In the span of barely a month, two Nashville rock records — Jack White's Lazaretto and The Black Keys' Turn Blue — recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Last fall, Mechanical Bull landed Kings of Leon at No. 2, the same spot their previous album hit its first week out. Both of pop singer Kesha's albums started out in the Top 10, with 2009's Animal at No. 1; "Timber," a song she shares with the rapper Pitbull, ranks among the biggest dance hits of the past year.
But that isn't the point here. It's old news that Nashville is a major rock hub with a rich, varied scene that stretches far beyond the Top 10.
Besides, Nashville already had a deep history of contributing to rock 'n' roll, from the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee and Roy Orbison, to the studio cats who contributed to locally recorded albums that rank among the best in the catalogs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Young, to the city's status as a second home to everyone from Steve Forbert to Leon Russell.
But that isn't the point either. Nashville being a good resting place for aging rockers was old news long before Dan Auerbach and Jack White relocated here.
Instead, this is a story about how, 25 years ago, the Nashville rock scene seemed poised to leap into the American consciousness. The local rock community then was just as vibrant and diverse as today, the bands just as talented and distinct, the music just as strong and worthy of national attention.
But it didn't happen.
To the great consternation of many supporters, even the best of these bands came to realize that their greatest glory would be a stack of five-star reviews, the memories of playing hundreds of best-show-ever club gigs across the country and the broken promises of record labels from New York and Los Angeles.
The dream was still alive in 1989, but the dark clouds hovered. By the time grunge took over the rock leadership role from hair metal, it was clear the crowded Nashville rock pool wasn't going to make the splash everyone had once anticipated.
But with 1989 came the last great attempt at garnering the kind of national attention Nashville now takes for granted. That year, the most storied of the era's rock bands, Jason and the Scorchers, released Thunder and Fire, an underrated album that failed to ignite the critical acclaim of earlier classics. A year later, while touring as the opening act for Bob Dylan, Scorchers drummer Perry Baggs was hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes. Their shot at stardom ended there, though they've since delighted crowds with reunions and periodic tours. That the band fell short of lofty expectations after label bosses convinced them to drop the word "Nashville" from their name spawned what became known as the Nashville Curse — which held that henceforth no Nashville rock band would ever sell a million records. (The curse stood for two decades, until Paramore broke it with Riot! in 2008.)
The same year Thunder and Fire came out, the Questionnaires released their A&M Records debut, Window to the World, produced in Wales by Pat Moran, who had worked with Foreigner and Iggy Pop. The songwriting chops and charisma of singer Tom Littlefield were evident, but other than some MTV airplay for the title song, the record received scant attention. Guitarist Doug Lancio went on to become a top-notch producer (Patty Griffin, Matraca Berg) and has toured with Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt and others. Bassist Chris Feinstein was a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals before a too-early death in 2009.
Rockers Royal Court of China, who combined metal riffs with folk roots — reminiscent of Zeppelin — released Geared & Primed on A&M to a flurry of excited reviews and big-market assurances, but it too faded, and the road took its toll on another band.
Webb Wilder moved from an indie label to Island Records and released the colorful, spirited Hybrid Vigor. Today, the loquacious singer and guitarist might get a reality show on VH1 or A&E. Back then, he attracted a fervid cult following, but his roots-rocking style was falling out of favor as radio transitioned from hair metal to grunge.
On the indie side, Raging Fire had just released the dark, poetic Faith That Love Was Made Of, updating the sound of X and predicting the slow-to-ferocious dynamics of Nirvana. (At South by Southwest in Austin that year, a college DJ from Seattle found out I was from Nashville and pounded me with questions about Raging Fire — his favorite band, he said.)
Meanwhile, the fierce industrial rock of Dessau gained the support of Ministry's Al Jourgensen, who produced the John Elliott-led band's debut, Exercise in Tension. As with Raging Fire, Dessau stirred great respect in some circles. The circles just never grew big enough to acquire a lasting legacy.
Meanwhile, Bill Lloyd, an early leader in Nashville power pop, had found success as part of the contemporary country duo Foster and Lloyd. Some memorable bands struggled on that year, such as Walk the West; some had packed it in, at least at the time, such as Practical Stylists, Shadow 15 and the White Animals.
Looking back, everything seemed in place except timing, record label support and the mysterious big break. At some level, what matters most was how exciting it was to be out, any night of the week, to crowd into Cantrell's, Exit/In or Elliston Square (now The End) to see friends from your community creating rock 'n' roll as vital and distinctive as anything from anywhere else in the world.
Somehow, those glory years still reverberate. For one, a support community of clubs, lawyers, managers, agents, sound engineers, roadies and capable musicians took hold. Would Nashville rock be where it is today without that foundation? One thing is certain: It was a great time to be a rock fan in Nashville — and it has been ever since.
Fuck you Roger Abramson
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