A Week in Music City
Years ago, someone decided to call Nashville “Music City.” At the time, it may or may not have been warranted; a more fitting label might have been “Country Music City.” In the years since, however, Nashville has changed.
Part of the change is owing to studio musicians. In the 1950s and ’60s, most backup musicians on country records grew up in Appalachia and small towns in the South. Many of them, learning to play in family bands or at church, didn’t read music.
This led to the number system, a notation method developed in Nashville studios and used to this day in place of, or in addition to, conventional music parts.
More recently, a different group of studio musicians arrived in town. They were young people from across America who had heard all kinds of music on the radio—rock ’n’ roll, blues, and other genres and niches—and they had grown up playing them. They had studied at conservatories such as Berklee College of Music in Boston, which developed a virtual pipeline to Nashville.
These younger musicians backed up country singers during the day, but at night they stretched out to play the music they loved, whatever the genre. Since that time, one of Nashville’s best-kept secrets has been the wide variety of musical styles you can hear, performed brilliantly, in its venues and clubs.
Which brings me to last week. We had out-of-town guests and, as we always do, took them to hear music.
The first night, we chose a downtown club called 3rd & Lindsley, to see the Time Jumpers. This group of ten studio musicians plays a style of music called Western Swing, created by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s from a mix of country, jazz, and blues. The music played by the Time Jumpers seems at first to be traditional, but the solos veer wildly from B.B. King licks to Jimi Hendrix fever dreams.
The second night, we visited a new club called The Listening Room, to hear songwriters Victoria Banks, Phil Barton, and Emily Shackelton, all with #1 hits to their credit. The surprise for our guests was that songs created for country artists, when performed by the writer with just a guitar or keyboard, may not sound country at all—they’re just good songs.
During the day, we took our guests to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which in fact is a wonderful museum of American acoustic music. There, we enjoyed a new exhibit called Western Edge, tracing through film, audio, and text the development of country rock music in Southern California, including the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Later that week, after our guests had left, Yvonne and I went to a Nashville Symphony concert and heard our fine orchestra play Gershwin’s jazz-inflected An American in Paris and three pieces by living composers.
Just another week in Music City.