Sounds With Substance: East Nashville

Over the past several years, Nashville has been exploding. You already knew it as one of the capitals of music in America, the place with both a deep history in country, and also the site for the big mechanism of mainstream pop-country that’s developed in the past few decades. That’s still there, of course, and it’s still booming. But alongside it, there have been changes afoot. The city is growing rapidly all around. You’ll hear talk of there being somewhere between 80 and 100 people moving to Nashville per day. It’s been posited as one of the havens for those who have been priced out of Los Angeles, New York, or even Austin now. There’s that stereotype of Southern charm and a friendlier pace, and there’s a reality of affordable housing and a cost of living that’s easier to handle than the bigger coastal cities that for so long seemed to be the only places to live as a young artist. These days, cities like LA and New York can feel too untenable if you want to live and work as a musician.

Nashville offers the alternative of East Nashville, a neighborhood that had its own thriving local scene, and has now blown up with the influx of transplants from elsewhere in the country. Like Philadelphia, it’s a place that could’ve once been disregarded as small-time by those in the thick of things in LA or NYC, but is now an undeniable force in underground music scenes. In the span of a few years, East Nashville has proven itself to be one of the new capitals of rock music in America.

Separated from downtown and all of the more traditionally tourist-y areas of Nashville by the Cumberland River, East Nashville parallels Brooklyn in more than just the hipster signifiers people now attach to it. For years, it was off-the-grid, a place people didn’t think about or go to, in the same sense that nobody in New York was looking at north Brooklyn as the place that the next big music scene would situate itself in. This is where the counter-narrative to Music Row germinated and began to thrive. Young musicians began moving into houses together and hosting gigs in their yards, the idea being that each artist booked brought their own thing, their own sound and disposition. It fostered a diverse and extremely tight-knit scene, where musicians came up together, traded ideas, collaborated, started new bands together. At that time, the number of established groups was small. But it was groups like Meemaw—members of which later formed Pujol, Heavy Cream, and Natural Child—and JEFF The Brotherhood who started this thing as kids, and who oversaw it as it flourished into something larger.

These days, there is a ridiculous amount of bands coming out of Nashville. You have the scuzzy grunge of Bully—one of Stereogum’s 50 Best New Bands of 2015, as well as Album Of The Week honorees last June)—and the chunky ’60s vibes of Savoy Motel. One of the current heroes of the Nashville scene is Diarrhea Planet, the band you’ve probably heard about because of their name, but the band you’ll soon be hearing about more because their new album Turn To Gold is one of the year’s best. While the idea was always to encourage diversity in the East Nashville music community, there is often some degree of shared DNA: a lot of these bands are loud and scraggly, drawing on frazzled psych and booze-y garage rock as source material. At the same time, the scene has grown beyond those house shows and the rock bands playing them to encompass a whole different part of town, and any musician who wants to do things their own way outside of the big business version of Nashville’s music industry. By 2016, you’ve got characters like William Tyler, who plays virtuosic instrumental guitar music, or country singers like Margo Price and Nikki Lane, who exemplify a traditional mold that fits alongside Nashville’s DIY circuit better than amongst Nashville’s Top 40 country route.

CREDIT: Fans gather outside Duke’s. Photo by Katie Kauss

This scene outgrew the yards it started in, and started filling rooms in East Nashville’s venues, places like the East Room, or fooBAR, or Queen Ave, a DIY space that holds readings and art shows in addition to gigs. There’s also the Basement East, where Nashville rock luminaries Those Darlins played their farewell show back in February. In addition to that, you have local dive bars like Dino’s, Mickey’s, or Duke’s, where you can also catch several musicians from the local scene DJ’ing on any given night. Of course, there’s The 5 Spot, an old favorite whose stature is more noticeable after being featured on Nashville. These are the sorts of places East Nashville’s artists hang and play in, far removed from the slick signage or, uh, the Hard Rock Cafe of Lower Broadway across the river.

CREDIT: Music fans hang out at fooBAR. Photo by Katie Kauss

Of course, with the quantity and quality of artists that have been coming out of East Nashville in recent years, more people took notice than just those moving there to experience a new town and a new scene. Detroit native Jack White, in his never-ending quest to become the human embodiment of Americana, lives in Nashville now, and moved Third Man Records there in 2009. (Margo Price is actually a Third Man signee, their first country artist.) What’s cool about White or the Black Keys settling in Nashville, though, is they provide a bigger entity (that is also not Music Row) that can lend support to the younger bands in East Nashville, but will also stay out of the way. Artists like Pujol and JEFF The Brotherhood have ties to Third Man, but it pales when you consider the degree to which these groups, and the others they came up with, have remained close as their city’s garnered more and more attention. A lot of those same bands that once played in backyards together now release music through Infinity Cat, JEFF The Brotherhood’s homegrown label on which they foster the same kind of breakneck, raw rock music they play themselves.

In a sense, there’s something out of time with the East Nashville scene. Who would picture a community like this in 2016, a community of up-and-coming artists drinking beer and playing ragged rock music at house parties? Who would picture a band as implausibly-titled as Diarrhea Planet, with as implausible a lineup as having four guitarists, helping dominate a scene with their punk-frenzied take on arena-rock, and then becoming one of the buzzed-about ambassadors of that scene to the rest of the country? With all the changes occurring in Nashville, and East Nashville in particular, the town is already a lot different than when these bands were coming up and playing with—and to—their friends. Yet even with East Nashville becoming one of the big neighborhoods you can talk about in terms of young music scenes in the States, there is an idiosyncratic element to the scene that doesn’t feel like it’s going away. This is a community passionately espousing styles that might be un-hip elsewhere, but playing it in a vital and exciting way, and in a far more concentrated collective than in many other cities. This current generation of Nashville bands feel like they come from their own world, and no matter what sort of scrutiny and hype surrounds Nashville today, these bands still operate only by the rules of that other world they have built.

CREDIT: Diarrhea Planet. Photo by Wilson Lee

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Tags: MHL2016