The Black Keys — the two-man blues-rock wrecking crew and favorite sons of Akron, Ohio — were up for four Grammys this year. Two of these they won: Best Alternative Music Album, and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals. Their art director, Michael Carney, also won Best Recording Package, and their producer, Danger Mouse, brought home a trophy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical.
Their single "Tighten Up" reached No. 1 on Billboard's Alternative Songs and Rock Songs charts. It remained No. 1 on Modern Rock radio for 10 weeks. That helped make 2010's Brothers their first RIAA-certified Gold Record (not to mention iTunes' Album of the Year). Factor in international tours, the festival circuit, appearances on Letterman, Fallon, Colbert and SNL, being named Spin's 2010 Artists of the Year and earning the No. 2 spot on Rolling Stone's Best Albums of 2010 list, and the past year has belonged to The Black Keys.
So they did what any chart-topping, cutting-edge rock act would do after grabbing the gold ring. They moved to Nashville. Only nobody's laughing at the thought.
Why here? Why now? "Why not?" seems to be the group's reply — and it's that casual acceptance, more than any dramatic lifestyle statement, that may signal a major shift in the way the city's music scene is regarded outside Nashville. A decade ago, the city was aggressively (or desperately) trying to promote itself as "more than country music." Today, one of the hottest rock acts going moves to town, and its frontman, himself an in-demand producer, sets up a top-notch recording studio within the city limits.
But that's not the big difference. The big difference is that 10 years ago, a group like the Keys coming to town would have been the story — the detail that put the city on the map for non-country media. Today, as part of a landscape that includes both homegrown and relocated pop superstars, they're a story. If anything, though, that makes them even more important. They're proof that what's happening here isn't a fluke.
"I think The Black Keys are a major component in helping people think of Nashville in some way other than contemporary country music," says Mike Grimes, co-proprietor of Grimey's and The Basement. "The Black Keys and Ke$ha and Kings of Leon — all these people who are making very, very big marks internationally certainly help change that perception."
Talk of Nashville being "The New L.A." (ugh) went around briefly a couple of years back. For a time, some folks even sported T-shirts with that sentiment. (The website that once sold them now appears to be little more than an abandoned kiosk.) Longtime Nashvillians generally laughed the trend off, as most agreed that we aren't L.A., we never were, and we never really want to be.
But with monolithic mainstream rock and pop acts like Kings of Leon, Paramore, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift emerging from Middle Tennessee, while acclaimed indie acts such as Lambchop, The Features, JEFF the Brotherhood and Those Darlins continue to gather steam — and let's not forget our brave emissary from the North, Jack White, who made rock scribes the world over rub their eyes and go, "Nashville?" — locals are crossing their fingers that our rock scene just might finally shake off its yoke of novelty.
Nine years ago, the latest hopes for a less country-centric Music City — one long and lean, the other built like a Southern-rock mountain man — stood on the fifth of five street corners in East Nashville's Five Points, unknown to all but a growing following of sharp-eared early adopters. Back then, Mike Grimes owned a much-loved venue by the name of Slow Bar — a space now filled by popular Five Points watering hole 3 Crow Bar.
In late 2002, Grimes was "bombarded," as he puts it, with a series of emails from a Black Keys representative seeking to fill a hole in their tour schedule, and hoping to secure a $100 guarantee. He balked: "I said, 'Man, I can't pay this band a hundred bucks. I haven't even heard them before!' ... This is before MySpace and everything."
The rep sent Grimes a copy of The Big Come Up, The Black Keys' May 2002 full-length debut via Alive Records. It's a record that's peppered with covers of tunes by legendary bluesmen such as R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters. More striking, though, were the originals — The Keys' arrestingly spare and gritty first efforts, powered by bludgeoning drums and snarling Rust Belt garage-blooze guitar that made up in force what they lacked in manpower. Grimes loved it. Not long after, the two-piece played the Slow Bar, opening for local act The Alcohol Stuntband.
"I was like, 'God damn! These guys are fucking awesome!' " Grimes recalls. "So the very next day I emailed their agent back. I was like, 'OK. You got me. They're incredible. When can I get them back?' He was like, 'Oh man, sorry. We just got the Beck tour, and then we're gonna do this and that.' So we got them right before shit started taking off for them."
The Keys' memories of their first Nashville show are somewhat less lucid.
"Didn't we do an in-store at his old store?" asks Dan Auerbach, sitting inside a booth at Hillsboro hangout Brown's Diner, breathing the same air John Prine probably breathed around the time of Sweet Revenge.
"No, it was that [current] spot," says Patrick Carney, the Keys' drummer half and Auerbach's gangly foil. Auerbach — well coiffed, significantly stockier than his counterpart and wearing a near-identical leather jacket — doesn't give. "No, I mean, like, way back when," he shoots back.
"No, we played at the Slow Bar," returns Carney. "That was our first show in Nashville. December '02. That's when it was. That's when we met [Grimes]."
The cliché "old married couple" doesn't quite do the chemistry between these two justice. As the most recent addition to their catalog suggests, their dynamic is close to fraternal. Their jovial ribbing is rooted in a shared past as childhood friends, and they're uncannily like-minded.
"No, we didn't meet him there," says Auerbach. "We met him at that Abbey Pub? What was it called? It was that pub in Chicago, when we opened for Bobby Bare Jr."
"No, he opened for us."
"Whatever," Auerbach concedes. "Fuck, I don't remember that show. I just remember meeting [Bare and Grimes]. They were so nice. Grimey's fuckin' incredible. Honestly, that guy's commitment to that spot and the music scene is insane."
They don't value that sort of commitment lightly. The Black Keys took almost a decade to succeed overnight. They're a quintessential case study in slow-but-steady ascension to stardom. In keeping with the blue-collar ethic of their hometown, they worked like dockhands to master and transcend their blues-rock roots — culled from influences like Robert Johnson, Link Wray and Canned Heat — via a series of collaborations, side projects and increasingly sophisticated but grounded records.
Some purists argue that the homegrown, DIY aesthetic of early records like The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness disappeared with The Black Keys' two most recent releases, Attack and Release and Brothers. And yes, in the back half of The Aughts, the duo did in fact climb out of the home studios, dank basements and abandoned factories that they called home for so long.
They began incorporating auxiliary instrumentation and the more refined production techniques of noted producer and performer Danger Mouse, who's known for his work with Beck, Gorillaz, MF Doom and Sparklehorse and as Cee Lo Green's counterpart in Gnarls Barkley. Auerbach released a solo record, 2009's Keep It Hid, and produced stellar records and singles for artists like former Tennessean Jessica Lea Mayfield and Nashville's own (by way of Los Angeles) The Ettes.
Carney, meanwhile, formed and played bass for the band Drummer and established a label called Audio Eagle Records, through which he released albums for bands like Houseguest and Knoxville's Royal Bangs. Carney and Auerbach even participated in a collaborative rap-rock outfit, Blakroc, whose eponymous 2009 debut featured contributions from hip-hop heavyweights like Raekwon, RZA and the late, great Ol' Dirty Bastard of Wu Tang Clan, along with Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash.
But what some see as The Black Keys turning their backs on the unrefined production techniques and aesthetic that made them stand out, others see as evolution. Their work with Danger Mouse produced fleshed-out, hook-laden rock numbers like Attack and Release's "Strange Times" and Brothers' "Tighten Up." These songs feature the same powerful vocal melodies, accessible lyrical content and dynamic influence as the early numbers, but with a keener ear for production.
In that regard, Brothers was a huge breakthrough. From thumping, mid-tempo barnburners like "Howlin' for You" and "Next Girl" to rich, soul-inflected cuts like "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "I'm Not the One," Brothers adds nuance to the earlier records' blunt force. Auerbach's vocals are nimble and evocative, from guttural, heart-wrenching howls to pensive falsetto stabs. Carney's drumming is more organic and dynamic than ever, supplementing instrumentation that borrows as much from old Stax and Volt artists as their past releases borrowed from Delta blues.
"It's kind of interesting that [their move to Nashville] happened to coincide with their first record to kind of get huge," says Michael Carney, Patrick's brother, The Black Keys' art director, and the proud owner — well, as soon as it shows up in the mail — of a brand-new Grammy for his work on Brothers' flatly literal and heat-sensitive package design.
"I look at it as kind of a new chapter in the story of The Black Keys," he explains. "You get to a point where you realize what you're inputting into your brain or your eyes or your ears is influencing what you're outputting. Your environment influences what you do. A lot. I think Dan and Pat know that."