Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Nashville Curse: Don't Call It a Curse

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2008 at 3:59 PM

click to enlarge CURSE.jpg

If you've toiled in Nashville's rock scene for any amount of time, you've no doubt heard of the dreaded Nashville Curse. After Jason and the Nashville Scorchers were pressured to drop "Nashville" from their moniker to hit it big in the '80s, the skies darkened and Hank Williams, Sr. wept, dooming all Nashville rock acts to sell less than a million records.

For decades since that dark day, many locals have believed that we'll always be wedded to the outside perception that Nashville can only do twang. Or that we're so infected by Music Row's polish that we're too busy looking at the bottom line to really focus on being bona fide artists. Or perhaps we're not influenced enough by formula and cliche, and our rock acts, no matter how talented, still can't pull a hot-shit hit out of their asses. Or maybe the problem is Nashville audiences, who've cursed our locals and touring bands with our indifference.

But Paramore just got certified platinum for last year's Riot!, and some people say that's proof positive the tide is a-turnin'. Or is it proof of the old adage that you should be careful what you wish for? After all, if we all want a rock band from Nashville to put us on the map, do we care which rock band it is?

I just got back from my first NBN panel, "The Nashville Curse," held at the Musicians Hall of Fame. It's a tricky subject, because behind it lies a whole lot of uncomfortable truths about what it's like to make music here.

Moderated by NBN co-founder Jason Moon Wilkins, the panel—hosted by local entertainment lawyer Kent Marcus (who reps the Kings of Leon and American Bang, among others), Steve Robertson (Atlantic), artists Bobby Bare Jr. and Matt Friction and A&R reps Kim Stephens (Capitol) and Kim Buie (Lost Highway)—tackled the issue as honestly as an hour would allow to a crowd about 50 thick. (With nearly a dozen ladies, and that's about 10 more than I expected.)

Initially, most everyone on the panel said they'd never experienced any bias at all whatsoever from outsiders about Nashville. Buie remarked she'd never heard about any acts from Nashville downplaying their roots. But we must point out that Lost Highway's roster—Americana/country acts like Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne—benefit enormously from the regional association. So if anything, they'd embrace their Southern roots.

Kent Marcus, who wheels and deals for rock bands, said he'd "never encountered" such bias from heavy-hitters on the coasts. He explained that the Kings of Leon's reluctance to embrace Nashville as their hometown was "more of a personal decision about their identity than a professional one," noting that the boys are originally from Oklahoma City.

But after niceties were exchanged, everyone settled into what more or less amounted to example after example of why Nashville isn't quite where it wants to be. Why don't we have a healthy indie label with distribution on par with Merge or SubPop to cater to the local rock talent? Why don't we have more rock bands coming out of here? If we're so talented, why aren't our local rock bands producing more hits?

"If there is a curse, it's that people in Austin, TX, don't have to answer to SheDaisy and Brooks & Dunn," interjected Bobby Bare Jr., referring to the frustrating country shadow hanging over our heads.

But props for most entertaining speaker on the panel goes to A&R dude Steve Robertson from Atlantic Records, the heaviest hitter present.

"I was extremely prejudiced against Nashville," he said. "All I knew 11 years ago was that Nashville was a country town." But as he got more calls and more demos sent his way, he started checking out bands. He just wasn't getting the vibe. The bands were talented, they were polished. But it didn't "feel hot." Which means, in industry terms, that there was no x-factor. (He admits he was looking for the next Nirvana.)

Who knows, maybe he's found it with Paramore—the most authentic, original rock band he's heard from here. And though he admits the perception away from Nashville as a country town is shifting, "it hasn't changed or exploded, because I haven't heard a massive hit."

There was a lot of cheerleading on the panel about our studios, our talent pool, and how healthy our indie scene is.

But Matt Friction admitted the competition can be a drawback with so many clubs and bands spreading the crowds too thin. "I don't know if it's an actual voodoo curse, or a ghost of Nashville past that trips you and unplugs your cable when you go onstage," he said. But not surprisingly, he wasn't pushing the major label as the answer—here or in any other city.

"The major-label machine has failed a lot of people lately, not just people in Nashville," he said. "You have to find a way to do it without relying on the man," which got a nice smirk from Atlantic's Robertson.

Some panelists felt our strength is how business-savvy we are. Thanks to Belmont and MTSU's recording industry programs, most musicians have a reasonable clue now about publishing and contracts. Not so fast, said Atlantic Records.

"I don't give a shit if they know that stuff," Robertson said. He'd much rather meet an artist who would be a "total freak in their brain."

Of course, it's been in every major label's best interest to keep their artists clueless, so take that comment with one big fat Everclear-sprinkled grain of salt.

Toward the end, Marcus pointed a finger at Nashville, explaining that the Kings of Leon get bashed because they're so successful, so why should they turn around and support their hometown when their hometown hasn't supported them?

Bare interjected at one point about the curse: "It's the audience."

So yeah. Nashville's a country town. It's kind of changing. Real shit prevents us from every truly conquering that stigma. And we suck. But don't call it a curse.

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