A Nashville Songwriter’s Survival Guide

The 5 Spot in East Nashville.


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In Nashville, music isn’t just an art. It’s an industry. Universal, Sony, and Warner – the “Big Three” record labels in America – all have offices on Music Row, a small latticework of streets that house many of the city’s publishing houses, recording studios and management offices. Countless other music companies, from CMT to Rhapsody to Rolling Stone, have Nashville branches, too. The city is congested not only with people to make music, but people who promote, film, record, and sell it, as well. It’s possible to write a song, record a demo, sign a record contract, pose for publicity photos, film a music video, book a tour, conduct an interview, and play a show, all without leaving a three-block radius. If you didn’t have to schlep your equipment from place to place, you might not even need a car.

Mike Grimes, who worked for Sony before joining Bare’s band, strongly warns against burning any bridges in a town filled with so many industry employees.

“In Nashville, everyone knows your dirty laundry,” he says. “If you tell someone to fuck off, be prepared to see them down the road, because they might turn into someone whose help you need. I quit working for Sony in 1996 and starting playing with Bobby Bare, Jr., and he wound up signing to Immortal Records, with distribution from Sony. I’m glad I left that label on good terms. Otherwise, who knows if they would’ve been willing to work with us?”

Jim Lauderdale, a Grammy nominee whose resume includes collaborations with Ralph Stanley, Lucinda Williams and Buddy Miller, echoes that advice.

“Don’t be a difficult person to be around, whether you’re a songwriter or a business person,” he recommends. “There’s just too much going on. There are too many people here that you don’t wanna rub the wrong way. It’s a small town in a lot of ways. You don’t have to hang out with everybody, or be friends with everybody, but people like to work with people they can get along with.”


Remember: not everyone moves to Music City with the goal of launching a songwriting career. Just as many people come to town with their instruments in tow, hoping to make a living as session players. If you’re looking to cross paths with people who may be willing to join your band, hit up the places where most musicians hang out – namely, the smaller venues in town, where beer is cheap and multiple acts fill the bill every night.

The 5 Spot in East Nashville is a good place to start, particularly on Tuesday nights, where local musician Derek Hoke hosts a long-running concert series called $2 Tuesdays. It’s a see-and-be-seen affair, the musical equivalent of putting on your best party dress and hitting up the dance club. It’s dirt cheap, too – $2 for admission, $2 for local Yazoo beer – and the whole event doubles as a mid-week hangout for members of East Nashville’s music community, a scene that prides itself on being different from the more conservative, country-leaning crowd across the Cumberland River. Inside The 5 Spot, which recently became smoke-free, you can’t throw a bottle cap without hitting a musician.

“When I first started $2 Tuesday,” Hoke remembers, “I could name everyone in the room. Now, I’m in a sea of strangers. But that tells me it’s working. We have people from all walks of life, ages 21 to 70. Word of mouth has spread. People know something is happening there. They come to hear good music, and that’s all I’ve ever tried to provide.”

The same goes for New Faces Night, a Tuesday showcase at The Basement. Roughly five bands perform every Tuesday, and the low-pressure environment tends to attract newer acts who want to sharpen their act before booking a longer set. Roughly 12 years ago, Kings of Leon played their second show ever at New Faces Night. Several years later, The Felice Brothers visited Nashville for the first time, played New Faces, booked a second show for the following evening, and left town one day later with an offer from Old Crow Medicine Show’s manager.

Across the river, the Mercy Lounge kicks off each week with “8 Off 8th,” an enormous community event featuring eight different acts every Monday. The venue doesn’t handle the booking for those shows; instead, a rotating crop of outside bookers take the reins. As a result, it can be hard for a new act to land a slot . . . but it’s a good networking opportunity, nonetheless. The Mercy Lounge’s website offers up some pretty sound advice, too: “If you would like to play 8 off 8th, we recommend one simple thing: come to 8 off 8th.”

Writers’ rounds and open-mic nights are solid alternatives for quieter acts, especially solo artists and acoustic duos. Located on the northwest tip of Vanderbilt’s campus, the Commodore Grille hosts shows every night of the week, with a crowd that’s full of tourists and college kids. Over at Douglas Corner, songwriters have been playing Rick Campbell’s Tuesday night open mic for years. The crown jewel, though, is the Bluebird Cafe, where country titans like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift used to strum guitars.

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