Country Music Capital

Country Music Capital

When Nashville was anointed the capital of country music, a true American icon was born.

A scene from Nashville, directed by Robert Altman (1975). © Paramount Pictures, all rights reserved

If you were asked to name an iconic American city of the last fifty years, odds are your first choice wouldn’t be Nashville. A sleepy state capital and college town well into the twentieth century, Nashville for much of its existence has been defined by what it wasn’t—not a bastion of the Old Confederacy like Richmond, Charleston, or New Orleans; not a New South boomtown like Atlanta or Birmingham; not even a Cold War Sunbelt metropolis like Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix. So you might say it was an inspired piece of wishful thinking when, in October 1962, Mayor Ben West staked a claim to Nashville’s future by posting new roadside signs on the highways leading into town. For the first time, visitors were welcomed to the “Home of the Grand Ole Opry, Music City U.S.A.”

In the half century that followed, Music City U.S.A. has been the subject of a great American film, a popular television melodrama, and much handwringing about the current state of American culture and politics. Through it all, one thing has become clear: when Nashville was anointed the capital of country music, a true American icon was born.

Country music was nothing new to Nashville in 1962. The Grand Ole Opry had been broadcasting on Nashville’s WSM radio station since 1925, and by the 1960s the country music business was a $35 million local industry and growing fast. But country was still fairly new to the country, only having outgrown its regional origins and become a truly national phenomenon in the decades following the Second World War. And so, not too long after Mayor West’s prescient signage went up, when the director Robert Altman and his screenwriting collaborator Joan Tewkesbury turned their attention to these strange new rumblings coming from the heartland, they were the first but by no means the last to ask what Music City U.S.A. had to tell us about the U.S.A.

“My objective,” Altman would later recall in an interview, “was just to take this country-western culture . . . and just put this into a panorama and reflect American sensibilities and politics.” What he produced was Nashville, perhaps his greatest film, released forty years ago last June. The movie follows a dozen or so characters around Nashville over the course of a few days, as Barbara Jean, a Loretta Lynn-like superstar, prepares to return to the stage while fending off another nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Hal Phillip Walker, an upstart and vaguely populist political candidate of the so-called “Replacement Party,” arrives in town for a campaign rally that will include the biggest names in country music.

The theme of assassination looms large in Nashville, as it does in so many great movies of the 1970s (Taxi Driver, The Parallax View, The Godfather Part II, just to name a few that aren’t Woody Allen’s Bananas or Sleeper). Filmmakers weren’t the only ones with assassination on the brain in the wake of the tumultuous 1960s. The historian Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in Harper’s exactly one year after JFK was shot, and the prominent political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset would soon conclude that, “If many more assassinations have been committed in the United States than Canada or Britain, the explanation must focus upon what kind of societies they are.” For Lipset, Hofstadter, and the generation of intellectuals who had grown accustomed to the placid political seas of the postwar consensus, this spate of assassinations was but another expression of the rising tide of political extremism that had brought varying levels of mainstream acceptability to the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even George Wallace. Alongside other popular contemporary symbols of right-wing resurgence—the working-class “hard hat,” the suburban “silent majority,” the hippie-bashing “Okie from Muskogee”—the sudden ubiquity of the Lone Gunman was one more ominous sign that something was rotten in the state of post–sixties America.

Like Citizen Kane or A Face in the Crowd before it—other great American movie-meditations on the possibility of homegrown fascism—Nashville’s diagnosis was a fundamentally cynical one. The problem, Altman and Tewkesbury seem to suggest, is with the complacent and celebrity-crazed masses. Or in other words, country music fans: the flag-waving, God-fearing, mama-loving, and star-worshipping common folk—sociologically speaking, the white working and lower-middle class—who were turning Nashville into a national entertainment center to rival New York or Los Angeles. One of the first songs we hear in Nashville, sung by a sequined headliner with political ambitions named Haven Hamilton, is the bicentennially themed “200 Years,” a John Philip Sousa-worthy march that features this bon mot of patriotic absurdity in its chorus: “We must be doing somethin’ right, to last 200 years.” You have to be a real dupe to buy that line, Altman winks at his film audience—after all, 1974 (the year Nashville was filmed) and 1975 (the year it was released) were the years of Watergate and the fall of Saigon respectively—even as the rapt listeners on screen nod along to the beat of the bass drum.

This, then, is the America that Nashville is deployed to represent in the film: a “Middle America” in whose schmaltzy and square musical tastes coastal liberals like Altman could hear the reverberations of darker forces moving beneath the surface. Hal Phillip Walker may not be a perfect stand-in for George Wallace—he is hardly even a right-winger; more like Eugene McCarthy meets Norman Vincent Peale—but his goofily bland campaign pronouncements (“It is the very nature of government to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”; “A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only: to clarify—that’s one; and to confuse—that’s the other”) echo at least the down-home, folksy notes (if not the race-baiting) of Wallace’s outsider presidential campaigns. And lest you think it’s all harmless fun, Altman ends the long-anticipated Walker campaign rally, and the film, with a climactic act of violence, the sheer irrationality of which seems designed to indict the whole of the proceedings.

In so capturing American sensibilities and politics, Altman succeeded in turning Nashville into a synecdoche for the New Right. However that label may have fit the capital of the country music industry—and the catalogue of country artists lining up to stump for Wallace in 1968 and 1972 would suggest it fit well—it was an unfortunate description for the city itself. For Nashville, with its long-established black civil rights leadership class centered around Fisk University and the Vanderbilt Divinity School, was also a training ground for the southern sit-in movement. During Mayor West’s tenure, it had been one of the first major southern cities to desegregate schools and other public facilities. Al Gore, Sr., a Roosevelt Democrat who represented Tennessee in the House and then the Senate for more than thirty years, was once described by Spiro Agnew, a true champion of the New Right, as the “Southern Chair of the Eastern Liberal Establishment.” Nashville was not, in other words, simply Nashville.

But Altman grasped a larger reality, and it was Mayor West’s point all along: outlandish as it may still have seemed at the time, country music was here to stay. It was intended as more than just an inside-joke when Elliott Gould, an Altman regular, makes a cameo as himself in Nashville, in a scene that takes place at an industry party hosted by Haven Hamilton. Gould doesn’t really seem to know where he is or what he’s doing there, but he knows he has to make an appearance—an ur-symbol of 1970s Hollywood cool, paying his respects to the parvenus from Nashville.

Of course, if you’ve been alive over the last forty years, this revelation comes as something of an anticlimax. Country music long ago shot beyond mere mainstream acceptability to something more like mainstream domination, with country artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Taylor Swift redefining the sound and style of pop music in their image. Today, there are more than twice as many radio stations devoted to playing country as the next most popular genre of music. Watch a show like NBC’s Star Search-reincarnation The Voice and it seems like every aspiring musician out there right now is drawing from the country playbook.

No less a sign of country music’s contemporary cultural transcendence is the popular ABC drama about a cast of country stars, wannabes, and hangers-on, called, aptly enough, Nashville. Already into its fourth season, the show has built up a steady following and has even inspired its own replicas, such as the hip-hop drama Empire, which is already more watched (and better) in just its second season on FOX. And Nashville the show has managed all this in large part by being a rigorously anti-Altman take on Music City U.S.A.

Where Altman turned a cynical eye to the crass commercialism of the country music scene, the TV show not only takes it for granted but almost revels in it. The drama of the show takes place as much in the boardrooms and studio offices of the Nashville recording industry as it does on the stages of the city’s arenas and honky-tonks. Like in Empire—and unlike, say, in A Prairie Home Companion, Altman’s final film, a sincere and sentimental tribute to Garrison Keillor’s Grand Ole Opry-inspired radio variety show and perhaps a late-career retraction of some of Nashville’smoreacerbic moments—there is very little that is romantic in the way music is produced on Nashville the TV show. Show business is first and foremost a business, after all.

And what a business it has become. According to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the music industry today has a whopping $9.7 billion annual economic impact on the city. Roughly 56,000 jobs—fully 15 percent of the private-sector workforce in Davidson County—are directly or indirectly tied to the music business, generating more than $3.2 billion in income. The Chamber calculates that relative to its size, there are four times as many music industry-related jobs in Nashville than in the country as a whole—and proportionally more music jobs in Nashville than in Los Angeles, New York, and Austin combined.

But Nashville is no behind-the-scenes, cinéma vérité treatment of life and labor in Music City. Nobody on the show seems to worry about finding paid work or making the rent, not even the singers who haven’t really made it yet. Little to nothing is said about the changing social landscape of the contemporary music business. The de-unionization of professional recording work; the rising reliance on new media platforms for recording and distributing music; the steady offloading of the traditional promotional and mass distribution functions of major labels onto artist “entrepreneurs” and self-promotion specialists—the thorough casualization of the music economy, in other words—none of this appears on Nashville.

If Altman created a one-dimensional portrayal of the city by reducing it to a political metaphor, the TV show manages toaccomplish much the same thing by projecting a fantasy world that might as well have been cooked up by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. Country is all glitz and glamour on the show—Hollywood doesn’t just come to Nashville anymore; Nashville is Hollywood—with just enough southern twang to make it an authentic commodity. There are gestures toward the more mundane melodramas that have long been the bread-and-butter of country soaps: the session musician whose lifelong love affair with the star may be cut short by terminal cancer; the on-again, off-again relations of a trio of friends/former lovers/current bandmates; the indie label start-up that wants to be truer to the music and the musicians than the majors. But the real star of the show is The Industry—which, like Wall Street itself, is just Too Big To Fail.

And like any savvy business enterprise, Nashville avoids politics at all costs. In this way it is very different from Empire, which not only began its current second season with a nod toward the Black Lives Matter movement but also a self-reflective acknowledgement of the way the corporate media commandeers the posture and language of social protest for crudely economic ends. Nashville, however, wants no part of politics—even the politics of war, so central to the country music zeitgeist at the time Altman made his movie. On the show, there is no whiff of such recent real-life ugliness as Toby Keith’s chart-topping post–9/11 screed, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” or the furious denunciations and veritable blacklisting that greeted the Dixie Chicks’ public criticism of the Middle East invasions in 2003. Instead, Nashville gives us a guest cameo by none other than Michelle Obama herself at a star-studded season two United Service Organizations concert at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell—a symbolic rapprochement between an industry that beat the drums for war, and an administration that ran on unkept promises to end it.

It’s not beside the point that where Altman uses the idea of “Nashville” in the film to invoke America, the “Nashville” of the TV show is a metonym for the collection of corporate entities, commercial relations, and material transactions that organize life in the country music business. In the new Nashville, the dramatic, moral, and ideological orienting point is the marketplace—and so clearly, it is a show of our times. Because if it was a resurgent homespun conservatism of the provinces—Altman’s Nashville—that dominated American political and cultural life for a good thirty years beginning with the election of Richard Nixon, today it is an all-consuming neoliberalism whose values the new Nashville most clearly and uncritically embraces.

This time around, sadly, the fit between life and art is a much closer one. The ascendance of the media and entertainment sector, alongside other professional service industries like healthcare, publishing, and higher education, has turned the once sleepy state capital into a perennial fixture on the best-cities-for-college-graduates lists—which is business press code, of course, for cities undergoing rapid gentrification. In neighborhoods like Edgehill and 12South south of downtown, Sylvan Park to the west, and Germantown to the north, and virtually all of East Nashville, the rate of in-fill construction makes Nashville today feel like a city bursting at its seams. While the TV show is often a tacit advertisement for East Nashville’s enviable bungalow-style real estate, in reality, neighborhoods on the east side, like Inglewood and Shelby Bottoms, are currently a cross-hatch of recently leveled lots, pop-up cookie-cutter condos, and signs posted by developers that read “We Will Buy Your Home.” Land values are rising so rapidly that this slash-and-burn approach to urban development prompted the alt-weekly Nashville Scene to describe the gentrification of Nashville’s up-and-coming neighborhoods as a “Demolition Derby.” According to a recent study conducted by Governing magazine, 21 percent of Nashville’s census tracts have experienced gentrification since 2000, a rate that well exceeds the national average and ranks it in the top half among the fifty largest American cities. Today, Music City U.S.A. looks less like George Wallace’s America—never mind Ben West’s or James Lawson’s—and more like Michael Bloomberg’s New York.

As Nashville goes, so go we all.

Max Fraser is a PhD candidate in American history at Yale. His writing on labor, the economy, and culture has appeared in American Art, Raritan, the Nation, New Labor Forum, and elsewhere.

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