Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

nashville-music

Kirk Whalum visiting the audience at a riverfront concert in 2007. (Photo: Terryballard/Wikimedia Commons)

Geography of Innovation: Why Nashville Is Music City

• January 17, 2014 • 3:42 PM

Kirk Whalum visiting the audience at a riverfront concert in 2007. (Photo: Terryballard/Wikimedia Commons)

Quality of interaction trumps density of interaction any day, and the Tennessee capital has a critical mass of talent from all over the world.

Nashville is a great place to work as a musician. It’s an ironic talent refinery, a designation usually reserved for alpha global cities such as New York or London. Why? Nashville-based singer-songwriter and author Tommy Womack provides the ethnographic answer:

Nashville has two kinds of folks: music industry people and civilians. Many of the civilians are so inundated with all the music thrown at them that they don’t pay attention anymore; some are churchgoers who don’t go to bars anyway, no matter who is playing. So bands will often find themselves playing for other musicians, songwriters, and industry people, most of whom are broke. Bands will almost always play for door money or tips, and if they get thirty dollars apiece at the end of the night, they’re in high cotton. As Mike Grimes—he of the successful record store Grimey’s—points out, a low-paying or free gig in Nashville, in front of the right person, can translate into paying gigs out of town down the road.

Nashville is a songwriter’s town. You would be forgiven for thinking of us as a bloodless exporter of songs about cowboys—written by people who aren’t cowboys, sung by people who aren’t cowboys, for an audience of people who aren’t cowboys. There is some truth in that. But Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have knocked on our door for hits before, and some of our most successful songs bypass the Music Row production line entirely. “We’ve been banging our heads against a wall for forty years, trying to get the world to see that we do more than country music here,” says my friend Bill Lloyd of the Long Players. “People from all over the world come here to record.” …

For an industry town, Nashville is remarkably bereft of cliquishness. Maybe that’s because it’s full of expats. If you feel like an outsider, you’ll likely find someone at a party or over a barstool to talk to anyway—someone who just moved here as well. Take Paul Griffith, from Algiers, Louisiana. I’m from Madisonville, Kentucky, but I met Paul over a late breakfast at the Nashville Biscuit House, and Paul has brought his drumming to bear on hundreds of recording sessions and thousands of gigs. He can adapt and play whatever is required of him, but he’s most at home whacking out a loose and swinging Big Easy feel. He just got back from playing a Todd Snider tour of amphitheaters in zoos (yes, zoos). Paul’s been on the road with Todd for most of the last two years. “If you embrace the chaos, it’s the best gig in the world,” he says. In more than twenty years of living in Nashville, he’s done tours with Lee Roy Parnell, Carlene Carter, Jo-El Sonnier, and many, many others.

Emphasis added. To be Music City, Nashville doesn’t need great density or a large population. It requires a critical mass of talent from all over the world. Nashville is the Horta of wayward musicians.

The Nashville of Canada might be Halifax. More humbly, it is a better Toronto. The creative magic of Atlantic Canada:

Halifax proved highly attractive to the musicians we interviewed because of its supportive and collaborative social dynamics. Traditional explanations of economic development emphasized the role of natural endowments, geographic position and access to markets in affecting growth trajectories. In light of Richard Florida’s and others’ interest in understanding the factors that motivate talented and creative workers to locate where they do, we find attention increasingly focussed on how the social dynamics of city-regions may influence migration outcomes. While it would be premature to signal the end of the dominance of Toronto in the Canadian music industry, our research identifies the significant challenges that Canada’s largest city has in retaining talented and creative workers in light of the competition from smaller, more socially cohesive scenes like Halifax.

Toronto is a place of outsiders without trying. Halifax proves that a city, or any sized community, doesn’t have to be Toronto-big in order to be world class for innovation. Quality of interaction trumps density of interaction.

Making a community denser and more diverse doesn’t prime the pump of creativity and innovation. Furthermore, greater social capital is a death sentence for new ideas. Stick a fork in Jane Jacobs. Nashville is Music City.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t More Women Commit Corporate Fraud?

Would having more female leaders reduce corporate crime? We don’t know, but the research suggests it’s likely.


September 23 • 12:00 PM

A Brief History of the Loch Ness Monster

From 1933—and possibly much, much earlier—to just this past May, people have been claiming (and staging) sightings of the famed water cryptid.



September 23 • 10:00 AM

The International Surrogacy Market

In Bangalore, where many women earn just $150 a month working in garment factories, surrogate mothers can make thousands of dollars by carrying others’ babies to term. But at what cost?


September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.