Nashville Skyline, Nashville Fortress

Now that Music Row has gone mainstream, an industry insider describes the nation's newest company town.

In other words, if it's Nashville, it's country.

Perhaps anticipating an incredulous reaction from the reader, Daley later tries to concede the apparent weaknesses in this argument. "It may be the ultimate conceit to impose a restriction on country music that bears a Nashville imprimatur," he writes. "It is arguably reactionary and unreasonable." Yet citing social and technological changes in the culture at large, Daley claims, "[C]ountry music's ability to maintain its sense of self--for its makers and its listeners--requires some kind of physical sanctuary, a tangible reference point by which it positions itself."

Daley's Nashville-centric book can be juxtaposed nicely with another recent volume on the subject of cultural geography, Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country--People and Places in American Music (Pantheon, 1997). Dawidoff would probably concur with Daley's ideas about a "physical sanctuary" and "tangible reference point," but instead of locating these places within the artificial geography of Music City, he finds them in places as diverse as Paragould, Arkansas, and Modesto, California. Traveling from South Carolina to Oregon and profiling figures from Bill Monroe to Iris DeMent, Dawidoff draws a democratic picture of a music born out of the lived experience of white, working- and middle-class people in thousands of small towns and rural communities--a lived experience now foreign to the cloistered and homogenized world of Nashville. "To call today's mainstream country music country at all is a misnomer," he inveighs. "It's kempt, comfortable music--hyper-sincere, settled, and careful neither to offend nor surprise."

Dawidoff's vision of a multifaceted, independent country landscape is far from theoretical. In recent years the likes of Boston's Rounder Records, Chicago's Bloodshot, and San Francisco's Hightone have provided an increasingly visible alternative to the sound-alike product coming out of Daley's Nashville--which is not to mention the myriad goings-on in country music's other capital, Austin, Texas. But there seem to be limits as to how much this music can reach the small-town audiences that should be its core. As Nashville's Unwritten Rules makes clear, Music City's domination of retail outlets, the consultant-driven world of country radio, and television (through its twin oracles, TNN and the all-video Country Music Television) have prevented any serious competition.

The result is a dearth of country-music diversity and a profusion of absurd scenes like the memorable one Iris DeMent describes to Dawidoff about trying to get one of her records played on a country station: "'I'll tell you why we won't play this,' the radio man said. 'It's too country. We only play Real Country.'"

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