Thursday, August 02, 2007

Stupid Things That Make Me Crazy, Vol. 2, No.1
— Requiem for a Boomtown (1 of 2)

Short-sighted people got no reason to live.
There’s a flipside to every coin; a yin to every yan. It just never seems to fail that when something good happens there’s always someone there to try and piss in the punchbowl.

For all the good things about Nashville that I fell in love with fifteen years ago, there is one particular detractor about the locals here that has gotten so far up my rear end it makes me want to scream about it from the rooftops.

What it is exactly is hard to say. But I can tell you what it’s not; it’s not foresight; it’s not cosmopolitan thinking; it’s not even hyper-conservatism.

It’s small-town-thinking in a city that’s grown way too much to get away with it any longer. I’m sorry Honey, but the ship, ‘small-town/small-mind’ has already sailed; it’s outta here.

Having tasted the Château Haut-Brion of national respect and cultural significance, Nashville can’t go back to drinking Ripple without suffering the hangover that’s sure to follow.

Once the cat’s out, she’s not goin’ back into that bag without a fight, and if she does, she’s gonna to leave you with a few scars that may never heal.

Nashville has taken too many steps forward to start moonwalking now. After years of striving to do the things required to maintain and expand our reputation as a major city, now in some regards, small-mindedness has crept back into the public consciousness.

With all apologies to Randy Newman, it’s short-sighted people that got no reason to live.

It’s stupid, and it makes me crazy.

Meet The New South…
Over the past 20 years, Nashville has come of age. Despite its lack of size, it has become a far more significant city, nationally, than the sleepy Mid-South berg it was in prior years. It is no longer a place whose only true claim-to-fame is the Grand Ole Opry.

Southern cities as a whole have experienced a rebirth since the mid-to-late 80s, but Nashville seems to have led the way as the forerunner of ‘The New South.’

At the start of the 90s, Nashville finally earned its longstanding moniker of Music City, as it ushered in a nearly ten-year-long period in which Country Music dominated Top 40 radio, and for all intents and purposes became ‘Pop Music’ throughout the nation.

That wave of Country domination infused Nashville with an entire series of new growth opportunities. The Health Care and Banking industries, which were already here, expanded their respective corporate footprints. Automobile manufacturers Nissan and GM/Saturn discovered Tennessee, with its ‘Right-to-Work’ status and no State Sales tax as a smart and more-profitable location for new assembly plants, and chose the Greater Nashville area in which to build them.

New homes, new malls, new chain-based retailers streamed into the area. New job opportunities were seemingly everywhere.

The ‘little big-town’ was growing up.

We were a proud part of that early 1990s wave of growth. It was exactly that injection of greater musical prominence that caused me to consider Nashville as an option to relocate my family here from Southern California.

Working as an Art Director for a small Jazz-based label in Los Angeles, I already had a strong connection to a well-established Art Director at MCA Records with whom I had worked previously. He was now designing an entire series of Jazz releases from MCA’s office in Nashville!

It had always been said to me that if you wanted to work in the record biz, you had basically three locale choices: New York, L.A., or Nashville. However ‘Music City’ traditionally meant only Country Music. But all that changed after Garth Brooks exploded upon the scene.

I took the recommendations my Art Director friend provided me on a fact-finding mission to Nashville in the summer of 1991. The results were very positive. I knew that I get could work here and make a better life for my family.

So we took the leap and relocated here from California in January 1992. It turned out that we were a little bit ahead of the pack, as in subsequent years I began to see more and more California, Michigan, New York, and other foreign states’ license plates on the freeway.

The ‘Babelization’ of Nashville had begun, and with it, a fresher, more progressive, more cosmopolitan and less parochial vibe appeared to be flowing along with it.

It was ‘less twang’ and ‘more tang’ in a city that was suddenly the hip place to be. It appeared that the sky was the limit, and I was bursting with pride to be a part of it all.

Musically, the city was alive with all formats, from Jazz to Hip-Hop, all of which dotted the live club and concert scene with amazing regularity. With the Grand-Ole Opry’s former (and apparently now more-relaxed) ‘no-compete’ clause, which made it nearly impossible for major Country acts to play anywhere in the Nashville area except the Opry, for a long time, non-honky-tonk Counrty acts were the minority genre on the local concert scene.

Nashville became a major draw for mid-level, up-and-coming Rock and Alternative acts, and two or three week-long music festivals celebrating these non-traditional formats, such as City Lights, Nashville River Stages, and The NEA Extravaganza were annual events to be savored by music hounds like yours truly.

Every major label had an office here, and new indie labels were springing up like weeds. Every conceivable kind of music was being recorded, produced and mastered in Nashville’s legendary world-class production studios.

From about 1993 to 1999, the musical vibe here was nearly suffocating. I really thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

Nowadays though, it seems as though my new hometown is coming back to earth.

…Same as the Old South
One would have thought and hoped that all those positive changes would have remained a permanent part of the fabric of this city as well as the basis for its continued direction. But among all fashions, popular music is perhaps one of the most fickle.

While Country Music is still strong among Pop listings nationally, it is no longer at the top of the Top 40. Urban began to supplant Country as the genre of choice for a generation of new consumers as early as the turn of the New Millennium. As an unfortunate result, much of the momentum that Nashville had gained the previous ten years began to decline.

But while Country Music is far from all that Nashville has to offer, that fact seems to be somewhat of a secret to the rest of the world; the city has carried that ‘one-trick pony’ label for as long as I can remember.

Ever the butt of cultural jokes in the vast majority of the nation, Nashville has indeed gained respect, but still can’t seem to get over the hump. It’s still better known for Hee-Haw and ‘kissin’ cousins’ than for its world-class Symphony, low cost of living, and positive family-raising environment.

And while I’ve never met a person who came here from somewhere else who didn’t love it, cities are like stocks: it takes a general consensus to make them grow in value across the board. When its stock was ‘up’ in the mid-90s, in addition to the Country explosion, Nashville’s broad base of growth among non-Country genres within the local industry was a huge contributor to its overall role as the ‘new center of the musical universe.’ But that distinction too has eroded considerably in recent years as the city’s stock has gradually ‘slipped.’

Many of the non-Country record labels that opened offices here in the early 90s were nowhere to be found 7-8 years later.

As the steam gradually escaped from the ‘Pop-Country’ bag by the late 90s, the buzz surrounding the city as ‘the place to be’ also began to fade. Like it or not, but it’s still, ‘as goes Country Music, so goes Music City.’

And in keeping with that truism, even some of the city’s leading non-Country Music-related businesses began to take a step back as well. Corporate mergers in the banking and health care industries, once the bread and butter of Nashville’s corporate infrastructure, caused a shift of title from ‘Corporate Headquarters’ to ‘Regional Office’ in local entities based here. Such a shift in corporate sway cost the city jobs as well as the highly coveted ‘Chamber of Commerce’ glamour points associated with the status of the offices themselves.

Additionally, the Auto Industry’s biggest star of the early 90s, Saturn, fell like a meteorite later in the decade. As the newness of the trendy auto line wore thin, sales declined nationally, forcing numerous transfers of General Motors workers to other parts of the country. And with that came the inevitable downsizing of the once-shining new Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee — the initial jewel in the crown of Nashville’s decade-plus-long boomtown experience.

However it’s not been all gloom and doom. In 1999, Dell Computers opened a major regional assembly and fulfillment center in Nashville. And just last year, Nissan Motors USA made the bold step to complete its commitment to Greater Nashville by moving its corporate headquarters to here in Franklin, joining its largest U.S assembly plant already in the area, in nearby Smyrna, TN.

Yeah, but…
Unfortunately, while nice to have, those gains don’t completely make up for the losses the area had already begun to suffer, even before the end of the decade.

Combined with the apparent fallback of Country Music to more of a niche genre, and the accompanying drain of its appeal as a national draw for other industries, in a lot of ways, Nashville was rapidly returning to cowtown status in the eyes of the media and of the nation.

Next: Makin’ Waves
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