Onstage at Nashville’s tiny Station Inn, the multiplatinum-selling country veteran Alan Jackson announced that he was nervous. He had reason to be, considering that the music-bizzers who’d scored one of the night’s 150 tickets were sitting cheek-to-jowl with regulars, all diehard bluegrass fans. He was there to celebrate his first-ever bluegrass album (out September 24), and right away he made a point of proclaiming that he’s really not very fond of dirt roads. Casting sly aspersions on Jason Aldean and all the other young dudes eager to celebrate the postcard version of the rural, Jackson introduced the new “Blacktop” by saying he had a different point of view. The song said it clearly: “I was glad to see the blacktop when they laid it down in ’65,” Jackson drawled as his ace crew of bluegrass stars played behind him. “No more dust in my eyes.”
Jackson’s actually been living in the middle distance between nostalgia and the future for most of his career, which has also included rockabilly revivalism, hard-country manifestos and one of 9/11′s most famous (and most human-scale) patriotic songs. And two other recent shows in Nashville showed me how some stalwarts of country music, as well as some newcomers, are negotiating the latest round of a city and a genre of music that’s constantly changing, even if it’s deceptively homespun.
From its early days as part of the recording-and-radio revolution of the early 20th century, country’s been about remembering Mama and the family farmstead while using the tools of modern urban life: the jukebox, the recording studio, that newfangled radio in the living room. Who embodied the changing look and feel of womanhood in the late 20th century better than Dolly Parton, or borrowed attitude from rock, Hollywood and the folk revival more skillfully than Johnny Cash? Today’s stars may not often live up to the multifaceted legacies of those legends, but they try, whether it’s Kimberly Perry connecting Puritan virtue to goth rock glam, or Keith Urban mining modern-rock earnestness in the manner of U2.
There’s always plenty of blacktop being poured around Nashville, and lately there’s also a ton of new construction. The city leads the nation in job growth, partly because it remains a center for manufacturing while also proving attractive to new tech and health-industry ventures. Just like the music it nurtures, Nashville embraces tradition, but the twin engines of commerce and artistic innovation run a cutting edge right through its time-honored ways. And because this is the company town for country music, you can constantly hear that change in the music. A fiddle cry or banjo moan might make you think this stuff is stuffy, but the rock drums and the hip-hop beats that show up just as often insist that country is all about getting ahead.
Jackson’s was the first of three performances I saw over a week in Tennessee, and the most thoroughly hybrid. The 54-year-old Georgia native, who got his start reviving the honky-tonk style with wryly conservative hits like “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” has been planning a bluegrass album for more than a decade. It would seem like a step backward, away from mainstream country’s flash toward homey simplicity. But bluegrass is actually country music’s jazz, full of risk-taking players who love nothing more than a ripping Eddie Van Halen-style solo — though that sounds very different on a fiddle or a dobro.
It was fascinating to watch him adjust to the room. He still pulled out his big gestures — he’s one of pop’s great dramatic finger-pointers — but he also laid back, focusing on his guitar and on finding the pocket in his hot band’s grooves. His singing, like that of his idols George Jones and Merle Haggard, stresses careful phrasing over twangy heat; its essential quietude played against the band’s bubbling precision. This approach subtly knocked bluegrass loose from its sometimes tight moorings, making it more openly emotional — more mainstream, but in a wonderful way. The bluegrass lovers felt it, too. I noticed one at the next table, after Jackson sang his own “Blue Side of Heaven” for the dear departed Jones, with tears glistening on her cheeks.
Jackson’s long-delayed move into bluegrass makes sense in a Nashville where artists are assessing ways to best blend the long-treasured and the new. The “new Nashville” of New York Times scene pieces and one enjoyably soapy serial drama hardly rejects its past; its makers are simply figuring out new ways to spin it. As usual in a flourishing bohemia, the music’s connected to other creative endeavors. There’s a food scene that, like many in the South, takes regional ingredients global or makes them healthier, and a style sense that rejects cowboy/girl costumes while staying grounded in vintage looks. Even the architecture of East Nashville, the city’s hipster enclave, reflects a dedication to working with what the past has given, fixing up 100-year-old houses instead of moving into the condo down the road.
As the city changes, country music’s culture is adjusting to both these hometown shifts and the bigger evolution of the entertainment industry that contains it. Observers beyond the city consider young stars like Taylor Swift or Luke Bryan and see country’s history diluted or even destroyed. In reality, Nashville’s young kings and queens habitually pay respect to their elders, partly because they realize that those seasoned performers weren’t so different in their early years.
My second night in Nashville, I attended a thoroughly old-fashioned music industry event: an MCA Records-sponsored evening at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center honoring George Strait, the astonishingly successful hard country singer (he holds the record for Number Ones on the country charts, 60 in total) who recently announced his retirement from the road. Strait was affectionately roasted by record executives and other artists, onscreen and in person, and performed a short set to toast the fact that he’s just signed a contract for five new albums. In good voice and great spirits, Strait seems ready to crank out more massively popular songs.
Most interesting, though, was a short set featuring songwriters whose works Strait has made famous. There was Jim Lauderdale, one of the border-jumpers between the city’s mainstream and its self-styled alternative Americana community; and next to him sat Dean Dillon, the long-haired troubadour who embodied the honky-tonk spirit in the early ’80s, when Strait also emerged. The presence of these silver-fox bohemians reminded the crowd that no matter how fancy country gets — or how corny — its bedrock is a writerly community that is in itself a kind of counterculture, and which has been examining Southern values (and exposing Southern hypocrisy, in cheatin’ songs and stick-it-to-the-man songs) for decades.
Tradition-minded music, whether it’s folk or mainstream culture, is renewed by small communities of artists taking it up, making mistakes, thinking it’s theirs and then realizing they have so much more to learn. At the Family Wash, an East Nashville joint where Nashville’s emerging rockers regularly gather to jam, I heard the sound of classic country blues, being played by the Iowa-based duo Joe and Vicki Price. In the crowd I noticed a few familiar faces: the singer-songwriter Patrick Sweany (an old Ohio friend of the now-Nashville based Dan Auerbach) and members of one of my favorite Music City groups, Luella and the Sun. Everybody in the mostly empty room was tapping on something, looking itchy, like they’d love to be onstage too. Pretty soon, most were.
These musicians, who are all white, are pursuing blues and old country music styles with a directness that can risk caricature: it’s on a continuum with Miley Cyrus’ twerking. But while young pop stars and the handlers who at least partially control them cross racial and class lines for titillation value, the younger roots and Americana artists taking up worn styles have the chance to learn these styles over time, in the irreplaceable spirit of communal woodshedding. Night after night, they’re bending their fingers and their voices to fit the notes. There’s value in the patience that takes.
This remains the essence of Nashville as a music capitol. It’s a working musicians’ town, where people live moment-by-moment with the stuff they want to learn. (Want to see this in action? Attend the annual Americana Music Festival, coming later this month.) A megastar like Alan Jackson realizes that when he wants this town to believe in him, he needs to demonstrate his willingness — even after decades of hits — to do the work. For all the plastic feel of some 21st-century country music, it’s the work that makes what’s good in Nashville shine.