Sometime between Thursday and Saturday, an unsuspecting Nashville rock fan sitting at home will click off the tube or finish a cold one. He’ll get up from the couch, put on his coat, and decide to head to a nightclub. Perhaps this fan will have heard that Collin Wade Monk is playing at 12th & Porter or that Self is scheduled for 328. Or maybe the gang thought they’d head down to Exit/In to see what was brewing. As the fan approaches Elliston Place or crosses Broadway, he’ll wonder what’s causing all the commotion. A fire? A killing? A video shoot? Just where did all these people come from?
Rock fans in Nashville aren’t used to crowds, at least not when so-called local bands are performing. Last year, when the NEAExtravaganza expanded to include the city’s entire rock scene, several clubs filled to capacity, packed with both out-of-town music bizzers and hyped-up locals who came out to support their friends and favorites. There were more people in more clubs at one time than on any other weekend during the year. It was like New Year’s Eve without the funny hats.
The crowds and the excitement generated by last year’s Extravaganza boosted morale for many bands. After years of drought, both music- and crowd-wise, several solid bands suddenly surfaced and showed their best. After that big weekend, the good bands remained; the crowds, however, did not. Other than the excitement generated on Lower Broad, where BR5-49 packed them in year-round, most Nashville bands plugged in and cranked out their best for a smattering of dedicated fans and uninterested drinkers.
“Nashville is the worst,” Jay Joyce of Iodine told me late in 1995. “In the Midwest, people are starving to hear bands. Here hardly anyone comes out, unless you’re on MTV or something. We’re fans of bands we’ve met on the road, in Indianapolis and Dayton and Missouri. They want to come to Nashville to play, and I tell them I can’t imagine a band coming from out of town and making any kind of stand in Nashville unless they have a record out and are getting commercial airplay. It just doesn’t happen.”
With another Extravaganza upon us, it seemed like a good time to talk to Nashville rockers and gauge their feelings about performing in their hometown. Some have spent years here working to get their music heard; others are relatively new. Some focus on gathering momentum through live shows; others concentrate on creating studio tapes in an attempt to gain support from record companies or music publishers. But all are well acquainted with music communities in other cities, either from having lived elsewhere or from traveling the nightclub circuit.
Glen Cummings, guitarist for Stone Deep, comes from Long Island, where he once was a member of the punk-funk band Scatterbrain and the thrash-metal outfit Ludichrist. After years in what he calls the “back-stabbing” club scene around New York, “Nashville is a lot of fun,” he says. “There was nothing fun about music around New York. Everyone’s ready to cut someone’s throat for an opening slot on a nothing show. Everybody here is a little more accepting. The musicians are more supportive of each other, and the sound people and the clubs are a lot more competent, probably because of the industry being here. That makes a big difference.”
But Stone Deep sometimes draws bigger crowds outside of Nashville. The first time the quartet played Toledo, Ohio, more than 600 people showed up, and the band sold more than 100 tapes. “But a lot of towns aren’t any better at all,” Cummings says. “We’ve played to 10 people in some towns, but they’ll be 10 very enthusiastic people.”
Like Iodine, most of the working bands I talked to make more money in other cities. The excitement level also tends to be higher. “Here, you’re usually playing in front of your competition,” says Daniel Lusk of Betty Rocker. “If you’re at the Exit/In, you’ll know everyone there. Everyone’s a guitar player, and they’ll mostly stand back and watch. In Birmingham or Knoxville, it’ll be college students and people who enjoy music. They’re not scared to get up and dance and get in front of the stage.”
Doug Hoekstra shares a similar experience. As far away as Philadelphia or Austin, people fill up the clubs he plays. But when his band put on what he thought was “one of our best shows” at Ace of Clubs recently, only 30 people were there to see it. “It’s been really frustrating,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because you’re always perceived as a local act if you play where you live, or what. I’ve had great write-ups and coverage from all the papers here. But there’s no cause and effect. It’s not like you get a large crowd once and then it dwindles. That would tell you that you’ve failed. They just don’t come out at all.”
Because of this phenomenon, singer Shari Sweet decided to concentrate on playing elsewhere when she formed a new band. Last summer, her quartet drew huge crowds in the Northeast. More recently, they’ve built a strong fan base in Clarksville, Bowling Green and Memphis. “It can be real discouraging to play to hardly anybody,” she says. “We knew we’d do better elsewhere, so that’s what we did.” Now, confident and sharpened by road and studio time, the band is ready to put Nashville back on its schedule. Over the next few months, they’ll perform regularly in local clubs while continuing to work the road.
Jimmy Johnson of Strange Tongues is among those attempting to draw attention through recordings before trying to crack the club scene. “It’s the classic catch-22 situation,” he says. “You have to have a following to play a place like 12th & Porter, but you can’t get a following unless you can get in and play. Also, the audiences tend to go for certain things and not for others. The audience seems to go for more of a mainstream thing, like Jonell Mosser. There’s not a lot of support for things that might be a little different. Go to Murfreesboro and Memphis, and more will show up.”
For Matthew Ryan, the problem stretches beyond crowd size. Ryan, who tends to draw a comparatively sizable following, dislikes club-goers’ aloofness and their tendency to cluster at the bar and talk over the music. “In most towns, people are real supportive of what they see as worthwhile,” he says. “Nashville is a whole different ball of wax. The crowds aren’t sincere music listeners. It takes a lot to get active listeners out. That can be real disconcerting.”
Unfortunately, the larger the percentage of music industry people in the audience, the louder and more distracting the crowd noise tends to be. As an example, Ryan cites his recent experience with the Nashville Entertainment Association at a press event announcing plans for the Extravaganza. He felt privileged to be invited and to be sitting between The Delevantes (“who are just outstanding”) and Sue Medley (“who I’d never heard, and who I thought was really passionate and impressive”). When NEA officials made their speeches, “you could hear a pin drop in that room,” Ryan says. Part of their message was that the Extravaganza was about the music, “but the minute they introduced the first songwriter, there was this roar. Everybody started networking. They didn’t give a damn about the music. If they had any respect for the songwriters....” Ryan pauses, then adds, “What I wanted to say was, ‘Fuck you.’ I hope sometime in their lives they have something they want someone to hear, and whoever it is turns away and starts talking to someone else and ignoring them.”
Johnny Douglas of The Beat Prophets, who has led successful bands in Toronto and Los Angeles, blames the lack of interest in the club scene on the city’s country music focus. “You’ve got this monolithic country music business here,” he says, “and you have this raggedy little cousin that’s rock ’n’ roll. All the infrastructure is about selling country music, not this tattered little devil that’s the rock scene. That’s part of what makes it hard. But if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. The people who tend to play rock ’n’ roll here are doing it because they don’t want to do anything else. It’s like, ‘This is what I do, and I’m not going to stop.’ So the bands that stick around tend to be very passionate about it.”
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