If you were to peel back the historical layers of Nashville, Tenn., the person at the core is very likely a woman named Lula Clay Naff. As a 30-year-old widow and mother, Naff moved to Nashville in 1904 from a small town called Fall Branch and took a job as a secretary at the newly named Ryman Auditorium (formerly the Union Gospel Tabernacle). Over the next 50 years, Naff accomplished what contemporaries with more money, education, land and voting rights, were failing to do: she brought people to Nashville. By bringing in live entertainment such as Charlie Chaplin, John Philip Sousa, Marian Anderson and the Grand Ole Opry, Naff transformed the Ryman Auditorium into a cultural beacon. The Ryman stoked a creative fire in the city that drew singers and song-writers from all over the South, then the rest of the country, and eventually the world.
Lula Naff died in 1960, but her spirit lives on in the music and culture of Nashville. Most of all, you can find it in the women of Nashville who carry on this city’s epic musical tradition.
Sarah Trahern grew up in Illinois, but in her childhood bedroom she transported herself to the pastures of Van Lear, Ky., belting Loretta Lynn songs into her hairbrush like all the famous stars she watched on the Country Music Awards. Today, Trahern runs the show: She’s been at the helm of the CMA’s 70-member board and charitable foundation as chief executive since 2013. It’s a remarkable vantage point. “I was driving home Saturday afternoon just feeling how lucky I am that I get to help spread the word of country music around the world,” she said recently.
Trahern moved to Nashville for a job with TNN, and later attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University. She studied business, but her love of music kept her in town after graduation, and she found success in country music television. Today, her imperative is to expand country music’s international audience in far-flung places such as the U.K., Germany, Norway and Australia, where the music is growing in popularity thanks to the Internet and live event broadcasting. “We’re exporting the music and importing the tourists,” Trahern says. Under her leadership, the week-long CMA Fest, held in June, has become a flagship Nashville event, attracting visitors from all 50 states and tourists from 36 countries.
I’M REALLY PROUD OF NASHVILLE BUSINESS, AND THE MUSIC BUSINESS IN PARTICULAR.
The achievement she may be most proud of came in 2010, when Trahern, working for the cable network Great American Country, partnered with Ryman and the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. on a music telethon that raised millions of dollars for victims of that year’s disastrous Nashville flood. “Normally, you’re making the calls and hoping certain talent will be able to do it,” Trahern says. “In this case, artists were the ones calling me saying, ‘I want in.’
“I’m really proud of Nashville business, and the music business in particular,” Trahern says. “For being some of the first to step up for things that have nothing to do with promoting music, but just doing the right thing for people.”
Most of the time, after Jessi Alexander drops her daughter off at school and drives to her office, she’s wondering something like, Oh my God, what would Kris Kristofferson say? Sometimes it’s a song that’s needling her. “This morning, I listened to ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes,’ by Keith Whitley,” she says. “I’ve heard it a hundred times, but it buckled me. It’s just perfectly written.”
Nashville is one of the only cities where the songwriting is actually a (relatively) conventional business. Alexander, one of the city’s most successful songwriters, sits in an air-conditioned office building cranking out melodies, lyrics and, sometimes, fully formed songs. For people like her, the muse does not just randomly strike; it works 9 to 5.
Right now, Alexander is in a Blake Shelton state of mind—the country star just finished recording an album and she’s hoping some of her songs make the cut. “We’ll get tips from, say, the Kenny Chesney camp like, ‘We’re not looking for any beach songs, we’re looking for a show opener,’” she says about the process. “Blake and I are so close that he’ll send me song ideas or topics via text.”
Alexander came to Nashville from Jackson, Tenn., in 2005 to be a singer, but gradually shifted her focus to songwriting, especially after scoring a Grammy nomination for “The Climb,” with Miley Cyrus in 2009. In those early days, Alexander’s roots were her sounding board. “My job is to hit the pulse of some feeling,” she says. “So I think, Would people in west Tennessee, where I’m from, get this song? Does this resonate to those moms or those truck drivers or those teachers?”
Alexander’s passion for music started early. When she was 10, her guitar and piano lessons blossomed into AC/DC and Led Zeppelin fandom. “I knew who Hank Williams was, all the outlaws,” she says. The craft of songwriting was a harder riddle to solve. Alexander grew obsessed with songwriters who had an economy of language. Songs by traditionalists like Harlan Howard, Bob McDill and Bobby Braddock drew her to the style of classic country.
Alexander’s foundation in outlaw country and southern rock made it easier for her to write from a male perspective. “I’d been hitting a wall trying to write female songs,” she says. “Then I was getting all these ‘men songs’ getting cut. It empowered me to think that I can do what I set my mind to do. Wherever there’s a fence, I’ll make a gate.”
Usually when she gets “female song” ideas or titles, Alexander sets them aside—it’s not what she’s known for. But this year, Alexander is rediscovering them with a plan to release these songs as her first solo album. “It’s just another bookmark in my story,” she says excitedly. “My kids can say, ‘There’s Mom. There’s that record.’”
Trisha Yearwood moved to “the big city”—Nashville—from her town of Monticello, Ga. (population 2,500) in 1985. “I was a young girl who wanted to finish college and pursue my dreams of being an artist,” Yearwood says. “But I was also pretty scared and didn’t know anyone.”
She found solace taking long walks around Radnor Lake, getting to know the city on her terms. “What I learned pretty quickly was that even though this is a big city, it has a small-town feel.”
Yearwood would start her career in the music industry as a record company intern, then as a background singer recording her own demos, before eventually becoming a hugely successful artist in her own right, selling some 15 million albums. But today she’s also focused on her successful Food Network program, Trisha’s Southern Kitchen, writing best-selling cookbooks or touring with her husband, Garth Brooks. Through the show, Yearwood likes showing off her hometown. “Nashville is such a wonderful, thriving, growing city,” she says. “What sets us apart from other large cities is that sense of community. We’ve grown, but we’re still friendly, welcoming and want you to be a part of our town.”
Yearwood’s latest album, Let’s Be Frank, contains versions of songs by Frank Sinatra. The one original song on the album, “For the Last Time,” is a rare songwriting duet between Yearwood and Brooks. “In the past, it was easier to sing about heartbreak and loss because all of the happy love songs just didn’t feel real to me,” Yearwood says. “What makes ‘For the Last Time’ resonate is acknowledging the past, the mistakes, and then understanding that this is why those things never worked out, because this is where I was supposed to be. I sound like a sappy, happy woman, which I am.”
CeCe Winans’ voice has saved lives. She knows because people have told her so. “I’ve had great blessings in people saying they were going to commit suicide, heard my music and decided to give life another try,” Winans explains.
Since her upbringing in Detroit, Winans always felt that she was put on this earth to sing. Now the best-selling gospel singer of all time, with 12 Grammy awards under her belt, Winans and her husband, Alvin, have lived and raised their family in Nashville since 1989. In 2008, the couple were considering moving to California to semi-retire in the warm weather there. Instead, they turned to a different calling.
THE DIVERSITY HERE IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS ABOUT THIS CITY.
At the encouragement of friends, the Winans decided to become pastors, trading time that might have been spent lounging in the California sun for Sunday afternoons at the non-denominational Nashville Life Christian Church, where at two o’clock they lead a Sunday service together. Truth is, they didn’t really want to leave Nashville. “We’re excited about the growth of Nashville,” Winans says. “The diversity here is one of the most beautiful things about this city and the music…We’re only starting to see what’s coming.”
For all her success in music, Winans says that her life’s work is really helping her community connect with God. “It’s nice to be encouraged and acknowledged by people and awards, but this is fulfilling my life,” she explains. “This is my purpose. This is why we are here.”
In 2012, Winans lost her longtime best friend, Whitney Houston, to a drug overdose. “We’ve lost a lot of famous, incredible people who are suffering even when they look great on the outside,” she says now. So, as a pastor, she’s learned to ask simple questions. “Are you happy?” is a frequent one. “God is not interested in the mask that we wear,” she says. “Sometimes we know we’re wearing one, and sometimes we don’t. Prayer and meditation bring healing and peace to anxiety. I’m in the business of seeing people whole.”