Hank's for the memory: Nashville's no longer all slide guitars and Stetsons

David Sinclair saddles up and moseys in
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The Independent Culture

Nashville may still be the home of country music, a place where men in cowboy hats and women with colossal hairdos perform with stylised formality at the Grand Ole Opry and busloads of ageing tourists troop daily through the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But out on the streets, in the clubs and increasingly within the recording studios and management offices of Music City, a new breed of performer is on the march.

The White Stripes' Jack White has recently moved to Nashville from Detroit, and his "other" band, the Raconteurs, are recording their second album here. Kings Of Leon have exported their unique, backwoods vision of Nashville rock'*'roll to Britain, Europe and beyond. And a raft of acts from newcomers like Be Your Own Pet, The Pink Spiders and Paramore (of nearby Franklin) to established performers like Ben Folds, Josh Rouse and Lambchop have arrived to challenge the Nashville stereotype in recent times.

If the sheer range of musical genres on display at the Next Big Nashville festival, now in its second year, is impressive, then the standard of musicianship, right across the board, is world-class. Indie-rockers such as Kyle Andrews rub shoulders with a smooth pop-jazz piano trio led by Gabe Dixon, who was recently featured in Paul McCartney's band. Sensitive singer-songwriter types such as Jeremy Lister, with his ruffled shirt, voice like a songbird and guest belly dancers, share the stage at the Cannery Ballroom with the Southern Rock monsters American Bang, an AC/DC-influenced band who are the latest young guns to be hailed as the new Kings Of Leon.

In the more intimate surroundings of the Mercy Lounge, Brooke Waggoner performs a spellbinding set of eccentric, neo-classical tunes. Over at The Basement, the alt.country star and all-American folk hero Matthew Ryan sings a set of haunting songs in a passionate post-Springsteen croak.

"There's a whole movement going on," says the local promoter Ethan Opelt, who, together with the former musician and man-about-town Jason Wilkins, co-founded and organised Next Big Nashville. "The idea is not to discredit the country-music scene, because clearly it's doing great, but just to say there's also all of this other stuff. There's management companies and record labels that are relocating here. They're sending people from Los Angeles and New York to set up shop here, because bands are getting signed here as fast as anywhere."

With 140 acts playing at 33 venues around town, there are clear echoes of the South by South West Festival that has become an annual fixture in Austin, Texas – but, while the celebrated Austin event has become a showcase for bands from everywhere, Next Big Nashville is about local talent.

"Ninety per cent of the bands on the bill live right here in Nashville right now," Opelt says. "And the other 10 per cent have some sort of ties to Nashville."

With surprisingly few exceptions, the artists and bands who are making all this noise have come to Nashville from elsewhere. "Nashville is a nation of immigrants – they come here from singer-songwriter land," says Matthew Ryan. "If you ask anyone in Nashville where they're from, very few of them will say, 'I'm from here.' Now a new generation has arrived with little knowledge of country music and even less interest in it."

The reasons for this influx are rooted in practical considerations. The cost of living in Nashville is much cheaper than in New York or Los Angeles, and it is considerably quicker and easier to travel around the city. Its location in the centre of the country makes it a good base for touring. And the fact that it is already an established music city, with an abundance of song publishers, recording studios, rehearsal spaces and venues, makes it attractive.

According to Mike Grimes, the owner of Grimey's Record Store and promoter of the Basement Club, there are now as many rock clubs in Nashville as there are country venues, if not more. This is partly because the country establishment has embraced a slick brand of commercialised, radio-friendly country-pop, which is totally divorced from the grass-roots activities of a younger generation of musicians and music fans. Modern country acts are either touring 10,000-seater venues, or confined to playing cover versions of old and contemporary hits at the traditional honkytonks on Broadway.

As far as Grimes is concerned the current changes are long overdue.

"All I have to do is turn the radio on and listen to some shit modern country music and I get completely revitalised to go to work every day."

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