Nashville Renaissance - July IB 2107 cover story

Nashville Renaissance:

A Hotbed for Young Bluegrass Pickers

by Mollie Farr
 

From the comfortable perch of my home office on the second floor, on any given day I can hear the distant sounds of flatpicking guitar, bubbly mandolin solos, or fiddle tunes. Oftentimes I gaze out my window and watch a small group of people playing music on the porch across the street.

 

Here in East Nashville, this isn’t an uncommon sight. Over the past few years, it seems East Nashville has become a mecca for young musicians of all kinds, and for bluegrass musicians in particular. Young folks have packed up their banjos and flocked here in droves from all over the country. Here at my home office - where I live within a stone’s throw of two IBMA Momentum Awards recipients and one nominee (Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, and Lindsay Lou, respectively), where we host jams more nights a week than not, and house concerts once a month - it’s hard not to feel like we live right at the very center of the bluegrass universe. But why Nashville? What in the world has happened here in recent years that has drawn so many young bluegrassers?

 

For my neighbor Molly Tuttle, who won an IBMA Momentum Award - Instrumentalist last year as a guitarist, it was always her plan to move to Nashville once she graduated from Berklee College of Music. “It’s where people who graduated years before me were gravitating – Boston is where study, but Nashville is good for action,” she told me as we sat down one afternoon to chat about this so-called Renaissance of the Nashville Bluegrass Scene. “I feel very connected with people that I’ve looked up to for a long time, and I feel like moving here made my career feel more serious, or like I was more closely involved in the industry.” Nashville is known as Music City for a reason, with the offices on Music Row cranking out the country hits and people flocking to Broadway to go honkytonking on the weekends. But for bluegrass musicians, their living was never made in those stoic Music Row offices, and their rent certainly has never been paid by playing for drunk tourists on Broadway.

 

For bluegrass musicians, their inclination to move towards Nashville is less motivated by the cliché ideal of “making it in the music business”. On the contrary, due to the ever-increasing cost of rent in East Nashville, these days musicians actually have to leave town and tour furiously in order to afford living here. It seems to me that what Tuttle means by being “closer to the industry” is more like being “close to other people in the industry who do what I do.” Tuttle said her favorite part of being in Nashville is that there is lots of collaboration between musicians – lots of co-writing and experimenting with different styles. She said, “Everyone is very eager to learn and share.” It’s less about bolstering your career, and more about the music itself. It seems the bulk of the appeal for young bluegrassers here today is more about the camaraderie of the community, and the music that takes place between people in living rooms. It’s more about living in a place where everyone around you understands your touch-and-go lifestyle, the trials of the road, the dedication to art and, most importantly, everyone knows just as many obscure Bill Monroe tunes as you. Everyone is part of the same traveling circus, and the line between being out on the road and at home becomes softer and transitioning between the two is more natural. It keeps the spirit of why we ever got into being professional musicians in the first place alive.

 

To get some perspective on how the climate of the bluegrass world in Nashville is different today, I spoke to Missy Raines, 7-time winner of the IBMA Bass Player of the Year award. Raines and her husband Ben Surratt moved to Nashville in 1990, although she told me that when she was just starting to play bluegrass, she never expected she would move to Nashville. “Why in the world would I ever move to Tennessee?” she remembered thinking. But as time went on, and the initial wave of the modern bluegrass leaders like Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas moved to town, word spread throughout the bluegrass world that an acoustic scene was brewing in Nashville. It started to get a buzz.

 

So if this buzz started way back in the 1980s, why does it only just now feel like there has been this huge rebirth in the bluegrass music scene? “It used to be that you’d go to the Station Inn and see your friends, and hear bluegrass that you liked, but there wasn’t really anywhere else in town where you would see bluegrass like that, or a place for people in the community to naturally gather. Now there are so many different places around town to go see that music.” Raines credits organizations like Music City Roots for changing the climate around bluegrass and Americana music in Nashville by creating awareness for locals and tourists about acts they might otherwise never see. “Places like this created a hospitable environment for musicians.” Raines also pointed out that one of the most special things about Nashville for musicians. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can walk into a bar, and already know everyone there. “Everyone already knows each other from their time out on the road, so you automatically have a network.”

 

Now, with the increase in hospitable venues for bluegrass, most markedly in East Nashville, there is quite a bit more opportunity for that feeling of community to develop. Speaking in strictly geographical terms, up until about 15 years ago East Nashville was not a developed or hospitable place for young people. Raines mentioned to me that when she first moved to town, all the musicians lived out in western or southern neighborhoods like White Bridge or Antioch because those were the only safe neighborhoods musicians could afford. Now we see not only a massive increase in the number of young musicians, but a new trend where they are all living in a much more concentrated area than ever before. Nowadays we’re all neighbors, which makes it very easy for the energy behind the community to build and perpetuate. Raines said, “When Jerry, Béla, Sam, and all those guys moved to town it felt ripe; it felt great and exciting then, too, and it felt like a great place to be as an acoustic musician, and a great place to tour from. It’s just that there were less of us and we were spread out.”So perhaps it would be more apt to think of the current bluegrass phenomenon in Nashville as less of a true Renaissance and more of the continued growth of a community. It’s movement that has now reached a peak because of the perfect timing of young, eager musicians on the scene and a hospitable city environment.

 

Will this bursting energy in the community that we are feeling right now start to fade away as the price of rents rise and expensive cocktail bars take over Five Points, the heart of East Nashville? Will young bluegrass musicians once again get priced out of the area and be forced to move back to the outskirts of town, or on to another town entirely? And will the energy behind this wave again recede? Only time will tell, I suppose, but for now, we’re lucky to ride this wave, and to be a part of the music festival that never ends.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mollie Farr, independent owner and operator of booking agency Lost Buffalo Artists, has lived in Nashville for three years. Born and raised in SW Florida, Mollie grew up at bluegrass festivals across the Eastern US. Mollie received a degree in ethnomusicology from the New College of Florida, writing her thesis on the origins of the accordion in Cajun music, leading her into the archival field where she maintains a side job today as an assistant to Cajun musician/scholar Ann Savoy. Mollie worked as a booking assistant at Myriad Artists before starting her own company, Lost Buffalo Artists, as a response to her fellow musicians and friends seeking help in the industry from a true peer.