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Hot bands, big deals, a buzzing music scene — Nashville's ’80s rock scene had it all

Never in Nashville

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If you were a punk fan in Nashville in 1979, there were few places around town to satisfy your fix.

You couldn’t hear it on the radio. When KDF, then the city’s biggest rock station, put the question of punk to listeners in 1977—with a Talking Heads show broadcast live from the Exit/In—the answer was a resounding no. You couldn’t find much of this reckless new genre at record stores either. There was no Tower Records, and the underground LPs at Cat’s Records and Tapes—the only record store with an import section—filled at most a milk crate. And if you were a talented kid with a punk band and you needed a place to play? Well, good luck.

But in a few months, Nashville’s punk and rock scene would explode, fueled by kids, college radio, zines and a handful of venues that would serve as the focal point for the new music blazing through the South. The ensuing frenzy would produce Nashville’s first punk clubs, its first major-label rock band and its first indie rock label, and it would compel a host of unorthodox industry types to broadcast a new signal out of Music City. It would change the city, whether the city knew it or not.

Over the past year, local bands such as Be Your Own Pet, The Features and Kings of Leon have brought new buzz to Nashville’s rock scene. They have also butted heads against the so-called “Nashville curse”—the stigma of trying to launch a rock ’n’ roll career from a town best known for steel guitars and sob stories. But on both counts, the success as well as the struggle, they’re not the first. For a period of less than a decade—especially between the founding of the city’s first punk club, in 1980, and the closing of the rock club that galvanized the scene in 1986—Nashville’s disenfranchised rockers challenged country’s stranglehold on the city.

The kids who made it happen are either grown or gone. And the scene they created went the way of all pop phenomena: it blazed for just a short time and quickly faded. But the network of faces and places that called Nashville home then—bookers, club owners, DJs, journalists, entertainment lawyers, indie record labels and, of course, bands and their fans—paved the foundation for the current rock scene.

It was a different world then. The groups that made 1980s Nashville one of the country’s rock ’n’ roll hot spots did so without MySpace bulletins, cell phones, blogs or text messages to communicate about new bands. Compact discs weren’t even around at the start. But some aspects of the game never change—like hungry young bands plastering phone poles on Elliston and Division with flyers. This story opens more than 25 years ago, when those poles had a lot fewer staples.

The year: 1980. Punk had already peaked in Los Angeles and New York.

Sid Vicious was dead; by year’s end, Darby Crash, lead singer of L.A.’s Germs, would join him. Yet the sound was just making its way to Nashville—a city where the music industry still hadn’t gotten over The Byrds on the Grand Ole Opry. Pat Albert, bassist for Nashville’s first hardcore band, Committee for Public Safety, remembers the city being so out of touch with rock’s cutting edge that he had to drive to Atlanta to find Clash albums.

“Back then,” Albert says, “if you saw a guy walking down the street with a mohawk or a leather jacket, you’d pick him up before some Lynyrd Skynyrd fan hit him with a beer bottle.”

But a catalyst was coming who would give the disconnected scene a focus. Rick Champion, a warehouse employee at country catalog Gusto Records, had just discovered punk himself, no thanks to Nashville. “You couldn’t find any good punk records in Nashville, and you couldn’t hear this stuff on the radio,” says Champion, now a high school teacher living outside Kansas City. “[Vanderbilt’s] WRVU was just beginning to start playing some, slowly, but it was kind of creeping.”

One night, Champion accepted a friend’s invitation to a beer joint and hot dog stand called Phrank ’n’ Steins (some remember it as Phranks ’n’ Steins), located on Broadway in the basement of what is now St. Mary’s Bookstore. “I walked downstairs into this dank, cavern-type club and just said ‘Wow. This would be a great rock club,’ ” he remembers. In January 1980, he took over the booking, and the city’s first punk-rock club was born.

The impact was immediate. Nashville’s first punk band, Cloverbottom—named after the local mental hospital—formed shortly thereafter, led by Johnny Hollywood on bass and Rock Strata on guitar. Others, like The Electric Boys and Jap Sneakers, seemed to spring up as soon as they got wind of the club. Groups like The Ratz began playing regularly, stoking their sets with Ramones covers, while other punk acts such as USR had more political bite. There was now a place and a sound for this growing scene of kids hungry for anything with three wee chords and a whole lotta rage.

“Suddenly, these little punkoid high school kids started crawling out of the woodwork,” Champion says. The club pulled in people like Barry “Cheetah” Feltz, self-styled leader of a rat pack in chains and black leather who called themselves the “Belleview Crew.” Dave Willie, singer for Committee for Public Safety and the dark late-’80s art-pop band Jet Black Factory, remembers sneaking into the club as a high school student.

“[It was a] small scene and everyone knew each other,” says Willie, who with CPS helped entice bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag to Nashville. “I was thrilled to find it. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for confrontation and rebellion.”

Today, it’s no big deal for a club like The Muse to book four unknown punk or metal bands a night. Back then, though, by booking different acts each night—sometimes on multiple bills—Champion was bucking the conventional wisdom of the club scene, which was dominated by singer-songwriters doing extended residencies. He even did the unthinkable in booking: he solicited tips about which acts to book from his patrons.

One such regular was Bruce Fitzpatrick, now an elder statesman of the city’s club scene. Originally transferred here from a jeans store in Atlanta, the Keith Richards look-alike started booking bands in 1980 on a whim. After a visit back home one weekend, he caught a show by an unknown band he really liked. He asked if they’d be interested in playing Nashville. That was how R.E.M. made its first Music City appearance—at Phranks for a $100 guarantee, plus door money.

At a time when the legal drinking age was still 18, Father Ryan and Hillsboro High kids were beginning to sneak into the club. Underage drinking became pervasive. Once Champion began packing the 70-capacity club to over 200, the city finally took notice.

“One night this cop in the alley saw kids smoking dope in the parking lot,” Champion says. “One thing led to another, and next thing I knew a kid came in and said there were five or six cops in the parking lot. They caught some people who were underage coming out of the club. They had arrested another kid holding some marijuana. When the cops got inside, they were kind of freaked out. This band File 13 was onstage and the lead singer was in this pink tutu. The cops totally freaked. We got a lot of notoriety out of that bust.”

But as quickly as the scene started, it lost its home. By November 1980, the club had shut down for several reasons, among them a failure to pay licensing fees. The Phranks kids wondered what would happen to their fledgling community, of which someone at one point compiled a registry of 30 names. But luckily, right up the street a new club had just opened at 19th and Broadway. Formerly a Big Boy, it was rumored to have employed Kris Kristofferson as a dishwasher before his musical career took off. It took its name from its owner: Cantrell’s.

Terry Cantrell was an unlikely candidate to serve as godfather to Nashville’s rock scene.

In 1978, he was a season ticket-holder to the Nashville Symphony. He attended Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theater regularly and rarely consumed alcohol. A Department of Transportation engineer by day, he embarked on a series of entrepreneurial ventures by night—among them Springwater, the Centennial Park dive he’s run since May 1978 on a handshake.

“The scene was insane there,” Cantrell says of Springwater, a joint that once shielded Jimmy Hoffa from prying eyes in a secret back room. “I’ve seen times it would take you 30 minutes to go from the front door to the back door. You had to trade places with somebody. The fire marshal would come by and I’d have to kick out at least half the people.”

Then 31, Cantrell needed a bigger place. Though rock acts like Dave Olney & the X-Rays were a big draw at Springwater, Cantrell was committed to booking a variety of music, and for that he had only a handful of clubs as competition—mostly the Bluegrass Inn, Rock City, Spanky’s, Mississippi Whiskers or Bishop’s Pub (now the Tin Angel). When Cantrell heard Phranks folded, he gave Rick Champion a portion of the nights at his new joint.

Suddenly, Dave Willie remembers, Nashville had something miraculous: a club that seemed to never want for a draw.

“There was a vibrant, well-supported scene and people went out in droves to hear live music,” Willie says. “You saw a band, hit the hooch hard and got laid. I do remember stumbling on stage many times and being amazed at seeing hundreds of people in the audience. Unfathomable just a couple of years before. It quickly exploded from a handful of inspired zealots in Rick Champion’s cave to a scene of hundreds. Thousands.”

By 1982, the elements of an entire musical subculture began to coalesce around Cantrell’s barracks-like base. 91 Rock deejays such as Regina Gee began broadcasting the revolution from their puny but penetrating signal. They played records you could only get at the West End Cat’s—thanks to its new import buyer, one Bruce Fitzpatrick. While scanning the imports, kids could pick up a typewritten, cut-and-pasted zine called Nashville Intelligence Report. Started by Vandy law student Andy Anderson in 1982 and later run by Champion, NIR became the new rock scene’s journal of record. It ran everything from listings to reviews of local bands to interviews with visiting rockers such as Joe Strummer.

To expand the booking, Cantrell also brought Glenn Hunter and Fitzpatrick on board. In a strategy that Grimey’s and The Basement would perfect a quarter-century later, the record store and the club bookings fed off each other, stimulating interest from outside bands. Fitzpatrick was responsible for luring influential groups like The Replacements, the Minutemen, 10,000 Maniacs, The Georgia Satellites, The dBs, The Gun Club and the Bangles long before they broke out.

“Back then, people had a curiosity about out-of-town bands,” says Fitzpatrick, who now owns and books The End. “You’d book them, and people would be curious about what they sounded like and they’d come out. That doesn’t exist now in Nashville.”

The club’s capacity, somewhere around 200, could expand if the crowd was moved outside, and it usually did—especially for shows like the Violent Femmes, the yearly Alternative Jam (a wiseguy retort to Charlie Daniels’ then-popular Southern-rock Volunteer Jam) and the Stray Cats, for whom Cantrell ordered tents to accommodate the overbooked show. At one point, Cantrell switched to canned beer because so many kids were breaking bottles. Local author and journalist Tom Wood, then an MBA student sneaking in underage, remembers “huge amounts of sweat, people dancing like crazy and a suspicious liquid on the floor.”

“The scene was Cantrell’s,” says Kath Hansen, who covered Nashville’s 1980s music scene for several publications and now lives in New York. “My early memories of Cantrell’s include seeing bands like The Enemy, The Dusters and White Animals. It seemed like in the early to mid-’80s, every telephone pole in Nashville was covered with flyers advertising bands playing at Cantrell’s.”

With college radio at the helm, club life was rejuvenating across the country, thanks to post-punk bands hitting the road and playing anywhere that would have them. “You could go to another city,” remembers Mark Medley, drummer for CPS and later Nashville indie rockers Raging Fire, “and identify the people who’d know what was going on just by what they were wearing. You looked for the people who looked like you.”

The energy pumped new life into other Nashville clubs, including the venerable Exit/In, whose glory days seemed to have peaked years earlier. Cantrell’s competition increased as the Elliston Square club picked up bigger touring acts, such as L.A. roots-punk legends X.

Though in truth Cantrell’s and the Exit/In shared much of the same audience, perception pitted Cantrell’s scruffy safety-pinned clientele against the Exit/In’s beer-guzzling Vandy frat boys. In time, two bands would emerge as the leaders of the divided scene, both with roots in the basement of Phranks. They would also become the public face of the new Nashville music outside the city limits.

One was the White Animals. Originally a twosome playing acoustic covers at Phranks, they became regulars and started drawing from both sides of Broadway. “We’d get Vandy frat guys and punkers with pink hair,” says Ray Crabtree, drummer of the band from 1981 until they disbanded in 1987. As the expanded group honed a danceable sound, mixing ’60s rock with dub reggae, they evolved into one of the city’s biggest draws.

The White Animals never scored the major-label deal so many Nashville bands would after them. “If you wanted to get a record deal, you opened for the White Animals,” Crabtree says.

But they did something that would provide a template for indie bands 20 years later: they formed their own Dread Beat label, self-released six albums, and cultivated a huge fan base through near-constant frat-circuit touring. In the end, the business-savvy Animals made history as the first Nashville act to crack MTV.

But it was the group Crabtree describes as “a hog farmer basically fronting this band of serious, hardcore drugged-out punks” that would trigger a temporary gold rush. Ironically, they would become synonymous with the boom years of Nashville rock, even as they erased the “Nashville” from their name.

“When I first came to town in the summer of ’81,” Jason Ringenberg says, “it was a very small scene.

A big country album then sold 100,000 records. And there was no rock scene. There was none, other than the little Phrank ’n’ Stein’s punk-rock scene, which metamorphosed into the Cantrell’s scene, which I became a part of. And out we came with this radical new idea. Not just for Nashville but for the world, really.”

Today, after years of alt-country with metal guitars and indie-rock sheen, a band like Jason & the Nashville Scorchers coming from the South wouldn’t seem surprising. In 1981, their unique hijacking of country’s traditional blaze with punk’s attitude had the shock of the new. At a time when Nashville rockers desperately wanted to escape Music Row’s shadow, the Scorchers encouraged local rock fans to take pride in their regional roots, playing Hank Williams covers with a speed and fury Black Flag couldn’t touch.

If the novelty of the Scorchers’ raucous “cow punk” merely raised eyebrows, their live performances opened eyes. “Jason was a wild man on stage,” says Crabtree, drastically understating. One show in particular stands out for virtually everyone around at the time—even those who weren’t there. It was a free outdoor concert in 1982 in the parking lot of Cat’s Records and Tapes. More than two decades down the pike, folks who lived to tell about it are understandably a little fuzzy on the details. But they all remember two key things: a scaled billboard and a bloody mouth.

“Jason had a cordless mic, and climbed to the top of a billboard during one song,” Dave Willie recalls. As guitarist Warner Hodges slung his guitar in a 360-degree arc over his shoulder, Ringenberg howled more than 20 feet above the pavement, leaving thousands on both sides of West End agape and slowing traffic to gridlock. Later in the show, Willie adds, the convulsing singer “unintentionally smashed out a front tooth with the mic. We were fuckin’ rolling. Great show.”

The Scorchers’ live show made fans into believers, and believers into disciples. None was more devoted than a former Vanderbilt student named Jack Emerson. A die-hard music enthusiast with a tuft of bushy red hair, he was a compelling figure.

“He had a radio show at ’RVU and his handle was Jack Hammer,” says Kay Clary, a veteran Nashville publicist who was attending Belmont at the time. “I heard him play ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’ and then he played the Sex Pistols right after that. I called him right away to ask about the ‘Pistol’ song. He had this big white 1979 Camaro, this huge thing. Total redneck muscle car. He had a lot of interesting dichotomies.”

Emerson, who died in 2003, had played bass briefly for the Scorchers, but he knew his calling wasn’t as a musician. If he couldn’t do that, he decided, he would make them stars. He called Andy McLenon, a childhood friend from his hometown of Naples, Fla., then living in Baton Rouge.

“He had found Jason Ringenberg and told me there was this band and I needed to hear them,” McLenon says. “I saw them and all I could think was that this was the greatest thing I had ever seen, and I gotta figure out how to be involved. I didn’t even know what being involved meant, because I’d never even heard of being in the music biz as a career. Jack talked me into moving up here to start a record label that he’d actually already started—he had the name and everything.”

The label was called Praxis—a word that denotes action—and Emerson, McLenon and Clary would run Nashville’s first indie rock label together. Years earlier, Emerson had put out a sampler 45 of new local music called Never in Nashville. He would now try to prove its title wrong.

Initially, the three conducted business out of Emerson’s basement, in an apartment on White Bridge Road. “In the beginning, the Scorchers would leave town to tour,” Clary says, “and I’d lose my desk because it was two of their amps with a board across it.”

But as Clary, now director of media relations at BMI, puts it, the three were passionate about the Scorchers because “no one was doing what they were doing. They were so unbelievable live—it was probably like seeing The Clash or something, and I’m not exaggerating. We knew we were going to set the world on fire with that band.”

“There’d never been a band like that,” McLenon says. “There had been country rock and there had been Gram Parsons. But there’d never been Gram Parsons meets Iggy Pop meets the Dolls meets the Stones. The whole idea of that happening in Nashville—the concept—I thought was gonna be bigger than U2. That’s the reason we did the label.”

With Emerson and McLenon pressing the promotional angle, and the Scorchers barn-storming across the country in a beat-up Econoline van, the nation’s rock press began to take notice. In 1983, Jason & the Nashville Scorchers made their buzzsaw-country stand with Fervor, a blistering EP that remains one of the most exciting records ever made in Nashville. To the shock of the folks back home, the record placed at No. 3 in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll of the country’s music critics.

If Music Row wouldn’t give Jason & the Nashville Scorchers—or any other Nashville rock act—the time of day, so be it. On Praxis’ behalf, Jim Zumwalt, an entertainment attorney who had relocated from Memphis, did an end run around the local music industry. He signed the band straight to EMI, and suddenly the local boys had the prize every Nashville rock act wanted: a major-label record deal.

There was just one little catch—something Jason Ringenberg calls “a mistake I regret to this day.” They wanted the band to drop the “Nashville” from their name.

“When we signed with EMI,” Ringenberg says, “they just said, ‘Listen, this Nashville thing is gonna cause this real problem, ’cause everybody’s gonna think that you’re a country band.’ Well, we were kind of a country band. But we just said ‘What’s the difference—that doesn’t make that big of a difference.’ Well, it did. And a lot of people were offended and, immediately, I knew it was a mistake.”

Looking back, it might have been a sign that any infatuation the rock industry had with Nashville would be short-lived.

Despite the outrage at the name change, though, the attention the newly christened Jason & the Scorchers were getting sent electricity through the community. A February 1984 cover story on “That Other Nashville Music,” in the Vanderbilt entertainment magazine Versus, offers a snapshot of a music scene surging with energy.

A long introduction by editor Pete Wilson, now host of 91 Rock’s Friday-morning show “Nashville Jumps,” shows how fast the family tree of new Nashville music was branching out. Lineups shifted and recombined: The Hots begat the Actuals, who in turn begat Factual. And while the bands have disappeared, the personnel remain familiar: Bill Lloyd of the Practical Stylists, Jay Joyce of In Pursuit, Tom Littlefield of Basic Static. The bands knew no age limit. Led by the Leftkowitz brothers, The Young Nashvillians—the youngest of whom was 15—were voted most fun, undoubtedly because they sang clever songs about what they knew: Green Hills, Vandy girls and the icky ice at Shoney’s.

“I had a sense during the ’80s that Nashville felt it was in some sort of competition with Athens as far as who had the coolest rock scene,” says Kath Hansen. “They had R.E.M.; we had the Scorchers. They had B-52s; we had Mr. Zero. They had Love Tractor; we had The Shakers.”

For Scott Martin, a music fan growing up in Franklin, the changing scene meant a greening of rock music. “Growing up in the ’70s, it seemed like all the singers and bands were 10, 15 years older than me,” Martin says. “There weren’t any new artists getting on the radio.”

Suddenly, he recalls, in Nashville “there were people my own age making music. The punk scene was something I’d only read about, and even then all you heard about were knife fights at shows and drug overdoses. Now here it was, and [instead] it was really exciting.”

Several compilations attempted to capture the moment. The most controversial was a record called The London Side of Nashville, said to feature two punk rock girls in front of Tootsie’s on the cover. (They look more like refugees from a Quarterflash video.) Aside from the fact that the producer included a band from Atlanta, local bands were astonished to find that the tapes were edited and instruments dubbed in without their permission. Better received was the WRVU comp Local Heroes, featuring such contenders as Civic Duty, the Wrong Band and Will Rambeaux & the Delta Hurricanes. But there was still no radio station with the reach to get the music to a bigger audience.

That changed in 1985, when a signal boost gave Vanderbilt’s 91 Rock 10,000 watts of new power. Suddenly, Nashville music was beaming into bedrooms in Bellevue and car radios as far away as Murfreesboro. With the power came new clout. The station started ticket giveaways, band interviews and live broadcasts from clubs. Suddenly, rock music in Nashville wasn’t something you just saw or read about on the down-low anymore: it was in the air, all around you. Tom Wood, who had one of WRVU’s first local-music shows, remembers feeling like an ambassador—an agent spreading the gospel of college radio and the unheard music.

It was a good year. The Scorchers’ first full-length LP, Lost and Found, came out to raves, and their mugs were on MTV. And other bands were starting to attract attention beyond the city limits. There was Walk the West (featuring a veteran songwriter’s kid named Paul Kirby), who had their own galloping take on cow-punk. There was Webb Wilder, the hulking, bespectacled roots-rocker with the Jack Webb drawl. There was Raging Fire, led by sultry heartthrob Melora Zaner, alongside the supernatural folk-rock of The Shakers. Word was spreading of the fire in Music City, and with entertainment attorneys such as Zumwalt and Praxis colleague Trip Aldredge fanning the flames, A&R people actually started visiting to scout rock talent.

“People came to town trying to find other Scorchers because the buzz was so huge,” McLenon says. Aldredge agrees: “What put Nashville on the map was Jack and Andy and their success—or at least their perceived success—with the Scorchers. As the result of that, you had this rock management company and label that became a production and publishing company. But there was an infrastructure there. These guys had real vision and real ears for music.”

Around the same time, after NIR faded, an entrepreneur named Gus Palas launched The Metro, ostensibly a more professional music magazine. Word spread that the publication would cover all things local, but the first issue seemed to be singing a different tune.

“Infamously, the first cover had Bon Jovi on it,” says Wally Bangs, a local musician and fan who recently devoted a four-part series on his blog Soulfish Stew to Nashville’s rock history in the ’80s. But it later picked up writers that locals respected, and local rock coverage started to dominate future issues. “Some issues would totally suck,” Bangs says. “But then for a while, it was awesome. People like Kath Hansen and Tom Wood were writing for it, and suddenly it was actually pretty good.”

The Scorchers had gone from browsing the import racks at Cat’s to signing records there, and they capped the year with another triumphant show in the Cat’s parking lot. But by 1986, the scene was starting to shift again, toward a new group of bands whose names seemed to signify change: The Movement, Tomorrow’s World. The 1986 WRVU compilation City Without a Subway catches the scene right at the peak of optimism, poised between youthful exuberance and the careerism ahead.

“Away from the expensive Music Row studios and plush record company offices, in garages and cramped nightclubs, a younger generation is dancing to its own beat,” read the liner notes by Michael McCall, who, as a reporter for the Nashville Banner, was among the few local journalists to take the rock scene seriously. The cover art, by outsider artist Rev. Howard Finster, shows mountainous cones labeled “Shadow 15” and “Will Rambeaux” erupting from their small-town surroundings. With tracks by them and eight other bands, McCall wrote, “[this] record proves that the city is ready to contribute to rock’s future.”

After five years of running a punk rock club, though, Terry Cantrell was tired. “Cantrell’s was like having a sick child,” Cantrell says. “It took constant attention—a lot of money and time. It was never a thing where I was really trying to make money.” With exhaustion wearing on the club’s owner, and what seemed like constant troubles from local government agencies, Cantrell closed the place down.

“I was audited on my sales tax,” Cantrell says. “Audited on my liquor tax. Codes closed me down once. There were times—and maybe it’s cause I was younger—that I just felt every government agency was trying their best to get rid of that club that booked those rock bands. I still kinda wonder about that. I’m not so sure I was wrong.”

The closing of Cantrell’s seemed to mark another shift: the moment when the burgeoning rock scene became an industry to be tended, not a spontaneous convergence of luck, opportunity and excitement.

It was a time when record deals seemed plentiful, if not ubiquitous. “About everybody in town who could play guitar got a record deal in the late ’80s,” Jason Ringenberg says.

The same year Cantrell’s closed, the city held the first Nashville Music Extravaganza, designed to bring talent scouts and industry to the city and capitalize on the Scorchers’ heat. It was founded by Steve West, a Belmont baseball player turned music business management student who managed the West End Cat’s Records and organized its outdoor concerts. The first year’s two-venues-and-10-bands approach resulted in most of the acts getting signed, and with Jim Zumwalt’s help the conference eventually expanded to some 140 acts spread across 26 venues.

Depending on whom you ask, this shift toward a culture of industry was either a stroke of genius or a disaster. The 1987 Metro ran a column objecting to the absence of “alternative music” from the second year’s lineup, and argued for a handful of acts like Government Cheese, Freedom of Expression and Luck London. Though several Nashville rock acts would release major-label albums throughout the decade—The Questionnaires on EMI; Royal Court of China on A&M; In Pursuit on the short-lived MTM label; Will & the Bushmen on SBK, home to Vanilla Ice—none made the hoped-for breakthrough. Even the Scorchers’ momentum quickly faded when their slicker 1986 follow-up, Still Standing, stalled in stores.

“There’s a couple things about Nashville,” Ray Crabtree says. “Nashville is a tough town to play. You’ve got all these music people in town, and the reality is that most of them, after dealing with it all day, the last thing they wanna do is go see music at night. It’s unfortunate. The industry—we’re a very jaded town. You’ve gotta get a big buzz going and still drag those guys out to see you. If you’re not doing country, there’s not a whole lot that’s going to be here for you.”

The void left by Cantrell’s was never quite filled by any one venue. As the ’80s drew to a close, clubs throughout the city catering to punk and rock would more than pick up the slack, from the upscale Nashville Center Stage and The Cannery to Steve West’s 328 Performance Hall. But none would serve as a centrifugal force for the scene until the next decade. The bands would keep playing and more would keep forming—some even moving to Nashville to get signed, something rockers today would probably sneer at.

“I think this golden era in Nashville’s rock scene came about through a perfect storm of three things,” Kath Hansen says. “It was clubs being willing to book anybody local, magazines like Nashville Intelligence Report and The Metro featuring local bands, and WRVU’s support of local bands.”

But in some ways, the city’s rock scene is still standing on a platform built in the 1980s. Look at similar scenes that flared briefly in the years since—at Lucy’s Record Shop in the early ’90s, at Spongebath Records in Murfreesboro a few years later—and you see a replay of the same cycle, from the initial groundswell to the eventual fade. Look at the current scene, and you find plenty of pivotal figures who cut their teeth almost two decades ago, from Will & the Bushmen’s Will Kimbrough and Government Cheese’s Tommy Womack to their Bis-quits bandmate Mike Grimes, whose record store Grimey’s is arguably the music scene’s most important catalyst at the moment. If Kath Hansen and Tom Wood hadn’t left The Metro in 1988 to form a snarky, contentious literary zine called the Fireplace Whiskey Journal—whose writers went to work a year later for a newly refurbished rag called the Nashville Scene—you might not be holding this paper.

And all the same factors are in place today. As it was 20 years ago, there are a handful of local bands getting national attention; a circuit of clubs willing to book them; a few newspapers and radio stations that will help spread the word; record stores to carry their merch and connect them to what’s happening everywhere else—and of course, the phone poles on Elliston and Division, still plastered with flyers. And there is the same excitement people say they felt back then—the excitement of being there as all those things come together, and the fuse is lit.

Will it burn out eventually? Sure. That’s rock ’n’ roll. But if Nashville’s boomtown years of the 1980s tell us anything, it’s that we’re in for a hell of a ride.

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