Nashville’s pull is irresistible for these hometown musicmakers
Story Jason Browne | Photographs Bill Steber
Assuming you’ve never been there, what pops into your head when someone mentions Nashville, Tennessee? White Motown? Hee-haws and me-maws? The country Mecca?
When disciples of country music make their obligatory hajj to Nashville, if they keep their eyes up while circumambulating the Grand Ole Opry, they’ll probably be surprised by a couple of things.
1. Nashville isn’t all Stetsons and steel guitars. To be sure, it’s that, too, but the breadth of music emanating from the Music City has long run the gamut from rock ‘n’ roll to rappity rap (Cashville, anyone?).
2. This supposed shrine to working-class values and sensibility is gentrifying just as fast as any other major American city. To the point that you can’t park downtown without paying for a spot. But you have to pay to park because you can’t afford to live downtown unless you (or someone who loves you) are willing to pay thousands of dollars a month for rent.
We know these things to be true because a surprising number of Golden Triangle transplants have made a break for Nashville over the years to seek their fortunes in the music biz. Some have been there for decades while others took the leap just a few years ago. And their correspondence confirms that, outside the above-stated misconceptions, everything else we think of Nashville is true. It’s overflowing with musicians of every caliber, from overconfident hacks to worldwide icons. You can throw a rock in almost any direction and hit something music-related. Live music is abundant, as are the bars that host it. And the community of secondary and tertiary businesses that has sprung up to support the recorded music business is as deep and diverse as the music itself.
Our Golden Triangle brethren in Nashville represent a healthy cross-section of Nashville’s musical diversity. They carry the flag for the talent of Northeast Mississippi. And they’re making us look good up there.
Chase McGill never had much use for other musicians’ compositions beyond entertainment. As a young boy taking piano lessons, he would play the assigned scales and songs until he was alone. When his mother checked in on him, he’d inevitably be making up his own songs.
Then he got a guitar, played so much his fingers bled all over the strings, started a band and made it all the way to Los Angeles to record. The band didn’t last, but McGill had found his niche in writing. So he packed up and moved to Nashville, where he worked as an assistant booking agent to pay bills.
McGill’s boss at the booking agency had a banjo in his office, which McGill would play while his boss was at lunch. One day, his boss came back early and caught him.
“I was like ‘Oh, my God! I’m getting fired.’ But instead he said he was booking a guy who needed a banjo player for a show and asked could I take the day off and learn those songs,” says McGill.
He took the gig, made connections, started writing songs and wound up composing “Don’t It” on Kenny Chesney’s album The Big Revival.
“(Chesney) was one of the first guys to tell me ‘You need to quit your job and become a songwriter,’” says McGill.
So McGill lasted another two weeks at the booking agency before he found himself auditioning songs in front of the creative staff at Universal Records. Now under contract, he’s written songs for or with artists like Lucinda Williams, Luke Bryan and Iris DeMent.
“When you’re writing with an artist and you know their sound, you want to cater to that and create something that is them. Something as simple as ‘No, I don’t drive Ford, I drive Chevy’ can make it personal to them,” says McGill of his process. “My strength is piecing together the lyric and writing something everyone can relate to.”
Whether he’s writing alone, with a recording artist or another songwriter, McGill says he draws on his memories growing up in Columbus to make his songs relatable.
“My take on every lyric is, if I’ve lived it, someone else has to have lived it. So I typically won’t put pen to pad on something that isn’t true to me,” he says.
By his estimate, there are around 300 professional songwriters working in Nashville, and most of them work together. So he’s a regular part of the scene at this point, as opposed to LA, where he never got out because he was working constantly to make his share of the rent. And that was with four roommates.
“My share of the rent in LA was more than my first mortgage in Nashville,” he says.
If he’s not out collaborating, he’s in his basement studio, playing every instrument and laying vocals on reference tracks that he’ll hand off to recording artists. Every now and then some of his playing will make the final record, but not often.
“All of my cuts have been rerecorded because Nashville has the best session musicians in the world,” says McGill.
When it’s time for an artist and those top-tier studio musicians to record, they need someone with a keen ear for acoustics and arrangements. Someone who can make the band sound like more than the sum of its parts. Someone like Wyatt Funderburk.
Funderburk got into engineering and producing as a matter of necessity. His high school-era band with friend Steven Fazio did all of its own recordings, and someone had to mix them. So Funderburk stepped up. The two moved to Nashville around the same time, and when Fazio eventually broke off to start his own business, Funderburk headed back to school.
“We put out a few records, but the band didn’t really pick up like we wanted it to. So I went to SAE (Institute of Technology) in Nashville to study audio engineering and mixing,” he says.
Like many in Nashville, Funderburk works primarily out of his home studio, surrounded by framed photos of bands and albums he’s worked on. But he’s worked the boards in dozens of Nashville’s countless professional studios. Although that’s the case less and less these days.
“Now, with how powerful computer software is, you can get away with a lot more on a laptop. A lot of the big studios here are going out of business as people shift more toward home studios,” says Funderburk.
That means Funderburk can work on mixes at home, or head out to a coffee shop for a change of scenery and keep working. He considers himself primarily a mix engineer, but has dabbled in production as well.
“Mixing is just a specific part of the engineering process. You can do it without being physically present for recording. It’s strictly post-production,” he says. “Being a producer is a less technical, but more creative job, where you’re actually making decisions in preproduction. From songwriting to overseeing mixing and recording and mastering.”
A mix engineer, Funderburk lives in his headphones, listening to recorded tracks over and over, tweaking each individual sound at nearly imperceptible levels to produce the best sound when they all blend together in a song.
While he does this for bands in Nashville, he estimates that less than 20 percent of his business is local. Bands from England to Australia make up the bulk of his workload, ones who connect with him usually as the result of a recommendation of someone who’s worked with him in the past and knows he has the magic ear.
“The only way to get good at this is to do it a lot. You have to be very objective and make decisions that will please the client and not just yourself,” says Funderburk. “Some bands are very particular, and I’ll have to do several revisions. Others give me total creative control.”
Business has been good lately, and Funderburk estimates he spends between 10-12 hours a day mixing songs on his computer. But he has to take breaks every four hours or so to rest his ears, which get fatigued just like any other overworked body part.
“My most valuable piece of equipment is my ears. If I mess up my hearing, I’m out of work,” he says.
That means mixing at low volumes, even though he acknowledges that music “feels better” at high volumes. And he’s not proud of the fact that he doesn’t wear earplugs when he plays live music with his own bands.
Surprisingly, Funderburk says he doesn’t get sick of listening to the same song 100 times in a row when mixing, whether it’s his own music or a client’s.
“Most of the music I work on is music I enjoy and like to listen to. Mostly rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s what I like,” he says.
Steven Fazio wound up in Nashville after graduating from Starkville High with plans to play rock ‘n’ roll with his best friend Wyatt Funderburk. But a mechanical inclination and a lack of rock star success guided a slow transition from the audio to the visual.
In 2005 Fazio opened Southbound Custom, specializing in painting and finishing guitars, and the occasional odd item. He’s finished custom guitars for country stars like Jason Aldean, metal gods Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield from Metallica and rock royalty like ZZ Top.
Fazio is back to having more business than he can handle and building up his staff after a dip during the recession. But as proud as he is of his business, he’s very clear on how he got here. His band with Funderburk was hot shit in high school. Then they got the Nashville reality check.
“Nashville is a weird town. You get no respect being in a band. You put on a show and invite all these people, then they want you to go to their show because they’re musicians, too. And all the musicians have a chip on their shoulder because nobody is getting paid, but nobody wants to spend any money.
“In Starkville, I was one of maybe three people my age who were really serious about playing guitar, and probably the best of the three. Then you move to Nashville, and it’s like ‘Holy crap, everyone’s amazing.’ If you’re looking for good music, Nashville is great. If you’re in a band, it’s hard.”
These days, Fazio gets plenty of respect, but maintains a humble perspective.
“The anecdotal version is that my job is rubbing on things with other things,” he jokes.
To achieve his custom finishes, Fazio spends countless hours eyeballing different shades of paint, combining them to make new shades, spraying the new shades on guitars, then sanding and polishing to perfection. And if the shade isn’t exactly what the customer wants, then it’s back to square one.
“Now that I’ve got three guys working for me, I only do specialized work. The rest of the time I’m consulting with customers to isolate details to get what they want out of their head,” says Fazio.
Fazio personally tends to tricky jobs like metal flake and sunburst finishes, flames, rainbow transitions and tattoo reproductions. All of which involve a lot of staring.
“It’s excruciating in terms of details beating you down. Color matching is one of the biggest problems. Trying to read people’s minds and figure out what they really want. On at least three occasions my wife or my dad has had to talk me off the ledge of shutting this place down,” he says.
Even Nashville itself is a blessing and a curse to Fazio’s business. Despite the city’s 3:1 ratio of guitars to people, most of Fazio’s business is from out of town. His shop gets virtually no foot traffic (Broke musicians, remember?). But Fazio points out that, “The biggest thing Nashville does is give me credibility to the rest of the country.”
So the UPS guy keeps dropping off work.
Work, in Nashville, is by no means guaranteed.
Bethany Bordeaux was a big fish in a small pond when she moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to Columbus when she was 12. Suddenly the best violin player in her age bracket, she assumed a leadership role. Then she and her violin moved up to Nashville 10 years ago, where there are a million other fish in the sea.
“When you first get here, you take every job that’s offered to you because you want to pay your rent. I worked part-time and baby sat. I definitely lived on Happy Meals when I got here,” says Bordeaux, an alum of the Suzuki Strings program in Columbus.
There are two inherent challenges to being a working musician in Nashville. First, you have to jump into the mix and market your skills. Once your skills have been vetted and the community accepts you, they’re happy to refer you to jobs and vice versa. The second is that jobs must exist. As Bordeaux recalls, “Jobs can be ‘spurty.’ And this hasn’t changed in 10 years. I wouldn’t get a call for a month, then I’ll get five offers for the same weekend.”
Getting back to the first problem, musicians in Nashville can be cheap and self-serving, but that doesn’t mean they want to succeed at another musician’s expense. As Bordeaux describes it, everyone wants everyone to eat.
“It’s such a friendly and welcoming place. People want to see you win because we’re all in it together,” says Bordeaux. “There is some competition, but even in the violin world, I know one guy here who is my first call if I can’t take a job. That’s the fabric of the community here.”
Still, to be a part of the fabric, you’ve got to get woven in. And not everyone is extroverted enough to naturally connect.
“It stinks. I hate self-promotion. To this day it remains really tricky. I still get uncomfortable posting performances on Facebook,” says Bordeaux. “It’s the same with getting work. I don’t want to be in the way or annoy people.”
Initially, gigs came slowly, maybe one per month. And there weren’t enough for her to be choosy, so she couldn’t afford to turn down jobs that involved styles or genres that didn’t appeal to her. Only in the past three years does she feel she’s really hit her stride. Now she plays regularly at events and women’s conferences hosted by Christian singer and author Kelly Minter, and she tours frequently. She even popped up in a Kellie Pickler and Taylor Swift video and didn’t have to play a note, they just wanted stand-ins for an all-girl band.
Bordeaux has played a few studio sessions in Nashville, but she says live performances are her natural element, and that frequently takes her out of town on tour.
“A lot of what I do is church events, and I really love the ministry aspect of playing. I meet people after shows who will say ‘Your music really lifted me up or encouraged me,’” says Bordeaux. “Who cares how many music videos you’ve done. It’s about connecting to people, and that’s where the success is. Give me that all day long.”
Some artists find multiple avenues to connect with their fans, with larger audiences accompanying each iteration. That has certainly been the case for Starkville’s darlings, the Melby sisters, Hannah and Caroline, in their journey to Nashville.
After close to a decade with the band Nash Street, the group named after the Starkville street the sisters grew up on, the Melbys were a known commodity. In 2008, Nash Street entered the Colgate Country Showdown competition in Philadelphia for a grand prize of $100,000 and studio time. Having toured regularly for years, the band was seasoned enough to win round after round, eventually winning the whole thing in Nashville in front of host LeAnn Rimes.
Caroline, the younger Melby at 26 and mandolin player, says Starkville played a direct role in preparing the band for success, if for no other reason than offering them countless opportunities to sharpen their performance skills.
“Starkville did jumpstart us because Mississippi State and all the events around town were great to hire us. I think we played every faculty barbecue and student gathering. Our biggest moment was playing the MSU football homecoming halftime show. It was one of the craziest experiences to be on the field with the band,” she says.
So, big crowds were nothing new. High stakes were nothing new. Nashville was the next logical step. After winning the Colgate competition, the band split the money that was left after taxes and used it to move north, where the sisters decided to “get rid of stinky boys” and become a duo.
“In Nashville, musicians are everywhere. It’s very intimidating, and the quality of the music is amazing,” says Caroline. “You might have been the star of your hometown, but you’re just another fish in the sea in Nashville. So we had an identity crisis to figure out who we were and what made us unique.”
Now equipped with a touring band, HanaLena continues to book shows from their new home base. Touring the country led to a wholly unexpected way to interact with their fanbase, according to Hannah, the elder sister at 30 and fiddle player.
“We were playing a show in the Mississippi Delta, and a man came up to us after the show and said, ‘I like y’all’s music, and you have an interesting story. Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ And I was like, ‘No, we have not, crazy person,’” says Hannah.
But the idea grew roots, and Caroline and Hannah worked with the man to compose a book of Recipes and Road Stories, an anthology of all the places they had played across the United States and all the foods they had grown to love in the process.
In addition to their repertoire of hometown saturation, competition dominance, literary yarns and endless touring, the sisters also have one EP in the bag and are constantly writing and perfecting songs for a full-length LP. To that end, they’re in the perfect place. But for show money, you have to hit the road.
“You can’t even find paying gigs in Nashville. Most of the time, we play out of town,” says Hannah.
Bryan Owings came to grips with the realities of performing in Nashville a long time ago. He makes his money as a studio session drummer and lives off his own recordings, but playing in his hometown is for fun.
“Sometimes I play little gigs around town that may not pay, but those are networking gigs. Tip gigs. And a lot of world class guys play tip gigs in Nashville,” says Owings.
Owings is the de facto elder statesman of the Golden Triangle in Nashville. He only lived in Columbus briefly after graduating high school, but his late father was a local icon as WCBI’s chief meteorologist. And his best friend of 40 years, the late Brian “Brain” Harrison, also relocated from Columbus to Nashville after a spell in Atlanta.
“He was a bass player, but he could play everything,” says Owings of his friend Harrison. “He always wanted to have a studio, even when we lived in Columbus. So when people were throwing away all their analog gear, he was buying it back.”
Harrison eventually succeeded in assembling his home studio in Nashville and, in addition to endless recording with Owings, recorded with everyone from locals to stars like country singer Shelby Lynne.
“I introduced him to Shelby. I brought her to his house, and she flipped out and loved him and his place. We recorded a bunch of stuff there,” says Owings. “He stayed busy there. Every room in his house was wired.”
Owings and Harrison met in the ’70s after Owings tacked an ad to a billboard in City Music in Columbus looking for like minds to play with. Their relationship would span decades and multiple regions, Owings in Alabama and Harrison in Georgia, before they met again in Nashville.
“I was over there all the time. His studio was basically a social club. I talked to Brian every day,” says Owings. “He was a workaholic. If he wasn’t recording or playing, he was writing songs or working on amplifiers. That was his way of relaxing.”
Two years after Harrison’s passing, Owings continues the work they loved, playing session gigs and recording his own music. It hasn’t always been easy. The scene was essentially the same when he arrived in the mid-’80s.
“It took a while to find work. I had a day job. Another friend from Columbus named Ricky Harper, a really talented drummer, was managing a hotel and gave me a job as a maintenance man. I finally got myself fired by never showing up on time,” says Owings. This experience came after securing a string of record deals and high-profile jobs with acts like Willie and the Bushmen and Delbert McClinton.
“I’ve moved around my entire life. You get hired, you get fired. You get your feelings hurt, and other times you’re ready for a change. I don’t know too many musicians short of the Rolling Stones who have been in the same band for 40 years,” says Owings. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”
While he’s had fun on his rock odyssey, Owings also found a time to raise a family and become a part of the Nashville community. Playing with legit celebrities and rookies. It’s been a dream come true, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the Music City.
“It’s the old way, and the only way I know is you go out and play gigs. And you go to a city where there’s a scene. That’s why I moved to Nashville.”