'Band on the Brink' Documentary Spotlights Nashville's Struggling Musicians

Investigative web series examines the trials of players through the prism of the New Dylans

Nashville's downtown skyline Credit: Buyenlarge/Archive

Nashville newspaper The Tennessean is shedding some light on the day-to-day struggles of working musicians in Music City, using a folk-rock band of professional songwriters, session players and producers — the New Dylans — as its source material. 

Back in the late-Eighties, the New Dylans were a band on the brink. BBC Radio One and MTV's 120 Minutes devoted a good chunk of airtime to the group's debut EP, which bandmates Jim Reilly and Reese Campbell had recorded with the rhythm section of 10,000 Maniacs. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe was a big fan, too. The band followed the EP's release with two full-length albums and several tours, including gigs with folk-rock heavyweights like the Band and Townes Van Zandt. The New Dylans were buzzworthy and critically adored, but buzz and "best of" lists didn't exactly pay their bills. Faced with the ever-present need to make a living, Reilly and Campbell called in quits in the mid-Nineties, just shy of their band's 10-year anniversary. 

Two decades later, the New Dylans are back. They've got a new rhythm section — drummer Ken Coomer, an original member of Wilco who's since rebranded as a producer for artists like Will Hoge and Sons of Bill, and bass player Chris Autry, an A-list session player who often tours with Jo Dee Messina — as well as a new album. The buzz is the same, with The Tennessean devoting a 30-day blog series to the band's past, present and possible future. The story, though, is different, with Reilly and Campbell — as well as their lineup's new additions — now serving as poster boys for Nashville's class of hardscrabble musicians.  

For the past 16 years, Reilly has supported himself — with various levels of financial success — as a professional songwriter, writing tunes for everyone from Vince Gill to the cast of ABC's Nashville. On paper, it's a great gig. In reality, it's a pressure-packed job with little security and low pay rates, with Reilly hoping to renew his 12-month contract every calendar year. In a city filled with thousands of starry-eyed hopefuls with guitars in their hands and songs in their head, he's an example of someone who's "made it" as a professional songwriter. Still, with publishing companies tightening their budgets and record sales continuing to lag, Reilly is required to "remake" it on an annual basis. 

"As a creator, it's not the perfect environment for creation," he tells The Tennessean. "It's Music City, but it's really Music Business City. There's not a lot of people who've been doing it long who aren't really hollow and bitter, because that's kind of what it makes you."

Later this month, the New Dylans will cap off their Tennessean coverage by screening a new documentary that chronicles their reunion — Band on the Brink: The New Dylans — at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville's art house cinema. The band will play a short set after the showing, too, performing on the same stage that briefly housed the Grand Ole Opry during the 1930s. It's an enviable room to play, filled with nearly a century's worth of history and more than twice the capacity of Nashville venues like the 5 Spot and the High Watt. Still, for the New Dylans, it's just another step on the ladder.