During the mid-'90s, a row of honky-tonks along the 400 block of Broadway went from being a run-down no-man's land to the coolest place in town. Almost overnight, college students, lawyers, hipsters and the homeless found themselves dancing at bars such as Tootsie's and Robert's Western World, where a young class of traditional country artists were holding court. It's open to debate whether this dynamism hailed the beginning of Nashville's Americana movement or the decline of dive bar culture on Lower Broad, but it was an exciting time either way. Photographer Bill Rouda was there, and his pictorial documentary, Nashville's Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made (Smithsonian Books, 144 pp., $29.95), remembers the brief period when country music's future seemed to lie in its past.
Rouda, who's from North Carolina, was passing through Nashville when a friend introduced him to show biz provocateur Dub Cornett and songwriters R.B. Morris and Lucinda Williams. The group led Rouda to the cheap liquor and sooty neon of Lower Broad, and for the next nine years he was that area's photographer-in-residence. Rouda's black-and-whites from the period make up Nashville's Lower Broad, a book that captures Broadway in transition and documents the bands, songwriters and characters that were filling its bars in the meantime.
Rouda's photographs, many of which are shot with available light, have a gauzy, three-beer-buzz feel that's appropriate given the disheveled yet high-spirited nature of his subject matter. Casual after-hours photographs of singer-songwriter Greg Garing and members of retro-country band BR549, for example, reveal the sense of artistic promise that was tangible on Lower Broad before it was overwhelmed by commercial and civic enterprise.
The problem with Nashville's Lower Broad is that its "you shoulda been there" tone becomes self-serving at times. To hear Rouda and Williams (who writes the book's foreword) tell it, they alone brought downtown Nashville back from the grave: "Now we had a scene," writes Williams. "We had resurrected Lower Broad." MTSU journalism professor David Eason's introduction to the book, on the other hand, provides an engaging and more balanced look at Lower Broad's ebb and flow. He puts the celebrated strip in both a historic and humanistic perspective, and his words frame Rouda's gritty photographs well. "The music has lived on Broadway," Eason writes. "It has been heading for the top and going nowhere, but it touched down there and marked the place and its people."
Rouda takes part in a panel discussion about the history of Lower Broad, 2 p.m. Sept. 18 in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Ford Theater; he'll sign copies of his book at 3:30 p.m. in the museum store.
Paul V. Griffith
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