Nashville, Tenn.’s, songwriting culture has helped shape Music City’s collaborative approach to everything from tourism to real estate to healthcare.Destination 2018: MilwaukeeDestination 2018: New York
On Nashville’s Music Row, a particular kind of soirée routinely interrupts the workday: the No. 1 Party. Often held either in the atriums or on the rooftops of music-biz office buildings, these gatherings celebrate the chart-topping success of individual songs. It’s tradition for such events to be documented by big group photos: The song’s cowriters, the guests of honor, pose front and center with their plaques, flanked by representatives from their publishing companies and the performing-rights organizations that collect their royalties. Also included, of course, are the artist and producer who recorded the composition, as well as managers and executives from the record label. Inevitably, fellow songwriters are also on hand. “You’ll see people at these parties who literally have no stake in the song,” says writer-producer Luke Laird, who’s been honored at numerous such events for hits he’s written for artists such as Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town and Eric Church. “They’re just there to support their friends.”
The culture of professional songwriting is the subject of It All Begins with a Song: The Story of the Nashville Songwriter, an excellent new documentary produced by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, the city’s marketing arm. “Instead of doing a typical tourism sales video, we just told a story,” says Deana Ivey, the NCVC’s chief marketing officer—specifically, the story of what happens behind the scenes in “the largest community of songwriters in the world.”
Nashville’s songwriting culture has become one of the city’s defining strengths and greatest selling points. But, for the often-overlapping Nashville business and social communities, that wasn’t always the case. “They thought that the music industry made us look provincial,” says Janet Miller, CEO of commercial real estate firm Colliers Nashville. For generations, Nashville’s social elite fancied their city “the Athens of the South,” emphasizing its academic institutions and its patronage of the fine arts. A replica of the Greek Parthenon, erected in a city park in 1897, stands as a symbol of those cultural aspirations.
But when the Grand Ole Opry’s radio and television shows found a national audience and helped spawn a local recording scene, Nashville’s deepening association with down-home music threatened to undermine the city’s carefully cultivated image of respectability. Even after the Opryland theme park, which opened in 1972, became a major tourist attraction on the strength of stage shows that paid tribute to country music’s roots, some ambivalence lingered about Nashville becoming known as Music City.
No one was more responsible for changing that attitude than Butch Spyridon, the soft-spoken, peripatetic president of the NCVC. Now in his 27th year in the role, Spyridon intuitively understood what a powerful marketing tool country music could be. So he spearheaded a music-centric branding campaign, seeking input and investment from diverse sectors of the city’s business community. “Vanderbilt has used Nashville’s Music City reputation to promote the university since then, and they didn’t do that before,” recalls Ivey. In the new Nashville, upscale hotels incorporate guitars into their décor, congenial messages from country stars greet travelers over the airport’s public-address system and the gleaming, 2 million-square-foot convention complex downtown is called the Music City Center. First-time visitors to Nashville—and there are more and more of them—will likely never realize that it was not always so. And while those visitors may well know the people who sing Nashville’s songs, it’s the songwriters who lay the foundation of Nashville’s collaborative culture.
“Professional songwriting in Nashville is not what people think it is,” hit-writer Brett James explains. “Most people think that songwriters smoke weed and walk around the streets and hope that inspiration hits. That’s sort of a good way to be a poor songwriter.”
Songwriter Luke Dick has enjoyed success with collaborations that combine preparation and playfulness. “Burning Man,” the hopelessly catchy opening track on Dierks Bentley’s new album The Mountain, is a great example. While wrapping up a writing session at his studio with fellow tunesmith Bobby Pinson, Dick accidentally pressed the space bar on his computer, and a track he’d been tinkering with on his own piped through the speakers. Though there weren’t yet any words, just a melody and rhythmic, nonsense syllables layered over the instruments, Pinson immediately heard potential. First, the two writers tackled the chorus—“I’m a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”— hoping that it would capture what Dick calls “the diametrically opposed things that you want in life, the constant tension of being a human.” Once they’d settled on the concept, says Dick, “Bobby ran away with a verse, then I ran away with a verse. It was a real interplay.” The finished track does indeed capture some of the constant tension of being human—and it’s incredibly catchy.
Songwriters work together, bounce ideas back and forth, and just generally cheer each other on.
As the story shows, in Nashville, songwriters work together, bounce ideas back and forth, and just generally cheer each other on. Cowriting appointments often take on a neighborly quality, since many of them happen in the quaint houses converted into offices along Music Row. Each morning Laird reports to the stone bungalow headquarters of Creative Nation, the publishing and management company he runs with his wife, Beth, and spends an hour or two noodling with lyrics, riffs or programmed beats. “I play like I did when I was a kid in my room,” he says. His hope: to come up with concepts that his cowriters might want to pursue with him once they arrive later in the morning. The casual atmosphere doesn’t hamper productivity. “There’s an unspoken expectation: ‘Yeah, let’s have fun, but let’s leave with something at the end of the day,’” Laird says.
Nashville’s creative class has expanded over the last decade or so, as the city’s boutiques, craft breweries, artisanal cocktail bars, farm-to-table restaurants and coworking spaces attest. Though everyone in Nashville seems to know someone in the music business, many young creatives have no professional connection to that community. But the collaborative, supportive culture of songwriting has infused their work lives.
Real estate investor Christian Paro took notes from East Nashville facilities that rent space to artists and artisans when he began planning the sprawling complex Center 615, which just marked its five-year anniversary. Center 615 offers tenants variable office sizes, shared workspaces, lounges, a meditation room, a nap room, a game room and periodic happy hours. “Some tenants just come 9 to 5 and don’t really interact much, and that’s fine,” Paro says. “And some of them love to interact and wind up doing business with other members, which is great.” Center 615 houses multiple businesses in the same fields, including law, photography and digital marketing. But instead of adopting a territorial stance, the tenants send one another referrals. “That happens all the time,” Paro says.
That culture of collaboration also permeates Nashville’s healthcare industry, which is a lesser-known but hugely important driver of the local economy. Though music is the city’s brand, Colliers’ Miller explains, healthcare is its “wealth creator.” And, when it comes to collaboration, the two industries have more in common than you might imagine. “You’ve got all these hospital companies that are headquartered here in town, and they’re arch competitors: Hospital Corporation of America, Community Health Systems, LifePoint Health,” Miller says. Even so, their Nashville-based executives throw their weight behind such cooperative ventures as the Nashville Health Care Council, the Center for Medical Interoperability and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.
“These are healthcare executives who compete during the day, yet they’re funding, together, the startups of the future,” Miller emphasizes. You might say that it’s part of the constant tension of being human. In Nashville, it works.
Since its founding in 2009 as part of the expansion plan of Warner Music Group, Warner Music Nashville has signed country music power players such as Hunter Hayes and Brett Eldredge. It’s poised to bring 175 new jobs to the city in the next year thanks to a new financial services division. 20 Music Square E., 615.748.8000, warnermusicnashville.com
Dubbing itself a “food business incubator,” Citizen Kitchens is a culinary one-stop shop for local food entrepreneurs by providing access to licensed kitchen space, storage, commercial equipment and sales and business support—for a small fee. A second location is set to open in Nashville in early 2018. 4611 Alabama Ave., citizenkitchens.com
This locally based healthcare innovation fund supports early-stage healthcare companies across the U.S. It has now partnered with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center for an initiative to make Nashville a hub for healthcare entrepreneurs. 604 Gallatin Ave., Suite 211, 615.810.9316, jsf.co
Southern charm meets 1930s Art Deco in this classic Printers Alley hotel. The Music City’s evolution over the past half-century is reflected in Noelle’s emergence as a hub for the New South’s creative community. 200 4th Ave. N., 615.649.5000, noelle-nashville.com
Opened in 2016 in the Gulch, the 224-room Thompson Nashville offers unique local touches like vinyl on loan from Jack White’s Third Man Records, and bespoke jeans that guests can order from Imogene + Willie and have fitted in their rooms. 401 11th Ave. S., nashvillereservations@thompson hotels.com, 615.262.6000, thompsonhotels.com
Housed in the Gray & Dudley Building that was constructed in 1900, 21c is both a 124-room hotel and a 10,500-square-foot contemporary art museum. Guided docent tours of current exhibitions are offered every Wednesday and Friday. 221 2nd Ave. N., 615.610.6400, 21cmuseumhotels.com/nashville
Philip Krajeck, chef/owner of the widely acclaimed Rolf and Daughters, opened this highly anticipated pizza-centric local hangout last April. The menu features a variety of sophisticated takes on classics, such as lamb meatballs and clams, sopressata and fermented potatoes on pizza. 823 Meridian St., 615.610.2595, email@example.com, goodasfolk.com
Offering a simple, fresh menu of contemporary dishes, this Germantown restaurant focuses on changeable, vegetable-based cuisine. With a variety of seafood, an oyster bar and a curated cocktail menu, it’s the perfect place for a dinner for two. If you’d like a more customized experience, there’s a private dining space and elegant event services available. 1200 4th Ave. N., 615.490.8042, henriettared.com
Two master chefs’ vision—a sophisticated, upscale version of the American diner—has become a hub of activity in Nashville. Chef Maneet Chauhan, of Chauhan Ale & Masala House, together with Partner and Executive Chef Brian Riggenbach and Partner and General Manager Mikey Corona have created a menu inspired by a classic diner, giving comfort food an elegant and refined twist. 121A 12th Ave. N., 615.741.9900, firstname.lastname@example.org, mockingbirdnashville.com
If you’re looking to try some real, authentic Nashville cuisine, Prince’s is a must. The historic joint has been around for nearly 100 years, and its signature dish is hot (read spicy) chicken. It’s one of the best meals in town, so don’t miss out on this famed down-home cuisine. 123 Ewing Drive, #3, 615.226.9442, princeshotchicken.com
Since debuting in 2001, the Frist has maintained a top spot in the evolving local visual arts scene. Current and upcoming exhibits include: State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now and Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art. 919 Broadway, email@example.com, 615.244.3340, fristcenter.org
Having been housed in six different venues including the Ryman Auditorium and finally the Grand Ole Opry House, the Opry is an institution of American music that’s going strong after 90 years. See a show or book a backstage tour and prepare to witness a part of history. 2804 Opryland Drive, 800.733.6779, opry.com
Built in the 1840s, the Smith House has been reinvented, and now it’s a private club, cigar bar and live events space catering to high net worth individuals. Though it’s members only (with a $3,300 yearly fee), nonmembers are free to dine in the restaurant. 167 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., 615.254.1277, smithhousenashville.com