For years, big labels were the gatekeepers in Tennessee's capital city. They had the keys to the recording studios and the funds to push singles out to the radio. But in the shadow of the country-music empire, DIY artists have been rising up to find their own voice. "If bands are willing to put the effort forward now, they can make the money themselves," says Jeremy Ferguson, founder of Nashville's Battle Tapes recording. "You don't have to rely on some dick in a fucking suit who's going to tell you what to do."
Beyond Music Row and the Honky Tonk Highway, underground musicians are building their own scene – and it's one that spurns the traditional studio system. "A lot of [the Nashville mentality] is anti-establishment," says Olivia Scibelli, lead singer of Idle Bloom, a band currently writing its second full-length album from Scibelli's East Nashville basement. "It's kind of about taking out the middleman."
Nashville today is a Petri dish of creativity where young artists are gathering wherever they can and booking shows in house venues that pop up in gentrifying neighborhoods. They're recording albums themselves or with independent producers like Ferguson, who started mixing records in his basement before building a garage studio in his backyard. And they're organizing into an underground scene that's starting to look like a rock revolution that could one day dethrone country twang as Nashville's most famous sound.
One of the launchpads of the movement is DRKMTTR, an all-ages house party of a venue west of downtown that's set in an old barbershop and flanked by clapboard houses. The volunteer-run venue has been shut down for fire-code violations in the past, and to the young fans showing up with coolers of beer, it can seem like nobody's in charge. That's the charm.
On most nights of the week, people drink from cans in the backyard and lounge around on old couches until the band strums its first chords. Then they crowd into the 100-person capacity venue, prepared to be surprised.
Scibelli helps run DRKMTTR, and Idle Bloom has played there in the past, but during a recent rehearsal session, the band's four members crowd into a windowless room alongside their abused equipment. Bedsheets and worn carpeting along the walls and floor lend bare acoustic treatment, and the music stops cold when a wonky cable craps out. "Real life: We have shitty gear," says Scibelli. But then everything's working again, and the band launches into the kind of thunderous melody that draws comparisons to the Breeders and Get Up Kids, with hot-blooded riffs that dance over distorted fuzz to evoke Explosions in the Sky.
"Our scene is definitely more raw," says Scibelli, comparing bands like hers to the country-driven major label system. "But everyone has their own studio or DIY recording setup. It's pretty great."
That Idle Bloom has a scene at all owes some gratitude to the high-profile acts that have given Nashville a shot of rock credibility. Kings of Leon formed in Nashville, while Jack White and the Black Keys are two of the city's high-profile transplants. Collectively they've helped break the "Nashville curse," the old idea that Nashville rock bands couldn't connect with a national audience. "The first several bands that got signed out of Nashville – giant contracts – their albums tanked and they were dropped," says Todd Ohlhauser, who owns Cannery Ballroom, Mercy Lounge and High Watt, three interconnected venues that cater to a rock audience. "If you were a band here and you got signed, you didn't tell anybody you were from Nashville."
Ohlhauser finds it easier to book rock acts today than it was a decade ago since there are simply more to choose from. But years back, it was borderline treasonous for local musicians to dabble with grittier sounds. "Once they switched over to rock music, they were almost blacklisted in the Seventies and some of the Eighties," says Ferguson. "It was always kind of like a keep-it-a-country town."
Along with the new wave of egalitarian music sensibility, musicians of all stripes are migrating to Nashville to tap resources they can't find as easily in New York or elsewhere, such as cheap recording and pop-up house venues. The guy changing your oil at Jiffy Lube might play guitar better than the band you listened to on the radio on the drive there.
"The caliber of people that this city attracts makes everything more competitive in a friendly way," says Grant Gustafson, who sings and plays baritone guitar for Blank Range, a band that started with house shows before graduating to opening slots with Spoon and Drive-By Truckers. And without label execs to answer to, musicians can swing with impunity. "There is an Americana country scene, and there's a rock scene," Gustafson says. "All the people in both of those play in each other's bands and go to each other's shows, so it all kind of boils together."
And that's where underground rock might save Nashville from becoming a honky tonk novelty. It's putting the emphasis back on what the city has always valued: the song, regardless of genre. "There's a great punk-rock scene here, a great Americana scene, a great indie scene, and a great pop scene," says Ohlhauser. "But if there's one thing that defines the [Nashville sound], it's that bands here have really good songs."
It's the tradition of Loretta Lynn or Kris Kristofferson, Nashville greats who fused poetry with melody. What the underground musicians are realizing is that they don't need a major label to help them do that. In fact, they might be better off without one.