Why East Nashville Was More Hot Than Hip in 2015

With musicians — and developers — flocking to the popular zip code, can the songwriting hotbed sustain its creativity?

Margo Price, the first country artist to be signed to Jack White's Third Man Records, performs at the Basement East in East Nashville. Credit: Emilia Pare

On a chilly evening in early December, the East Nashville skyline was aglow in a bright, periwinkle haze. Not the haze that neighborhood troubadour Todd Snider sang about on one of his many tributes to his side of the Cumberland River, the kind that emanates from a tightly rolled joint smoked next to the local liquor store. On this night, the light came via a massive, multi-story rig from the set of ABC's Nashville, filming an upcoming episode here, in the "hip" part of town. It was the sort of blue glow that's usually reserved for the deep-sea section of aquariums, where kids press their noses against the glass to get a better look at the sharks, leaving snot trails in their wake.

It's appropriate, anyway — lately, East Nashville, and its music scene in particular, has felt more and more like a fishbowl. For the past few years, as Americana has morphed into the new rock & roll and outlets from The New York Times to The Guardian have examined everything from the lure of its coffee shops to its music-making garages, the attention has turned a town into a trend, a place into a verb. Once known as somewhere starving artists flocked for cheap housing and cheaper beer, but feared by tightly-wound suburbanites, it's now a stop for tour buses looking for guys like Avery Barkley, the "dead sexy East Nashville hipster" on Nashville.

It's hard to blame them. There is an undeniable mystique about the place and the people associated with East Nashville (associated, not always inhabiting, being the operative word). In the country/Americana realm, voices like Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Cale Tyson, Andrew Combs, Rayland Baxter, Kelsey Waldon, Caitlin Rose, Joe Fletcher, Michaela Anne and Steelism are some of the dominating names — all coming to represent a sound more enamored by craft than chart-topping, more comfortable with Telecaster slides than synthesizers.

Of course, there are also scores of other artists who work and play in East Nashville just as hard, whether making their own music or playing in the bands of Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. They might not have the spotlight of, say, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who moved here in the early Nineties, but these singer-songwriter-musicians are just as vital.

Comparisons have been made between East Nashville's music scene and a Sixties Greenwich Village — and it's true, there's a rare spirit of collaboration here. Everyone plays on each other's records, goes to one another's shows. When Price, newly signed as Third Man Record's first country artist, held a single release party at local venue the Basement East, she sold it out — to over 400 friends and strangers. Rose joined her onstage for a song; Tyson and Michaela Anne floated in the crowd. Elsewhere, Combs' band on All These Dreams included members of Steelism, who have also contributed to Baxter's songs, an artist who made his first public entrée on Rose's "Shanghai Cigarettes." Subtle folksinger Erin Rae McKaskle can often be spied onstage with Price or Combs, when not supporting her own LP Soon Enough — and she'll happily share local pedal-steel player Brett Resnick with Waldon and Tyson. Nobody is worried anyone will steal trade secrets: they'd rather divulge those secrets to see what they inspire next.

A few years ago, the thought of seeing someone from the traditional Nashville institution on this side of town would have been somewhat ludicrous. The music that people like Price or Combs made was as dangerous as they perceived the now-gentrifying streets to be. But when Kip Moore, Sam Hunt, Ashley Monroe and Charlie Worsham (an East Nashville resident) staged special shows or Number One celebrations this year, they did it on the East Side — it's a way to signal that they, too, didn't care to follow the mainstream genre rules to a T.

For a while, the Cumberland may as well have been the Pacific Ocean. But sparks don't go undiscovered for long. Nashville came, and so did international media coverage, and then hundreds of out-of-state plates, looking to claim a bit of the magic. And maybe an artisan espresso, too.

"When I am in the U.K., and I tell people I am from Nashville, they automatically go, 'I bet you are from East Nashville,'" says Combs. True, he lives in the area, but he doesn't think much of it — his peers are everywhere, not just one part of town. But to the world at large, the type of music Combs makes (songwriter-driven, Americana-laced) and his vintage-kissed appearance can only point to one place: East Nashville, where jeans are stovepipe, not rhinestone-studded.

"Sometimes I hear someone say 'East Nashville' and what they mean to say is 'Americana,'" says Snider, who has been singing songs about the neighborhood since he settled there in the Nineties. "Or they'll say, 'You know, an East Nashville person, like Hayes Carll." Carll, for the record, doesn't even live in Tennessee, and Snider moved out to the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville recently.

East Nashville wasn't always the center of a country counterculture. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to find classic twang or the most interesting original music, you went to Lower Broadway, now the town's tourist mecca where the most common sighting is a bachelorette party singing along to a cover band's version of "Cowboy Casanova." You'll still hear great players, but rarely do they get the chance to play anything they've written themselves for tips.

"One of the differences really, was that Lower Broadway was once really awesome," says Joshua Black Wilkins, a songwriter with a Tom Waits growl and a longtime East Nashville resident. "I played there three days a week. It was all locals. Huge amount of rockabilly, alt-country stuff. Tourists at the time were only going to Opryland," he says of the now shuttered country-music theme park.

Wilkins recalls a shift, once tourists started to demand hearing radio hits. "That drew us in to our neighborhood," he says, "and kept us in." Places like the Slow Bar and the Five Spot, now a shooting location on Nashville, became community pillars.

"East Nashville just felt right," says Price, who has been a staple in the local music community for years, first with her band Buffalo Clover and now solo. "But it seemed to explode really quickly two or three years ago. Everyone was on to the secret."

People like Wilkins came to Nashville for the same reason it enchanted Combs and Price — to be in a place where their country and songwriting idols like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark lived, worked and created. But more to chase a tradition of quality, not ghosts. East Nashville was affordable and it also happened to be where a bulk of their peers landed, but it wasn't shaped to be some sort of outlaw redux with a desire to buck the system. They weren't trying to be contrarian — the industry was just contrarian to them.

"I think we all like to think that some day Music Row might change," says local songwriter Zach Schmidt, who just finished his new album The Day We Lost the War, with help from another East Side steel-player-for-hire, Adam Kurtz. "We all want to believe that the general population will want to swing towards something with more substance other than what is being put out on Top 40 radio. When I first moved here, I met with a particular PRO [performing rights organization] who said that they loved my music and wanted to work with me. Then they told me, 'You could have a great career, if you want to be like John Prine.' I took that as a compliment, but they did not mean it that way. They wanted me to change, to make more money, to write what was popular. Most people around here want nothing to do with Music Row because Music Row wants nothing to do with us."

Lately, though, there's been no shortage of people who are interested in everything East Nashville has to offer — though they might be coming less for the musical community and more for the image they think it projects.

"How long of a shelf life does that have? Is it going to be a Starbucks on every corner soon?"

"The way I see it, there are two kinds of people involved in any scene: the artists and the scenesters," says Aaron Lee Tasjan, a vibrant, narrative songwriter who has toured with Ray Wylie Hubbard and released the excellent new album In the Blazes. "The artists are the ones who bring public attention to the scene in the first place — in this case, that's your Sturgills and Jasons and Margos — they were doing it when nobody cared and doing it because it's who they are and what they believe in. As soon as their music starts crossing over to wider levels of appreciation, that's when the scenesters set up shop. They watch Heartworn Highways one night and figure, 'Hell, I'll just be like Townes or Guy or something. I'll buy this cowboy/cowgirl-looking outfit and sit in a coffee shop with a leather notebook in front of me and 'write lyrics.'"

Heartworn Highways, the classic 1976 songwriter documentary, got a second edition recently, featuring many of today's East Nashville artists, including John McCauley, known primarily for his work in Deer Tick, Nikki Lane, Joshua Hedley and Jonny Fritz (who recently relocated to Los Angeles). McCauley, a criminally underrated writer himself, had found himself part of the community fairly quickly. But that wasn't his goal.

"I didn't move here for the scene," McCauley says. "Honestly, I moved here about seven years ago because of a girl and I basically only stayed because of [producer] Adam Landry. . . I ended up making a lot of friends and enjoying all the music here and now it seems as though I'll never leave, and I'm OK with that. There's nowhere else in the world like Nashville. It is kind of a musician's dream city — parts of it anyway."

"It's where everyone goes to find competent musicians to play your songs," says the blues-tinged Patrick Sweany, who moved to East Nashville in 2008."And you can go out every night and see some of the best music you've ever seen. But now, you're getting rich kids who don't have to work. That contributes to shitty art."

"My most common wording when I introduce someone is, 'Originally from blank, now calling East Nashville home,'" says Derek Hoke, musician and host of the 5 Spot's $2 Tuesdays, a mainstay in the community where great bands from Nashville and beyond share the stage for short sets every week. "Everybody has just moved here."

Wilkins began to notice it too. "Within the first season of Nashville, we'd sit by the back doors and notice people walking in, looking around trying to recognize the place," he says. "At first it was funny. Until all of the sudden, half the crowd was made of people who had never been there before."

There's a clip in the 1996 documentary Hype!, about the commercialism of the Seattle music scene, where Eddie Vedder is talking to the camera about his hometown and its very en vogue aesthetic. "As soon as it starts going through those moneymaking channels," he said, "everything changes." East Nashville hasn't yet reached those grunge proportions, but it's rising fast, and one of its products — honest, songwriter-rooted country and Americana — is proving it not only moves hearts but units. Just look at Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Isbell. But as the brandification of East Nashville and its consuming popularity continues, will new voices even be able to survive?

Terry Rickards, a booker for the Basement East, sums it up this way. "Music Row wants the coolness, and East Nashville wants the recognition," he says. But it's not just Music Row — people are flocking here in droves, driving real estate prices high and fast. Still, Rickards is wary of progress. "How long of a shelf life does that have? Is it going to be a Starbucks on every corner soon? Or will it hold on to whatever it is that made it cool originally?"

It's not easy to hold onto cool when cool comes with a heavy cost — in the past few years, home prices have doubled and tripled. "I think it is a huge crisis for musicians here," says Schmidt. "The idea of wanting to live in a thriving and supportive musical community but not being able to afford it plagues us all. This is 'the cool' place to live, it's no longer the affordable place to live. Independent musicians are moving away or simply being kicked out. The band vans are being replaced with soccer vans and luxury cars."

But while some of these artists might eventually see enough royalties to stay comfortably in the neighborhood, they'd likely be the first to say that the struggling but brilliant songwriter in their group of friends is a lot more important to any scene than a half-a-million-dollar renovated Victorian home with a reclaimed barnwood wall. Or, likewise, that a gritty city soul is more inspiring than a gourmet sandwich shop stuffed with trust fund kids.

As Wilkins puts it, "We don't want to feel like we live in Pleasantville. It's hard to be a creative songwriter in Pleasantville."

"I'm very grateful I was able to buy a house when I did," says McCauley. "Otherwise, I would be priced out of the city by now. I've seen this same shit happen in my hometown of Providence. It seems like these developers come in with literally nothing in mind except completely destroying the music and art scene. It's unstoppable. But so is music and art, which is why they always survive."

In the end, however, much of East Nashville's musical core is happy about the attention — offering praise in particular to ABC's Nashville for how it allows artists to have yet another income stream in an increasingly tough market. And maybe afford those rising rents.

"I honestly really like that Nashville the TV show exists," says McKaskle. "Not only has it continued to employ many friends here as rotating members of the 'house bands,' but it has given a platform for local folks' songs to be featured as well. But maybe what has most importantly stemmed from the show's popularity is a new wave of romanticism of the 'songwriter.'"

Don Gallardo, another local artist who has seen the show help build him a solid following overseas, agrees. "Nashville was only acting on what was going on at the time and still is," says Gallardo, currently touring the new album Hickory. "They chose to have someone as an East Nashville musician because of how many people were getting big or becoming names in the scene. And I can't say anything negative about the show because it really has done a lot for me and my friends."

Maybe it's important to understand that it's not really about the "east," anyway. There are so many talented musicians in Nashville that it would be trivial to categorize them all by neighborhood: from the fuzzed, intellectual punk of PUJOL, to the funk and horn-laced Alanna Royale, to the introspective hip-hop of Mike Floss. Whether or not an artist lives east or west might be moot — it's whether or not they play by the rules set by Music Row that matters. The best make their own, with enough know-how to blend both worlds into something that works for them. Like Combs, who makes independent, fully unique records but has also managed to snag a spot opening for Eric Church. For him, it's about a spirit, not an arbitrary zip code.

"I know people in West Nashville and south of town and Leiper's Fork," he says, "and all are great and creative minds that are inspiring. I always say, 'There is great stuff happening everywhere.'"

Tasjan wrote a song called "E.N.S.A.A.T (East Nashville Song About a Train)" after he moved a few years ago from New York — the trendiness of Americana and the neighborhood itself were getting to him. He wasn't just supposed to live in East Nashville, he was expected to be East Nashville, and it made him laugh. So he wrote a song about it. Because that's what the neighborhood is really about, beyond the influx of condos and industry parties and television characters: it's about the song. And if that stays the goal, says Tasjan, all will be well.

"I'm not trying to discourage anyone," he says. "I'm trying to encourage everyone, to be the best version of themselves they can be and to surprise themselves at every turn and then bring that down to the 5 Spot. We are waiting for you with open arms. Just don't piss on our doormat while wearing a Gram Parsons-style outfit that you know nothing about. Oh, yeah, and if your 'lyric notebook' costs more money than my last oil change, you're also fuckin' up."