Nashville’s always been known for its country music roots, but pop culture milestones like the successful ABC series Nashville and stars like Taylor Swift (who famously convinced her family to uproot and relocate which kickstarted her career), have made the city even more synonymous with the genre. Now, Nashville’s more famous than ever—the 100-person strong line winding around the iconic Bluebird Café each day is proof of this. Plus, it boasts bragging rights as the biggest American music industry hub outside of New York City. But while most people automatically assume that Nashville’s only specialty is twangy country, over the past ten years it's undergone a musical renaissance. You could almost call it an overhaul, depending on what part of Nashville you happen to be in. Each pocket of the city is home to its own musical community, whether it’s garage rock, electro-pop, soul, or good old southern rock ‘n’ roll. Unsurprisingly, Nashville’s emergence from the home of country to truly embodying its “Music City USA” nickname has been a long time coming.
From the 80s to the early 2000s, it was nearly impossible for a non-country band from Nashville to gain major label attention and recognition outside the South. In fact, no rock band from Tennessee achieved a platinum album in 20 years, which locals dubbed “the Nashville curse.” Paramore eventually broke this streak in 2008 with their sophomore release, Riot!, and the city hasn’t looked back since. From locals like (the now defunct, but no less influential) Be Your Own Pet and JEFF the Brotherhood, to transplants like The Black Keys and Jack White (who moved his label Third Man Records in 2009), Nashville arguably offers the greatest density—and variety—of musicians anywhere in the world.
Given that housing prices are still pretty low, it's a no brainer for young artists of every genre to see it as a musician-friendly mecca which is also brimming with songwriters and studio players looking to collaborate. And, because it’s the South, everyone is really nice. As Jordan Smith from Nashville rockers Diarrhea Planet explained: “Nashville bands sort of blend all kinds of different styles and it’s unique because all of the different scenes kind of meld into one giant friend group.” According to Smith the vibe is one that’s both diverse and close-knit, and, the most exciting part is, this melting pot is only getting more mixed. So save the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry for another trip, and instead head out to West Nashville's The Stone Fox or spots like The Mercy Lounge or Exit/In for a sampling of what Nashville is really like. If you need a place to get started, check out eight of our favorites below. Although the bands listed offer some of the best representations of this "new" kind of Nashville sound, it's just a taster of the city's deep well of emerging talent and the only way to really sample this is to book a ticket down South to see for yourself.
The mission of this Nashville-based sextet is a simple one: “Shred till you're dead, or go to hell." Clearly they’re doing the former, because over the past several years these guys have proven themselves as one of the best rock bands to come out of the city—and also arguably the rowdiest (no small feat). They’ve already dropped several releases since the band’s 2009 inception– including 2013’s full-length I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams–but their most recent EP, Aliens in the Outfield, and their epic live shows means Diarrhea Planet’s rep has spread well beyond the south. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing a cramped college basement or NYC’s Bowery Ballroom (they’ve done both), they unleash their massive hooks, tap into their never-ending energy, and shred your face off every single time. Their success is part of a larger movement happening in Nashville, where many of the rising bands have left the city to tour for extended period of time. “A lot of the bands who were playing at the forefront of the house show scene have since started touring both nationally and internationally so in town the scene has changed a lot in terms of who is around to play,” Jordan Smith said. “There are a lot of newer young bands.”
Varying between six and eight-piece setups, ELEL deserve some of Nashville biggest stages—and not only because they’re lineup includes two horn players, two drummers, three keyboardists, guitar, bass, and plenty of vocal power. Rather, they’re just that good. Merging the vacation-ready vibes of Simon & Garfunkel and Vampire Weekend, ELEL (the brainchild of frontman Ben Elkins) make the kind of summery tunes that draw from pop and rock and add a lo-fi twist. Tracks like “40 Watt” are a multi-layered romp fest that are unabashedly addictive. ELEL believes that this “New Nashville” isn’t about the genre, it’s about keeping things genuine. “I think ELEL is part of that movement here in Nashville, and it doesn't really have to do with the type of the music as much as where the music comes from,” he explains. “This scene is real.”
With three albums to their name and nearly a decade-long history as a band, Those Darlins have long been a Nashville staple. Jessi Zazu, Nikki Kvarnes, Linwood Regensburg craft a down and dirty brand of rock, one that soundtracks whiskey-fueled late nights, regrettable decisions, and blurry mornings-after. Along with well-established groups like JEFF The Brotherhood and (the long-defunct) Be Your Own Pet, they’ve helped to shape Nashville’s music scene as one that welcomes crowdsurfing and guitar solos, in addition to classic country stylings. Additionally the band’s punky brand of rock fits in nicely with fellow rebels Diarrhea Planet, who they toured with last year. This is party rock with a slight southern flair: in-your-face and unabashedly fun.
Proving that grunge and a well-executed polish don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Bully burst upon the Nashville music scene as the complete package. They’ve got easygoing garage rock melodies, scuzzy guitar riffs, and raw lyrics that span the entire spectrum: from lead singer Alicia Bognanno sings spinning in her underwear in “Milkman,” and about waiting for her period in their instantaneously catchy new single “Trying.” Believe it or not, these guys aren’t angry, and despite comparisons to The Replacements, they shun their 90s revivalist reputation. These are the kinds of songs that don’t work halfway—as Bognanno demonstrates at the band’s sweaty live shows—are best enjoyed screaming along at the top of your lungs. They’ve already grabbed the attention of Ryan Adams, who casually called them the best band in the world at this very moment," not to mention Merge Records founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan, who recruited the band to open for Superchunk in Nashville—and then stood by the sidelines to take in their live set.
One way to weed out the locals from the tourists is to ask if they know Alanna Quinn-Broadus, frontwoman of Alanna Royale. For the past several years, the singer and her soul outfit have been bubbling around the Nashville scene, performing everywhere from The Mercy Lounge to Musician’s Corner (the local drop-in spot for Nashville’s musical community). Comprised of Quinn-Broadus and her five-piece ensemble (which includes two horn players, drums, old-school harmonies, and plenty of in-your-face attitude), she brings it on the powerhouse vocals front. She’ll readily admit that she’s not traditionally “Nashville,” but that’s no bad thing. “Being just a little bit different can really work in your favor,” she said of the inclusive music community. “When you see a sold out EDM show a mile away from the Ryman, you know people are out there looking for something new. Hopefully they find us… and buy a record.”
Holding things down on the electro-pop front is KiND, a band that takes influence from Passion Pit, St. Lucia, and The Naked and Famous for a danceable, synth-heavy sound. It might not be a groundbreaking combination, but the result is still pretty damn catchy. Band member Robert Gay said the group’s experimental vibe merges with Nashville’s musical philosophy, one that includes a huge list of influences. “If there is a sonic element to ‘New Nashville,’ I think it's an analog spin on remix culture,” explains Gay. “This city attracts people who love music history, so you'll see everything from Afro-pop to rockabilly to new wave represented in a single night—sometimes even in the same song. There's a lot of reverence for the old masters, but people are finding new ways to combine and carry various musical legacies.”
JEFF THE BROTHERHOOD
Jake Orrall and Jamin Orrall actually aren’t new at all. For nearly 15 years, these brothers have perfected their own brand of DIY guitar rock, one that’s firmly rooted in Tennessee. After years of performing all over the world, the Nashville natives sum up their hometown music scene as a crazy mishmash of old meets new. “Its like a big ol’ possum jam sesh, or a bunch of bears playin’ on their front porch, sort of like a catfish band,” they told us. And while the recent migration of musicians to Nashville means a more collaborative environment, Nashville’s newly-minted indie rock rep does have its downsides, as they explained: “There are more bands now than when we started. More venues too, and more rules.” Luckily, they’ve proven themselves to be the gnarly ringleaders of the bunch.
Arguably one of the most-hyped bands out of the city these days, COIN is in fact comprised of four Nashville transplants. But judging from their Sony record deal and slick indie-pop debut album, they’ve settled into the scene quite nicely. A few years back Chase Lawrence (synth/vocals), Joe Memmel (guitar/vocals) and Zachary Dyke (bass) met as students at Belmont University before teaming up with Ryan Winnen (drums). They started out by putting a couple of songs on Soundcloud (including their infectious cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecelia”) and now they’re touring the country and sharing the stage with Betty Who and Neon Trees. Even in the past few years, COIN say they’ve witnessed the city has changed drastically. “The indie pop scene seems to have exploded,” Lawrence told us over the phone during a recent tour. “Country music will inevitable in Nashville, and we draw from it whether we realize it or not. The environment’s so diverse right now, but everyone still is inspired by the city’s roots.”
Liza Darwin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.