2019 Fulbright Nashville March Enrichment Seminar

Last week, I had this amazing opportunity to participate in the “Nashville, the Rise of the Southern Music Capital” event, one of the several enrichment seminars organized by Fulbright Program. The goal was to gain insight into how the music industry of a single city (Nashville, Tennessee) was of such importance in shaping the overall American history and culture.


Day 1, Thursday, March 28

I am a PhD visiting scholar at UMass Boston, so my journey started in Boston Logan Airport on Thursday March 28th about 2 AM. After a connecting flight in Chicago, I arrived in Nashville about 10:30 AM (one hour less that in Boston). Still inside of the airport, I immediately witnessed that Nashville is indeed one of the capitals of music. A bar with live music, several exhibitors with famous guitars, a lot of people carrying some kind of instrument or a banner with Johnny Cash’s face welcoming visitors to Nashville. Oh yeah, I knew I was about to enter the ring of fire! And speaking of fire, I remember well the nice and warm sensation of some 20ºC (~70 F) when getting out of the airport. This really is a difference, if you travel from Boston in March (trust me!). Fulbright provided transportation from the airport with a bunch of regular shuttles and there I met the first Fulbrighters also participating in the seminar. To give you an idea, there were already a guy from New Zealand, a girl from Brazil, a guy from Egypt, another guy from Pakistan, and this was only the start! I was about to meet people from all over the world.

Sheraton Grand Nashville Downtown is a 4-star hotel right in the heart of Nashville. When entering, at the lobby, you are surprised with a magnificent architecture, almost like you would be at the bottom of a square-like well. You can see the elevators going up and down the rails and these beautiful decorations in the form of glass balls pending from the top as if they were gigantic lianas. After the registration we were offered some welcoming food and I met another bunch of Fulbrighters. I was so tired because I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours the night before, so before the seminar started, I headed to my room for a brief nap. My room was on the 15th floor and had this impressive view of the West. Small and old buildings contrasted with newer skyscrapers and a lot of construction sites give the idea of a city rushing to be modern. Before departing for the opening dinner, I still had a chance to meet my roommate, a very nice guy from Pakistan with a big black beard. While we were both waiting for an elevator, we met two other girls (one from Pakistan and other from Austria). And this is probably the thing I will remember best from the whole seminar. Every single occasion, as irrelevant as it could be, I would meet someone new and probably from a new country. Taking the elevator, having lunch or dinner, taking the shuttle, waiting at the lobby, even going to a restroom. I remember at some point betting, with one of my colleagues, for how many Fulbrighters we would encounter in the street when coming back to the hotel. Fulbrighters were everywhere!

We took the second shuttle for the opening dinner at “The Bell Tower”. The traffic in Downton Nashville can be really slow, so it probably took us half an hour for a 10-minute walking distance. Of course this was time for meeting more people, for example a girl from Timor Leste who could talk Portuguese! When we got there, the dinner was about to start and I barely had time for appetizers. Only then I did get an idea of how many people we were. The Bell Tower was huge but we made it feel small! By that time I was becoming an expert in “introduction talk”. With minor deviations, every new conversation would start with What is your name? Where are you from? What are you studying?”. And this would go on and on, in an infinite while loop!! [14]

Sitting at round tables with 9 seats each, this time I was among Spanish, El Salvadoran, Ukrainian, American, and Uzbekistan fellows. While we begun enjoying dinner, Matt Combs and Mitchell Korn summed up Nashville’s music timeline and the related industry since the beginning of the 20th century. But while doing that, they would sometimes stop to perform Country music excerpts, singing, and playing violin and different guitars. After all, Nashville is all about live music, so what would be the point in talking about music without listening to it?

When the dinner was over, everyone was excited to feel the vibrant Broadway with its many live music bars. But this time we walked! Who needs a bus in a night like this? It was so warm, welcoming us for fun, with the streets full of people, thirsty for good and exciting Country music! After some random walk, we ended up in the Robert’s, a bar recommended by my Spanish colleague (who is a guitar player and arrived one night earlier). And boy, he was right! The band playing there (Don Kelley Band [15]) was absolutely amazing! Mott Bohli (drums), Joe Fick in the Bass, Luke McQueary (guitar, and which I would later realize was only 18 years old!) and Don Kelley himself, a veteran, singing and also playing rhythm and lead guitar. And this was real entertainment. They were playing a mix of Country, Blues, and Rock, with so much energy and fun! I was impressed by the young boy’s guitar skills, he even played on the back of his neck and with his nose!! WOW! And the bar was crowded, with a lot of “Southern” people really giving us the feel of the America we often see in the movies. Cowboy boots, young and old people drinking and dancing, and loud music! Welcome to America! 

Around midnight, and after such a plentiful day, I knew it was about time to go back to the hotel. The following day would start early, at 8 AM.


Day 2, Friday, March 29

Breakfast was served at 8 AM. Probably I went for it at 8.30. And yet again, I met more people! After the previous introduction/welcoming day, the second day was totally dedicated to the seminar debate itself. In the morning, a panel discussion, and in the afternoon, site visit.

At about 9 AM we gathered in Ballroom 4 for the panel discussion “The New Music Economy - Artists, Studios and Tech”. In a short introduction by the Fulbright team, we were informed that 56 different countries were represented in this seminar. That’s something! In fact, I was then sitting between Namibia, Jamaica and Portugal Fulbrighters (yes, I was not the only Portuguese in the room!).

The panel was formed by a distinguished group of Nashville’s music teaching, performance and industry representatives. Mitchell Korn is a Senior Lecturer at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and considered to be one of the US’s most important leaders in cultural strategic planning, community service through the arts, digital music education technology and community arts partnerships [1]. Craig Havighurst is a writer, multi-media producer and speaker in Nashville who has won awards for his work in print, radio and television [2]. Jen Gunderman is a professor and also an active studio session musician and producer [3]. And finally, Pat McMakin is a Director of Operations at “Ocean Way Nashville” with over 30 years in the music industry. With such a stellar panel, we learned a lot about the history and role of music in Nashville. Beginning with the importance of the radio (as a mass media in the beginning of the 20th century and still important today), they also debated what is the impact of the new streaming services in the music environment and how copyright is of utmost importance for every musician. Understanding and documenting who wrote the lyrics, who composed the song, who are the performers, and make all this data available and share revenues accordingly. We also learned that besides the obvious (which is a lot of excellent music performers), a music city needs Publishers, Studios, Record Producers, Record Companies, and Talent booking management. And whatever it is, Nashville has it all, and that’s why it is still a capital of music! Among other important topics, the role of women in music was also highlighted. And it made me reflect that, even nowadays, how rare it is to see a music band where women are playing instruments (instead of “just” singing). I was happy to get the opportunity to raise a question to the panel and because I mentioned I studied music in a “previous life”, a lot of my Fulbright colleagues saw me as a musician (I also mentioned that I am a computer scientist now but probably being a musician sounds more fun!!). By 12 PM, it was lunch time. Surely talking is good, but you cannot be hungry!

In the afternoon, our huge Fulbrighters family was split in several groups and each one went to visit a different place. Among other options including “Helping our Music Evolve (H.O.M.E.)”, “Nashville Entrepreneur Center”, “Ocean Way Nashville”, and “Schermerhorn Symphony Center”, I‘ve chosen the “Columbia Studio A & Quonset Hut” site visiting. These are two historic studios that together provided the sonic landscape for many great artist, including Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Simon & Garfunkel, and Brenda Lee, and therefore putting Nashville in the map as a bona fide recording center. The “Columbia Studio A” has been recently renovated to become a classroom and hands-on learning lab for students in Belmont’s Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business [5, 6, 7], a good example of how historic places can be reused for modern purposes, thus preserving our history.
Our guide to this visit was Mike Porter, Curb College Facility Manager. You could see how proud he was of this legacy (and with good reasons). With a peaceful cadence and a southern accent, he showed us the insides of Studio A, its recording rooms and all the equipment. You really get the feeling that you entered a time machine, and at each step you are reminded that Bob Dylan or other music celebrity once walked the exact same corridor. It was remarkable to see that some of the original recording equipment is still in use today. Mr. Porter reserved the best to the end. In one of the studios, we have had the chance to play on an authentic Hammond organ [11], and to conclude, Mr. Porter showed us these 70’s original high-quality microphones [13], that were indeed used by some of the artists who recorded there. I offered to help carrying these big boxes, and boy, you could feel the responsibility! (You can actually see some of these equipment and Mr. Porter in this video [12]). 

Later in the evening, all Fulbrighters met at the BB King’s Blues Club for dinner. After all, the south is not only about Country music - Blues and Rock are also present, of course. During dinner, I continued to meet new people, and this time I was sitting with colleagues from Georgia, Vietnam, Greece, and also my Fulbright IIE advisor (she is so cool btw!), whom I had previously met in Boston and still remembered me as the ironfist” (yes, that’s my real name in Portuguese!). Another warm night was calling us, and more bars awaiting to be discovered. Nonetheless, Robert’s bar seemed to be some kind of magnet for me. I was so impressed with the band the previous night that I shared it with everyone I could. Because I knew they would be performing again, we revisited Robert’s and this time I got some nice pictures and videos. Our music night experience ended in a rooftop of another bar where we could get a full picture of the vibrant Broadway. There, every building was either a bar, a boots shop, or a souvenir shop, blending in perfection to deliver you the best music experience with all bars having live shows, many of them with several floors, each with a different band. You just choose the one you prefer! What a charm! Back then, some of the words of the panel, early that day, came to my mind: “if you want to be a musician, you go to where the music is, and that is Nashville”. They were absolutely right!