In the second installment of our series, The Surveillance Tapes, Pursuit‘s rock-star-for-hire goes undercover in Nashville and exposes a few of Guitartown’s hidden sounds.
So, if you ever find yourself tailing a skip in Nashvegas, you might want to pop in these surveillance tapes—music to spy by in Music City.
Stereotypes. Myths. Misconceptions. We PIs encounter them every day: We’re (allegedly) bold, shady, and a little bit dangerous. As mythological characters, we’re simultaneusly superhuman and beneath contempt: silent watchers of the night, solitary seekers of justice, and gray (wo)men of the shadows—fearsome and mysterious.
Nashville’s a good city for the PI, that underrated (anti)hero. It’s a city with its own seam of lowbrow mythology—an unreal veneer of cornpone glitz encases the pulsing creative heart of the real Music City. For most of Nashvegas’ lifespan, bigger and more hipstery (and coastal) American cities have enjoyed dismissing this friendly little town as uncultivated and crackery…until now.
Somehow, Nashville just became “Nowville“— America’s next IT city. She’s kinda like the nerd girl who gets a makeover in some bad TV movie—still the same girl as before, just without the braces. And suddenly, everybody wants to ask her out.
Fortunately, Pursuit‘s undercover rock star started surveilling this town long before the world, seemingly, “discovered” it. Our covert music man has the scoop on the very real artistry that’s been a thrumming undercurrent here all along, and he offers this report:
Think Banjos…and Electric Guitars
Nashville is a Rorschach test of a city. It would seem to be merely a pleasant mid-South middle-opolis with a robust health care industry, a vibrant downtown, and too few places to eat after 11 pm. But its legacy of country music, with all the good and ill that implies, has long evoked in outsiders a strange brew of preconceptions, stereotypes and personal projection.
Think “banjos” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but for some, banjos = awesome, and for others, banjos = madness. Misunderstandings have resulted.
I suppose this is all changing rapidly, now that my chosen city has its own network soap opera, stylish magazine features and a bunch of cool rock bands representin’. My gosh, this year’s Grammy Awards kept zooming in on non-country Nashville denizens, whether it was Jack White dueting with the fabulous Ruby Amanfu (yes, Nashville) or The Black Keys slamming it with musical royalty from America’s most authentic Music City, New Orleans. Rolling Stone magazine called ours the best music scene in the nation, so perhaps we’ve arrived.
For some, banjos = awesome, and for others, banjos = madness. Misunderstandings have resulted.
Truth is, Nashville has been a remarkable musical crossroads for more than 70 years, and its claim as the home and nexus of a dynamic and growing Americana sound is absolutely justified. Titan songwriters and stylists like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt and so many more live, work and shop for groceries here. Amazing young talents are moving here to set up camp. Thus the flood of great recordings from our zip codes is a fire hose from which it can be difficult to take a nourishing drink. But here are four recent projects made in Music City that show the range of our new and the integrity of our old.
He is 63 years old, yet every day somewhere in the world, somebody discovers Richard Thompson’s music and signs on as a lifelong fan and collector. There’s a lot to collect. In the 1960s with The Fairport Convention, he was Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix combined for the British folk/rock movement—equally ground-breaking as a songwriter and guitarist.
His long solo career produced albums acknowledged by critics as among the finest in all of rock, particularly 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights and 1991’s Rumor and Sigh. He was given the Order of the British Empire for pete’s sake, yet a gazillion people who love Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones and their ilk haven’t turned on to Sir Richard.
Perhaps Electric, Thompson’s first project recorded in Nashville, will flip the switch for some. Produced by Buddy Miller, another must-know folk/rock artist from our fair city, Electric crackles with all the elements of a great RT album: spidery and glassy electric guitar, Celtic-derived melodies and bittersweet stories of human frailty. “Sally B” is a song of ardor with Mississippi dirty guitars. “Good Things Happen To Bad People” is one you may relate to in your line of work. Listen.
The SteelDrivers – Hammer Down
I have no idea what your opinion of bluegrass music is. I don’t care. The SteelDrivers make universalist, United States of Bluegrass so pure that if you don’t like it, you’re simply not a patriot. The picking is state of the art, because the band is made of consummate mid-career Music City pros who’ve seen and done it all.
But it’s the voice of lead singer Gary Nichols, with its Memphis spicy dry rub quality, that pushes this beyond the aficionados-only crowd. Singing with Nichols is Tammy Rogers, the quintessential bad-ass Nashville side-lady who’s found a challenge worthy of her experience in this band. She also punches holes in the sky with her fiddle. There are no drums, but the banjo, mandolin and bass will rock your car like it’s on hydraulics.
Quintessential bad-ass Nashville side-lady (Tammy Rogers)…punches holes in the sky with her fiddle.
Hammer Down, the band’s third album, opens with the quintessential bluegrass topics of love, death and ghosts in “Shallow Grave.” The waltz-time ballad “I’ll Be There” (a video over at CMT.com if you’re interested) takes on a similarly haunting theme from the other side of the relationship. “Wearin’ A Hole” is a simple celebration of the honky tonk life, filtered through some subtle wordplay. This one’s a lonesome winner. Listen.
The Time Jumpers – self-titled
Nashville’s essence – its truth and beauty – resides in the experienced players and pure musicians who transcend eras and who know country music at a scriptural level. Classic country sounds easy-going, but it’s hard to play with the timing and feel it requires to complete the illusion.
The Time Jumpers began as a side-project but grew into a Music City tradition. For more than a decade, nearly a dozen pickers and singers gathered on Monday nights at a historic bluegrass dive bar to play western swing and hillbilly jazz big band music – the ultimate head-clearing tonic to the week’s work churning out country radio mediocrity.
Nashville’s essence – its truth and beauty – resides in the experienced players and pure musicians who transcend eras and who know country music at a scriptural level.
As Nashville grew and changed around them, they became the city’s beacon of tradition. Vince Gill, needing an outlet to play the music that shaped him, joined the band. But that billion-selling, guitar-slaying superstar will tell you point blank that his less famous band-mates can out-play him. The Time Jumpers have made live albums, but this one, made in the calm of Gill’s personal studio, is its first formal effort for a label. The songs are mostly band originals with a couple of lost classics. The feel is atmospheric, transparent, swinging and enriching – everything country FM radio is not. Listen.
Ode & Ide – Pas Tout La
He’s so emerging that if you’ve heard of him, you’re probably his uncle, but Ben Cameron stands out in even the cauldron of talent and vision that is today’s Nashville. Cameron’s debut full-length album a couple years ago presented a young songwriter who sings with quirk and intelligence about the world at large, not unlike Ben Folds.
This newer EP, a band effort under the name Ode & Ide, one of my favorite undiscovered discs of 2012, is a shockwave of pop, full of 70s FM musicianship and corduroy textures. With a voice and a lyrical daring that strongly suggests Paul Simon and lightly suggests James Taylor, Cameron excites with funky-butt rhythms and soaring choruses. The jams are Steely Dan sharp.
And he writes lines like: “You were a broken blue-sky, grounded morning / When I found you. / I guess I was too. / We lived blindly to love’s destructive ways.” So you get to have your breath taken away with some regularity.