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The Music City Miracle

from the magazine

The Music City Miracle

Nashville roars to life. Autumn 2015
FRANK MICELOTTA/INVISION/AP PHOTO
Grace Potter and Kenny Chesney perform at the Country Music Awards in Nashville. When people think about the city, they still think first of country music.

The flight between Nashville and Los Angeles—I’ve been on it many times in recent years—is usually something of a circus. The overhead cabins fill up quickly with guitars. T-Bone Burnett, the famed record producer who has worked with everyone from Alison Krauss to Elton John to the creators of HBO’s True Detective, hovers by the gate, looking as though he was just plucked out of 1927. CeeLo Green, the flamboyant singer-songwriter and former coach on The Voice, sits in first-class, stroking a Yorkshire terrier puppy. You might catch a glimpse of one of the members of Nashville’s growing Hollywood diaspora—maybe Nicole Kidman or one of the stars of the ABC series bearing the city’s name. And it’s guaranteed that at some point in the four-hour trek, you’ll hear the now-ubiquitous phrase: “Nashville is the new L.A.” That’s supposed to be a boast, indicating that Nashville is hip, artsy, and au courant—that it’s no longer a town whose sensibilities are best represented by whichever septuagenarian in a rhinestone jacket is taking to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry that weekend.

To my ears, it’s more of a threat. Take it from this Los Angeles refugee: after a while, it gets fatiguing to live in a place where perpetual traffic jams are accepted as a way of life because making it easier to commute might induce drivers to emit more carbon; where rents reach into the stratosphere because, in practice, “smart growth” means trying to strangle any expansion of housing stock; where a billboard that reads “practice abstinence” is actually a winking exhortation to forgo watering your lawn or washing your car in a drought-plagued state. Nashville is enticing precisely because it’s not L.A.—because while it might be a great location to cut a record or make a short film, it’s also a place where you can raise a family on a middle-class income. And word of that fact is getting out. Nashville’s population has grown by more than 5 percent since 2010, outpacing even traditional Sunbelt dynamos like Dallas, Phoenix, and Houston. In 2013–14, only the Austin and Raleigh metro areas enjoyed higher net domestic migration.

In truth, the Los Angeles comparison is overdrawn. While the two cities share a connection to the entertainment industry, the parallels essentially stop there. Los Angeles is a megalopolis of nearly 3.9 million people, and its broader region is home to more than 18 million. Nashville, even with bountiful growth, has only a little more than 600,000 residents, with the wider region tallying 1.8 million people—almost exactly the same number as live in L.A.’s suburban San Fernando Valley alone.

Nashville is more aptly compared with Austin. Both metro areas have roughly the same population. Both cities are the seat of state government. Both are bastions of higher education (Nashville has 21 accredited four-year and postgraduate colleges). Both have vibrant music and arts scenes, and both are on similar economic trajectories—in fact, Austin was one of only two cities (San Jose, reflecting the strength of Silicon Valley, was the other) to top Nashville in the growth of its 2013 gross metropolitan product. In that year, Tennessee’s capital city saw a 4.2 percent increase—double the national average.

To outsiders, Nashville may seem an unlikely boomtown. In sophisticated coastal corridors, the city’s name has long been little more than a metonym for the Southern-fried sensibilities of the Opry or Hee-Haw—a sort of upmarket Branson, where the prevalence of honky-tonks and neon signs gave birth to the nickname “Nash Vegas.” But that image has always been a caricature.

Nashville came into its own in the first half of the nineteenth century, developing as a center of commerce with the creation of a port on the Cumberland River and serving as an incubator for Democratic presidents. (Both Andrew Jackson and his protégé James K. Polk lived in the area; while Jackson’s Hermitage is now a Nashville landmark, the property that Polk retired to is, alas, now occupied by a Best Western.) During the Civil War, Nashville was the first capital of a Confederate state to fall to the Union, and it became the most heavily fortified city in the nation, apart from Washington. The occupation of the city proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because Nashville didn’t suffer systematic destruction during the war and because the Union used it as a western depot, the city emerged from the conflict with improved infrastructure and a solidified reputation as a distribution hub. With newly freed slaves pouring into the Union-controlled city, Nashville saw its black population triple by the end of the war. And with Tennessee becoming the first Confederate state to rejoin the Union, its capital became a magnet for Northern investment, fueling the rise of prominent institutions of higher education, such as Fisk College (established to educate freed slaves) and Vanderbilt University.

Nashville’s late-nineteenth-century growth came with a cost, though. The city’s newly crowded downtown became a center of vice industries like gambling and prostitution. And overcrowded, unsanitary urban housing led to polluted air and tainted water, fueling outbreaks of cholera and typhoid and giving the city the highest death rate in the nation for a time. It was during this period, understandably, that the first impulses toward suburbanization emerged.

Nashville’s musical influence dates to this era as well. Fisk’s Jubilee Singers became international icons during an 1873 European tour, on which the all-black ensemble performed for Queen Victoria. In 1897, a local riverboat captain finally completed work on a tabernacle that would bear his name: the Ryman Auditorium. In its early years, the Ryman earned a reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South,” hosting the likes of Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa. Beginning in 1943, it became home to the Grand Ole Opry, the radio program that created a national audience for the distinctive style of music that began in the hills of eastern Tennessee. To this day, the Opry is known as the “mother church of country music.”

Country remains king in modern-day Nashville, but rock, pop, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and blues all thrive here as well. The roster of stars who call the city home includes Jack White, Sheryl Crow, Ben Folds, the Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Ke$ha, and Young Buck. The sonic diversity led Rolling Stone to name Nashville’s music scene the nation’s best in 2011. With its long-running musical heritage and the more recent proliferation of chic restaurants, ubiquitous cranes towering over construction sites, and regular profiles in national newspapers, Nashville is positioning itself as the South’s cosmopolitan cultural center.

Nashville’s dynamism is powered by economics as much as culture. The city’s workforce grew 10 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to Moody’s. And, per analysis from the financial website SmartAsset, no American city has seen a more robust postrecession housing rebound: the median home price in Nashville is now 11 percent higher than its prerecession peak. Part of the growth owes to conditions that prevail statewide. Chief Executive magazine ranks Tennessee the fourth-best state in the nation to do business, behind only Texas and Florida. Government’s hand is light here: the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University placed Tennessee third on its most recent list of the “freest states,” with only the Dakotas ahead of it.

Like virtually the entire South, Tennessee is a right-to-work state, enticing employers who would rather focus on their bottom lines than on battling with organized labor. Only 5.6 percent of Volunteer State workers belong to unions, the sixth-lowest rate in the country. That’s one reason that the state now ranks as a national leader in automotive manufacturing. (In 2006, Nissan relocated its North American headquarters from Southern California to the Nashville suburbs.) And right-to-work doesn’t just boost large manufacturing concerns. Last fall, for instance, the video-game behemoth Electronic Arts moved production of its games’ musical scores from Los Angeles to Nashville after a prolonged dispute with a musicians’ union. Capital looks for easier markets, regardless of industry.

From 2010 to 2013, Nashville enjoyed more job growth in “advanced industries”—those that require specialties in science, technology, engineering, and math—than any other metro area, according to a Brookings Institution study. The city brims with opportunities for the cognitive elite. In a survey released last year, City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin ranked Nashville as the nation’s fourth-largest “brainpower city,” based on its per-capita growth in new residents with college degrees.

Much of Nashville’s attraction for that cohort owes to the city’s long history as a medical epicenter. In 1851, the University of Nashville opened the first medical department in the region. It was soon the third-largest institution of medical education in the country. The program would eventually be absorbed by Vanderbilt, which hosts one of the nation’s elite medical facilities. In 1991, one of Vanderbilt Medical Center’s most gifted heart surgeons saved the life of a battalion commander who had accidentally been shot during a training exercise at nearby Fort Campbell. The surgeon: future Senate majority leader Bill Frist. The battalion commander: future four-star general and CIA director David Petraeus.

It wasn’t the first time that the Frist family had contributed to Nashville’s medical legacy: Senator Frist’s father and brother formed the Hospital Corporation of America in 1968. Over time, HCA became the nation’s leading provider of health-care services, and other major firms like Community Health Systems and LifePoint set up shop in the city as well. Health-care providers today employ one out of every eight Nashville workers, and companies in the broader middle Tennessee region are responsible for about 70 percent of the for-profit hospital beds in the United States. From 2001 to 2011, 65 percent of Nashville’s venture-capital funding—nearly $1 billion—went to health-care firms.

Beyond the employment opportunities, one of Nashville’s great advantages for luring talent is its affordability, especially relative to other cities that attract knowledge workers. Like Texas and Florida, its companions in the Chief Executive survey, Tennessee has no state income tax, despite the repeated efforts of Democrats—who, over the past decade or so, have lost the governor’s mansion, control of both legislative houses, and their majority in the state’s congressional delegation—to impose one. And the legislature’s Republican majority wants to phase out Tennessee’s only remaining levy on income—a 6 percent tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains.

What really sways many potential residents, though, are the housing costs. Last year, a Kiplinger’s survey of the most affordable big cities ranked Nashville—with a median home value of $165,000 and a cost of living about one-eighth lower than the national average—fourth, trailing only Memphis, Columbus, and Omaha. There are two secrets to this trend: first, the city and its environs have traditionally kept land-use restrictions light, avoiding the regulatory premiums that bedevil markets like New York. Second, there’s lots of space. While native Nashvillians constantly fret about urban sprawl (an anxiety driven largely by the experience of their neighbors in Atlanta), Nashville didn’t even crack the top 50 in the Census Bureau’s 2010 ranking of the most densely populated metropolitan areas.

Indeed, the ease with which one can make a life here is an essential part of the city’s magnetism. Ambitious millennials may rack up their professional bona fides in chic urban enclaves like San Francisco or Boston, but when the time comes to plant roots and raise a family, Music City presents a compelling option. In addition to being affordable and overflowing with culture, it’s also a geographically central location—no small prize in the age of the “gig economy.” A Nashville resident can spend a day in meetings in Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, or San Antonio and still sleep in his own bed that night. And the city is safer than it’s been in a generation: in 2013 and 2014, Nashville posted the lowest murder rates since the city government consolidated with broader Davidson County in 1963. Rates of violent crime, rape, auto theft, burglary, and aggravated assault have all reached quarter-century lows in the past few years.

The schools picture is more mixed. On the one hand, Nashville is home to institutions like Montgomery Bell Academy, one of the South’s elite prep schools and the inspiration for the 1989 film Dead Poets Society (the film’s screenwriter, Thomas Schulman, was an MBA graduate). On the other hand, the number of poor, primarily minority, Nashville schools that have received the state’s lowest ranking in educational performance has more than doubled in the past few years. Those campuses will not be abandoned, however: Tennessee recently created the Achievement School District, which allows the state to take control of the bottom 5 percent of state schools and convert them into charters, with the eventual goal of lifting them into the top quartile of performers statewide.

Any profile would be incomplete without noting that Nashville offers another, less tangible, contrast to most major urban centers: an abundance of what intellectuals refer to as “social capital,” though Music City locals just call it “neighborliness.” Long referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Nashville has more than 700 churches—more per capita than any city in the nation, it’s often claimed. Even if you’re not religious, it’s hard to deny the positive influence of the city’s faithfulness. Nashville consistently tops polls of the friendliest cities in the country. Indeed, the biggest culture shock for coastal transplants tends to be the verve with which the locals attempt to make you feel welcome, an exercise that seems almost rococo by the standoffish standards of New York or Los Angeles.

In the spring of 2010, an enormous flood swept over Nashville, with 13.5 inches of rain falling in 36 hours—more than double the previous record. The Cumberland River crested at more than 51 feet, over ten feet above flood level. Large swaths of the city stood underwater, and local landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry House took a pounding. All told, the flooding caused more than $2 billion in damage to private property and $120 million to public infrastructure. It was the largest economic disaster in Tennessee history—yet the story went largely uncovered in the national media. Why? Because, unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Nashville kept calm. No looting took place (local police reported theft charges in the single digits). Citizens banded together to help one another.

As Patten Fuqua, a local sportswriter, explained in a famous blog post: “A large part of the reason that we are being ignored is because of who we are. Think about that for just a second. Did you hear about looting? Did you hear about crime sprees? No . . . you didn’t. You heard about people pulling their neighbors off of rooftops. You saw a group of people trying to move two horses to higher ground. . . . Our biggest warning was, ‘Don’t play in the floodwater.’ When you think about it . . . that speaks a lot for our city. A large portion of why we were being ignored was that we weren’t doing anything to draw attention to ourselves. We were handling it on our own.”

The question is whether the city’s unique character will endure the influx of newcomers. Local streets and interstates (locals snicker when West Coast transplants call them “freeways”) have begun to choke with the increase in population; congestion has nearly doubled over the past 30 years. Critics charge, justifiably, that both the city and the state have been overly dependent on sweetheart tax deals to spur investment. Locals gripe that soaring housing values—though still low by outside standards—are pricing them out of the neighborhoods they’ve occupied for decades. And inevitable resistance has emerged from those who think that growth is incompatible with authenticity. Writing in the New York Times last year, Steve Haruch, a contributing editor at the alternative newspaper the Nashville Scene, lamented:

After every block is lined with towering fake bungalows, after every dive bar is either plowed under or rebranded with artisanal cocktails, after every plank of reclaimed barn wood has been upcycled to provide ambience for boutique comfort food that only the already-comfortable can afford, after every bit of character has been scrubbed out of the alleys and arcades, we may wonder if Music City still has the music after all, and ponder what we lost when we gazed into our gleaming new towers and fell in love with the reflection.

Sure, the zeal for growth should not run roughshod over every preservationist instinct—it’d be better, for instance, not to bulldoze any more postpresidential manses to make way for discount hotel chains. But for this son of the West Coast, Haruch’s jaundiced view of economic growth sounds ominously familiar. Careful, Nashville: you don’t really want to become the new Los Angeles.

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