Editor’s note: In an occasional series entitled Through Lines, we take a look back at records that help tell the evolving story of Nashville music decade after decade. Our coverage of the 1990s comes from veteran music journalist Michael McCall, who was longtime museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Also take a look at our installment payments the 1970s and the 1980s.
For the Nashville music community, the new century began a decade early. In the 1990s, every segment of the music scene expanded to where the city is today, with a wide range of rich music scenes that in many cases have achieved national or international recognition. The ’90s were one hell of a fun time for music fans in Nashville, and these eight albums encapsulate the decade and its changes
dixie chicks, To fly (Memorial, 1999)
During that decade, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks (who changed their name to The Chicks in June 2020) released albums that surpassed 10 million units sold, paving the way for Music Row to open the golden doors of the top Floors of suites opened American Entertainment.
The chicks To fly, which has been certified 11 times platinum, foreshadowed the possibilities of the century ahead and summed up the virtues of the previous decade in the country. The riotous “Sin Wagon” and “Goodbye Earl” embody the swagger and fun of Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” The honky-tonk of “Hello Mr. Heartache” and “Some Days You Gotta Dance” embraces country traditionalism in general and Texan dance hall music in particular. Her songs draw on the finest songwriting talent from Music Row (Matraca Berg, Marcus Hummon, Richard Leigh) and the evolving Americana world (Patty Griffin, Mike Henderson, Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott).
A few years later, mainstream country radio and its fans torpedoed the group and their musical vision with a narrow-minded reactionary response to the band’s criticism of George W. Bush. Country music still suffers creative limitations stemming from this very public blacklist, as artists are still afraid to speak out for fear of going “Dixie Chicked.”
BR5-49, Live by Roberts (Arista, 1996)
Lower Broad in the 1980s was populated with pawnshops, coin-operated porn markets and a few vacant bars with stalls made out of torn Naugahyde. The transformation into today’s meatpacked neon strip for party-goers began when Robert’s Western Wear (now Robert’s Western World) and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge ceded their stages to musically astute traditionalists like Greg Garing, Paul Burch and BR5. 49, which drew crowds of scene makers and old-school country fans keen to dance.
Would you like to know what a night on the street used to sound like? Grab a dance partner, open a pabst, and attract the vital and visceral Live by Roberts. Every night was an inviting carnival, with no bachelor parties, country brothers, long lines and vomit the last few years. The music was so much older (and wiser) back then; it’s younger (and dumber) than that now.
Matthew Ryan, may day (A&M, 1997)
The country-influenced punk rock and smart power-pop communities of the 1980s that were beginning to garner national attention led to the rise of a professionally accomplished group of roots rockers and artsy frontiersmen. The best featured inspired song artistry and capable musicianship, a Nashville tradition. These acts conspired to go beyond what some called the “Nashville Curse” by proving that a local act could have national success outside of country music.
A deal-driven festival called Extravaganza, hosted by the long-gone Nashville Entertainment Association, sought to introduce non-national acts to shore-based record labels. The festival kicked off with a dozen carefully selected rock and pop acts. It grew into a sprawling event, cramming more than 400 aspirants into 26 clubs over four nights In 1998, his year before last.
Artists with a national following gave the city a boost by moving here, including Steve Forbert, Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams. Some locals like The Cactus Brothers, The Dusters, Mark Germino and the Sluggers and Webb Wilder also continued to grow their fan base. Others took advantage of the critical acclaim to build niche followings, including Bedlam, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Julie Miller, Todd Snider and Matthew Ryan. As exemplified in the brooding, anthemic guitar rock of Ryan’s may dayall of these acts created some of the best work of the 1990s.
lamb chop, How to quit smoking (Amalgamation, 1996)
A young DIY crowd of set-to-destruct bands as diverse as FUCT and Trauma Team were driven by fear and a fuck-all attitude. With the brave Lucy’s record store Positioned on Church Street as temples of community for all ages and copied fanzines, these bands ignited a politically minded youth movement that railed against boredom and injustice. Lucy has joined other clubs to encourage sound experimenters – the best of which, Lambchop, has achieved international fame. How to quit smoking captures the band at their most expansive and complex, with songs that combine subtle chart-topping brass and strings with pedal steel and electric guitar tones to create an artful, downcast form of southern chamber pop.
Count Bass D, pre-life crisis (work/epic, 1995)
The NEA Extravaganza drew criticism from Nashville’s black music communities for its lack of diversity: The late Aashid Himons, leader of the reggae-influenced Afrikan Dreamland, launched his own alternative festival after the extravaganza only featured a tiny number of black artists. Around the same time, the local hip-hop scene emerged, fueled by message-based, socially conscious artists such as Count Bass D and Utopia State. Released on a division of Epic Records, Count Bass D’s debut demonstrated as much ingenuity as more well-known acts such as Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. The work of Count Bass D and others paved the way for rapper Young Buck’s success in the aughts and for local hip-hop leaders in the years to come, such as Starlito (who began his Cash Money career as the All Star Cashville Prince) . , Chancellor Warhol, Mike Floss and Daisha McBride.
Rod McGaha, preacher (Compass, 1999)
Nashville’s jazz community is deep-rooted and rose to prominence in the late 20th century. The scene included several established leaders including Beegie Adair, Lori Mechem, Dennis Solee and Roger Spencer. They collaborated with local musicians Rahsaan and Roland Barber, Chris Brown, Jeff Coffin, Nioshi Jackson and Jody Nardone. Over time, these outstanding musicians have been praised and collaborated with by nationally known elders such as Larry Carlton, Kevin Mahogany, Jimmy Smith, Chester Thompson and Kirk Whalum. Pop-jazz a cappella vocal group Take 6, signed to Warner Bros., stunned audiences with their acrobatic harmonies and beatbox rhythms, and attracted support from Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder.
Chicago-born, Nashville-based trumpeter Rod McGaha in particular found mentors in Max Roach, Clark Terry, and other leading jazz greats. McGaha’s second album preacher was produced by Delfeayo Marsalis and released on Nashville-based indie Compass Records. The jazz world took notice, and rightly so. Preacherman notes that McGaha infuses a searching, spiritual depth into traditional swing and straight-forward jazz arrangements.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Three flew over the cuckoo’s nest (Warner Bros., 1993)
The emergence of progressive acoustic music, initiated largely by bluegrass-loving and jazz improvisation-inspired musicians, is among Nashville’s major American musical contributions. The Flecktones, led by former New Grass Revival banjoist Béla Fleck and featuring brothers Victor and Roy “Futureman” Wooten, led the charge. Her work attracted attention and collaboration from Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, and others.
Fleck was quick to cite how the interaction of a group of peers propelled all the musicians to new heights. These top players, all of whom have achieved international recognition, include Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor. Its members have composed symphonies and soundtracks while collaborating with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Paul Simon to the Nashville Symphony. The Flecktones album Three flew over the cuckoo’s nest, recorded during a period when the band was still a trio without a cane player, is their simplest effort. It dives even deeper into funk, venturing slightly into hip-hop while maintaining a focus on adventurous time signatures and upbeat, improvised flights.
Even, Subliminal plastic motifs (Zoo/Sponge Pool, 1995)
Across the street in Murfreesboro, upstart Spongebath Records proved that a college town with a college recording industry department can raise awareness for a quirky pop-rock brand. The success of one-of-a-kind bands like Self, The Katies, and The Features prompted Spongebad to partner with major labels and try to create a stepping stone to national recognition—especially for a mastermind like Self’s leader, Matt Mahaffey. On Subliminal plastic motifshe established an original pastiche that drew on funk, pop and jazz to create a futuristic sound comparable to Beck, OutKast and Prince.