Lee Gardner is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was previously the editor of the Baltimore City Paper.
A historian on the Ken Burns documentary Country Music explains why the Tennessee capital’s bond with country music endures, even as the city has boomed.
Men, women, and children used to flock to Nashville with one thing in mind: making a splash in country music.
The ascent of that industry in the postwar era put the Tennessee capital on the cultural map. Over the past 20 years, however, Nashville has enjoyed a different kind of boom, one that can’t be credited to twangy guitars and sad songs.
Thanks to a surging economy and an onrushing hot-city rep, the Music City has been gaining about 100 new residents a day. A major Amazon operations center is coming, promising lots of high-salary jobs. It’s also become a tourist mecca famed as much for bachelorette parties as honky-tonks: 2018, the city took in more than 15 million visitors. But as the skyscrapers and rents have risen, many of the hallowed offices and studios of Music Row, the industrial heart of country, have come under threat from the wrecking ball.
Country music has survived a lot worse, according to Don Cusic. He’s is a Nashville-based historian of the genre who served as a consultant for Country Music, the massive new 16-hour PBS documentary series from filmmaker Ken Burns that charts the genre’s trans-Atlantic influences and tracks its nearly 100-year rise from disrespected “hillbilly music” to the vox populi of the white working class, and a multi-billion-dollar business in the streaming age.
Cusic spoke with CityLab about why Nashville became synonymous with country, how Music Row served as a forerunner of the Googleplex, and what’s next for the city that made the music famous.
What brought you to Nashville?
Country music. Just like so many others, I was trying to be a songwriter, trying to be a musician, and came to town looking to have a career with that.
What we now know as country music first came to wider notice thanks to recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. For a while it looked like Knoxville could be a major center for the industry. Why do you think Nashville became synonymous with country?
Actually it was Chicago and country music that were synonymous until about World War II, and after that Nashville. It starts becoming synonymous because of the radio stations. In Chicago it was WLS, in Nashville WSM—the National Barn Dance in Chicago, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. But the Chicago show lost its sponsor, which was Alka-Seltzer, and the Grand Ole Opry didn’t. It was sponsored by Prince Albert Tobacco.
The other basis for the Opry’s stability was that it was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The company used the Grand Ole Opry as a “door opener.” Salesman would knock on doors with a brochure about the Opry, and that would lead into sales of insurance policies. When rock ‘n’ roll hit in the late 1950s, a number of radio stations switched to rock, and “barn dances” on Saturday nights became a thing of the past. But National Life and Accident still used the Opry as a door opener, and the Grand Ole Opry kept going because it could sell insurance.
It’s interesting: Right after World War II, in 1945, Nashville did not have a single recording studio or record company. Fifteen years later, it was widely known as Music City USA.
What is it about Nashville other than the Opry that allowed things like Music Row to take root?
It’s the people behind the scenes that made a difference. The fact that you had a Jack Stapp, program director at WSM. You had a Bill Denny, who was a music publisher. The Craigs, who owned WSM. You had a lot of these key figures who were executives who said, “If we’re going to have a show, it’s going to be top-notch show.” I think that’s a lot to do with it right there.
People now talk about Music Row—the city’s famous cluster of studios and offices and music publishing companies—as a forerunner of the “innovation district” concept. Do you think that having this tight concentration of companies and creatives had an effect on the rise of country, and of Nashville?
Absolutely. Nashville attracted—first downtown, because that’s where the Opry was located, and then on Music Row—a creative community, and that creative community feeds off of itself. I teach at Belmont College, and my students are always saying, “Where I come from, I’m the only person that writes songs; I’m the only person that plays the guitar. I get here and everybody writes songs and everybody plays the guitar.” It either inspires you to get better or causes you to go home, and that’s been a key right there.
The other thing was the Nashville musicians’ union. Here, musicians could make a living playing, and when the studios developed, you had top-notch musicians here.
Country music—and perhaps Nashville, too—get stereotyped as being extremely white. Yet country has deep influences from African and African American culture, the biggest country record this year was made by a black man, and Nashville’s population is about a quarter African American. I gather the series explores some of those stereotypes.
Well, country music is a mongrel; it’s a whole lot of different things. They did a survey not long ago, where about a third of the people in this country didn’t like country music, and not because of the music, not because of the artists, not because of the songs, but because of the image they had of it. They didn’t want that to be their self-image, and the image they had was we were backwards, we were hicks and hillbillies, we were racist, we were rednecks, we were all the things they didn’t want to be. And I think this documentary takes that down quite a bit, because it’s the music of the average ordinary American. It’s the music of the working class—the backbone of America.
You’ve lived in Nashville since 1973, so I imagine you’ve seen a lot of changes.
Oh, goodness yes. The physical structure has changed. A lot of buildings have been torn down on Music Row. A lot of high rises have gone up.
In terms of music, really the big change is the technology. When I came to town, people were still pitching songs on acetate and reel-to-reel tapes, and we’ve seen cassettes and then the computer. You don’t really need a studio anymore—you’ve got Pro Tools and other software. We’ve seen the advent of streaming. I don’t want to say radio is irrelevant, but there is a lot of competition there. Those are the big changes, and technology’s brought them.
Nashville has seen a lot of economic changes—a huge tourism boom, and a huge population boom in recent years. How is that affecting the city’s country music identity?
I wrote a book called Nashville Sound, and it really should have been Nashville Sounds. The public perception of Nashville is not accurate, totally, with music, because there’s a thriving jazz scene here. Contemporary Christian music has a huge presence here. You’ve got pop and rock acts here. It’s not just country. Country is the is the calling card, but the fact is there are a lot of different kinds of music in Nashville, and that surprises people when they move here. “Gee I just thought it was country.”
I imagine, though, that many of the people now moving to Nashville don’t really care much about music. Do you think that the city’s musical identity has been watered down?
One of the things that comes through in Ken’s documentary—you can’t kill it. You can hold it underwater, but you just can’t kill it. It’s like a rubber ball that keeps bouncing back.
That’s kind of frustrated the Chamber of Commerce at times, because they still want Nashville to be the Athens of the South. We’ve got the Parthenon here, and it’s known for education and all these things. But it’s Music City, USA. It comes back to country music over and over again. That’s what stuck in people's minds. Believe me, the business establishment and social establishment have tried to change that. They can’t do it.