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VOL. 38 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 23, 2014

How Jack White changed Nashville’s music industry

Industry veterans explain rocker’s influence on country capital

By Tim Ghianni

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The change in the Nashville music scene in the few scant years since Jack White and his Third Man team settled here is palpable.

In some cases, it’s simply sonic. Get away from the steel guitars and fiddles of the PG-rated honky-tonk Disney World that is Lower Broadway, visitors are as likely to hear rock guitars and drums as they are to hear the rootsier sounds of country or even Americana.

Veteran Nashville rock guitar god Warner Hodges, who helped break the mold for what people expect from the Nashville music scene three decades ago with seminal cow-punk pioneers Jason & The Scorchers, has noticed the change. And he appreciates it.

“My two cents … and it’s worth exactly that … When Jason & The Scorchers started, there were three places in town to play original music, best I know,” recalls Hodges.

“Now there are oodles of gigs in town. Jack moved here. The Black Keys guys moved here.”

Other musicians continue to arrive, as they have forever, in search of dreams either in the country world or in rock or in R&B.

More than ever “this is a music mecca,” says Hodges. “NYC, L.A. or Nashville is where you can get it done. Nashville has the total apparatus for music, and you can lead a ‘real’ life. People tend to leave you alone here.”

Hodges says White has changed the perception of the city as much as he’s made more concrete (or brick-and-mortar) changes.

“I’ve been at numerous gigs and functions Jack was at. I have never bothered to introduce myself. He’s out ‘hanging.’ I don’t want to bother him. I think credibility is a word he brings to Nashville’s music scene. Hell, he’s produced some actual ‘COUNTRY’ music. That doesn’t happen here much, does it?”

He’s talking about 2004’s critically praised Van Lear Rose album, on which White allowed Loretta Lynn to be herself without any concessions toward the 1980s, soft rock flavor of modern country.

Veteran Nashville rocker Bobby Bare Jr., the 47-year-old son of the Country Music Hall of Famer and genuine nice guy, has seen all musical sides of this city.

Bare Jr. has seen the evolution that his dad, Bobby Bare, was an instigator in as the unheralded leader of the Outlaws movement. The younger Bare has seen his own bands struggle for attention locally while packing them in around the country.

And he appreciates what White has accomplished in the last decade. “Jack has changed everything.”

Veteran Long Island, New York and Nashville rock music writer Nicole Keiper, who also has a history as a touring rock drummer and as a studio banger with other local rock transplants like Brendan Benson, says the Jack White mystique stems from the music he makes. But she says the impact is more far-reaching.

“I like Jack White’s music a lot, but even if you don’t much like his music, you have to respect his impeccably detailed approach as an artist,” she explains.

“His unique gift, I think, is total aesthetic – having everything in place, from the look of everyone on stage to album art to merchandise to promotion. It’s all clearly thought out and it all fits together. He makes everything he does an event, and I think that’s part of why he’s revered the way he is, beyond being musically talented,” Keiper says.

“People dig on the way everything’s so intentional, but that approach, to me, is just another mark of refined creativity – something I also love about, say, Bowie, maybe the one thing I really like about KISS. I honestly wish more young bands and artists took more of that particular influence from White.”

An example of White taking a relatively commonplace event in Music City – recording a tune – and turning it into an event was the Record Store Day stunt in which White recorded in the blue room of his complex the “Lazaretto” single.

The record was cut live and straight to vinyl and dispatched for pressing and packaging at nearby United Record Pressing, the same plant where The Beatles’ first 45-RPM assault on America was pressed 50 years ago.

Escorted by security, the recording destined to become the fastest vinyl single ever produced leaves the Third Man Records studio on its way to United Record Pressing, where Herb Williams, below, works to complete it. The Record Day promotion is one example of the way White is having fun while promoting his label and Nashville.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Third Man Records, Jo Mccaughey, Photographer

This recording process was turned into a quest for the record books, and the new single, in freshly manufactured packaging was sold within hours at Third Man.

“Doing things that are cool,” as Third Man psychedelic stooge Ben Blackwell described his company’s mantra, is a pretty ambitious mission statement.

While he went on to say that Third Man doesn’t necessarily court media exposure like other labels and rock outfits, it’s pretty clear that when needed – like with the boxed set in the autumn and with the coverage of the “Lazaretto” world record production – there is no shyness about seeking publicity.

But “doing things that are cool” is a company motto that basically encompasses White’s own straight-to-disc Record Day stunt, as well as recording the likes of Seasick Steve, Mudhoney, Jack Johnson and more live and in concert at Third Man HQ on 7th Avenue South.

And then there is the little notion of putting out a huge wooden “boxed set” of vinyl and digital ragtime-flavored stuff.

That’s not to mention maintaining a reputation as one of the world’s revered guitarists or Third Man’s thriving and growing business footprint.

And doing things that are cool also has seen White himself take center-stage as guitarist for Bob Dylan at the Ryman while also producing the classic sounding album by Lynn and another – “The Party Ain’t Over” – for rockabilly queen (and early Elvis touring mate) Wanda Jackson.

Blackwell

Swank

But in addition to the coolness emanating from the Third Man Records and Novelties store and complex at 623 Seventh Avenue South – near the campuses of the Rescue Mission and Room at the Inn, a neighborhood where day laborers wait for trucks to pick them up a block away on Eighth – there is a note of coolness that the great guitarist and his two Bens [Swank and Blackwell], have brought just by being here.

While Nashville’s “cool” quotient has been upgraded some by the nighttime TV soap opera and the subsequent national press, in a “chicken-or-the-egg” debate, White and his guys were here first and – judging by ratings – will stay longer.

Rock drummer Keiper says White’s move here in 2004, and its impact on the city in reality and reputation really can’t be understated.

“All that fawning national press attention that Nashville is getting right now isn’t a specific reaction to the television show, though I’m sure that helped,” she says. “It’s a cumulative thing that’s been building for years.

“Jack White moving here, opening Third Man Records and repping Nashville loudly is a part of that – it helped make people look at Nashville with fresh eyes, because, not to generalize, but people by and large think of him as having good taste, so his moving here had to mean something about Nashville, right?

“Kings of Leon being here, the Black Keys moving here, Paramore and Kesha’s popularity – that’s all part of it, too. But you can’t deny the fact that Jack White’s reputation contributed to whatever cool factor we have lately,” she says.

And, it should be noted, the coolness seems to continue with new (or really old) stuff all the time. Rock icon and master of the caterwauling Crazy Horse guitar Neil Young recorded an upcoming album inside the 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth – a rescued carny midway attraction where folks could record their own singles for 35 cents – inside Third Man.

Seth Riddle, A&R for the Kings of Leon’s Rough Trade label, headquartered at Marathon Village, says his bosses also have had a huge impact here, but he’s quick to point to White and what he has accomplished.

“I don’t know Jack. We’re not friends. I speak with him and I think he knows who I am,” he says, noting that White’s decision to plant his flag in Nashville “has done a lot.”

“Jack came here pretty early on. I think a lot of the kids that were in bands, having somebody like him move in here and say there’s something happening here, it’s a great place to have a home base, made kids realize this is special and you can pretty much do everything out of Nashville,” Riddle says.

“I think until recently there has been a stigma attached to rock ‘n’ roll coming out of Nashville.”

White wasn’t the first, but his credibility among members of the rock community certainly helped the city turn a corner, Riddle adds.

“I think bands like The Features that were here early-on, they weren’t country and didn’t fit in.

“The Kings (his bosses) were the first true, full-on rock band to break out of Nashville, and I think Nashville, in some ways, has been slow to claim them.”

Riddle notes that while the Kings and others were here and “doing their thing,” “Jack was building his empire.”

A vinyl enthusiast, he also “rediscovered” for younger vinyl fans the United Record Pressing plant, where discs have been cut for generations over on nearby Chestnut Street, in the shadow of the soon-to-be-vacated baseball relic that is Greer Stadium.

Because of White’s influence, rock acts – as well as country – began to call Nashville home.

“People realized it was special and there were lots of tools here,” Riddle says. “From studios to musicians to record-pressing plants to tools… No one else has the tools that Nashville has.

“You can live cheaply here and get what you need more easily than anywhere else.”

White’s popularity along with the other bands and young people toting their instrument cases into Nashville has changed the city’s perception, Riddle says.

“I think it now is becoming really a part of the culture: Getting used to having rock ‘n roll coming out of here that is being nationally and internationally recognized.”

He thinks back to the history of rock in Nashville.

Kings of Leon also have helped shape Nashville’s rock scene, a rare case of a band actually from Nashville making big on the worldwide stage. It launched in 1999 and hit it big in the mid-2000s.

-- Jstone / Shutterstock.Com

Perhaps the best-known, pre-White Nashville band was the “cow-punk” outfit fronted by Jason Ringenberg with firebrand guitarist Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson and the late and lamented drummer and newspaper librarian Perry Baggs (or Baggz, depending on the year and his attitude at the time.)

Founded in 1981, Jason & The Scorchers were “the next big thing,” and while legendary, they didn’t conquer the country. “They were such a direct reaction to country: Doing country tunes in punk-rock ways,” Riddle says.

Very occasionally, Ringenberg and Hodges reunite with other friends to demonstrate just why this Ramones-via-Hank Williams-flavored group remains important. Hodges still plays like a road warrior, and Ringenberg also gets out there, but he has concentrated of late on his for-kids “Farmer Jason” recordings.

Riddle’s employers, The Kings of Leon, on the other hand, are not any slice of country – punk or otherwise. They are a classic rock combo birthed in Nashville, where “they just kind of played what they played,” avoiding the Music Row flavor-of-the-month country-pop formulations.

As White’s label is bringing in artists from around the country and recording them here, so have the Kings and their label.”They are definitely involved with everything we put out,” says Riddle.

“I wanted it to be a label where we were in unanimous agreement,” over who is signed. “They’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience,” Riddle adds.

Nashville’s rock foundation was laid in the 1970s and early 80s, he says, when many rockers came here and didn’t make it. They adapted to feed their families.

“A lot of the people we call ‘The New Nashville’ are their children.”

That may apply to outfits like Be Your Own Pet, which had flashes of greatness while members were still Metro public high schoolers needing chaperones on European tours.

The Black Keys – singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney – are another example of a highly successful band with Midwest roots, in their case, Akron, relocating to Nashville.

-- Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.Com

“I think a lot of people are moving here from New York and Los Angeles. The secret’s pretty much out now,” Riddle says.

He points to another type of music that’s rebellious, Americana, which mixes traditional country and roots with rock sensibilities.

Americana is often viewed as country the way it oughta be rather than the studio-and-computer-perfected, beer-swilling pickup truck songs that bounce like so many taut young women in tank tops out of the studios on Music Row.

“For awhile there was this stigma attached with being Americana that was limiting,” Riddle says. “I noticed in this last year that Americana has blossomed out,” and escaped its narrow radio classification.

Riddle’s discussion of barrier-busting musicians naturally leads him back to White and Third Man.

“They bring everybody from comedians to Insane Clown Posse here to do shows (recorded live). It definitely brings attention to Nashville. And he’s had some rappers come in, too. Jack loves a lot of different kinds of music just like he loves rock ‘n’ roll. Not everything he puts out is blues-based.”

He notes that White and the Bens, Swank and Blackwell, “have really good taste in music,” that is expanding and enhancing the Nashville brand.

Whether White came first or he picked up where others had left off doesn’t matter, says Riddle, adding the end result is a cohesive rock community.

“Pretty much everybody gets along. I’m friends with the guys at Third Man. I’m friends with the guys from The Black Keys. I’m friends with the 19-year-old kids playing in people’s basements. Everybody ultimately wants everybody to do well.

“There is a very nurturing environment for making art here. And I’m really excited about it. It’s fun to watch this stuff happen.”

Jason Moon Wilkins, head of the publishing division at Thirty Tigers and a musician himself, says the change in the music scene has a lot to do with simple demographics and “the artists making their homes here.”

“It has more to do with the outside financial realities and the way that Nashville as a market, as a destination, as an option, has progressed.”

He says the current growth of rock here – while reflective of Jack White and his influence, at least as the guy who gives it national legitimacy – really began with “a bit of a boom starting in 2001 of people moving here, relocating here as an option as opposed to New York and L.A.”

Some of these were nurtured at schools like Belmont and MTSU, which have programs focusing on music business. Those people often stay.

“Other people are choosing to come here and start bands because it’s a cheaper option. Others are getting priced out of places like Brooklyn, and Nashville started to lose its stigma,” Wilkins says.

“And I think that’s where Jack has been most influential. Him being one more voice of ‘Here’s what can happen in this town.’ His presence here is very important.”

But, Wilkins, like Riddle, points out that other bands have broken here or resettled here, with Dan Auerbach and the Black Keys being a prime example.

Others include Kings of Leon and Paramour, big outfits far more successful outside of Nashville than at home.

And that’s not to mention Dan Baird of Georgia Satellites fame, who was an early rock ‘n’ roll settler here.

“Jack is an extremely important musical and cultural person. He has helped young bands and invested culturally and financially and figuratively,” Wilkins says.

“The Black Keys, even though they moved here a bit later, they have had an incredible run the last few years from a visibility point.

“And I think it comes back to the Kings of Leon’s success.”

Wilkins points out that prior to the era of the Kings and of White, there were rock acts in Nashville that did at least taste national notoriety.

Bare Jr., Fleming and John, The Evinrudes, Sixpence None the Richer fit the description, but weren’t so readily identified as Nashville bands because “there was pressure to distance yourself from Nashville.”

He says he actually investigated this pressure and found that artists were told “you don’t want to say you are from there (Nashville). They are going to think you are manufactured.” A polyester and auto-tuned product of the Music Row assembly line.

That’s why he says the Kings of Leon are important.

“They were born here as a band. They, by waving their flag here and saying ‘We’re from Nashville’ and being proud of it instead of it being an afterthought and letting Nashville be something that is part of their identity. They made a huge difference…. They proved it could be done.”

That’s when it came down to the logistics and amenities of the city itself.

“A lot of artists started making lifestyle choices. It’s a nice place to live, with great access, lawyer choices, studio time, almost every major agency and major independent booking agency has representation here for non-country clients,” Wilkins explains.

“There’s been a ton of relocation here.”

This latter wave of rock acts and wannabes saw the same things that “Boomer” artists like Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, John Kay of Steppenwolf, Duane Eddy, the late Nicky Hopkins and Scotty Moore, the man who invented rock guitar, saw long ago.

Wilkins says this is part of a sort of rebranding of the city to recruit younger people intent on making futures here.

“For the fresh-out-of-college kids who are going to choose Texas or Oregon, Nashville is a place where now those people are going,” he says.

While “there’s always going to be this tremendous growth machine” catering to country music – after all, it is the city’s musical lifeblood – the rock artists are at least expanding the city’s horizon.

“We do need people like Dan Auerbach, Jack, the Kings, Paramour,” to help in this recruiting, whether it is for an IT wizard or a bass player, says Wilkins, adding musicians have “changed the fabric of the community.”

He turns the conversation to the tall young man who has settled into a block on Seventh Avenue South and his importance.

“The difference there is that his story is more than just the story of an artist who chooses to live in Nashville. He opened up a literal store, decided to found his label here, decided to grow his business right here in Nashville.”

Or, as rocker Bobby Bare Jr. puts it: “Since he’s moved here, people think of Nashville totally different…. I’m just thrilled he’s here.”

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