As we prepare for the launch of the newest issue of Sports & Entertainment Nashville this Wednesday, it is time to take one last sneak peek preview into its pages. While everyone knows about Nashville’s connection to country music, writer Steve Morley shows us not how Nashville discovered Rock and Roll, but rather how Rock and Roll discovered Nashville.
Morley spoke with longtime Nashville fixture Webb Wilder, among others, about the early days of Rock and Roll in Nashville, and how drastically things have changed since he was first on the scene and how it has made the assent of local bands like Kings of Leon possible.
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 every day 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.
Watch for the rest of the story on how Nashville Rock got Rolling in your mailboxes and Wednesday here on Sports & Entertainment Nashville.