Music Meccas in the New Millennium
When you look at the exhibits in the music museums, you could get the feeling that everything stopped twenty or thirty years ago. Be assured that a visit to these cities is not just one big history lesson though. The country music industry is still based in Nashville and seems to be surviving the transition to digital media better than the pop world for now. Jack White of the White Stripes has added star power to the local rock scene, moving the Raconteurs to town and basing his Third Man Records label and studio in a building downtown. On any given night you could do a full–blown rock band pub crawl in the city's clubs. Only a few non–country acts from here seem to make it past the first album of a major–label deal, but the Kings of Leon finally broke the curse this past decade and then Taylor Swift became a true pop star phenomenon well before her 20th birthday.
Nashville is the off–and–on home of a rotating cast of music legends, plus more than a few aging classic rockers. When a surprise guest shows up on stage at a show, it may well be Peter Frampton, Kid Rock, Robert Plant, or Adrian Belew. As a visitor from Los Angeles said to me in a Nashville rock club one night, "I've seen more great shows in three nights here than I usually do in three months at home. And I barely have to drive!"
Some say there's a musical vibe and a depth of talent in these cities that is hard to top. There is a long history of top rock acts coming to Nashville or Memphis to record with local producers: Led Zeppelin, R.E.M., and U2 for a start. Nashville's Lost Highway label has taken the tradition up a notch, bringing out rootsier new albums from Elvis Costello, Morrissey, and Van Morrison
While Nashville's output often leans to Americana, Memphis is more schizophrenic. It's the home of heavy metal band Saliva, ex boy–band pop star Justin Timberlake, bluesy rockers North Mississippi All Stars, and the rap group Three 6 Mafia.
When I want to hear some real Memphis blues, however, I head to a dive bar in a sketchy neighborhood: Wild Bills. The beers come in 40–ounce bottles and the bands are playing for the love of music, not the money. Last visit I wandered over to the jukebox between sets and got three songs for a dollar, having a tough time choosing from the hundreds of mostly Memphis songs to choose from. When the songs finished the house band ambled on stage and belted out a set of hard–driving blues and soul that would be a treasure in any town. They played like there were 800 of us there, instead of a Sunday night crowd of eight.
Before you hit the local music scene in either city though, go get your education. At least visit the Rock & Soul Museum in Memphis and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. At the former you can walk around with a headset and listen to whole tracks from Robert Johnson at the delta blues section, or hear tracks from the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes at the Stax section. Or Alex Chilton's Box Tops. At Nashville's shrine to country, you check out crazy rhinestone stage costumes and hear samples spanning from the Carter Family to Faith Hill.
But if you can, make time in Memphis for both the Stax Soulsville Museum and Sun Studio. It's an amazing thing to see the humble conditions under which songs that rocked the world came about. Then a trip to Elvis' home of Graceland can be combined with a stop at Al Green's church nearby, where he preaches and sings to the faithful and the curious each Sunday when in town.
After getting schooled, let a local lead you around or pick up the local entertainment rags: Nashville Scene and Metromix or the Memphis Flyer. You're almost sure to catch a great songwriter, a great singer, or a band that will blow you away. It's been said that these two cities have more songwriters and musicians per capita than any in the world. Who knows if you can even measure something like that, but in these two places, music flows through like invisible soup, the pot still getting stirred all the while. Dive in and drink it up.
Editor Tim Leffel spent many years working for RCA Records in Nashville and New York and has spent the past decade back in Music City. He is the author of several travel books and is co–author of Hip–Hop, Inc.: Success Strategies of the Rap Moguls.
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