In the current vernacular, at least, Nashville has rocked for decades. In a strictly musical sense, though, it hasn’t always been rocking, due to country music’s dominance and its traditionalist leanings, which made Music City seem an unlikely locale for straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll. Roots-rocker Webb Wilder, a longtime Nashville fixture who launched his career here during the city’s initial, mid-1980s emergence as a recognized rock music hotbed, sums it up: “The larger non-country music world [once] tended to look at Nashville as square despite all the cool stuff, the great songwriters, showmen, and musicians who have lived and passed through here for decades. Now,” he observes, “the music intelligentsia has put out the word that Nashville is really cool, so folks are pouring in here everyday to make the scene.” Wilder, astutely noting the city’s peculiar mixture of cool and conservative, says, “It’s probably the rub of those two things that makes it unique.” Wilder is well aware that he and his ’80s contemporaries helped make inroads for local rock. They had a harder row to hoe, he reckons, than Kings of Leon, the band many consider the floodgate openers for Nashville’s now-vibrant, internationally respected rock scene.
Kings of Leon emerged from the area in the early 2000s to ultimately become one of the most successful rock bands on the planet, with more than 15 million units sold to date. Franklin’s Paramore has also established itself as a top-selling, world-class rock act, while indie-rock avatar Jack White notably established operations here several years ago, followed by noted blues-rockers The Black Keys. In many ways, though, today’s rock explosion is the result of a lengthy fuse lit more than 30 years ago.
Guitarist Warner Hodges remembers when West End hangout Phranks ’n’ Steins outraged locals by attracting a ragtag crew of punk-rock types (including local legends The White Animals), but he asserts that the short-lived venue was a vital breeding ground for young, inexperienced rockers such as himself back in 1980. “That was the only place in town to play original music that I knew of,” says Hodges, who recalls a time when an underfunded, pre-fame R.E.M. played the club and slept on the floor. “And then Phranks ’n’ Steins got closed down [in November of 1980]. I think about it now; there are 30 or 40 little gigs in East Nashville. There just wasn’t any of that, you know?”
Indeed, there were the Exit/In and Cantrell’s, a beloved if primitive club that would host notable young up-and-comers. One such band was Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, a proto-alternative-country outfit that featured Hodges’ high-test guitar antics alongside equally frenetic frontman Jason Ringenberg. The Scorchers, long acclaimed by music journalism’s elite here and abroad, won critical raves with their debut EP, Reckless Country Soul, released in 1982 by a tiny local indie label, Praxis International. The brainchild of music-obsessed Vanderbilt student Jack Emerson, Praxis evolved into a management company specializing in rock acts along with partners Andy McLenon and Kay Clary. Emerson—a highly regarded business visionary who left a looming legacy when he passed in 2003—soon secured an EMI Records deal for the Scorchers, who would transmit an internationally heeded all-points bulletin that Music City was more than it might seem. Regrettably, they had to drop “Nashville” from their name to allay EMI’s then-legitimate fears that they’d be misinterpreted as a country act. Says Warner Hodges, “One of the stupidest things we ever did was drop that name. We thought it might be a deal-breaker.”
Longtime Nashville entertainment attorney/artist manager Ken Levitan, whose Vector Management more recently played a big role in launching Kings of Leon, affirms that the Scorchers and their counterparts, under Praxis’ savvy guidance, “broke down a lot of walls. They made [industry] people realize that Nashville wasn’t just Hee Haw,” says Levitan, who attended Vanderbilt in the late ’70s and watched rock ’n’ roll take root in the city. “People were coming here [to sign bands].”
Praxis’s breakthrough act, The Georgia Satellites, was signed to Elektra as the result of a Nashville showcase the company had arranged. The Atlanta-based group had built a fervent Nashville following, thanks in part to heavy airplay on Vanderbilt’s student-run WRVU. Major-label A&R execs pressed inside the dank, crowded Cantrell’s for, as Praxis alum Clary recalls, “a sold-out show, people singing along . . . a moment to remember. Several offers were made,” says Clary of the 1986 showcase, adding that the Satellites’ insouciantly rocking “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” became a No. 2 pop hit later that year. “That was kind of an out-of-control, Clydesdale-horses-racing-down-the-road [time],” Clary says. “Very exciting, but all new to us.”
Clary remembers that at one point, Praxis had six or seven bands on six or seven labels. But it hadn’t been an easy ride. “Perception of the city was so skewed toward country music that it was kind of hard to overcome,” explains Clary of the team’s early efforts. “But I think we used it as almost a fulcrum, an asset. We were always cocky and confident about how cool it was to have a rock label out of Nashville. And the fact that it was unique just helped us stand out,” she says, noting that the music press in New York, L.A. and London were “the first to get it. They were familiar with what was cool about Nashville, and all the great music that had come out of the city.”
Even after Music City gained widespread respect for its rock contingent (with the U.K. in particular providing important media support and highly receptive audiences for acts still unproven stateside), a degree of American bias would continue to hamper the progress of Nashville-based rock bands who followed. Matt Pelham, frontman for The Features, recalls experiencing that bias in the 1990s, when the band was determinedly building a career from nearby Murfreesboro. “In every interview I did, it was, ‘Isn’t Nashville just country music?’ It was just that stereotype on Nashville,” Pelham says. “[Nashville] was just so heavy with country that no one wanted to pay any attention to what was happening underneath that.” The Features signed with Murfreesboro’s Spongebath Records, an indie-rock label that helped the outlying Nashville suburb to get hailed by Billboard magazine as “an emerging music mecca” in a 1997 cover story. “The rock scene that was happening in Murfreesboro, with bands like Self, The Katies, Glossary . . . I think that a lot of what happened in Nashville, the early stages of it, Murfreesboro had a big hand in that.”
The bands Pelham mentions, as well as his own, aren’t currently household names, though all are, or were, respected acts that helped keep greater Nashville on the radar of tastemakers on both sides of the Atlantic in the ’90s. Glossary has since brought its soulful Southern pop-rock to NBC’s Last Call With Carson Daly, while The Features’ body of inventive modern rock includes “How It Starts,” recently heard on a Ford Mustang commercial. The now-21-year-old group happens to be a favorite band of Kings of Leon, whose Serpents & Snakes record label was reportedly created for them. The company has since signed other local and regional bands.
“During the period that I’ve been in a band,” says Pelham, “I felt that it was really, really hard to come from Nashville, or the South, and [Kings of Leon] opened the door for all the bands that are coming through now. And I think they’ve helped the overall scene. They’ve tried to help the younger bands in Nashville,” Pelham says. Similarly, Jack White and The Black Keys are producing, releasing records on and otherwise championing local acts, integrating themselves into the music community. Kay Clary is among those who feel that White’s presence is especially notable. “The attention he’s brought to the city has helped bring a lot of bands to town,” she says. “It just continues to snowball.”
This rush of attention could leave a bittersweet taste for local rock veterans, who had no such high-profile advocates. Many, though, remain active, including Webb Wilder and Jason & the Scorchers, who reappear at intervals with albums that potently revisit their first-wave alternative-country pedigree. Scorchers guitarist Warner Hodges and former Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird invoke their former bands’ rootsy and rocking Southern spirit in two bands: Homemade Sin and The Bluefields, who—like the Scorchers—still enjoy critical cachet in the U.S., the U.K. and beyond.
While Nashville has heightened its profile as a rock center, Hodges says, “I don’t think anything’s different—our little secret got out, man. People realized Nashville is a great town, a wonderful place to work out of. You’ve got all the machinery of the business here,” he says. “For years, the Donna Summers, the Peter Framptons, the Steve Winwoods worked out of here. And as Dan [Baird] says, it’s the only place in the world where you can go to the bank, as a musician, and get a home loan. Try doing that in Atlanta.”
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