The new counterculture lives in the middle.

‘City Without a Subway’ Proves It: Nashville in the ’80s Rocked

Photo of VHS tape
VHS video footage of City Without a Subway. From the collection of Steve Boyle

Rock Solid: City Without a Subway

In 1986, a compilation album hinted at Nashville’s musical future

By Randy Fox

VHS video footage of <em>City Without a Subway</em>. From the collection of Steve Boyle VHS video footage of City Without a Subway. From the collection of Steve Boyle

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THE GENESIS

The year 1976 may have been “Year Zero” for punk rock in London, New York, and a few other scattered cities, but in Nashville, anarchy was in short supply. 

Music City USA had been home to rock & rollers from the beginnings of the Big Beat, but there was scarcely a hint of “punk fury” to be found in the handful of clubs that welcomed local and touring rock acts.

One could argue it was August 2, 1979, when the seeds of punk finally took root. That’s when Nashville punk band Cloverbottom made its debut at an out-of-the-way bar and hot dog grill in the basement of a building on West End, near Vandy. 

Over the next 15 months, Phrank N Steins (officially Herr Harry’s Phranks & Steins Rathskeller) ushered in Nashville’s D.I.Y. punk scene, as Cloverbottom’s “manager,” Rick Champion, continued to book local new wave acts such as The Electric Boys, Placid Fury, Ed Fitzgerald and Civic Duty, and The Ratz into Phranks, along with attracting Southern left-of-center bands desperate for a place to play.

Phranks would suffer a premature burial thanks to the persistent archnemeses of D.I.Y. scenes – cops, permits, and underage drinking – but Champion quickly talked his way into another booking job at Cantrell’s, a former Burger Boy drive-in at 1901 Broadway. Owned and operated by veteran Nashville bar owner Terry Cantrell, Cantrell’s soon expanded its punk programming into full weeks of shows.

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At the same time, two more pillars of the local music scene were emerging, both within blocks of Cantrell’s.

Cat’s Records & Tapes was a Nashville-based record store chain with its flagship store at 2814 West End Ave. Under the management of Steve West, Cat’s West End became a beacon for the local music scene.

“We had a terrific import section managed by Bruce Fitzpatrick,” West says. “We mixed in the releases from local bands with the imports, so we interacted with the bands a lot, and we started doing parking lot concerts.”

(West would go on to become one of Nashville’s best-known rock impresarios as the owner of now-closed 328 Performance Hall. Fitzpatrick is known to modern-day Nashvillians as the longtime owner of The End.)

Meanwhile, in a direct line between Cat’s West End and Cantrell’s, was the studio of Vanderbilt’s student-run radio station, WRVU. Launched officially in 1971 and broadcasting at 91.1 FM, WRVU had developed a rather conventional public radio format by the late ’70s. As the ’80s dawned, however, a new generation of students informed by punk and post-punk seized the reins of power and would make the station instrumental in the birth of “college rock.”

WRVU's "album committee": Front: Brad Tushin. Back: Clark Parsons, Marleen McClure, Alonso Duralde, Adam Michon, Brian Bomstein, Laura Mitrovich, Regina Gee, and Emily Johnson WRVU’s “album committee”: Front: Brad Tushin. Back: Clark Parsons, Marleen McClure, Alonso Duralde, Adam Michon, Brian Bomstein, Laura Mitrovich, Regina Gee, and Emily Johnson

Regina Gee, now a Leadership Fellow of the School of Art at Montana State University, began her undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt in 1982, and was immediately drawn to WRVU.

“I was really interested in music, and being a DJ was what I had to do to be able to listen to records for hours at a time,” Gee recalls. “I quit my sorority so I could spend more time at the radio station. At one point my mother said I majored in WRVU – not happily, mind you!”

As a new generation of student DJs reshaped WRVU, they found allies among the bands and fans who were building Nashville’s rock scene. “It was a mutual admiration society,” Gee says. “We had a lot of musicians come in to hang out, play records, and give us their stuff. We would be on guest lists, so you could go out just about any night to hear music … if you didn’t care about your classes too much. Hardly any of [the WRVU DJs] were musicians, but we had the ability to shape tastes, in a way.”

Shadow 15:
(l-r) Richard Pryor, Shanon Ligon, Scott Feinstein, Barry Nelson Shadow 15: (l-r) Richard Pryor, Shanon Ligon, Scott Feinstein, Barry Nelson The Questionnaires:
(l-r) Chris Feinstein, Tom Littlefield, Doug Lancio, Hunt Waugh The Questionnaires: (l-r) Chris Feinstein, Tom Littlefield, Doug Lancio, Hunt Waugh

“LET’S DO AN ALBUM

By 1985, Nashville’s community of musicians, rock-friendly venues, record retailers and DJs had coalesced into a vibrant and diverse local alt-rock scene. Homegrown bands formed, splintered, reformed, and found their voices. Nashville had attracted musicians for decades, of course, but rock bands were now specifically moving to town for the local scene. New venues joined established ones such as Exit/In, opening their booking schedules to punk and alternative rock acts.

Nashville had also scored a hometown rock success story with Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. The Scorchers were born, aged, and matured on the stage of Cantrell’s, and after releasing two sizzling local indie EPs (and deleting the “Nashville” from their name), they signed with a major label, EMI America. Their first full-length album, Lost & Found, was released to critical acclaim in March 1985, and the feeling among many in Nashville was that they would soon be the first of many success stories.

Clark Parsons, now managing director of the Berlin-based Internet Economy Foundation, arrived at Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1984. He joined the staff of WRVU that winter, and soon was hosting the Friday night local show. “When I got here, I fell into the scene. There was clearly momentum, and there was so much happening. At the station, we wanted to do something. I don’t remember who said, ‘Let’s do an album!’ first, but it was a total do-it-yourself thing of the WRVU staff. We made a wish list [of bands] and went after them, and amazingly most of them said, ‘Sure!'”

Jason Rigenburg & Warner Hodges (Jason & the Scorchers) with Regina Gee and Emily McNair at WRVU in 1986.
Photo courtesy of Tom Wood Jason Rigenburg & Warner Hodges (Jason & the Scorchers) with Regina Gee and Emily McNair at WRVU in 1986. Photo courtesy of Tom Wood

They started working on the project in fall 1985. The WRVU DJs were long on enthusiasm and ideas, but short on practical knowledge when it came to compiling and releasing an album. But they quickly found more experienced allies in the local music scene.

Trip Aldredge was a Vandy graduate who had gone home to Dallas to attend law school, then returned to Nashville in 1983 to open one of the first law offices on Music Row with business partner Ken Levitan.

“A lot of the artists were our friends, and we were hanging out with them anyway,” Aldredge says. “If they needed an attorney, we were the obvious choice. The local scene was very competitive, but it was also supportive. We represented five of the 10 acts that ended up on [City Without a Subway]. Everybody just jumped on board.”

When I got here, I fell into the scene. There was clearly momentum and there was so much happening.
– Clark Parsons

In addition to arranging for the proper clearances and contracts, Aldredge & Levitan identified a local record label to release the album. Neo Records was a new, Nashville-based alternative rock label launched by Richie Owens, the leader of local rockers The Movement. Another plus was that Owens owned a small studio, The Refuge, built in a 40-foot refrigerated trailer located in a parking lot just off Music Row, where three of the album’s songs would be recorded.

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Neo Records was born when Owens approached a record distributor with The Movement’s first single and was turned down because they were not signed to a label. Fortunately, he had an experienced adviser. His father, Louis Owens, was an established Nashville songwriter, music publisher, and independent record label owner.

“My dad said, ‘Well, you can fix that. Start a label, make it a co-op, and other local bands can use it. Then you’re all walking in there with product that’s on a label.’ I got a fee for doing certain things with the label, but I really wasn’t making a profit. I was just covering expenses to keep things going.”

With 10 bands, contracts, and a label all in place, the album just needed a cover and a title. For the former, the station approached Georgia folk artist Howard Finster, who had recently gained alt-rock cred through commissioned work for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. (See below for the full story of the City Without a Subway cover art.) For the latter, the committee went with a name suggested by WRVU DJs Regina Gee and Carter Williams that poked fun at Nashville’s chronic lack of decent mass transit.

“One night, after too many beers, Regina Gee and I came up with the album’s name,” Williams says. “I had moved back to Nashville after living in New York (a city with a subway), where I was involved in underground music and poetry happenings. We thought it would be fun to pay homage to the vibrant underground scene in NYC by defining our city as a cool alternative, a city without a subway.”

FROM THE UNDERGROUND TO CENTER STAGE

Released the first week of April 1986, City Without a Subway was immediately hailed as a triumph for WRVU and for the Nashville rock scene.

The album’s 10 tracks, by Raging Fire, The Movement, Tomorrow’s World, Shadow 15, In Pursuit, The Questionnaires, Webb Wilder, Will Rambeaux & the Delta Hurricanes, The Boilers, and Bill Lloyd, showcased a diversity and excellence of songwriting and music that continually surprised and impressed outsiders. 

Raging Fire: (l-r) Mark Medley, Michael Godsey, Melora Zaner, Lee A. Carr. Photo courtesy of Mark Medley Raging Fire: (l-r) Mark Medley, Michael Godsey, Melora Zaner, Lee A. Carr. Photo courtesy of Mark Medley  In Pursuit: (l-r) Emma Grandillo, Jay Joyce, Jeff Boggs In Pursuit: (l-r) Emma Grandillo, Jay Joyce, Jeff Boggs

It was a mix of homegrown bands with roots leading back to the birth of the local scene along with some of the best of Nashville’s newer rock migrants. The assembled artists delivered a gamut of styles: art punk, roots rock, jangle pop, Southern goth, psychedelic folk, power pop, and more. Nashville may have lacked a subway but when it came to an “underground,” it was world class.

Fortuitously, the album’s release came on the heels of the inaugural Nashville Entertainment Association Rock Extravaganza, in January 1986, at which eight of the 10 Subway bands had performed, dazzling label executives from New York and L.A. By April 4, 1986, when the Subway album release show was held at TPAC’s Jackson Hall, it was a heady time for a local music scene that got started in a weinie ‘n’ beer joint and hadn’t even celebrated its seventh birthday yet.

“The TPAC show was a whole other feeling,” Owens says. “It almost made me feel like, ‘Wow, we’ve actually kind of made it.’ We felt like we had achieved something when we got to TPAC. There was great camaraderie, that’s what I remember.”

Bill Lloyd in 1986. Photo courtesy of Bill Lloyd Bill Lloyd in 1986. Photo courtesy of Bill Lloyd

THE DREAM, DEFERRED

Over the next year, the City Without a Subway LP sold out its full 1,000-copy print run. Although it was one of the top-selling albums at Cat’s West End for months, it never found widespread distribution outside the South. And the end of the “Golden Age of Nashville Rock” was just around the corner.

A few months after the release of City Without a Subway, Cantrell’s closed. Although other venues were open to booking local acts by then, the singular sense of community that Cantrell’s fostered would never be replaced. 

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Following the Scorchers, several more Nashville acts made the jump to major labels over the next two years, but the simultaneous rise of hair metal as the newest cash cow for record companies left many of those alt-rockers in promotional limbo, subject to overbearing and endless major label second-guessing. 

The deeply ingrained territoriality that had existed for decades between the major labels’ New York and L.A. divisions reared its head as well, contributing to what became known as the “Nashville Curse”: No Nashville-based rock band could enjoy full major-label success. It’s a perception that held true for decades, eventually broken by the rise of a new generation of Nashville rockers and the fall from relevance of the major-label system in the 21st century.

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So what does City Without a Subway have to say to today’s Nashville rock lovers? Think of it as a time capsule of an exciting and special era in Nashville’s music history. A time when it seemed like anything could happen, and a new generation of Nashville rockers would build an alternative Music City according to their own agendas and plans.

And it’s more than that. Examine the inner sleeve of the record closely and the album credits are not an artifact of “what could have been.” Rather, they’re a “Book of Genesis” for the next four decades of the city’s musical and creative history. So many names stand out – individuals who have made their mark as songwriters, musicians, producers, artists, journalists, designers, museum directors, and more.

“If you view it as a linear narrative where someone plays in a garage band and [then] becomes a superstar, that’s one way of measuring success,” Gee says. 

“But when you think about it as an environment where people played instruments, wrote songs, and wanted to be artists – they all continued to be creative. The threads you trace are about lives, not moments. 

“So many people that worked or appeared on City Without a Subway are still occupied with making things, and that’s more interesting to me than a line from ‘unknown to known’ or ‘college radio to hit radio.’ “

Thanks to Steve Boyle, Regina Gee, Rev. Keith A. Gordon, Bill Lloyd, Marleen McClure, Mark Medley, Richie Owens, Clark Parsons, Tim Shawl, Steve West, Webb Wilder, Carter Williams, and Tom Wood for assistance with this story.

To listen to the album online, along with more Nashville rock of the ’80s, visit nashville80srock.net.

Visions of a Joyful Noise

Howard Finster and the artwork of ‘City Without a Subway’

The Rev. Howard Finster (Dec. 2, 1916 – Oct. 22, 2001) was a Baptist minister and Georgia-based folk artist who gained acclaim for his stylistically primitive but complex, colorful, and ornate paintings. Utilizing both religious and pop culture imagery combined with word art, Finster created visionary and spiritual landscapes, portraits, and objects with the goal of sharing his “visions of other worlds far away.” He also gained fame for his ever-changing environmental sculpture, “Paradise Garden,” built on the swampy land behind his house in Summerville, Ga.

By the early ’80s, Finster was well-known in the folk-art field, but gained greater acclaim when the Athens-based alternative rock band R.E.M. began championing his work by filming the video for their song “Radio Free Europe” at Paradise Gardens in 1983, and later featuring his artwork on the cover of their second album, Reckoning. In 1985, The Talking Heads commissioned Finster to create the cover art for their double-platinum Little Creatures album, and Finster’s art was named “album cover of the year” by Rolling Stone.

One result of Finster’s new-found alternative rock cred was becoming the first choice for the WRVU DJs when they began talking about a cover for the City Without a Subway album. Clark Parsons recalls that he and his best friend and fellow WRVU DJ, Alonso Duralde, had already met Finster.

“Alonso was from Atlanta, and when we would go down there, on our way back we would stop at Finster’s garden and we got to know him,” Parsons says. “He was a hoot – an amazing original folk artist and a one-of-a-kind human being. He was always eating baked beans from a can that he’d heat up on his space heater, and he would offer us some.”

'City Without a Subway' album art ‘City Without a Subway’ album art Back cover with track list and liner notes by Michael McCall Back cover with track list and liner notes by Michael McCall

After contacting Finster about commissioning the cover art, Parson says he and Duralde drove down to work out the details in person. “He had all these motifs he would use, like a landscape and road with a bunch of souls all over the place. We told him to use that, but we had to make sure all the bands were mentioned on the cover and spelled right.”

Band names turned out to be an ongoing issue, as former WRVU DJ Marleen McClure recalls. “Howard kept thinking it was Shadow ‘IS’ instead of Shadow 15, and he wanted to make In Pursuit ‘I’m Pursuit,’ ” she says. 

A last-minute change to the album’s artist line-up also led to a problem. The band Walk the West was originally set to have a track on the record, but when they signed with Capitol Records in early 1986, they were dropped from the line-up, partly over legal conflicts with Capitol and due to the album committee’s commitment to keeping the focus on bands not signed to major labels.

To fill the hole, local rockers The Boilers were chosen as a replacement. The change was communicated to Finster, but when Parsons, Duralde, and their friend, Kelly Michael Stewart drove down to pick up the painting, the Boilers were MIA in Finster’s landscape.

“Howard had to hastily add them as an afterthought,” Parson says. “So they ended up on a small road sign instead of having their own mountain. We loved him though, and it was an absolute adventure. I think we paid him about $1,000 for the painting. It was a lot of money for us at the time, but for a piece by a soon-to-be famous folk artist it was a pretty modest commission.”

The end result, an approximately 3-by-3-foot painting, hung in the Sarratt Student Center near WRVU studios for several months after the release of City Without a Subway. It was then moved into storage, where it was forgotten for more than a decade.

In 1997, a former WRVU DJ who prefers to remain anonymous but spoke to The Nashvillian, says he spotted the painting in the office of Vanderbilt Student Communication Director Chris Carroll. Carroll said the painting had recently been found wrapped in a sheet in a storage unit. The DJ explained to Carroll what the painting was and its significance. Several years later, the same former DJ contacted Carroll about making a $10,000 gift to the station to endow an annual prize to be awarded to an outstanding DJ at the station. In exchange for the donation, he received the painting.

“It’s hanging over my piano now,” the former DJ says. “At the time it was valued in the neighborhood of about $1,500-$2,000, but I have no financial interest in it. I was afraid that nobody [left at Vanderbilt] would care about it, but I care on behalf of all the WRVU DJs. It needs to be seen by more people at some point, but I’m not sure how that will happen yet.”

With the demise of WRVU as a terrestrial and community radio station in 2011, and the transient nature of student-run radio, such concerns for the well-being and preservation of this piece of Nashville musical history were legitimate. But like the music preserved in the grooves of the City Without a Subway LP, Howard Finster’s unique vision of the Nashville music scene of the 1980s and the radio station that bound it together live on.

For more information about the life and art of Howard Finster, as well as information about visiting Paradise Gardens, go to paradisegardenfoundation.org. To listen to the current, online only WRVU, visit wrvu.org.

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