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Nashville underground

There’s more to the Music City than Alan Jackson and Toby Keith
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  January 24, 2007

ALT-CITY: Soul great Solomon Burke (here with Buddy Miller and producer Shawn Amos) recorded his last album in Nashville, and even Jack White lives there now.

Solomon Burke’s no stranger to Nashville. Decades ago, in the days of segregation, he had a manager based in the Music City, so the great soul singer played there often at the New Era Club. “My contract called for a green room upstairs and three tuna sandwiches a day. If I tried to sneak another one, the lady who ran the place would say, ‘Uh, uh, uh, you already had three,’ ” he recalls, chuckling mightily.

Over the nearly five decades of his career Burke has seen it all, from playing Klan rallies to recording in the soul citadels of Muscle Shoals and Atlantic Records studios in New York and Los Angeles. But he’d never seen a recording space like Buddy Miller’s Nashville pad when he arrived there last year to cut his latest album, the inspired country-soul fusion Nashville (Shout! Factory). “Buddy has dedicated his home to music. Every inch of the place is wired for sound. There are microphones in the ceilings. And his wife, Julie, who is also a singer and songwriter, was there saying, ‘Hi, ya’ll. You want something to eat or a cup of coffee?’ They let me into their lives, and soon I understood that was their way of making music — living it. How delicious and pure it was.”

You can hear that purity in Burke’s performance on the disc’s lead track, a version of country legend Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” His marvelous red-clay voice is full of gorgeous tones, so crisp, clean, and present it seems as if he were singing in your ear. “This is the first time I’ve ever gotten a natural sound. We cut that with Buddy on guitar and a bass player and one microphone in the living room. We just moved the couch.” The rest of the album was made in Miller’s kitchen, dining room, and front porch, depending on the sonic qualities the producer was seeking for certain tracks.

Miller’s method seems the antithesis of the way the Nashville establishment has operated since country music planted its roots there in the 1940s. The city competes with New York, Los Angeles, and Miami as a major recording center, with formal studios dotting its side streets and major thoroughfares. Early on, the revenue generated by the recordings of Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, and even Elvis Presley, who cut classics at Music Row’s RCA Studio B, built a framework of major studios that survives today, nurtured on the profits of CDs by Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry, and Big & Rich — high-gloss acts who spend months in state-of-the-art studios polishing their songs for maximum chart impact.

But there’s also the other side of Nashville, an underground scene of artists who are blossoming with significant work. The most obvious signs of change to those far outside Tennessee are the unvarnished recordings that get labeled alt-country, from Steve Earle’s post-major-label work to more recent albums by the likes of Gillian Welch, Kevin Welch, and Buddy Miller. And now there’s this disc by Burke, who was joined by those last three for Nashville.

Miller spent decades as a studio player and songwriter before beginning to be recognized on his own artistic merits, in the late 1990s. Now he’s a revered figure among the undergrounders who began establishing their own home and garage studios and making their own albums more than a decade ago, when computer-based recording got cheap and good and they found that the established country-music industry had little interest in their work. Today Nashville and the surrounding area have dozens of nook-and-cranny performance spaces that cater to non-mainstream performers. Jazz, punk, and metal have a better toehold in the home of the so-called hat acts than they did a decade past, though as Miller points out, Nashville still lacks a genuine jazz club.

The transformation in the artistic character of Music City USA is most apparent in East Nashville, an area just north of downtown proper that’s become a magnet for all kinds of musicians and visual artists. That’s where Jack White of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs produced Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose in a home studio, and where he moved to from Detroit last year. Bob Dylan’s music director, veteran Boston musician Stu Kimball, also relocated to East Nashville in 2006 — part of an exodus of local players to Nashville that includes Angelo Petraglia (co-writer/producer for Kings of Leon and Kim Richey), Hambridge (a busy producer and writer who led the team for Susan Tedeschi’s Grammy-nominated Tone Cool album Just Won’t Burn), Jamie Rubin (who played in Boston’s the Rain and Modern Farmer), Reeves Gabrels (former David Bowie guitarist), and six-stringer Rich Gilbert (Human Sexual Response, the Zulus, Tanya Donelly, Frank Black). Black himself has recorded his last two albums there.

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