This week's episode of The String (#63) is about a sense of place and how we stand up for the places we cherish. Nashville has thrived as the epicenter of country music songwriting in part because of its own strong sense of place. It was a mid South crossroads city that welcomed art and music from the 19th century on. It became a pioneer in radio in the 20s and 30s by reflecting and broadcasting local values and sounds. Then in the mid 1950s, music business innovators and instigators began to cluster together on the parallel streets of 16th and 17th avenues, transforming a residential neighborhood into Music Row. Compact and convivial, Music Row was like a village, where music makers and business people worked and mingled and loitered with intent. A culture evolved over the decades that still hangs on today. And yet, people are concerned. A city that used to change slowly is transforming and growing, too fast for many. Commercial interests and cultural passions are clashing. And at the vortex of that conflict is Music Row.
We’re spending this hour of radio on Music Row, 1028 16th Ave. to be precise, a little bar called Bobby’s Idle Hour. And our featured guest is a wonderful veteran songwriter who hangs out here, named John Scott Sherrill.
John Scott Sherrill came to Nashville in 1975 and opened himself up to the people and the critiques that helped him become a leading songwriter of his time. He got signed to Combine Music, one of the most innovative and creative publishing companies of its era. Sherrill's songs became hits in the 80s and 90s for Patty Loveless, John Anderson, Steve Wariner and others. He returned to the top of the charts in 2006 when Josh Turner cut a song he wrote with Shawn Camp called “Will You Go With Me.” Nowadays he plays small bars like Bobby’s Idle Hour or the songwriting mecca the Bluebird Cafe, but it took a chance meeting with dobro player and record producer Josh Metheny to spark the sessions that became the new album Mr. Honky Tonk.
But first, I visit with a cross-section of citizens and musicians who turned out for a Rally The Row party at Bobby's Idle Hour, the latest public action by the organization Save Music Row.
Songwriter Bernie Nelson points to addresses visible from the front porch of Bobby’s, noting landmark recordings made at each. “So much has happened on this little part of Music Row,” he says. “And as it demolishes and diminishes we lose more of the heart and soul of Nashville. I’ve told people it’s like building condos on the beach until there is no beach.”
Trey Bruce, one of the volunteer leaders of Historic Nashville and its Save Music Row campaign, offers an update on Bobby’s and a synopsis of how he got involved when artist Ben Folds was evicted from historic RCA Studio A and that landmark was saved, just barely.
Historic Nashville is at one level a public policy and lobbying group, because Nashville’s historic preservation laws and regulations are weak by national standards. One guy who has to confront that head on is the area’s councilman Freddie O’Connell. He calls preservation versus development “the essential Nashville conversation right now” and notes that his father’s history in the music business shapes his desire to see the cottage industry side of it survive.
One thing that can happen in the short term to save Music Row is education and consciousness raising. Most newcomers to Nashville and even many people who’ve lived here a long time, don’t know anything about the music business besides the records they hear on the radio. They don’t know the culture or history. Judy Johnson tells me about her company Let’s Go Travel and its new walking tours designed to connect locals and visitors with those stories.
Elaborating on that principle was Carolyn Brackett, Senior Field Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her specialty is heritage tourism. And she tells me that one big issue confronting the effort is that the scores of buildings torn down in the last ten years have been mostly houses and bungalows from the teens and twenties, nice buildings for sure but not the kind of architectural show places that make for easy symbols. It’s about something bigger she points out.
The String is WMOT's weekly interview show focusing on culture, media and American music. It airs Sundays at 8 am and repeats Mondays at 9 pm. The podcast is widely available and linkable HERE.