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."
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.'"