Let’s think about this for a second: What if we lived in a town called “Word City,” a twin of sorts to Music City.
And the story goes like this …
Words made this town. Words in novels, history books, and poetry. Ann Patchett, Jon Meacham, and Tiana Clark are names many readers recognize, their words bound between two covers devoured during many sittings.
And there are the words in songs that have brought our town fame, even as not all great songs easily fit into the well-oiled machine on Music Row. The big buildings on 17th Avenue were built on words with a catchy tune – a sometimes clever lyrical rhyme – backed by world-class musicians. The song can start with a melody, but its power comes from the story it tells. There will be a visceral, emotional reaction if the words grab you.
On the other hand, writers who place the art of poetry above their rhymes may never owned estates in Leipers Fork. As Guy Clark once said, “I consider what I do poetry. I don’t need to prove I’m a poet in every line, and I’m not afraid to speak plainly in my songs. Not everything needs to be a metaphor, and I don’t need lofty words. But it is my obligation to be faithful to the verse. I write what I know. I write what I see.”
Stick with me in this tale of Word City and listen with your curiosity.
The outlier in this word soirée is the spoken word. These words may rhyme but not predictably; breaks and beats become the rhythm; intonation and eye contact create a bond, and all these expressions become the music. It’s an ancient oral tradition, a word ritual. Its contemporary purveyors aren’t household names. But their chosen topics speak to the core of human existence: social justice, change, and traditions that bind a community together. Performance poets draw us into their world.
Nashville has always been a storyteller town. We repeat generational yarns handed down by family and friends. I love retelling the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers: When touring the world in 1873, they sang the black spiritual “Steal Away” a cappella for Queen Victoria. The Queen was visibly moved, and at the end of the performance, she told the 11 Fisk singers, many of whom were former slaves, “that they must come from a musical city!” The proceeds of that tour built Fisk Jubilee Hall in 1876.
Fifty years later, the powerful radio station WSM co-opted the moniker “Music City” with no nod to those responsible. Today, Jubilee Hall is in desperate need of renovation.
Hopefully, the next chapter of the story will be better.
Or what about the often-repeated story about when Willie Nelson sold his first song for a beer tab on Lower Broad, which ended up being a hit? Willie lamented, “If I can write one hit, I can write another.” We know the rest of that story. It lives on.
When Lower Broadway was in its musical heyday, every honky-tonk had a stage that served as a discovery platform for those who dreamed of making it and an A&R person scouting for the next “star.”
Stories like Willie’s abound in the lore of Lower Broad. I remember seeing Willie play in the Merchants Hotel lobby as a child. My dad was trying to wrangle my brother and me while straining to listen to this long-haired, red-headed stranger. Sixty years later, I still tell the story.
Let’s not forget “Guts Hour,” a karaoke happy hour with the club’s house band providing the backing. Two songs were the limit on stage. For many singers, it was their first Nashville performance … and often their last.
Some stories are only told in Word City. For example, the real reason I-40 runs through the Jefferson Street corridor. The location was selected to separate white Nashville from Black Nashville – a wall within our community that only the sin of gentrification will tear down. This corridor was a bustling historic area in the heart of Nashville, the center of black culture. Black-owned businesses, churches, and restaurants lined the streets. It was the economic hub of this community. It was also the live music hub of Nashville.
The 1940s and ’50s brought Nashville the “chitlin circuit,” a music trail for Black performers that provided them a place to sleep and eat in their segregated world. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Black music icons such as Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Little Richard honed their skills at clubs named New Era, Club Del Morocco, Steal Away, The Baron, and others — all just a couple miles from the Grand Ole Opry.
Chet Atkins once told me, “Roy Clark and I used to sneak over and listen to those cats.” He hesitated for emphasis, then continued, “cause those cats couldn’t sneak over and listen to us.”
The interstate construction crushed Jefferson Street’s burgeoning music scene. Poet Tiana Clark captures the truth in this excerpt from her poem “Nashville” …
Where freed slaves lived on the fringe of Union camps, built their own new country.
Where its golden age brought the Silver Streak, a ballroom
bringing Basie, Ellington, and Fitzgerald. First-run movies
at the Ritz and no one had to climb to the balcony. 1968, they built the interstate. I-40 bisected the black community like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits.
120 businesses closed. Ambulance siren driving over
the house that called 911, diminishing howl in the distance,
black bodies going straight to the morgue.
And that’s where the poets come in. Lost in this charade called fame, we can often find a race to the bottom powered by the wrong motivation. Creating fame and art are oftentimes at odds. A parade of formulaic lyrics that rhyme can honor the lowest common denominator of our culture while it masquerades as art.
The power of the words comes in their presentation. They manifest their power whether sung, printed, or spoken; it is all in how they are perceived. The emotional tug of joy, hardship, struggle, hope, redemption, love, etc., must be accompanied by curiosity on the part of the reader/listener to receive the gift of the words. The willingness to hear and read between the lines for the intended meaning is the path to your heart that can change the soul.
In our midst, we have a thriving community of the spoken word. The matriarch of this family today is Minton Sparks. She defies clear-cut genres. Storyteller, poet, or spoken-word artist? Sparks is Nashville’s only member of the International Storytellers Association. She has graced the Opry stage and performed in the American Songbook Series alongside Rodney Crowell at Lincoln Center in New York City. After she opened for him, the late great John Prine described Sparks as “a great storyteller. Humanity with humidity all told humorously with humility.”
Sparks speaks directly to the Word City idea: “Recently, I came across the legend of the Wild Twin,” she says. “According to this legend, the night we were born, our wild, curious twin was thrown out the window into the dark. We can spend a lifetime searching for her. She’s the key holder to our deepest knowing, drops breadcrumbs along the pathway that leads us out of the tight confines of predictable artmaking made inside polite society.
“Lately, I have stalked my wild twin on the rural roads of Perry County,” she continues. “I found myself lost near the Cane Creek market listening to Tanya Tucker and crying to her singing words someone else had written, but she owned them to the bone with every breath of the song.”
And then she says as if to prove the Nashville tradition of “Guts Hour” lives on …
“Younger poets are quilting themselves into an emerging story, and I want to hear what they have to say. Super inspired by them, I want to share the stage as they practice their art.”
We recently lost one of the most prolific songwriters of all time, Loretta Lynn. She fits nicely into Word City! Longtime manager Nancy Russell says Lynn kept her writing books everywhere: on her bus, throughout her house, and even in such unusual places as stacked underneath an old tanning bed. Russell said, “Lyrics and music were always running through her head in the way that other people have thoughts. What she thought made their way into words and music.” Some only made it to paper, and that’s where they remain today.
Maybe, just maybe, our Music City and Word City are just wild twins thrown out at birth, searching for each other in their art.