Let me be the first to admit it: we've had a tumultuous relationship. We've been on again and off again for years, and to be completely honest, there were times I wasn't sure we'd make it. Ours was a whirlwind courtship. I moved to Murfreesboro in 1993 to attend college, and you were the first thing I noticed. I fell in love with you on sight. You were quirky and offbeat, experimental and noisy. You were so high profile and so diverseout every night under myriad disguises at the Chameleon Café, The Boro or Lucy's, and everybody knew your name. For years, night after night, I happily paid my couple of bucks and got high off the noisethe cheapest buzz in town.
But then I got used to you. We all did. We started taking you for granted. There were times that, frankly, we couldn't be bothered with what you were up to. Sure, you were making great music, plugging in and playing anywhere you could to anyone who would listen. You screamed at the top of your lungs, you really poured your hearts out, and we were all but indifferent. Sometimes we stood you up. But come on, we were busy. We had lives to lead, jobs to do and grades to make. And yes, sometimes, we had a roving eyethere were bigger shows, bands from more interesting places, bands that didn't sound like you, and that's what we wanted, that's what we needed, and you got overlooked. We just weren't that into you.
And then there were timesyou really have to be honest here, too, or this will never work between uswhen you put out a stinky product. You got lazy. You decided that if we didn't care, then you didn't care.
But then something happened. I can't pinpoint the precise moment, but something changed. One day, you got really good again. You showed up one night, looking all hot, and people started whispering about you again. And like an old lover we thought we were over until you found somebody new, we started noticing you again. Was it your hair? Had you been working out? Whatever it was, suddenly you were one fine specimen. And you made it cool to like local bands again. Suddenly, your CDs were in our cars again, in heavy rotation right beside national acts. So, um, I'd like it maybe if we could start talking again and, you know, maybe give this another try. I know, I've said it before, but this time I really mean it. Whaddya say? Just don't screw it up this time, OK?
I don't want to rehash the past here, but there was this one conversation we kept having over and over again, and it started getting old. We had it at shows, at parties and at the end of long, beer-stained nights. It went something like this: "If we had just one band, just one big rock band that got huge, the whole country would turn its attention here, and all these great bands around town would start getting noticed. Then Nashville might just be known for something other than country music." You talked about it so much that other people started to notice, too. They even wrote dozens of articles over the years, painstakingly asserting that there's more to you than Broadway bars and tears in your beers. It wasn't enough when we loved you, you said; you wanted the whole world to love you. And it was a fine argument, really; no one's saying it wasn't.
Because, of course, you want to reach the largest possible audience with your music. And yes, a great way to do that is to be part of a viable, nationally known scene. Besides, this is a tough city to draw a regular crowd in, don't think we don't know that. It isn't uncommon for you to play to a room largely comprised of other musicians of the cynical, arms-crossed, chin-scratching variety. Critics often don't make for the most enthusiastic of show-goers. And there are tons of venues and so many of you, and you're out there playing every night. Sometimes too many choices paralyze us. We get a little overwhelmed.
And hell, we thought you were just talking. We didn't think you were serious. This whole business about slaying the country giant sounds a bit laughable, if you think about it, a pipe dream about as likely as recouping a major label advance. Look at what you're up against here. Nashville has been the center of country music for more than 50 years. Even we non-musicians have to convince the outsiders we're not all about the hat acts. Sure, we've got major labels, but they couldn't care less about the rock scene. When Sony signs a band from Nashville, it's Sony New York, not Sony Nashville.
So it's easy for us to say, "Stop waiting for the big payoff already. Stop waiting for some band to come along and break the mold or shine the light on Nashville's rock scene and open the door for you. Just develop your scene. Hone your talent. Sustain yourself. Make art for art's sake. Tour your ass off, get people interested in you because you're good, not because some marketing machine made you look cool. Screw the majors. They're going down anyway, and with a bullet."
But "No," you said. "It's the only shot we've got. It's bound to happen, right? After all, this is 'Music City,' not 'Country Music City.' When people talk about major music towns, Nashville is the 'Third Coast,' right behind New York and L.A. for the largest concentration of labels, studios and the whole music-making machine. We've got a diverse and thriving music community full of talented bands that, at the very least because of their proximity to a higher standard for songwriting, is certifiably better than your average local scene. So why hasn't it happened yet?"
Well, it didsort of. In the mid '80s, country-punks Jason & The Scorchers broke out into the mainstream and became the first local rock band from Nashville to get national attention. They signed to EMI, toured with R.E.M., and came home to headline the Grand Ole Opry. In the mid-to-late '90s, we saw a resurgence of interest in the Middle Tennessee rock scene, when Spongebath Records held court in Murfreesboro and turned heads with a handful of pop and rock acts like Self, The Katies and Fluid Ounces. Known nationwide for MTSU's Recording Industry program, the college town even got the attention of Billboard, which ran a cover story in 1997 on its next-big-thing potential.
But it didn't really pan out. The Katies signed with Elektra, and Self had modest success with their 1995 album Subliminal Plastic Motives. The bands were paraded as big hopefuls, and were thought to surely knock the cowboy hat off Nashville's head. But Spongebath shut down at the end of the decade, The Katies were dropped from Elektra, and Self's studio-whiz Matt Mahaffey moved to L.A. to pursue producing. No one, it seemed, would transcend the "Nashville Curse" again. So you went back to business as usual, but business as usual ended up being the best thing that ever happened to you. You just didn't know it yet.
What you did was you kept playing. You kept writing, and you got better. You got to know each other and forged some productive alliances. You got all grassroots on our asses. As the decade progressed, you decided that if we didn't appreciate you, you'd find someone else who did. You toured, and you came back and told other bands about the band-friendly towns and venues you visited. You booked tours together. You ushered in new bands by giving them opening slots and showing them the ropes. You hustled. You joined MySpace and made a thousand friends, including Tom. You went out there and showed us that you were better than we thought. You went to local producers and engineers and made records. You designed them, you packaged them, you got a barcode and you found a distributor. You started independent labels like Theory 8, Fictitious, Vacant Cage and Heatstroke Records and signed local bands. You made your own videos. You helped get better bands at local venues. When you met with labels, you played them your friends' music.
What you did was you started a new conversation. You finally stopped talking about old bands who almost made it. You started talking about each other.
Don't think we didn't notice. When the Scene wrote about the growing national industry attention attracted by local teen upstarts Be Your Own Petand put their picture on the coverit had been years since the paper had allocated front-page space to a homegrown rock band. NashvilleZine.com, a local rock blog and cyber gathering spot for Nashville's rock community, erupted in a weeklong, 114-comment rage over the coverage. You piled on accusations of credibility, insider connections and good old-fashioned nepotism. Some of you waxed elitist about what makes a local band worth covering, whether BYOP were worth the fuss, and listed a host of talented local acts you considered more deserving of the attention. Others of you expressed excitement about a local band getting major attention, and called the provocative posters to task for not supporting the local scene. Call the responses what you willsour grapes, righteous indignation, plain old jealousybut it was proof of one thing: you were on fire. You were galvanized.
And so it seems you're starting to get what you wanted all along. A handful of you have signed deals with majors or notable indies. After a decade spent gaining a solid draw on the local club circuit, quirky pop group The Features signed to Universal. The Kings of Leon, a Southern rock outfit from Mt. Juliet, signed to RCA and were dubbed "The Southern Strokes." True, you've given them a hard time because they were signed without a local fan base. We understand that. But with a 16-page spread in Rolling Stone, rave reviews from critics here and abroad, and an opening slot on the first leg of U2's world tour, they're the biggest success story to date of Nashville's current crop of rock acts. The Pink Spiders, a local pop punk group, recently signed to Geffen Records and are rumored to be opening up for an upcoming Weezer tour.
You're watching your friends get press in national magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, and European attention in publications like NME and Uncut. Be Your Own Pet recently were listed in Rolling Stone's Top 10 Bands to Watch for this year. Moody rock group Scatter the Ashes signed with Epitaph. Power rock trio Slack have signed with a major indie, Century Media.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list, and it's more than just who's signing with whom. What matters to us is that you've made the scene exciting again. You're making it what it should have always been, a support system, even if that support system is competitive and sometimes ambivalent about its successes. And it's not some happy accident, but the hard-won byproduct of your efforts.
Now that you're all fresh and new to us, you've no doubt noticed that we've started coming around again. Nerd-rockers jetpack recently sold out The End, and De Novo Dahl just released a double album, Cats and Kittens, and sold out the release show they played at the Exit/In to celebrate it. Then Feable Weiner went and upped the ante by showing us a local band on an indie can tour Europe and spread the gospel of rock without major label support.
OK, so we haven't kicked the cowboys to the curb just yet. We're not sure who will be the next Jason & The Scorchers. Relax, that doesn't mean it won't happen. Now is a better time for local rock bands than any in recent memory. And at least you stopped throwing the Scorchers' name aroundyou realize it can't be good for morale. And if it doesn't happen, so what? You're here, and we're here, and the truth is, we need each other. In fact, we might just be stuck with each other. The truth is, we like you better this way, all cocky and sure of yourselves, not giving a flip what we think. So whaddya say? We'd like to have you back. If you'll have us.
Local Bands of the Moment
Most Popular: The Features
Eccentric but accessible, The Features craft a sophisticated collage of idiosyncratic pop with carnival-like organs. After nearly a decade on the local scene, the boys have earned a loyal fan base who sing and clap along at their shows. Once the least promoted act on the Spongebath roster, they've become one of the most successful groups out of Murfreesboro to date, now signed to Universal.
The Wonder Boys: Kings of Leon
The closest thing to an overnight success story, these Southern garage-rockers were signed after a single acoustic performanceand one of their first live showsfor the president of RCA records, and have already opened for U2. OK, so they could be models, but they also could hang out on your porch sipping whiskey and muttering Boomhauer-like adages.
The Most Hyped: Be Your Own Pet
Ah, raw youth. This teen buzz-band carry the torch of the svelte, doe-eyed and endlessly energetic with their raucous punk mayhem. Anyone who underestimates the sexual power of young girls need only look to the center of the BYOP whirlwind, where Jemina Abegg's wild-eyed, sexy-but-I-don't-know-I'm-sexy frenzy onstage is a pretty good explanation for how the likes of the Salem Witch trials happened.
The Wild Card: The Pink Spiders
Drenched in cool, these decadent pop-punkers got together, released the EP The Pink Spiders Are Taking Over!, toured the country, released the full-length Hot Pink, and got signed to Geffen in under two years. Now recording with Ric Ocasek, the Spiders throw down the rock with reckless, beer-swilling abandon, even as they have the foresight to coordinate pink-and-black stage outfits.
The Hustlers: Feable Weiner
A nonstop self-promotional machine, Feable Weiner DIY like their lives depend on it. They're road warriors with an impressive stateside and international touring schedule who never miss an opportunity to promote their infectious pop with seamless harmonies. Songs about attorneys who turn them on and other delightful adolescent musings abound, with lines like, "You said this song was lame and / I said so is your face." Plus, their record Dear Hot Chick is designed like a Trapper Keeper, complete with velcro.
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