A drive through Nashville, a sleepy Southern city of approximately one million people and the home of virtually the entire country-music industry, is a sobering and illuminating experience. As the economically retarded South begins to catch up with the rest of the country, many Southern cities find themselves struggling with a desire to grow more wealthy and cosmopolitan while maintaining a competing desire to preserve their regional charms. For Nashville this tension is particularly strong: The city wishfully calls itself the "Athens of the South," even as its wealth is paradoxically dependent on one provincial business. Gaudy, plantation-style estates litter suburban Nashville, and modern-day equivalents of the archetypal Greek stadiums rise across the city in preparation for the imminent arrival of NFL and NHL franchises. Meanwhile, recently constructed ASCAP and BMI buildings tower over Music Row, monuments to an industry just emerging from an unprecedented boom period.
Nashville's Unwritten Rules (Overlook Press, 1998), written by Nashville resident and sometime Billboard and New York Daily News correspondent Dan Daley, offers an insider's perspective into the workings of America's biggest company town. Daley depicts Nashville as a place that combines the clannish characteristics of a small feudal society with the financial power of a major industry, a place where less than two dozen producers account for 90 percent of the major-label product in a business that surpassed $2 billion in sales a few years back.
What Daley's book doesn't confront, although it reveals as much unintentionally, is how Nashville's mid-'90s boom years have coincided with a demographic shift--within the industry and the audience it targets--that threatens to fundamentally change the nature of the music. The numbers, as Daley reports them, are staggering. Beyond the $2 billion sales peak, country radio picked up an additional 21 million listeners between 1990 and 1993, and the number of major labels with Nashville offices has ballooned from six to more than 30 within the last decade. Nashville now has more than 60 major recording studios (defined by Daley as multiroom facilities containing over $500,000 in technological investments) and more than 200 studios in all.
What all this demonstrates is that the country-music industry, like the city it defines, has gone uptown. From the most powerful producer to the lowest session player, the rigidly hierarchical ranks of Music City have become increasingly swelled, not by country-bred products of the rural South, but by pop-rock refugees from New York and L.A. Tellingly, in Daley's interviews with Nashville insiders, the Eagles come up twice as often as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Merle Haggard combined. And this is the crux of any debate concerning the problems with Nashville.
Where the industry's last flirtation with pop, the Urban Cowboy craze of the early '80s, was mostly a fleeting invasion, soon vanquished by the emergence of homegrown neo-trads like George Strait and Randy Travis, today's "suburban cowboy" era threatens permanence. This development is a product of changes within Nashville itself: The extreme commercialization of country has led the genre to mostly ignore its traditional adult, working-class base in pursuit of more fruitful markets--teenagers and wealthier suburbanites. Country music has now given way to industry sobriquets like "Real Country" and "Hot Country." To a large degree, country has become white Middle America's MOR pop music in an era where the Top 40 is dominated by R&B.
But what are we to make of "country music" when its biggest star, Garth Brooks, is a noted fan of James Taylor and KISS? When LeAnn Rimes, the teen sensation touted as the next Patsy Cline, follows a modern country classic like "Blue" by making a beeline for the middlebrow comforts of "You Light Up My Life?" When Common Thread--The Songs of the Eagles wins a Country Music Association award for album of the year? When industry mouthpiece the Nashville Network broadcasts a Christmas special featuring Mannheim Steamroller and is dominated by ads inviting the viewer to "relax with the romantic moods of Body Talk," featuring Melissa Manchester and Lionel Richie? When does country music cease being country music?
It's one thing, after all, for boho types like k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett to be driven from conservative Nashville and mainstream country. It's quite another when a much-hyped pure country performer like Marty Brown leaves a Nashville major label for an indie, Hightone, because Nashville doesn't know how to market him. Or when a legend like Johnny Cash has to work with an L.A. rap producer in order to make music much like that from his Sun recordings or Live at Folsom Prison--classics in the genre. Or when George Jones, who many consider the greatest country singer ever, is quoted as saying the new Nashville has "taken the heart and soul out of country music."
In his book's final chapter Daley pulls back to ask that same question: When does country stop being country? Perhaps because Daley is as consumed by the minutiae of inner Nashville as the businessmen he covers, the author arrives at this mystifyingly myopic conclusion: "[N]ot when the thematic issues are replaced, or the sounds of the records further modernized and drawn into the mainstream, but rather when the bulk of country records stop being made in Nashville by the same handful of producers, writers, publishers, and musicians."