The question is, how many people are moving to Nashville every day? On a recent visit to the Tennessee capital, I heard multiple answers to that question, which I hadn’t even asked. One hundred people are moving to Nashville daily, mayor Megan Barry volunteered. No—the real number is 82, an Uber driver told me later. Actually, it’s 90, said a staff person at the chamber of commerce.
So let’s say between 80 and 100—the exact number is probably impossible to know and doesn’t really matter. The larger point is this: Nashville is growing fast. One hundred people a day may not sound like a lot if you live in New York or Los Angeles, but growth of about 36,000 people a year is a big deal in a city with a population of about 680,000, depending on when you read this. Nashville officials expect the city’s population to hit about 2 million—almost triple its current size—by 2040.
There’s also a second point, which is that the current residents of Nashville are urgently self-aware that their city is hot, hot, hot. Everybody in Nashville, it seems, is talking about what’s happening in Nashville.
In fairness, there’s a lot to talk about. Long known primarily as a locus of country music, Nashville has in the past 10 or 15 years become not just one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the country, but also one of the most economically robust. Let’s start with culture: Nashville probably has the country’s most creative and collaborative music scene, with thousands of songwriters and musicians playing a range of musical styles—the idea that Nashville is only about country music has always been a misperception—supported by an infrastructure that includes music publishing, countless clubs and honky-tonks, a booming tourist scene and a pervasive local recognition that Nashville’s music is both a national treasure and a huge economic boon. The city is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, making Nashville—unlike Cooperstown (baseball), Cleveland (rock ’n’ roll) and Canton (football)—one of the few hall of fame locations where the thing being honored actually thrives in the city that’s honoring it.
Nashville is known as Music City, but the label, expansive though it is, actually undersells the city’s cultural offerings. Nashville has two professional sports teams, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators of the NHL, along with a minor league baseball team called, appropriately, the Nashville Sounds. With a 3-13 record, the Titans were weak in 2015, but the Predators advanced deep into the NHL playoffs.
Nashville has a food scene that, at its height if not its breadth, rivals those of New York and San Francisco; foodies could happily spend a couple of weeks eating around Nashville without running out of inventive and surprising restaurants to sample. Nashville’s institutions of high culture, including the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, are impressive for a small city; the Schermerhorn excels by any standard. There is a ballet and an opera and a repertory theater, as well as burgeoning art and fashion scenes. Nashville has one major international research university, Vanderbilt, and a number of regional ones, including Belmont, Fisk, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State, that funnel youth, energy, creativity and labor into the city. Many of these cultural institutions are supported by local families—including the Frists, the Ingrams, the Burchams, the McWhorters and the Turners—whose philanthropy and engagement have made an enormous impact.
All of this is underpinned by a business culture, centered around healthcare and entrepreneurship, that is national in scope but has a huge regional impact; while not as identified with Nashville as the music business, the healthcare industry is the greatest contributor to the Nashville economy. One estimate from the Health Care Council, a trade group, puts the economic impact of the healthcare industry on Nashville at $38 billion, while music generates $10 billion. Right now Nashville has an unemployment rate of about 3.3 percent and a budget surplus; its mean salary increased by more than 5 percent last year.
Culture, work, quality of life—all these things are drawing people to Nashville. Tourism is booming, with plans for 2,500 new hotel rooms to come online in the next several years. Meanwhile, the influx of new residents has helped fuel a vibe of optimism, risk-taking, creativity and confidence—especially because so many of those new residents seem to be young people, who just a few years ago would have gravitated to other, seemingly hipper cities. Nashville has its own distinct identity, but there are moments and places in the city when a visitor might feel like she’s in Brooklyn, New York, or Austin, Texas—say, in Google’s tech hub at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center or at Lyft’s new customer service headquarters or at literary novelist Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore, Parnassus Books.
Nashville is having a perfect-storm moment—in a good way. The question is why. How did a small city, until relatively recently identified with the Grand Ole Opry and not a whole lot else, suddenly become one of the most dynamic cities in the country?
I put this question to a number of people there, and the answer that came back again and again was “collaboration”—a spirit of openness and cooperation between the city’s different constituencies that facilitates essential planning, problem solving and business building. “Nashville is unique in that we all really work together well,” says Stuart McWhorter, a local businessman and investor who just finished a one-year stint heading the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. “We all help each other.” I heard that sentiment echoed in offices all over town. Adds Ralph Schulz, head of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, “I’ve lived in 11 cities, and one of the things I would tell you about this place is the collaboration and the engagement…is really personal here. The friendliness that exists here….”
“One of the unique things about Nashville is that we have a culture of people working together for common goals,” says Hayley Hovious, president of the Health Care Council. “This happens in other cities. But it happens really well here in Nashville.”
Statements like that can sound hokey and hard to credit, but there’s tangible evidence of that collaborative spirit. Most obvious, of course, are the musicians who play and write songs together; as most music fans know, there’s a long-standing and powerful tradition of Nashville musicians writing, recording and performing with each other. But collaboration is also built into the operation of local government. Nashville is part of the 504-square-mile Davidson County, all of which is governed by something called the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. The result of a popular vote in 1962, “Metro” merged duplicative and competing city and county governments and created a 40-member metropolitan council that meets twice monthly. This blend of urban and suburban management reduces government waste; it fuses the interests of suburban and city residents. The result, says Mayor Barry, is that “the suburbs aren’t competing with the urban core.”
A more urgent example of Nashville’s collaborative spirit came in 2010, when the Cumberland River, which runs through the city, overflowed after days of rain and flooded huge swaths of the city; the Gaylord Opryland Resort had 6 feet of water in its lobby. Some 2,500 buildings were damaged; the floodwater inflicted about $2 billion in private property damage. But the city and state, in partnership with the federal government, did a remarkable job of coming back from the flood. Nashville bought damaged homes and turned some flood-vulnerable areas into parks, poured resources into getting businesses reopened quickly and marshaled philanthropy to help those dislocated by the disaster.
“Usually when businesses are incapacitated by a flood, you’ll see 65 percent of them put out of business,” says Schulz. “In Nashville, it was 33 percent. You saw businesses offering use of their facilities to their competitors until they got their legs back underneath them.”
It’s easy to assume that this spirit of collaboration is just part of the fabric of life in a small Southern city, but it actually has specific origins that date at least as far back as 1862, when Nashville was peacefully occupied by Union forces. The Union army used Nashville as a supply hub for its troops throughout the South, which in turn fueled the growth of food distributorships—Nashville’s traveling salesmen would become known
as “drummers” for their ability to drum up business—and publishing, particularly religious publishing. After the war, the rise of black colleges in Nashville, along with the religious publishing business, underpinned the growth of “an almost affluent African American community,” according to Bill Carey, author of a Nashville business history called Fortunes, Fiddles and Fried Chicken. And that African American constituency in turn fueled the rise of another industry that served both whites and blacks: life insurance.
In 1925, one of Nashville’s insurance companies, National Life and Accident Insurance, launched a new venture through which it hoped to promote its products: a radio station called WSM, which stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM experimented with various types of programming, but one format quickly became massively popular: live country music. Radio at the time was dominated by more elite music—classical, opera and big band. But as Carey writes, the millions of Americans who had migrated from the country to the city or from east to west, “still retained an attachment to the culture they had left behind…the music they had played and heard in their childhood, whether it be hillbilly, folk or blues….” In the late 1920s, WSM started calling its country music show the Grand Ole Opry, apparently a play on an NBC radio show called the Grand Old Opera.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Grand Ole Opry—which is still on the air, and is now the longest-running show in radio history—on Nashville’s cultural and economic development. Because it featured only live music, and because it was heard by millions of people nationwide, performers from all around the country came to Nashville to perform on it. Many stayed. And of course the show also supported an infrastructure for local musicians: Nashville’s music venues, music publishing industry and tourism. Nashville became the home of a shockingly large number of America’s finest musicians—not just the country stars like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, for whom the city would become best known, but also Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, who would lead to Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and Randy Travis, and to such modern stars as Taylor Swift, Jack White, Keith Urban, the Black Keys and Kings of Leon. By one estimate there are today a staggering 10,000 musicians and songwriters in Nashville, a melting pot of styles and generations with no firm divisions, no easy labels.
And there was another consequence. The Grand Ole Opry would prove a huge success for National Life and Accident Insurance, which remained an independent force in the local economy until mergers in the 1980s. In the early 1960s National Life loaned $1.2 million to a group of 25 doctors, most notably a cardiologist named Thomas Frist, who went on to found the Hospital Corporation of America. That chain of for-profit hospitals not only became enormously successful in and of itself, but the wealth it generated would fund a healthcare startup community. “You got what became this culture of people who knew each other,” explains the Health Care Council’s Hovious. “And when they would have an idea for a new company, they would say, ‘You know what? Why don’t you go try that and we’ll give you some money to do it.’”
There is another element to Nashville’s success, and that is its political culture. Shaped by its status as a commercial and cultural hub, Nashville has long been a more liberal place than the rest of the state; since the creation of the metro government in 1962, each of Nashville’s seven mayors has been a Democrat. That political continuity has produced consistency in policy making with a mandate for Nashville mayors to focus on the work of city planning—including, in the past couple of decades, renewed investment in the city’s downtown, the construction of a new conference center and the successful wooing of the NFL and NHL.
At the same time, the city’s progressive culture means that it has significantly avoided the economically counterproductive social fights that crop up in the rest of the state. Earlier this year, the Tennessee state legislature was debating a bill that would make the Bible the official state book; a bill that would ban transgender people from using the public restrooms that match their gender identities; and a move to defund the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and use some of its money to purchase “In God We Trust” stickers for police cars.
For their part, Nashville voters handily defeated an English-only referendum in 2009. “We saw that [referendum] as a critical brand killer, a critical negative issue,” says the chamber of commerce’s Ralph Schulz. “The economies that are going to grow are the economies that grow in population, and immigration is a big part of that.”
In May, however, Nashville found itself facing boycotts after governor Bill Haslam signed a bill allowing therapists to reject potential clients based on their “behaviors.”
“We’re only a heartbeat away” from the cultural conservatism that has provoked economic backlashes in other Southern states, says Mayor Barry, who opposed the bill. “But I like to say that Nashville is a warm and welcoming place.”
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in June 2015, Barry, then a councilwoman, performed the first such ceremony in Nashville. She calls it “a pleasure and an honor.”
“But we do have a state with a very conservative statehouse,” she says. “So one of the conscious things I did at the very beginning of my tenure was to make friends with the people in the state [legislature]. It was agreed that we are never going to agree on everything. But we can agree that Nashville is the economic engine that drives the state.”
The kind of growth that Nashville is experiencing brings both benefits and challenges, and Nashville has several of the latter. Homelessness is an issue, especially as housing prices have risen and Nashville’s downtown has become a chic place to live. The median price of a home in the Nashville area recently hit $245,000—not a lot if you live in a big city, but a lot for Nashville. The public schools need improvement. All that delicious food—hot chicken, biscuits with gravy, barbecue—creates health problems, and Nashville isn’t nearly as outdoorsy as, say, Boulder, Colo., or Portland, Ore. (One reason: It’s hot.) Public transportation is minimal, and residents of Nashville can’t stop talking about a relatively new phenomenon: traffic. It’s nothing like Los Angeles, but it’s new to them. The city’s car culture has led to the presence of signs taped on telephone poles around town saying, “Nashville needs sidewalks.” And it’s true—it does.
Growth itself unnerves some longtime residents, who worry that the newcomers won’t internalize all the intangible things that make their city special—particularly that collaborative spirit. “The character of Nashville is a huge thing to its residents,” says Schulz. “They’d rather not grow than lose that character. And it’s not just a small group of people who would say that—everybody says that.”
But city leaders know that Nashville is going to grow, and they think a lot about how to embrace that growth while preserving the city’s distinctive culture and identity. The history of the past several decades would suggest that they are good at planning. And challenges notwithstanding, Nashville’s future is bright. As Schulz puts it, “I have four kids who have lived in 11 different cities, from New York to Colorado. Now, they’re all here. My grandkids are all here. Because opportunity is here. They don’t have to leave Nashville to grow.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.