NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville often feels like a place of juxtapositions.
Performers get a palace — the multi-story Country Music Hall of Fame, in all its grandeur. Directly across 5th Avenue, the songwriters get an iPad — the Songwriter Hall of Fame living on a touchscreen nestled in the corner of an equally huge convention center.
Stand on Broadway and you can make out the two-story monument to man’s arrogance that is Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock ‘n’ Roll Steakhouse & Monster Truck Driver Cloning Facility (OK, fine. I made the last part up, but the first part is all too real). But turn your head the other way and you can make out the sound of musicians grinding to have their original art be heard in-between the collective noise of five different cover bands at five different points of “Wagon Wheel.”
And there's that obsession with hockey from one the world’s most decidedly “Southern” cities. Keep going from there and you get the idea: There’s the Nashville created by tour guides and country stars, and then there’s the Nashville lived by the locals. Both are real and their coexistence shapes the city.
When Nashville SC take the field for the first time this Saturday (8 pm ET on FOX, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) they’ll be tasked as a club with establishing themselves as an embodiment of the city’s culture. Oftentimes, the expressive freedom of soccer fandom allows clubs to display culture in a way other sports don’t, whether it’s through tifo art or songs that connect the club to the people surrounding it. Creating those connections is crucial to a club’s ability to thrive and, in turn, become a natural extension of the city itself.
Those juxtapositions don’t make that simple.
Tune is changing in Nashville
With music and soccer intersecting so regularly through chants and anthems, and Nashville’s unshakeable reputation as “The Music City,” the path to declaring the club a certified local entity is clear — from the outside. Just get everyone in the stadium together for a few rounds of “Friends in Low Places” — yes, even you Gary Smith — and call it a day. But tell someone from the city’s under-45 demographic that plan and they’ll probably stare at you, ask if you’re from around here and then silently judge the bachelorette party you may or may not actually be a part of.
“I think it's a misnomer that Nashville is just country music in general. It is wildly popular music in general,” Jason Moles of The Roadies, a Nashville SC supporters’ group, said. “The only people that you see in downtown Nashville wearing cowboy hats or cowboy boots are tourists. They're from Ohio or getting married and that's it. You see the ‘Woo! Girls’ in the bridal things and it's always cowboy boots, cowboy hats. That’s not here.”
It’s not unfair for an outsider to see Nashville as a place where country is the end all be all. The history is ingrained in the city and it’s tangible. Walk into The Ryman for a moment and you feel it. And 30, 20, even 10 years ago a country-and-nothing-else description may have fit. But Nashville has boomed in the last decade, allowing for new voices to shape how the city defines itself.
“It's more diverse than what people realize,” Abel Acosta of La Brigada de Oro, Nashville’s SC first Latin American supporters group, said. “Nashville is a tourist city. We're a city where people want to come, have fun enjoy the music and everything that Nashville has to offer. But the base that lives here, we're from all parts. We have our different identities and different things we like and not everything here is country for us.”
So if you can’t just throw Alan Jackson at everyone and deem it representative of the city, what do you do?
Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre hasn’t been in the city for as long as others, but he’ll immediately tell you that country is far from the only thing you’ll hear walking in and out of Honky Tonks on Broadway. Yet even if the styles are varied, there is a thread that pulls and ties people to Nashville: Everyone loves a show.
Ian Ayre took over as Nashville SC CEO in May 2018 | USA Today Sports Images
“We've been talking about building almost a Festival of Soccer for our games,” Ayre said. “The soccer match is the headliner, but what are all these other things going on around? And some of it will be music, some of it will be food, some of it will be other things. But it's really about you coming along here and it doesn't matter if you're the world's biggest soccer fan or not. You come in because this is a great event.”
It’s a plan that’s already seen success with the city’s NHL team, the Predators. If Nashville SC can capture the same energy the Predators have earned by surrounding their matches with what Ayre called a “great integration of other things” for the more casual hockey fan, then you may eventually see as many Walker Zimmerman shirts as you do Pekka Rinne sweaters.
Last week, Nashville SC released a number of music-oriented game match day traditions they’ll be using, including an opening riff played on a guitar by a local artist before each match and a club anthem written by Nashville’s Judah and the Lion (watch video below).
New traditions prosper or die quickly, but it’s hard to see these not working because the concept is fitting. Tying a song to a club can give it an instantly recognizable trademark beyond the city limits, and the process of using a local artist to collaborate with local fans in the song’s creation gives the city’s own a say on how they want to be seen by the rest of the league.
If anthems and traditions, along with everything else that’s excellent about attending a match in person can help capture the imagination of both locals and tourists, maybe, just maybe, Nashville SC matches can — as Andrea Kraft of The Assembly, yet another Nashville SC supporters’ group, wonderfully and eloquently put it—become the new bachelorette party. That might be optimistic and may be just a ploy to get bridal parties out of people’s way downtown, but the desire for Nashville SC to be the best show in a town full of great ones is real, and goes beyond the front office.
“I want everybody to see that coming to a game in Nashville is an event,” Jennifer Rochelle of The Assembly said. “I don't care where you're from. I don't care what team you support. You want to come watch a Nashville SC game for the event because it's a freaking party.”
Music City loves a party
Right now, Nashville’s first match this Saturday is at least going to be a crowded party. The latest from the club is that 50,000 tickets have been sold and that number is still climbing.
Creating an atmosphere that brings those people back is going to take a collaborative effort from the front office, from the team and from the fans. Luckily, the fans already have some experience with that. The supporters' groups have come together to create a “supporters collective” dedicated to matchday environment. The Roadies, La Brigada and The Assembly, along with Eastern Front, Music City Supporters and Music City Heaters, have agreed to all work together to form a well-named collective known as The Backline.
In music, a backline is the amps and sound equipment placed behind the band. It’s easy to translate how that fits for the supporters behind the goal, but the entire idea behind a supporters collective hints at a theme you see a lot in Nashville: We’re in this to make it big and we’re in that fight together. It’s something you notice when you’re sitting in a bar in Printers Alley the day before Valentine’s and watch someone approach a member of the house band and ask for their number. Not because they need a date, but because they need a bass player. Or when you’re in a honky tonk and watching a 19-year-old do his best Hendrix impression while the 60-year-old lead singer of the band does his best Merle Haggard. Everyone can be a part of the process to make a name for yourself.
It admittedly might take a few tries to get things exactly right. But that’s not out of the ordinary for Nashville. The songwriters who wrote the music that built the city rarely got it right the first time.
In a small display case across the street from the massive Country Music Hall of Fame is the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. In that case is a collection of loose-leaf pages with words scratched out and replaced and shifted until they turned into lyrics that turned into hits. The best of those were genuine and reflected the times they were made in. If Nashville SC can do the same as a club — even if that means a few tweaks here and there — then people will come from all around to be a part of it.
It’s just how things work there.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.