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.