Thursday, July 2, 2009

music heritage

As I am looking at the end of my time as a graduate student, I am pondering where I will go to next. I've loved my time in Tennessee, but I am looking towards new horizons. While I am eager for new adventures, I am also waxing sentimental about the place that I currently call home. I find that often as I drive through Nashville and see the city rising up on the horizon, I get a little giddy. Nashville is almost like a mythic place to me and I love that I'll always be able to tell people that I spent a significant part of my life living in Middle Tennessee.

I enjoy the culture and I enjoy the "feel" of Middle Tennessee. Even the urban areas retain a bit of the laid back countryside feel. People are friendly no matter who you are. I think that this contributes to so many celebrities moving to the region, because here they are treated (for the most part) just like anyone else. I have a friend who frequently runs into Nicole Kidman at Whole Foods in Nashville and I have too many stories of passing celebrities on the street. And it is more than just country music stars, although we've got a lot of those too. I used to go to a Bible study and music jam session at Amy Grant's house when I was a kid, along with a bunch of other kids from the area (she called this program The Loft and I still have the CDs, but I am not sure where the t-shirts have gone). But even though there were commercial products that came out of it, it really was just people gathering in her barn/recording studio (you had to see it, animals on the ground level, full recording studio in the loft of the barn) to hang out and sing songs with her and all of the big stars of Christian music at the time.

But this gets me to a point that is starting to rub me raw. I hate the tendency to try and make excuses for country music. I'm bothered that it is acceptable to be bigoted about poor, white, southerners and that this is what many people think sums up the country music experience (although, I confess that I do love the show Gone Country and have been to most of the places they feature...I like to celebrate the experience rather than hate on it). Country music has strong roots in African American music traditions and is part of a larger American folk music tradition. It is creative and full of diversity. And if you want to hear incredible country music, Nashville is the place to come and hear it. Even (or especially) if you think that you couldn't possibly like country music, I think you should give it a try in Nashville. If you want to know more about those Nashville music roots, I'm a fan of Louis Kyriakoudes book, The Social Origins of the Urban South: Race, Gender, and Migration in Nashville, but you should also check out this and this.

I have taken people to Robert's Western World (more authentic than Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, which is way touristy these days) to listen to real honky tonk music and every time those people say something along the lines of, "Wow...this is really good. I didn't think I liked country music." So when I say that Nashville is more than just country music, I say it as a way of apology or trying to sweep country music under the rug. But the live music scene in this region is so complex and omnipresent, that you simply cannot sum it up under the label "country music."

Almost any local restaurant has live music on some night of the week, even here in Murfreesboro. But people also play shows at other random locations. One of my favorite stories is of an odd night when I went to the Belcourt Theater (a renovated historic theater in Hillsboro Village (next to Vanderbilt campus)) to see the Diving Bell and the Butterfly and every time the door to our movie swung open, I swore that I could hear Ben Folds singing. Sure enough, when we got out of our movie, the larger room (which also has a stage) was having a small Ben Folds concert. Ben Folds lives in Nashville, loves the town, and is one of the many people who just shows up places to play some music from time to time.

And because of this kind of culture, a great many of the people you meet are involved in music in some shape or fashion. When I lived in Paris, TN, I decided that I would save up money to finally purchase a banjo. Dan Knowles (award winning old time banjo player and expert luthier) just happened to live there and so he made one for me. When I picked it up from him at Uncle Dave Macon Days (the annual old time music festival in Murfreesboro and the national competition for old time banjo, buckdancing, and clogging), I was extremely excited and took my new banjo in to work with me. Several people asked if they could play it, and they did...and played it well. Now, this is an office full of historians and historic preservationists, but it is a given that just by being in Middle Tennessee, someone will be able to play a stringed instrument. And that made me pause and take note that probably only in this area would I work in a place where most people played an instrument.

Dan Knowles unveiling my banjo at Uncle Dave Macon Days, July 2007

But what inspired this post? At the end of May I got to go to the Grand Ole Opry (a show like no other than everyone should go see at least once in their lives) to see Steve Martin play his banjo. He is the reason why I wanted to become a banjo player. I crew up watching him as a guest on SNL and him talking about why he loved to play the banjo. This past weekend he was a guest on Prairie Home Companion (a live radio show that has strong similarities to the Grand Ole Opry live radio show) and that brought music back to my mind.

Steve Martin playing at the Grand Ole Opry on May 31, 2009

He played to a packed house.

Also, this weekend the Tennessean had a special section talking about why people from all walks of life have moved to Nashville and why they have come to love it here. I assume this was a lead up to them running the story about the upcoming National Trust for Historic Preservation conference being here in October. Their article about that is getting some interesting comments. And while the focus of many of these articles is the built environment, it is the things that go on in those places that bring them to life and truly make them "must see" places. For Middle Tennessee, particularly Nashville it is the music scene that really charges the town and cityscapes with life.

The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau people like to ask visitors, "What kind of music do they record more of in Nashville than anywhere else?" They answer is all kinds (it's their way of breaking people out of only thinking of country music when they think Nashville). The really push the Music City branding, and I think that they are building on something truly authentic. The Middle Tennessee experience would simply be incomplete without the music that imbues so many aspects of life here.

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