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Don't call Nashville Music City. It's Country Music City


Nashville is a different city today than it once was. Exponential growth has raised the city's profile. Music City's entertainment scene must continue to represent all genres of music.

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  • Andrea Williams is an opinion columnist for The Tennessean and curator of Black Tennessee Voices.

This weekend, the streets of downtown Nashville will be filled with live music as nearly 100,000 attendees a day attend this year's CMA Fest. The four-day event, organized and hosted by the Country Music Association, is a celebration of country music, its creators and its fans. It is also a reminder that as much as Nashville likes to call itself Music City, it is actually country Music city.

Many people would dispute the merits of this inherent truth. I know this because I heard from them when I suggested the city of Nashville move away from its reliance on the notoriously racist and sexist genre. At the very least, the city should demand greater inclusion from the industry in return for the unprecedented, unfettered platform and support it has provided.

(I also mentioned that CMA Fest has received millions of dollars from Nashville's Event Marketing Fund, which is administered by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. So it's worth nothing that this year's CMA Fest features two Black stages: one curated by Rissi Palmer, artist and host of Apple Radio's “Color Me Country,” the other by Black Opry's Holly G. An additional note: The artists on those stages are not paid for their performances. None of the artists who perform during CMA Fest are paid to do so, but demanding free work in exchange for “exposure” has a larger impact on Black artists whose earning opportunities in the industry are already scarce.)

However, this column is not about the CMA Fest or the millions of dollars that will flow into the Country Music Association – and the city – this weekend. Rather, it is about the money that the city habit and the missed opportunities due to a lack of equal opportunity in Nashville's live music scene.

How Jefferson Street went from being a music metropolis to being irrelevant

It wasn't always this way. From the mid-1930s to the mid-'60s, Nashville's music scene was a far better embodiment of the city's name. That was largely due to Jefferson Street, the main thoroughfare that winds through an area that had been home to black Nashvillians since the years after the Civil War.

In the 20th century, when the freedom of movement of blacks was restricted by so-called “redlining” and racial segregation dictated where blacks could eat, shop and play, Jefferson transformed from a refuge for the newly emancipated into a thriving economic center.

Jefferson venues hosted both established and emerging black artists. Etta James recorded her live album Etta James Rocks the House in Jefferson, while a young Jimi Hendrix honed the skills that would make him an international superstar.

At the same time, Nashville's country music industry was booming, trying to gain a foothold but still lagging far behind R&B and soul in both interest and sales.

But in Nashville, country music had something that these historically black genres lacked: urban support.

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With the goal of speeding up the construction of America's interstate highway system, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956. The law stipulated that the federal government would pay 90% of the cost of highway construction; the states would cover the rest. Local governments were also responsible for dictating where these roads would be paved, providing a convenient and easy justification for the destruction of black neighborhoods across the country.

The rest is, as they say, StoryProfessors at Fisk University and Tennessee State University (then Tennessee A&I) organized a group of black residents into the Interstate 40 Steering Committee, and a subsequent lawsuit against the highway planners nearly made it to the Supreme Court. But despite these valiant efforts, the construction of I-40 destroyed Jefferson Street, the surrounding community, and of course Nashville's black music scene.

Lovenoise co-founder Eric Holt offers a vision for Nashville Black Music

On April 15, Eric Holt, assistant professor of music business at Belmont University, spoke to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Nashville about this very topic. Holt is the co-founder of Lovenoise, a platform designed as an urban alternative to the country (and decidedly white) songwriting sessions at the Bluebird Cafe.

What began as a weekly performance platform for local R&B and hip-hop artists evolved into a showcase for national acts like Nas, Maxwell and India.Arie. Over time, Holt made connections with local venues like Exit/In and Marathon Music Works, but the lack of black-owned music venues always proved to be a barrier to creating a more sustainable urban music scene in Nashville.

When I spoke to Holt this week, he reiterated that view.

“If you think about country music, which supports a large part of the live music industry in Nashville, and look at the consumption rates over the last ten years, [country has] “It was never number one,” says Holt. “It was actually number three or even four. So Nashville pulled off an amazing trick of building a multibillion-dollar business based on something that isn't even consumed on a mass scale.”

“At the same time, the most consumed music is black music – hip-hop and R&B – and we have a legitimate legacy that is as long, if not longer, than the legacy of country music in this city. And we don't profit from it. We don't support it. It kind of doesn't even exist.”

Artists aren't the only Black creatives influenced by Nashville's monolithic music scene. Before the Christmas Day 2020 explosion that destroyed dozens of buildings along Second Street, BB King's Blues Club was one of the few venues in the city that regularly hired Black guitarists, keyboardists and other musicians.

As members of the club's house band, these musicians played a mix of R&B, funk and blues; for tourists and locals alike, they were also the best representation of what one would have heard during Jefferson Street's heyday.

But when BB King's was reduced to rubble and the owners decided not to rebuild it, these musicians lost their jobs – and their financial stability.

“Could you build a Jimi Hendrix-licensed building like you have all these other licensed buildings on Broadway?” Holt asks. “They're all country artists, but the history of our city is not just country. People, I would argue, aren't just coming to hear country. So what if we broadened the scope instead of oversaturating with one thing?”

At this point, it's usually mentioned that black people aren't prohibited from opening their own music venues, that black entrepreneurs can start their own businesses, just like Broadway venue owners have done. I mention this to Holt, anticipating the emails and direct messages I'm sure I'll get from people who have only ever known Music City as Country Music City — and who are quite comfortable with that reality.

Holt agrees, although he notes that his ultimate dream is a black music district similar to the one on Broadway, perhaps built on Jefferson Street. But he refuses to put all the responsibility for (re)creating a black music scene on the shoulders of black people.

“Jefferson Street still has some infrastructure issues because of the city's neglect,” he says. “So if you wanted to build a commercial building in that neighborhood and tap into the corroded water lines, it would cost twice as much as some other neighborhoods. The city could help with that. But it hasn't. Even if you look at certain developments on Broadway, some of the tax breaks that these businesses get aren't extended to the majority-black neighborhoods.”

The debate over state investment in the Jefferson Street district is not new. Shortly after my family moved to the city in 2009, I heard about efforts to revitalize the neighborhood led by Eddie George, the former Tennessee Titan who is now the head football coach at Tennessee State University. Those talks, like others since, eventually reached an impasse.

But Nashville is a different city today. Exponential growth has raised the city's profile—and with it the cost of living and doing business. Although Nashville's most marginalized residents were feeling the squeeze long before this story made national headlines, the problem is now widespread enough that there may be some understanding for those who want to invest in a historically black neighborhood and need some outside help to do so.

And at least there remains a need for Music City's music to represent all styles.

“It wouldn't hurt the city,” says Holt. “It would help the city.”

Andrea Williams is an opinion columnist for The Tennessean and curator of Black Tennessee Voices.