Long before the advent of the Victrola, much less the MP3 player, the city of Nashville, Tenn., and the sound of music were inextricably linked. Arriving in the late 1700s along the Cumberland River, the city’s first permanent settlers — two groups of European descent — celebrated their landing by buck dancing to fiddle reels. A century later, the music business arrived — first in the form of the earliest song-publishing companies, and then with Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers, one of the country’s first internationally touring groups.
By the time local radio station WSM began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry from the offices of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville in 1925, the city had affirmed itself as the spiritual, if not literal, home of country music. The ensuing 87 years have done little to change Nashville’s reputation, and it has earned the sobriquet “Music City.”
Cut to 2012. While country remains its calling card, Nashville is now a place with a dynamic musical identity. In the past few years, a series of homegrown talents have straddled a variety of genres, with pop-punk band Paramore, rockers Kings of Leon and diva Ke$ha all enjoying massive commercial success. The period has also seen a wave of rock ’n’ roll talent relocating to the city. The White Stripes’ Jack White left Detroit for Nashville, where he’s set up his groundbreaking Third Man Records label and retail store. Meanwhile, Akron, Ohio, natives the Black Keys also decided to move their base to Music City.
“I guess I was ready for a little change of pace, but I didn’t want to go to the obvious places: New York or Los Angeles,” explains the Black Keys’ lead singer, Dan Auerbach. “I wanted to go to a place that still felt like Akron. And Nashville, to me, still feels like the Midwest. It feels like it’s a small town, but there’s just lots going on here.”
For Joy Williams of the Grammy Award–winning roots-pop duo Civil Wars, the evolution of the city is part of its growing allure. “Just in my time here, I’ve seen Nashville change so much,” says Williams, who moved from Northern California a decade ago. “I think I had the same notion most people have, which is it’s simply a town that percolates around country music. Though country-music history is deep and richly steeped throughout the city, this is a place that’s been expanding musically and culturally.
“It’s been exciting to see people from the TV and film world moving here,” Williams continues. “People coming from Europe and Canada — there are all kinds of different cultures and different music being represented here now. It continues to blossom.”
Australian-born country star Keith Urban, who arrived in Nashville in 1992 and who now lives there with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, says the changes have been tempered by a respect for the city’s roots.
“It’s certainly way more cosmopolitan than it was when I moved here 20 years ago,” Urban says. “The influx of people has brought a much greater diversity. But, for me, the original part of Nashville that I loved is still here. It’s just sort of been added on to.”
And if the city’s fathers have anything to say about it, this expansion won’t stop anytime soon. Local officials are looking to add even more, in order to ensure that Nashville isn’t about a single kind of music, travel or living experience either.