that you’ve never heard of. There are artists out there who have taken the best that the formula has to offer and made damn good music with what they’ve learned. Some are household names, although most will never be well known. Some are making money, some still have day jobs. Some sing country, others write in various styles but have been influenced by and have learned from the culture and the talent that still thrives under the Music City radar. They are the other side, the new and growing side, of what Nashville sounds like to me.

The most “known” example I can think of: country music’s most unexpected dynamic duo. Jack White is known for his work with the White Stripes, but in 2004 produced a record for old-school country queen Loretta Lynn called “Van Lear Rose”. Her traditional songs about growing up in the hills of Kentucky flavoured by White’s rock sensibility were a surprise to everyone. The industry laughed… until the album earned the unlikely pair a Grammy Award.

And there are plenty of slightly less famous examples to draw from. Dave Olney, for example, is tough-as-nails and can rock with the best of them, but can write a ballad about life and death and love and eternity that will make you weep. He follows the formula when it suits him, but the music sounds like no one other than pure Olney. He has been touring for twenty-odd years, but still plays in tiny juke joint Brown’s Diner when he’s not on the road in Europe or the US.

His ever-versatile guitar player Sergio Webb has released some fantastic self-penned discs in his own right. Sergio had this to say about the song-writing aspect of the Nashville sound as it was then and is now: “ I made peace with the machine years ago. I absolutely do not care for what the machine cranks out in Nashville these days… the songs have no fibre, like a sweet jelly donut. As we know, there are many great songs from great songwriters all over Nashville, but [the industry] keeps reverting to the same old formula…The shelf life of these acts is for the most part, short.

But he did add that there is something to be gained from certain aspects of the Music City environment: “ No matter how cookie-cutter the song may be, the musicianship here is usually the best. That is why I am in this town, and what has kept me here over time. In the past the great songs were married to great musicianship. It’s not like that anymore, but the magic does happen from time to time, mostly across the river [from the record label offices], on the East side of town.

Tommy Womack and Todd Snider fall into what I call the speaker-songwriter category (rather than singer-songwriter, as they virtually talk their songs rather than sing them). They both sound like country boys, and they cultivate an idiosyncratic bumpkin image in their speech, clothes, and onstage anecdotes. This contrasts with their incisive, incredibly clever lyrics, and the self-deprecating, ironic stories that are simultaneously wise and hilarious. You might never hear them on the radio, but they pack the room when they play live, whether it’s tiny hippie hall the Family Wash or the world-famous Ryman Auditorium.

Alabama native Drake White mixes Country, Blues, Rock, freestyle and Bluegrass, and is a self-described “God-fearing, river rat, beach bum that loves the outdoors.” He’s fun. He ad-libs. He tours the United States non-stop with his very versatile band.

Matthew Burgess (drums/percussion) plays with Drake, as well as with a number of Nashville-based artists from all walks of life. He started out in Seattle, backing a then-unknown Brandi Carlile. As he’s seen the music biz from both sides, I asked him what he thinks of the Nashville sound – both in terms of the traditional music sensibility, i.e., the big-dollar pop version that we’ve all come to know and love or hate, and in terms of the other “sounds” that give the city more dimension. He said: “[With regards to the music industry’s approach to marketing a song,] I think that it's becoming far too easy to put a dress on a goat and convince everyone that it's a beautiful woman. This is what you should like. If you don't like it then shame on you. That’s the downside.”

The good thing that the machine does is that it is a giant magnet. Magnets attract copper, silver, brass, bronze and iron (to name a few). So Nashville as a city attracts the good as well as the bad. The silver will find a way to rise to the top, or at least, one would hope so. The silver will make art. The copper will make little trinkets that old ladies sell at craft fairs. Nashville keeps attracting great artists and over time the artists are changing what the machine puts out. There are very talented people out there making real music. Some are doing it inside of the machine. Many of them are outside of it… That is the plight of the artist, to push forward for the sake of the art itself. The machine of Nashville attracts these people with the promise of financial success. It doesn't always work out for them in that sense, but the art is still there.

This is coming from people who are full-time professional musicians. And besides those who are actively on the road and touring -- who have arguably “made it” -- there is a plethora of mind-blowing musicians whom you’ve never have heard of. They still have a day job, but they are the next generation of what will keep Nashville, and the rest of the music world, alive and thriving in spite of itself.

Nashville Done Right – The Ones You’ve Never Heard Of

Mike Younger, a discovery of alt-country cult favourite Rodney Crowell, is a rocker at heart who originally hails from New Orleans. He looks like a thirty-something movie star, but sounds like he’s lived a hundred years. His songs of love and loss and tales of his hometown could break your heart or rev up a bar on a Saturday night. Onstage with only his acoustic guitar, he can silence a room or get the entire crowd on its feet. Why he’s not on some big label, I’ll never know.

I used to meet my friend Kristin Cothron for drinks in her garden from time to time. She’s taken advantage of the plethora of top-grade musicians in Nashville to record two albums of silky-smooth jazz pop. Sultry to the bone onstage, sweet and funny in person, she’s not the sound you’d think of when you think “Nashville,” but should be.

Adam Aign and Harrison Hudson are two guys I met at the same show at the Basement, which is a small venue in East Nashville. There’s a record store upstairs and a Mexican Popsicle place around the corner. They each individually handed me a homemade demo, labelled in black Sharpie marker. I haven’t seen them since, but I listen to their music all the time. Indie rock with folk roots, crunchy guitars and strange layered sounds.

Angel Snow is a singer-songwriter who I had coffee with once and shared songwriter rounds with a few times. Her voice is all her own, the best comparison I can come up with is a style à la Mindy Smith but stronger, wiser, grittier, and more West-Coast. She’s recently had songs recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station, but the songs from her 2007 independent release Fortune Tellers stick in my head to this day.

I asked Angel her thoughts. Are people treating her differently, do the sharks smell blood now that there’s possible “success” – financially speaking – on the horizon? She answered, “ I have never been one to really listen to or follow what the machine has told me to do… I've been tempted, but there was always something keeping me from giving in. I did the whole Nashville thing for 3 years and then felt like moving to the other side of the world and teaching English... Then, I met Alison Krauss and she ended up singing a couple of my songs. So I figured I'd stay a little longer. It was purely 'divine intervention' if you will. The machine is nothing more than a machine… One must stay authentic to make a difference. I don't have many good things to say about it other than there may be a little financial gain for a time, but then, like the machine, that'll let you down too.

And there you have it, the Nashville sound for better or for worse, from “back then” and looking towards the future. It’s really up to the musicians today – as well as to all of you who spend your money on iTunes – to decide what that sound will be, how it will change and grow, from now on.

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