Right now, Nashville is experiencing a rock ’n’ roll boom the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the mid-1980s. More performers have record deals than ever, and new signings seem to keep coming. More than that, clubs are bursting with truly talented bands every night of the week.
Of the variety of rock styles currently flourishing in town, power pop has a particularly strong presence. The guitar-driven, melodically rich sound is best typified by the music of the early Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Big Star, and Cheap Trick, among others. It’s a sound built on the classic virtues of well-crafted songs and tight, propulsive instrumentation. Unlike so much current rock music, there’s isn’t much room for attitude, speed, or heaviness.
The local purveyors are many: Joe, Marc’s Brother, Who Hit John (who perform Thursday at 12th & Porter), The Shazam, Boomgates, David Mead, Rayon City Quartet, Betty Rocker, Crowd of One, Neilson Hubbard, Swan Dive, The Cheeksters, and many others. This year, several such bands have been recognized with the nominations for the Nashville Music Awards, and there will be a heavy pop presence at the annual NEA Extravaganza ’98.
This past November saw the premiere of an Internet site devoted to Nashville-based pop bands (www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Studio/8347), and an independent compilation album also is in the works, put together by Sony Music publishing employee Lee Swartz, who helped mount the Web site. Swartz also is spearheading plans for a local pop festival, tentatively scheduled for four nights in May.
To discuss the local scene and the emergence of a power-pop movement in Nashville, the Scene brought together a sampling of veterans and newcomers. People participating in the talk were Lee Swartz; Joe Pisapia of Joe, Marc’s Brother; Sam Powers of Who Hit John; Jason Wilkins of Neilson Hubbard; Doug Powell of Tin Man and Swag; Nashville pop and country music veteran Bill Lloyd; producer and studio owner Steve Allen, a former member of the Los Angeles-based pop band 20/20; and Scene music writer Michael McCall.
Michael McCall: Is something going on in Nashville that wasn’t happening a few years ago?
Bill Lloyd: To me, there is definitely something going on right now. I remember feeling this way a few years ago when The Bis-quits and King Bub were playing around. But then they were among the few pop bands. Now it seems like there are a lot of really good pop bands. It is a scene.
Steve Allen: I agree. I moved here about six years ago, and I don’t even know if [Powers] had a band then or if [Pisapia] had a band.
Sam Powers: We were still in high school. (laughter)
Allen: But Nashville has kind of surprised me. This is a country music town, right? But there seemed to be all this other music going onalternative country, and this pop music thing. I think it’s a unique situation.
Joe Pisapia: We’ve been here about four years. The first time we came, we saw Ross Rice and Brad Jones play within a week. I thought, man, this is amazing. This is just a sampling of what must be going on here. Then we found out it isn’t like that all the time. But maybe we all had a vision that it could be. So we’ve all been plugging away.
McCall: And you’ve seen a change?
Pisapia: Definitely. Now, when I go back to New York, I hear, ‘Man, what’s going on in Nashville?’ They’ve heard about it. I recently saw a buddy who lives out in San Francisco, and he said he heard Nashville was the place.
Powers: What seems to make it different here has a lot to do with what Nashville is about. I mean, Nashville is guitar town. Even though it’s not known for pop music, it is known for good songs.
McCall: So you think the city’s music business influences what’s happening on the pop scene?
Powers: I think there are a lot of good songwriters here, and it makes you competitive. It’s a productive influence rather than negative. You feel like you’ve got to have original songs, and they’ve got to be good.
Lloyd: I’ve always thought that the quality of players and writers in this town, even if it’s not in the genre you’re in, can be staggering when you start to realize how deep it is. Just go to any session and see how quickly they can put a track together. To me, you don’t have to go for that kind of speed or that kind of finesse, but that sort of work ethic can’t help but raise the bar a little bit.
Jason Wilkins: And there’s that subtle competition for the Nashville Music Awards or an Extravaganza spot. It’s not that you’re hoping somebody doesn’t make it, but it’s a positive kind of competition that makes you want to be better. If you go out and see a band as good as Joe, Marc’s Brother, or if you see Who Hit John for the first time, it’s going to inspire you. If you go to another town, you might see one good band on a bill. Here there are so many. I think that’s why it’s so hard for live bands here.
Doug Powell: It is hard, because there’s so much good music every night.
Allen: Any music city is hard. It’s the same in L.A. There are so many huge acts playing that it’s hard to get people out to see new bands. But it can get to the point where there are a lot of good, new bands and all of a sudden more people do start to go out. Hopefully, that can happen here.
Powell: Steve and I moved here from L.A. about the same time, and the difference between L.A. and here is that, here, there seems to be a real camaraderie among musicians. They’re rooting for each other. In L.A., there was no camaraderie. It all seemed very abrasive, and [there was] a lot of stabbing in the back.
McCall: In the last couple of years, there seems to be a concerted effort among this genre of bands to join forces and build a scene that might draw crowds. Joe, Marc’s Brother, Who Hit John, Shazam, Betty Rocker, and others all like to get together and double up on bills and introduce audiences to each other.
Lee Swartz: The idea is to be a little more incestuous, then we avoid that spreading out of what crowd there is. The more people get together and get to know each other, the better it is. It makes sense. It’s practical and good for business.
Wilkins: I think the drawback here is that we don’t have that one club where everyone goes or something interesting happens every night. We tried to do that with Victor/Victoria’s, to create an atmosphere that was conducive to building a local scene. Victor’s was just starting to happen, then it burned down.
Lloyd: That’s a pretty good metaphor for the Nashville rock scene.
Allen: But I think the idea of a scene can work. Look at Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival and what it’s done for alternative country in this town. People know it’s going to be a good show, and they show up, even though it’s on a Tuesday night. Maybe there should be a semi-monthly thing like that for pop bands.
Swartz: Maybe the pop festival we’re planning will ignite some kind of regular thing.
Powers: When we started trying to get out, we found out real fast that we couldn’t play anywhere. We’d go to clubs, and they’d say, ‘No one knows who you are so we can’t book you.’ But how can someone know who you are if they don’t start to book you? We eventually met some other bands and got them to let us open up for them. Then, whenever we’d play, we’d make as many flyers as we could and stick them up everywhere. We did that for months and months, and eventually people started to know our name.
McCall: Your flyers were everywhere! I thought you guys must be the busiest band in town.
Powers: It was guerrilla marketing. We all five decided we were in it for the long run and we were sticking to it. It really changed for us once we started opening for Joe, Marc’s Brother, actually.
McCall: Doug, you took a different approach. Instead of going out live and building a following through clubs, you worked in the studio on tapes until you got a record deal.
Powell: I guess I was on my third label before I actually got out and started playing. I came in the back door.
McCall: Has Nashville been a good place for that?
Powell: It runs hot and cold. The cold part was getting into clubs at first, like Sam was talking about. Then even when you get in, it’s still ridiculous. I had one show where two people paid and two people were on the guest list. And sometimes one of the bad parts is there’s a real clock-in, clock-out mentality among some musicians. It takes all the soul out of it, especially when you see people benefit from that attitude.
Allen: I came here because I wanted to live in a nicer city. Nashville is like going back to Oklahoma for me. There are seasons, and it’s a mid-sized city.
Powell: ...with the exception that you can actually talk about songwriting with somebody, instead of being a freak. At least that’s how I felt when I was in Oklahoma.
Allen: There does seem to be a lot more respect here for people that are in the music business, on any level. No one judges you really harshly on that. In L.A., if you weren’t the flavor of the month, or if you didn’t have the right tattoo, you weren’t happening. People in this town know that anyone, old or young, new or experienced, might write a hit song tomorrow.
Powers: But when I go out of town, and I tell people I work in the country-music business but I play in a rock ’n’ roll band, they say, ‘What?’ People don’t know that more than country music happens here.
Pisapia: My experience here has been kind of mixed too. When we moved here, we thought it was nirvana. Then, a couple days after that.... (laughter) But we’re glad we’re here. It’s a lot more livable and reasonable on a financial level. We don’t have to live in the East Village and eat tuna with no mayonnaise, or go up five flights of stairs with one drum at a time. We actually can live in a house with a yard.
You spend a lot of time being patient, waiting for that magic moment, but in the meantime we can focus more on music here. We’re not spending so much time focusing on trying to make a living, like we would in New York. And, I mean, there are more guitar players per capita here than anyplace in the world! You can’t help but get better. I’ve never seen so much talent here, and hardly anybody knows about it. All these people are here and they’re constantly playing and writing and scheming to break out, but nobody knows about us. Once in a while someone breaks out, and it’s like, ‘Go! Go tell ’em!’ ”
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