How do you know you are in East Nashville? Follow the beards, a current joker might say. If you do, you'll find yourself in an area tucked in between Nashville's neat downtown and the city's eastern edge, separated from each by the twisting Cumberland River. To the west, tourists flock to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Ryman Auditorium — the "Mother Church of Country Music." The Opryland complex — the venerable stage and radio show's comfortably suburban home since 1974 — is to the east, where the city sprawls into malls, hotels and tourists attractions. East Nashville and its adjacent neighborhoods were originally bucolic enclaves favored by the wealthy, like Fort Greene in New York City or parts of Northeast Los Angeles. Then natural disaster and urban renewal made it "undesirable" — a place for working people, mostly non-white, and eventually for artists who appreciated the eminently salvageable history and the cheap space.
Longtime residents will note that East Nashville has been gentrifying on and off since the 1970s. Right now, though, the rush is on. The neighborhood's been flooded, not by water, but by the artisanal products of today's consumer-culture elite. There's a bakery, Bella, that sells subscriptions to its sourdough bread, and a coffee shop, Barista Parlor, whose custom cuppas take ten minutes to make. Vintage clothing stores host screenings of forgotten horror movies, and at Fanny's House of Music high school girls shop for their first drum kits beneath paintings of Etta James and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The old dive bar The 5 Spot is now featured in ABC's popular nighttime soap Nashville — a show that, everyone admits, has brought not just looky-loos but new residents to town. And everywhere, there are home recording studios, rehearsal rooms, nightclubs and friendly group houses where every variation of underground, retro, garage, indie, punk or otherwise unnameable rock is played.
The rock and roll life of Nashville has always been a potent presence obscured by the large and powerful country music industry, the way the chewy caramel layer in the city's native Goo Goo Cluster candy hides within layers of nuts and chocolate. Ask a native about the recent resurgence of rock in Nashville, and he or she will inevitably remind you that Bob Dylan madeBlonde on Blonde in a Music Row studio, and that R.E.M. recorded Document at the Sound Emporium. The symbiotic relationship between country and rock once symbolized by Elvis Presley and now kept alive by hit makers like Luke Bryan and Brantley Gilbert extends from the grassroots to the mainstream. And in 2014, it's more visible than it's been in a long while.
The must-be-mentioned powerhouses Jack White, The Black Keys and Kings of Leon not only reside there; each cultivates lesser-known bands through their own labels or as producers. On the club level, Nashville bands count among today's most beloved, whether they're mosh pit generators like Diarrhea Planet or pop pastoralists like the Apache Relay. And then there are those as-yet uncelebrated bearded men and fringe-coiffed women, driving their used Subarus packed with futons and gear across the water, toward new roommates or lovers who might soon be in their bands.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's news magazines and music programs.
One of the nation's most notable music critics, Powers has been writing for The Record, NPR's blog about finding, making, buying, sharing and talking about music, since April 2011.
Powers served as chief pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times from 2006 until she joined NPR. Prior to the Los Angeles Times, she was senior critic at Blender and senior curator at Experience Music Project. From 1997 to 2001 Powers was a pop critic at The New York Times and before that worked as a senior editor at the Village Voice. Powers began her career working as an editor and columnist at San Francisco Weekly.
Her writing extends beyond blogs, magazines and newspapers. Powers co-wrote Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, with Amos, which was published in 2005. In 1999, Power's book Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America was published. She was the editor, with Evelyn McDonnell, of the 1995 book Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Rap, and Pop and the editor of Best Music Writing 2010.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University, Powers went on to receive a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of California.