The Surreal Evolution of Nashville in Pop Culture, From Altman to ABC

The new series may be cheesy, but it reflects some very real changes to the city it depicts.

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ABC

In the climax of Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville (not sure you can "spoil" a film this old, but if you've still never seen it and don't want to know how it ends, don't read the rest of this paragraph), a country music diva is assassinated on the steps of the city’s most eccentric civic landmark, a scale replica of the Parthenon. A red swatch of blood staining his immaculate white suit, her stunned duet partner bellows: "This isn’t Dallas! This is Nashville!"

The new ABC series Nashville is a lot like Dallas, the nighttime soap that began its popular run in 1978, substituting country music for oil as the industry framework around which revolves steamy interlocking subplots of lust, envy and political intrigue. Still it shares more than a name with the Altman classic. While Dallas was filmed mostly on L.A. soundstages, ABC’s Nashville follows the movie’s example by shooting almost entirely on location in its early episodes. Incommensurate though they may be in terms of artistic aspiration (Altman's film is a self-consciously avant-garde political parable, and the ABC series a sudsy entertainment), each manages to illustrate the link between the physical city and popular music, then and now.

Nashville and its music industry have a deeply ingrained inferiority complex, owing to the whole Hee Haw/hillbilly thing and maybe just the whole Southern thing. Predictably, Altman’s Nashville traumatized local musical and political elites. His country stars look and sound small-time, wearing cowboy fringe, prairie dresses and rhinestone-studded suits while singing sentimental odes for grumpy retirees. Altman further antagonized the local music community by allowing his actors to pen their own musical numbers, as if anyone could write a country song. Meanwhile, the city he depicts is a formless wasteland of highways and suburbs, with barely a nod to its then-wretched downtown.

The producers of the new Nashville have gone out of their way to soothe the fears of locals frozen in a permanently defensive posture. The series enlists celebrated producer T-Bone Burnett (the husband of series creator Callie Khouri) as its musical director, and samples output from the army of songwriters garrisoned in the city. The industry depicted is now high-stakes, not homespun. Country diva Reyna James (Connie Britton) and her teenaged rival Juliet Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), ringers for Faith Hill and Taylor Swift, may still sport rhinestones, but they are powerful pop stars, not Altman’s "local yokels." In contrast to the 1975 backwater in which high school baton twirlers greet local celebrities at the airport, the series shows a thriving new Nashville, certified by the stamp of big-league city membership, the stadium housing the NFL Titans.

Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry House in a scene for ABC's "Nashville," courtesy ABC.

Nashville in 1975 really was a backwater, but as Altman anticipates, it was also a city and an industry on the move. Country became a commercial genre when the Depression emptied out Appalachian hollers; it became a commercial juggernaut decades later when the suburbs emptied out older downtowns. Though few caught on at the time, Southeastern cities were population dynamos, and Nashville exemplified a new American zeitgeist of suburban expansion. Altman presciently sees country music -- with its nostalgic paeans to small-town stability and virtue -- poised to fill a cultural space created by the rootlessness of suburbia and unaddressed by the countercultural leanings of the coasts. In coming decades, suburbia, not small towns as depleted as inner-city Detroit, ushered country music from the wings into the spotlight.

Nashville remains one of the lowest density cities in the United States, and both film and series rove widely over its suburban homes and scattered music venues. ABC’s principle location, the Bluebird Cafe, occupies a strip mall in traffic-snarled Green Hills, surrounded by chain retail and McMansions. Reyna James lives in snobbish Belle Meade, a former plantation turned moneyed bastion that pointedly excluded the music community in the 1970s. Then country was considered the music of loud and ugly bumpkins. But as legendary Nashville producer Tony Brown observes: “Money can kinda pretty you up.”      

Sprawl now competes with new urban designs in Nashville. Employing soaring aerial views, the series' opening sequence scans acres of wooded hills and pasture, within which are carved oases of development, including the Opryland Hotel, the Mall in Green Hills and the Belle Meade estates. But no longer is Nashville a city without a center. The camera circles the downtown’s middling skyscrapers, zeroing in on Nashville’s resuscitated heart, the 120 year-old Ryman Auditorium, a former tabernacle and "the Mother Church of Country Music."

A scene set at the Opryland USA Theme Park from "Nashville," directed by Robert Altman, courtesy Paramount Pictures.

From 1943 to 1974, the Ryman hosted the Grand Ole Opry, a musical revue that is today the longest running live radio program in American history. During those decades, it magnetized stars including Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, laying the foundation of an incipient music industry. But when Altman began shooting, the Opry had only recently absconded to spiffier suburban digs. The new Grand Ole Opry House sat adjacent to the gaudy Opryland Hotel – the largest hospitality complex outside of Las Vegas – and the cheesy Opryland USA Theme Park, embedded in massive parking lots and neighbored by Winnebago campsites. The Ryman, since restored, was shuttered for nearly two decades. Its surrounding blocks, once lively with music fans, housed cheap furniture outlets and pornographic theaters, glimpsed only briefly in Altman’s opening frames.

In 1974, scandal-dogged Richard Nixon managed to find a supportive audience at the Opry House debut. Nixon may have been reviled elsewhere, but the silent majority he identified was real and country music gave it a voice. Six years later, Reagan lifted his famous “welfare queen in her Cadillac” meme from a country novelty song, the populist resentment of rural southerners generalized to the suburban whites that we used to call Reagan Democrats and we now just call Republicans. But if Nashville today trades on those values, it also has a new glamor and new style of urbanism at odds with Altman’s 1970’s takedown.     

The ABC series opens at the suburban Opry House, where today’s stars lounge in well-appointed dressing rooms. James battles label execs backstage over her national tour, and onstage Barnes incites a highly un-Opry-like audience of screaming teenaged fans. Barnes will later stop downtown traffic filming a music video on the riverfront, and coming episodes take us to the Broadway honky-tonks, dives at the backdoor of the reopened Ryman that are now money-printing tourist traps. The porn, meanwhile, is long gone, eradicated even before the Internet eviscerated the business model.   

Mainstream country is not the whole story, in Altman’s time or today. In 1966, Bob Dylan shocked the industry by coming to Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde. By the 1970's countercultural sorts were making regular forays into Nashville. Altman depicts the ubiquitous Tricycle Man on “one of those Easy Rider bikes” and has the hippie lothario Tom perform at the Exit/In, the anchor of the 1970’s Nashville “rock block.” Today Jack White and Robert Plant record in the city, sampling its extensive technical infrastructure and musical talent while keeping pop country at an arm’s length.

Meanwhile, a vaunted “indie” scene locates in East Nashville, earning notice in Rolling Stone and GQ, and exemplifying the urban trend of gentrifying neighborhood pioneers tugging young, educated and culturally savvy suburban refugees in behind them. Series regular Avery Barkley flies the neighborhood flag, helpfully described on the official ABC website as a "dead sexy East Nashville hipster" – almost certainly the last nail in the coffin of the "indie cred" for a former ghetto now rich in lattes and Panini sandwiches.

Altman grasped the potential of country’s message to reach a mass audience in emerging suburban America. Today, with Carrie Underwood winning American Idol and Taylor Swift capturing a long elusive teen demographic, country -- as much as anything in our iPod culture -- just is pop music, and once backwater Nashville rivals even New York and L.A. as a recording mecca. At the same time, the city, flush with money and attention, rides a new urban wave. Tourism propels the revived downtown, East Nashville is booming, and high-rise condos sell to young professionals lusting for the urban vibe Nashville never used to have. Today Nashville’s Music City nickname is embraced even in Belle Meade. The auto-tuned pop country and glossy city-scape of the series is unrecognizable compared to Altman’s grittier vision, but it is also its heir.

Top image: Characters from ABC's "Nashville" film a scene inside the famous Bluebird Cafe. Courtesy ABC.

About the Author

  • Richard Lloyd is associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and author of Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. He is currently writing a book about place and musical culture in Nashville.