The City Paper offices overlook an old railroad track that runs adjacent to 11th Avenue, where the neighborhood called the Gulch has exploded with a series of luxury condominiums, gyms and a variety of restaurants and bars. Usually, the lot next to the tracks is empty, but on this day it’s filled with lines of white trailers.
An entirely different kind of circus has come to town. The trailers belong to the crew shooting the upcoming TV drama Nashville, which premieres Oct. 10 on ABC.
You’ve likely seen previews of the show, featuring a fading veteran star (Connie Britton) and a young next-big-thing (Hayden Panettiere). While the show has some considerable talent behind the cameras — Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri, of Thelma & Louise fame, and Emmy-winning filmmaker R.J. Cutler are among the executive producers — one of the most anticipated things about the show is the portrait they’re going to paint of modern-day Nashville.
The commercials prominently feature recognizable Nashville landmarks such as The Grand Ole Opry and The Bluebird Café. But will they dig deeper than the obvious? Will they cross the river and dine in East Nashville, where The New York Times hailed Mas Tacos, The Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden, Margot Café & Bar, and other members of “the Nashville hipster food kingdom”? Will the characters on the show don glittery jackets and metallic cowboy boots, or will they reflect the more eclectic style of our city, recently covered in fashion tastemaker Lucky Magazine? Will Musica — aka the “naked statue” — get any airtime?
Will Nashville paint an accurate portrait of Nashville?
Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, has seen the pilot and clips from future episodes, and said he thinks the production team behind Nashville hit the mark. “I think it treats Nashville very well. It shows country in a very positive light, and it shows Nashville in an even more positive light,” Spyridon explained. “The storyline, it’s not just about country music, it has politics, a little drama, a little bit of everything. All of the music is original, the majority of the songs are from Nashville, and the stars are singing their own songs. It’s a direct reflection.”
There’s reason to be concerned over how Nashville portrays our fair city, because we’ve been burned before. (Remember the short-lived “reality” show, also called Nashville, back in 2007? No? Count yourself lucky.) Viewers outside the city limits have high expectations for the show, too: Nashville tops Entertainment Weekly’s list of five best new series this fall.
Of all of the high expectations people are placing on Nashville, Spyridon may have the highest hopes of all. “Coming from my standpoint and what we do, I think it will be one of the biggest things to hit Nashville in a really long time. I’d put it on a par with when we had CMT and TNN out at Opryland. It was a tremendous magnet for us. We haven’t had that kind of magnet since.”
Showing Nashville in a positive light may not seem like a big deal other than to stroke its citizens’ collective egos, but it’s more significant when you consider how it translates into tourism dollars and the continued migration of creative people here. The city has had a considerable amount of outside attention in the past few months, from the aforementioned Times food piece, the July GQ article that proclaimed Nashville “Nowville,” and the August issue of Lucky Magazine, which included a shopping guide for Nashville and featured local luminaries Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Karen Elson. What’s with all of the Nashville love all of a sudden?
“We’ve been working at it a long time,” Spyridon said. “In the last five years it has really started to build momentum and branch beyond the national PR efforts that we have been implementing. It’s a combination of years of consistent messaging.”
While it may seem like a bit of a chicken-and-egg debate, the increasing amount of glowing national and international press drives more people to Nashville.
“As they come in, we’re getting better quality and greater variety,” Spyridon said, citing both the restaurant and music scenes as examples of this theory. “The development and maturation of the restaurant community has been incredible over the past five years, and people have come and realized that maybe the stereotypes that held us back weren’t necessarily accurate — that everybody wears hats and boots, and we only eat meat-and-three.”
But let’s look back into the community, to the people who create the music, the food, and the clothing everyone is so excited about. While the geeks may inherit the earth, the creatives hold the keys to the city, Spyridon said.
A little thing called Southern hospitality figures in, too.
“People say, ‘I can’t believe how nice everyone is.’ Isn’t that a better way to live?” Spyridon asked. “The music people have discovered — and I give full credit to the songwriting side — that great artists come out of a creative, collaborative community, where you can find great songs. You were embraced instead of looked at as a competitor. We’ve heard that from Jack White’s story or The Black Keys’ story, coming from other markets that seem very competitive or cutthroat. It’s certainly competitive in Nashville, but it’s a collaborative competition.”
Keywords like community, collaboration and friendly competition turn up time and time again in discussions about the music and restaurant scenes. An Associated Press piece titled “Nashville Rock Scene Moves Out of the Shadows” included an interview with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who echoed Spyridon’s sentiments, citing “Southern hospitality” and a general rule of keeping one’s ego in check as important properties of the local music community, which Rolling Stone hailed in April 2011 as the country’s “Best Music Scene.”
Despite all of the positive press, it’s hard to ignore the thinly veiled “Surprise! Nashville is cool!” vibe that permeates the national media parachuting into the city. GQ wrote Nashville “used to be just a city of ten-gallon hats and the Grand Ole Opry,” while Lucky Magazine claimed that the city was under a “ubiquitous hum of country music” and that “Southern-belle saleswomen” were a key feature of a local boutique.
The local fashion scene has picked up some credibility through locally produced events like Nashville Fashion Week and the nD Festival, which both provide outlets for local designers to showcase their work, and with the rapidly growing success of local designers such as Imogene + Willie and Peter Nappi. But fashion hasn’t quite caught up with the restaurant and music scenes, at least from an outsider’s perspective.
This explains why many reacted with surprise when a Sept. 7 piece on The Atlantic’s Cities site named Nashville fourth in leading American cities for fashion, citing Nashville’s music industry as “a growing impetus for musicians to collaborate with fashion designers.”
So, have we moved past the boots and the belt buckles, literally and figuratively?
“I think we’ve moved light-years in terms of presenting what the city’s really like,” Spyridon says. “I will use the Grammy nomination broadcast as an example of both: The fact that The Recording Academy is going to bring this show to Nashville speaks volumes about how far we’ve come. Nobody’s hiding from country music, it’s just good music, period. But, on the other hand, when the release went out, the Washington Post’s headline was ‘Yee-haw.’ And the L.A. Times said something about ‘The Grammys go country.’ Here’s the pre-eminent organization in the world for all genres, and they said, ‘We should do this in Nashville,’ and the media still can’t let it go. That just shows their ignorance more than anything. It also reminds me that we still have work to do.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter if a large portion of the general population thinks Nashville is filled with a bunch of people who look like extras from a Big & Rich video, sitting around eating barbecue while we watch My Big Redneck Vacation. But when it comes to the music, restaurant and fashion industries, image matters, and the premiere of Nashville could change the way people view us for the better. “I’ve been here 21 years, I’ve seen a lot of different takes on Nashville, and I’ve really never seen any that didn’t make me cringe,” Spyridon admits. “There’s nothing about this show that’s made me cringe.”
So what does Spyridon think the actual Nashville is? “It’s real. Nashville is an authentic community on every level. It’s not fabricated, and it’s not a house of cards.”
It will be interesting to see if Hollywood — not always known for valuing reality over fiction — thinks that, too.