Nashville’s U.S. representative, Jim Cooper (D), told me a joke he heard from Karl Dean, back when Dean was the city’s mayor. It goes, “What do you call Nashville without the music? Birmingham.”
This might be a little unfair to Birmingham, Ala., which does have a small but vibrant music scene and has had its fair share of songs written about it. But let’s say Charlotte. Does anyone write songs about Charlotte? Don’t get me wrong, Charlotte is a wonderful city, but there’s no little girl in Oklahoma right now dreaming of moving to Charlotte and making it big. Unless she wants to be a banker, and even then, Charlotte must be her third or fourth choice, I’d think.
Nashville, though similar in size to Charlotte — and facing many of the same issues of being a cosmopolitan city in a state trying hard to get back to some imaginary good old days — exists in the national imagination in a way that Charlotte doesn’t.
Other cities also have a kind of mythic existence as well as a real one — London, Paris, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo. Even if you’ve never been to those places, you know about them, you have ideas about them, you’ve heard stories about them.
Most of them, though, are much larger than Nashville, and the mythmaking by now is self-sustaining. If Paris has a mayor who doesn’t like fashion or New York’s congressional delegation doesn’t care for musicals, it’s hard to imagine that would have any impact on the cultural standing of those cities.
Nashville’s status feels more fragile, though. Give it a mayor who isn’t concerned about musicians not being able to afford to live here, or a member of Congress growing bored with and dismissive of intellectual property law, and the collective dream of Nashville starts to get a little hazy and incoherent as the people who sustain the mythic city drift away.
Would you come to Nashville if you couldn’t sit at the very same bar Willie Nelson sat at, drinking the same kind of whiskey Hank Williams drank, listening to a woman you don’t recognize singing a song that you don’t know yet but that you’re going to hear this summer nonstop, while your bartender, who’s hoping someday to get her lucky break, smiles and asks you if you’d like another? Or maybe you saw the Bluebird Café on the TV show “Nashville,” and you want to come and stand in line in front of a small storefront in a strip mall hoping you’re lucky enough to get in, and you wouldn’t want to come if the Bluebird was gone.
It’s hard to guess what particular thing brings a person to town, but the city thrives by providing it.
But what’s it like to be responsible for and to a city that is, in one way, a regular, mid-size U.S. city with regular problems and challenges and yet is also a national fantasy?
I asked Megan Barry, who is Nashville’s mayor and also, starting this season, playing Nashville’s mayor on the television show “Nashville.” I thought if anyone would get what I was wrestling with about the tension between our ordinary city and our city of dreams, it would be the woman who is literally mayor in both fact and fiction.
“There is that something special about Nashville,” she said. “And I think it goes back to the birth of music here. And that music that has fed the souls of the people who come here and the people who live here.”
Our discussion then moved into what Barry termed “the physicality of the city” and how it’s necessary to preserve the actual places where Nashville’s magic happens.
This has been something Nashville has done poorly since the first non-French white people moved into the area. Nashville is ancient, with layers of cities going back 10,000 years beneath the current one. When the U.S. settlers arrived here, they found a landscape full of ceremonial and burial mounds, the remnants of the old cities. On top of one such mound they found an old Shawnee fort with a French fur trader, Timothy Demonbreun, inside it. Now most of the mounds in Nashville are long gone.
One of the most important battles of the Civil War happened here. The line where Confederate troops — the sons and brothers of many white Nashville families — camped between battles is under an interstate. Unlike Chickamauga near Chattanooga or Shiloh near, well, Shiloh, there’s no preserved battlefield here. The wonderful interpretive center at Fort Negley is often empty.
For a city so steeped in history, we’re often shockingly nonchalant about losing the places where that history happened.
Barry focused on two of Nashville’s biggest preservation successes — Ryman Auditorium, an early home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was almost torn down in the ’70s but is now one of our most beloved concert venues, and the Belcourt Theatre, another early home of the Opry and our independent film theater, which recently underwent a beautiful renovation and expansion.
Speaking of the Belcourt, Barry said, “Under Stephanie Silverman’s leadership, it’s something that’s old but that has been redone in a way to recognize that it has to grow and change like Nashville does. I think that’s my challenge as the mayor: How does Nashville grow and change, but still maintain a place like the Belcourt?”
I put my question to Rep. Cooper as well, because my experience with him has been that he can come up with thoughtful, concrete answers to strange, esoteric questions. And, indeed, even before I spoke with him in person about how he understands his role in supporting Nashville as a city and as a cultural phenomenon, his office sent me spreadsheets showing how much National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities money has come into his district over the course of his tenure in Washington to help preserve our cultural legacy.
When I sat down with him, he was more philosophical.
“People respect creativity here,” Cooper said. “The real royalty in this town are the part-time waiters and waitresses in our restaurants who are writing these songs in their spare time. That’s the sort of creative leadership you want to have.”
Cooper spoke at length about the Bluebird, an intimate venue where songwriters perform to crowds that often include stars looking for songs to put on future albums. “It’s totally great, because the performers are not beautiful, sometimes they don’t sing that well, but they wrote the songs and it is so real. It’s like their trailer that burnt down. Their car wreck that killed their child, their mother that just got out of prison, or whatever. And it is so heartfelt.”
He went on, “The real talent is the genius who comes up with that lyric, that hook, that tune.”
I think that Barry and Cooper are getting at the same thing — Nashville has the mythological status it has, oddly enough, because it’s a real place where dreams really do come true. Not for everyone, of course, but enough. The people who do the stuff are here. The places they did them are here.
And yet, the city’s success has been a mixed blessing. We’re in the middle of a population explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen since soldiers and refugees flooded into the city during the Civil War. Even though building is booming, we’re losing our affordable housing and it’s harder and harder for the people who make the city what it is to stay here.
As for preserving the “physicality of the city,” the places that make Nashville what it is: Even after a nationwide attempt championed by Country Living to preserve Col. Tom Parker’s house, where Elvis stayed when he was in town recording and where his fan club headquarters was located, it’s being torn down so the site can become a car wash.
It feels a little like an omen.