A Nashville Songwriter’s Survival Guide

A writer’s round at The Bluebird Cafe.

On ABC’s Nashville, a soapy, prime-time TV show that just wrapped up its second season, stars are literally made overnight. A waitress at the Bluebird Cafe gets pulled onstage, even though she’s never performed in public before, and winds up signing a record contract before she can book a follow-up gig. A shaggy-haired hipster plays a show at The 5 Spot and catches the eye of a manager, who helps him land a $100,000 production deal before his guitar amp can cool off. A young songwriter writes something new, gives the song to a Tim McGraw lookalike, watches it go to number one . . . and collects more than $400,000 with his first royalty check.

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In reality, things aren’t that easy.

Onscreen and off, Nashville has battled misconceptions for decades, brought on by everything from the city’s Bible Belt roots to its longtime association with country music. This is a town built by guitars that twang and people who sang, a place whose forefathers include George Jones, Hank Williams, Sr., and men who wore rhinestones instead of powdered wigs. It’s the country capital of the world . . . but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“People have always had the perception that Nashville is just a country music town,” says Vince Gill, who moved here in 1983. “The truth is, it never was just a country music town. There was a great R&B scene here in the ’50s and ’60s, although not many knew about it, because Memphis had such great R&B at the time. Jimi Hendrix used to play gigs here as an 18-year-old in the clubs on Jefferson Street. Bluegrass was invented here. The city always had great jazz guitar players, great rock and roll singers, great world-class musicians. All the musicians here always knew what a melting pot this city was, and now, the rest of the country finally gets it.”

Maybe that’s why Nashville is growing so quickly. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau clocked the city’s population at 1.59 million. That number is expected to break 2 million before the decade is up. Home values are skyrocketing. Jobs are increasing. Neighborhoods like Germantown, once a blighted mix of run-down houses and empty industrial buildings, have bounced back with a vengeance, thanks to an influx of high-end restaurants that charge $12 for a cocktail and high-end homes that sell for $400,000.


Change is good. For a town that caters to the largest percentage of musicians in the South, though, change can be risky. If you’re making your living as an artist, can you really afford to pay $800 a month in rent? If you’re meeting a producer for a drink, can you really afford one of those $12 cocktails? Some musicians can. Most can’t. Pretty much everyone agrees on one thing, though: Nashville is still a helluva lot cheaper than New York and Los Angeles.

“We came here because it was affordable,” says guitarist/songwriter Ben Jaffe, who left L.A. and moved to Nashville with his band, honeyhoney, in early 2012. “You’ve got the same level of opportunities in Nashville as you would in those moneybag cities, so you can live here and not have to freak out all day about how you’re going to make rent, or how much your parking tickets cost. Everything is cheaper: gas, food, rent, insurance, concerts, weed. As a result, there’s a big community of people that can survive just by playing music. You might make different choices if you want to do that. You might not play the music you wanna play all the time, or you might need to play in someone else’s band as a sideman . . . but you can make it work. A lot of people are making it work.”

“There’s never been a more exciting time to be in Nashville,” agrees Mike Grimes, a bass player who toured with Bobby Bare, Jr., in the late-’90s and currently runs two local businesses: The Basement, a 100-capacity venue several minutes south of downtown, and Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, a top-tier record store that recently opened a second location. “A more exciting time to be here will be tomorrow. And then the next day. And then the day after that. People move to Nashville because they want a sense of community that they don’t get in places like L.A. or New York. They come here for the ease of operations and the cheaper cost of living, even if the cost of living is going up.”

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