The Fisk Jubilee Singers were an a cappella group from Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, consisting of former slaves and are considered to the first music ensemble to make a world tour. In 1873, after a performance for Queen Victoria of England, the Queen was heard to ask, “where are they from, they must be from the Music City,” and Nashville has prided itself on the moniker ever since.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are an important – and ground-breaking – part of American musical history. Not only were they the first African-American musical group to travel the country and the world singing American folk and Gospel songs beyond the horrific minstrel circuit, the were the first musical group of any type of genre in history to embark on a world tour.
In 1925, WSM radio began transmitting “hoedown” music on the weekly Grand Ole Opry radio barn dance program starring DeFord Bailey, Uncle Jimmy Thompson and The Fruit Jar Drinkers, among others. It was this new entertainment format that began to draw musicians and the fledgling music industry to the city. In 1945, a regional style of music became a national obsession when Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs introduced the world outside of the Appalachians to Bluegrass music on an Opry broadcast.
Cheap rents, a central location and the Grand Ole Opry helped Nashville become a Mecca for Country musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, and the name ‘Music City’ took on an expanded meaning. Today, most people refer to Nashville as ‘Music City’ without realizing where the nickname originated.
Memphis was the home of R&B and Soul music, but Nashville called Country its own. By the 1970s, Country was a major musical force and Nashville was its unchallenged home. Through the 1990s when the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain helped lift Country music out of its 1980s doldrums, songwriters, pickers and singers had only one destination – the area around 17th Avenue just southwest of downtown. If you take a trip to Nashville don’t be fooled – Broadway is where you drink, listen to music and act like a tourist, Music Row is where the studios and publishers are (or were) – there’s not a lot to see there. But like Beale Street in Memphis and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Broadway in Nashville has its own kitschy appeal.
Incidentally, some of the biggest records of the second wave of Country music in the 1990s were mixed on KEF C55 speakers. In fact, at the time, the C55 was pretty much the go-to speaker in every big studio in town. Records from Shania Twain, Billy Ray Cyrus, Reba McIntyre, Trisha Yearwood and Brooks and Dunne all made it to your ears after first passing through KEF speakers.
There was a ton of money to make off the music in the years between Patsy Cline and Shania Twain. And as happens with anything good, money moved in and the small-time publishers and studios on Music Row got pushed out. By the twenty-teens, Country had become a hybrid of hard rock and hip-hop and save for a few artists hanging on to the traditions of the music (Chris Stapleton, Kacie Musgraves, Cody Johnson and a few others), traditional Country music in Nashville became a thing of the past, at least as far as the ‘industry’ was concerned. Sure, thousands of boot-wearing pickers and singers make their way to Nashville every year in hopes of making it big, and of course there is an amazing Country music scene in and around the city (not to mention rock, punk, jazz and hip-hop), but the corporations that run the business don’t have the money to invest in something that isn’t going to sell immediately and in a big way, so Bro-Country it is, at least for now.
Country music may not be your thing, but Country music has been an important part of the American musical lexicon for 70 years. The traditions and styles of Country music found their way to music made in Los Angeles and London, Cairo and Sao Paulo, and it would be a shame to see it lose its home. So where is Nashville anymore?
Nashville is home to a host of great artists like Kings of Leon, Cage the Elephant (by way of Kentucky), Kesha, Paramore, and The Dead Weather, that are certainly not considered Country, and yes, there are a ton of great Country artists making traditional Country music in and around Music City: Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch, and Jon Pardi, Parker Milsap are a few current standouts carrying the torch, but the soul of Nashville has expanded beyond Middle Tennessee – and that’s a good thing because it keeps the music alive.
Musically, Nashville is still an extremely vibrant – and important – city to the music industry at large, but the soul and spirit of ‘Nashville’ has spread far beyond Music Row and sort of changed its name to ‘Americana.’ Like the Eagles in the 1970s the Grateful Dead in the 1960s, Country music doesn’t necessarily have to come from Nashville, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be called ‘Country’ to hit the essence Country pioneers like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams were searching for. So, when you ask the question ‘where’s Nashville’s country music gone?’ the answer is simple, it’s pretty much everywhere.
Here’s a list of some Americana acts that aren’t from Nashville, but who are carrying the torch of the traditions of the pioneers before them:
American Aquarium – Raleigh, NC
Brandi Carlile – Ravensdale, WA
The National Reserve – Brooklyn, NY
Milk Carton Kids – Eagle Rock, CA
Dawes – Los Angeles, CA
Calexico – Tucson, AZ
Like Louis Armstrong said, "all music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song," and in that very same way, all music is country music (and a lot of genres you would never think of as 'country' owe a lot to the Country music genre.