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1,000 Points of Live


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EVERY TIME SOMEONE from out of town asks me where to go see some original live music, I have to bite my tongue and explain that there's hardly anywhere in the valley to do so. Maybe three or four places. The emergence throughout the last decade of a mass clientele who prefer DJ clubs and vapid cover bands pretty much slaughtered any chance for original music to flourish here. Wanna be a songwriter? Go somewhere else.

Since it's fruitless to complain, I left town and journeyed straight to a place at the polar opposite end of the live music spectrum from San Jose: Nashville, Tennessee. You see, Nashville has over 1,000 live music venues. Now, to be fair, that includes every dive bar, theater, cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, nightclub, airport, concert hall and more. Wherever you go in Nashville, there's live music, even at 10 in the morning. It really is Music City USA—a songwriter's mecca, as they say. Many an aspiring tunesmith flocks to the city with nothing but a backpack and a guitar, hoping that someday Garth Brooks will pick up one of his songs. Hundreds of songwriters from California have moved to Nashville over the recent years.

The city has several music strips where bands play all night for nothing but tips and beer, just hoping that someone walks in and discovers them. One such joint is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, probably the most famous country music club in the world. Movies have been filmed in the place. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis and Waylon Jennings were some of the original customers in the late '50s and early '60s.

Another legendary joint is the Bluebird Cafe, an intimate place where the audience encircles a small group of performers, who trade off playing their own songs. Cover tunes are not allowed. Seven nights a week, folks pile into this small joint to hear original tunes. Our party ate and drank for a few hours while four musicians took turns belting out their own songs. It turned out one of them was Alan O'Day—the guy who wrote Helen Reddy's "Angie Baby" and who also wrote and sung "Undercover Angel" in 1977. He also played a novelty tune, "Suite California," about California cities washing away in an earthquake, a song that contained the line: "Do you know the way to San Jose/ They say it was here just yesterday."

Now, if you had run into Alan O'Day playing "Undercover Angel" in a restaurant in San Jose, you'd immediately have thought, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." But not in Nashville. This kind of stuff happens all the time in that city. It's not uncommon to find yourself drinking in a bar with some guy who wrote a few No. 1 smashes for other people—but you have no idea who the guy is.

And of Nashville's 1,000 live music venues, more than 200 of them have music at least four nights a week. So the city got an idea to identify those 200 clubs by installing sculptures of giant guitar picks in front of the clubs. On the picks, it says, "Live Music," so tourists and locals can quickly find the places that showcase original talent on a more regular basis.

Over dinner I told several locals that San Jose has maybe four places that showcase original talent. Their jaws all dropped to the floor in utter bewilderment.

Most of all, Nashville is not just about country music. This is important, as when you mention Nashville, folks who aren't in the know automatically think Hee Haw, which is nonsense. The city has blues, rock, metal, gospel and all sorts of stuff. The city has about 10 different equivalents of what used to be San Jose's Cactus Club. Classical music is also widely popular. When the Nashville Symphony Orchestra played at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, 1,100 local fans flew to New York to attend the show. How's that for a music scene?

Comparing San Jose to Nashville would be a thoughtless exercise in futility, so I have to do it. By 2002 estimates, the Nashville area is the 24th largest city in the United States and they have over 1,000 music venues. Here in San Jose, we've all had it beaten over our heads now that S.J. is the 10th largest city in the country, yet there exist about three or four places to see original live music, even on a semiregular basis. People in this valley just don't support it. I told this to some folks in Nashville and they all shook their heads in utter disbelief.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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