NASHVILLE SKYLINE: How to Crush the Musical Soul of a City

Another Neighborhood Club Is Going Away

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

This is how another neighborhood landmark disappears. There are no villains, just people who get caught up in the inexorable and unstoppable crush of what’s known as Progress.

The Sutler, a largely unheralded but comfortable beer joint, has been a neighborhood hangout on Nashville’s Franklin Road for the past 30 years and has been a dependable country music venue. It’s seen many a big name music act in its day, but more importantly, it was home to many developing local artists and a part of the thread of the daily lives of many people. Now, it’s going away. It’s a combination of the usual forces at work: older business in a fading building, a lease about to expire and an aspiring developer seeing a chance to demolish an old strip mall and replace it with a bright, shiny, new — and more expensive — one. The Sutler now faces Franklin Road. The developer offers its owner a chance to be “relocated” and tucked away on the backside of the bright, new strip mall. Back behind the McDonald’s and Starbucks and a new upscale restaurant. The owner decides it’s not worth the struggle. So the Sutler will cease to be.

Old is not necessarily better, just as new is not automatically bad. But an institution with character that serves an established need or want of society is something to be valued. It should not be automatically discarded if something else — no matter what it is — would bring in a little bit more profit. Large segments of small business in America are being eradicated, from record stores to drugstores to hardware stores to bookstores and many such small outlets.

That amounts to an invisible damage to the cultural life and psyche of America. One less Sutler means one less little stage where aspiring musicians and songwriters get a chance to develop and hone their craft. It’s one less place for music lovers to go and support and encourage local musicians. Profits from a McDonald’s and Starbucks do not help the neighborhood or the local community. That money flows to corporate headquarters and to stockholders. But does everything in this country exist only to enrich stockholders? A McDonald’s and a Starbucks do not make a neighborhood.

So is the Sutler’s going away bad for America? Yes, it is. It is symptomatic of growth at any cost. It represents one more small business owner feeling forced out. One more man, tired of standing up for his little business, who begins to feel helpless in the face of Progress. Multiply that one small business owner many by tens of thousands, and you see the future of America.

It’s the same market forces that have squeezed out a number of music clubs in recent years around the country. Block by block in New York City, they’ve been disappearing for years, from the Lone Star Café to the Bottom Line and any number of smaller jazz and folk joints. Most recently, CBGB may be disappearing from the Bowery (although it just got a year’s reprieve, with rent going up to $35,000 a month). There’s talk of recreating CBGB in Las Vegas as a tourist attraction. It wouldn’t be the same thing. Just as Gilley’s could never be the same once it burned down in Pasadena, Texas, and was later “re-created” in Dallas. CBGB has been the very essence of a gritty local music scene. A music club is an organic being that exists for a reason. It grew. It’s not a franchise that can arrive on a truck, be unpacked and provide instant musical karma.

But, you say, the strip mall developer offered to “relocate” the Sutler elsewhere to “another parcel”? Moving the Sutler around to the back of a sanitized Starbucks strip nullifies any of the character of the place. It would die. People who go to a joint like the Sutler would wither up and perish under the bright, soulless lights of Franchise America. They are not the people who go to Las Vegas to view the fake Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower there. They don’t hang out at McDonald’s or Starbucks. Maybe that makes them undesirables.

There’s another, unspoken, current here — one that I’ve noticed over the years. Many people, especially those in development and real estate and traditional lines of business and government, are afraid of music and music clubs and people who hang out in joints like that. It’s probably because they think live music is largely unpredictable and uncontrollable and outside their idea of the social norm. Which, thank God, it is. But they also can’t grasp the fact that music is the very soul of a people.

As I write these words, police in downtown New York City continue their raids on music clubs, citing or shutting down those that allow dancing for violating cabaret laws. Police raids on clubs in downtown Austin were mounted in recent years in the name of enforcing noise ordinances. There are people who don’t want music around.

I guess it gets down to your city’s priorities: Does Nashville need to try to encourage the preservation of neighborhood institutions? Places like the Sutler function as a sort of neighborhood glue, bringing people together. Does Nashville really need another Starbucks more than it needs a local music club?

Maybe so, if a Starbucks is becoming the ultimate expression of our popular culture. It’s like McDonald’s ridiculous (and failed) attempt with the ad campaign that tried to pitch McDonald’s as “my McDonald’s” — as if a “neighborhood McDonald’s” could be anything other than an anonymous fast food joint staffed by surly, minimum-wage anonymous teenagers selling the same prepackaged food products as a million other fast-food joints.

Is this sort of change good for the economy? Hell, I don’t know. I do know this: It’s not good for the soul. It’s not good for any kind of lasting popular culture.

When small businesses become limited to only those that can support the high cost of new construction and expensive development, cities will become limited to McDonald’s and Starbucks and other safe deep-pocket franchises. If the profit motive is all that matters, so be it. Live with it.

Take the fate of the Sutler and multiply it many times. Contemplate that kind of future. As John Prine sings in “Paradise,” just “write it all down as the progress of man.”