Though Shelly Colvin is an Alabama native now living in Tennessee, she knows a thing or two about sun-kissed California cool. Her debut album, Up the Hickory Down the Pine, is full of stylish country-folk songs that hark back to the work of such 1970s pioneers as Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.
But there, too, is the Shelly Colvin who sang three-part harmonies with her mother and minister father as a girl growing up in Huntsville. Like Nashville itself, the album displays an unabashed mélange of influences but remains rooted in Southern tradition. While the song “Pocket Change,” which sounds something like Zeppelin by way of Alabama, pushes the boundaries of country music, the title track is steeped in enough down-home authenticity to impress the Grand Ole Opry crowd.
Song you must hear: The harmony-rich “To the Bone.”
If Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name stepped into a vintage El Camino and turned on the radio, Escondido would come blaring out of the speakers. The self-described “desert rock” duo of Tyler James and Jessica Maros bridge the gap between Nashville and El Paso with big harmonies, keyboards, trumpets, and searing guitar.
“We wanted to make a record inspired by the old spaghetti Westerns,” James says. And to get in the right frame of mind for their debut, The Ghost of Escondido, released in February, he and Maros immersed themselves in the work of spaghetti-Western composer Ennio Morricone.
Still, notes of Nashville’s past come through loud and clear on the record. Maros’s Nancy Sinatra–meets–Tammy Wynette vocals are the stuff of 1970s AM radio, and the more upbeat tracks sound like bona fide Music Row earworms, with the juicy hooks and polished instrumentation that have come to define the Nashville sound.
Song you must hear: The catchy “Cold October.”
JEFF the Brotherhood
If there were such a thing as Nashville rock kingpins, it would be brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall (no, there isn’t a Jeff to be found). The brothers formed the band in 2001, when they were still in high school, and they have since released eight studio albums of greasy garage rock filled with ripping guitars and instantly hummable vocals.
They’ve also established themselves behind the scenes, with their own label, Infinity Cat Recordings, serving as home to several highly touted up-and-coming Nashville bands, including Natural Child and Heavy Cream. Their latest album, Hypnotic Nights, was co-produced by Dan Auerbach and recorded in a week at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio. “There’s no question that Nashville rock wouldn’t be the same without Jake and Jamin,” Auerbach says. “It starts with them.”
Song you must hear: The slow-rolling “Leave Me Out.”
Let’s start with the name, a reference to a line in Jaws in which a character’s friends offer some helpful encouragement as he tries to stay ahead of the shark: “Swim, Johnny, swim!”
Or so say duo Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano, who admit they have changed the story a few times. Their sound—a hot stew of blues, rock, soul, and pop seasoned with a healthy dash of singer-songwriter balladry—is just as hard to pin down. What comes through clearest in Johnnyswim’s songs is the chemistry between Ramirez and Sudano, who flirted by writing and playing music together until their relationship led to marriage and a full-blown touring band.
The pair have recorded two EPs and played shows all over the world. And though they spend a fair amount of time in Los Angeles (where Sudano—daughter of the late disco queen Donna Summer—was born), they say that Nashville’s creative energy keeps them rooted by the banks of the Cumberland River. “I think our sound reflects this city a little bit,” Ramirez says. “It’s diverse in ways you may not necessarily expect it to be.”
Song you must hear: The gauzy “Bonsoir.”
Like a modern-era Wanda Jackson, Nikki Lane turns the vulnerable singer-songwriter stereotype on its ear, crafting songs that crucify ex-boyfriends and have no problem with one-night stands as long as she can bolt town right after. Her cooing-yet-brutal vocals are a perfect fit with an aching, mournful guitar. Her upcoming album, tentatively titled Seein’ Double—produced by, yes, Dan Auerbach—is one of Nashville’s most anticipated releases. “My songs always paint a pretty clear picture of what’s been going on in my life, so this is one moody record,” she says. “There’s lots of talk of misbehaving and moving on.”
Born in South Carolina, Lane moved to New York City and, after a messy breakup, picked up a guitar and set her sights on a music career. But the cost of living in New York proved to be too high an obstacle, so she turned to Nashville, a city she had visited extensively. “I was hell bent on living in a big city and I just couldn’t work up the nerve to come back to the South,” she says. “[When I did,] Nashville was the obvious choice for me because of my fondness for it.”
in town, she released the 2011 album Walk of Shame to rave reviews, as well as opening High Class Hillbilly, a pop-up vintage clothing stall, where a chance meeting with Auerbach turned into a full-fledged partnership. “During the first round of recordings, I was in an awkward mood every night I left the studio,” she says. “It was hard for me to trust that Dan was right when he said I should move a verse around or add an extra chorus. He pushed to find the right feel for each track one by one, and a few months later I found myself with a damn good record.”
Song you must hear: Until the new album comes out, the sassy kiss-off “Lies.”
Much like a good bartender at the Patterson House, Leagues are Nashville’s master mixologists. On their debut, You Belong Here, released in January, the trio—vocalist Thad Cockrell, guitarist Tyler Burkum, and drummer Jeremy Lutito—combine skittish beats and jangly guitars tossed with an occasional U2-like anthemic moment.
After meeting in East Nashville and forming Leagues three years ago, the band played the Ryman Auditorium for only their tenth gig. “It was mind-blowing, and speaks to how welcoming Nashville is to new sounds,” Lutito says. “We think we made a pretty wild-sounding and imaginative pop record.”
Song you must hear: The stomping, infectious “Magic.”
Why did a Brit by way of New York end up in Nashville? Space, for one thing. “I had been longing to get out of the New York apartment reality where every conversation could be overheard,” says Jamie Lidell. “Now I can crank the music and relax.”
Lidell has been cranking it plenty since his arrival in Music City: His seventh album, Jamie Lidell, further establishes him as one of the top genre jumpers in music, mixing electronic blips, funk, and Prince-influenced electronic soul. It’s a far cry from either mainstream country or indie rock, but Lidell feels right at home in Nashville. “I feel like this town is ripe for any kind of good music,” he says. “I hope I’m just adding to the mix.”
Song you must hear: The rubbery robot funk of “Why Ya Why.”
Remember the seventies, with the cool dude with long hair wearing a blue-jean jacket and looking as if he was up to something shady? That’s the vibe of Natural Child. This bleary-eyed trio (and no, they’re probably not just tired) serve up some of Nashville’s slinkiest blissed-out grooves. They’ve also got a ribald sense of humor, as evidenced on the track “Laid, Paid, and Strange,” with its dude-friendly locker-room lyrics.
Song you must hear: The come-hither “What You Gonna Do.”
Don’t ask Caitlin Rose what kind of music she plays. “I hate that question,” she says. “I used to say country music so that I didn’t have to think about the answer. Really, though, I don’t know. I throw things at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Country” is the easy answer. Rose, daughter of a well-known Nashville songwriter, has a milk-and-honey voice well suited to honky-tonk standards. But she’s no stranger to the Nashville punk scene, either, and cites artists from British alt rocker Richard Hawley to soul singer Candi Staton and Fleetwood Mac as musical influences. So, yes, her sound can be hard to pin down. But tying it all together are precision-crafted lyrics and beautiful harmonies. “I’m just doing whatever I think sounds good,” she says. “Someone else is going to have to come up with a term for it.”
Song you must hear: The sleepy, melodic “Own Side Now.”
Sol Cat hasn’t met an influence they didn’t like: sixties R&B, doo-wop, dance punk, indie rock. There’s a little bit of everything in there. But they manage to turn it all into something fresh, not to mention a killer live show that provides a more sweat-inducing workout than a Jillian Michaels DVD.
In 2008, lead guitarist Johny Fisher moved from College Station, Texas, to Nashville. The band went through a few lineup changes before settling on the current five-man outfit and recording their new self-titled album, and their hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed around town. “Nashville is notorious for arms-folded crowds, but that never happens at Sol Cat shows,” says avowed fan Sam Williams, lead singer of fellow Nashvillians the Weeks. “Them cats is wild.”
Turbo Fruits front man/guitarist Jonas Stein was once in a band with JEFF the Brotherhood’s Jamin Orrall (the much beloved Be Your Own Pet). But while Orrall’s band jumps out of the gate and roars to the finish, Turbo Fruits likes to change it up. The foursome’s latest effort, Butter, balances a lightning pace on tracks like “Don’t Like to Fight” with thunderous, plodding garage rock on “Where the Stars Don’t Shine.” Oh, and they throw a hell of a party: Their semi-regular crawfish boils serve as a spicy detox for the hungover set.
Song you must hear: The all-in-one “Harley Dollar Bill$.”
You can take the Weeks out of Mississippi, but you can’t take Mississippi out of the Weeks. Formed in Jackson, the band recently moved to Nashville not knowing a soul. “Most people who leave Mississippi have been counting down the days till their departure,” says lead singer Sam Williams. “But we draw so much influence from its history and culture that we were worried it might not work elsewhere.”
It’s working out pretty well. There are hints of the arena rock of the Kings of Leon (their upcoming album, Dear Bo Jackson, will be released on the Kings’ label, Serpents and Snakes), but the Weeks trade the glossy sheen for some dirtier blues rumbling, fierce guitar work, and even a little gospel vocals. “This record is probably the most accurate depiction of what the Weeks sound like to date,” Williams says. “Every other record has been a brief snapshot and recorded in a few weeks, whereas this one took ten months. We were able to flesh out our ideas to the fullest, and being in Nashville allowed us to bring all of our friends in to sing and play on the record, too.”
Thirty-year-old film composer and Wild Cub front man Keegan DeWitt favors moody lyrics and metronomic beats. “Walker Percy has a great term, ‘the sad little happiness,’” he says, when asked to describe his band’s music. “I like the idea of exploring romanticism from a more cerebral place.” But don’t let the philosophizing throw you. He and bandmate Jeremy Bullock put on a rowdy show. “The music that I like most is based on rhythm, on drums and bass,” says DeWitt. “When we build our songs, we figure out the drums first, then the guitar.”
Driving tempos and synthed- up melody lines give even DeWitt’s most cerebral lyrics real pop-music propulsion. Sure, Wild Cub has a serious side, but at their liveliest, the duo—with whatever locals they’ve conscripted to fill out the lineup—can motivate a dance floor as well as any band in Music City.
Song you must hear: The jittery “Thunder Clatter.”