In the opening scene of Robert Altman’s Nashville, a van blaring messages from “Replacement Party” presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker pulls out of a garage and drives through downtown Nashville, on what looks to be Lower Broadway. I say “looks to be,” because the Lower Broad of today looks nothing like it would’ve in 1975, when Nashville was released. There’s a riverfront park now at the end of the road, and a pedestrian bridge leading to a football stadium—home of the Titans!—that looms large on the opposite bank. Over the past decade or so, the older country nightclubs and music stores have been joined by tourist-friendly bars and restaurants. Downtown as a whole is bright and bustling. The street the Walker van patrols at the start of Nashville, on the other hand, looks more like the Lower Broad I remember from my childhood: a seedy mix of dives and porn shops that fascinated me and my classmates when we’d see them through a school-bus window, on our occasional field trips to the nearby performing-arts center.
There have been five Nashvilles in my life. The first was the Nashville where my grandparents lived—the idyllic Nashville, with its homey neighborhoods, pleasant public libraries, and thrilling Opryland amusement park—which I visited over summers and holidays when I was very young. When my parents got divorced, my mom moved my brother and me to Hermitage, a suburb named for Andrew Jackson’s estate, located about 15 miles outside of Nashville. The city then became more ordinary: just the place I lived, and often resented, the way teenagers do with their hometowns. I even took a summer job at Opryland, killing any mystique the park once held. I moved away to go to college, but when I came back after graduation, Nashville transformed again. Now I had a car, and multiple jobs—working at a video store by day, waiting tables by night, and writing for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene the whole time—and the city opened up. I fell in love with all the grubby old stores and clubs, in the last years before the big downtown revival. I left again to get married, and nowadays, when I return to see my folks, it’s to a Nashville I barely recognize: hipper, newer, and more culturally vibrant.
My fifth Nashville is Nashville. I first saw Altman’s film when I was 16 years old, and it immediately became one of my favorites. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times since then, including via Criterion’s essential new Blu-ray edition. Back in my college days at the University Of Georgia, I once took a woman I liked—a fellow Nashvillian also living in Athens—on a date to see Nashville at the student-union movie theater, and I realized we had no future together when she spent the entire walk back to her apartment telling me how much she hated the movie. The woman I married, on the other hand, can quote whole dialogue exchanges in Nashville from memory, and can sing the most beautiful version of “Dues” this side of Ronee Blakely. (These are the kind of things I look for in a mate.)
The movie Nashville isn’t trying to be docu-realistic when it comes to Nashville itself. This is something a lot of actual Nashville residents—in the music industry especially—didn’t get back in 1975. (My friend Jim Ridley examined the whole local kerfuffle over Nashville in this well-researched 1995 Scene article.) It’s something a lot of big-city music and film critics didn’t get at the time, either. Nashville follows an eclectic, loosely related mob of superstars, wannabes, fans, and hangers-on over the course of five days, watching how country-music royalty like Haven Hamilton (played by Henry Gibson) and cred-seeking young folk-rockers like Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) enjoy and exploit the privileges of fame. The film builds to a galvanizing act of violence, which leads to a surprisingly noble reaction from Haven, and a unifying performance of one of Tom’s songs. Prior to that, though, Nashville roams freely through a Southern mini-metropolis that’s much sillier than the real one.
As a result, the movie’s version of country music, while tuneful, is intentionally cartoonish. Which means that as part of coastal critics’ apparently eternal need to protect defenseless middle-Americans from mean-spirited showbiz types like Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, and Robert Altman, some tastemakers grumbled about Nashville, claiming Altman was making fun of hicks and disrespecting a grand tradition of American folk music. Reviewing the soundtrack, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau complained that the actors weren’t even authentic country singers, writing, “If the music makes the movie, as more than one film critic has surmised, then the movie is a lie. Another possibility: the critics are fibbing a little to cover their ignorance.”
That particular take on Nashville is based on the misperception that Robert Altman set out to make a movie about country music. That was more the goal of producer Jerry Weintraub, who saw in this project a hit soundtrack album waiting to happen. Altman, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to make a grand statement about celebrity, politics, the deep-rooted conservatism of the South, and a nation on the cusp of its bicentennial. Knowing nothing about Nashville, he sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury on a couple of scouting trips, which she came back from loaded down with anecdotes about a medium-sized city with a small-town vibe, where she kept running into the same people whether she was visiting a recording studio, a racetrack, a church, or a bar.
Because Altman liked to improvise, with input from his cast (who in Nashville also wrote some of their own songs), Tewkesbury often doesn’t get enough credit for her contributions to Nashville. But she was the one who helped devise a structure with two dozen major characters wandering into and out of each other’s storylines—even if it’s just to stand mute in the back of a shot, barely noticeable. And it was Tewkesbury who established the recurring moral dilemma these characters face, which she pinpoints on the Criterion Blu-ray when she talks about the scene in Nashville where a terrible singer (played by Gwen Welles) gets duped into performing a striptease at a political fundraiser. “I can fix this so I won’t have to take off all my clothes,” says Tewkesbury, describing what every character in Nashville thinks as they make compromises with their careers, ideals, and personal relationships.
Make no mistake, though: Nashville is Altman’s movie more than anyone’s. He had a capable team helping him achieve a revolutionary sound mix—with every character miked-up and woven into the soundtrack—and helping him cut hours of material into a fluidly paced film that sometimes ping-pongs rapidly between scenes, and sometimes stays still to take in a musical performance. But it’s always Altman pulling the strings, constructing a world so teeming that it seems to spill off the edges of the screen. (One of the movie’s best tricks is playing key songs like “It Don’t Worry Me” in the background well before they’re performed in the film, so they already seem like massive hits that everyone knows.) Though Altman and Tewkesbury based some of the major Nashville players on Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Charley Pride, and others, they weren’t intending to satirize or celebrate country music. The songs—sometimes funny, sometimes sweet—express the characters’ feelings, and their view of the world, irrespective of the location.
Whether it’s meant to capture Nashville or not, though, Nashville does take place in the city where I grew up, and enough of that city’s genuine character comes through that even at 16, I recognized the movie as being true—or at least true enough. And with each passing year, I see more of my various Nashvilles in the film. I see the closing scene and remember the time I let go of a kite in Centennial Park and watched helplessly as it landed on top of the Parthenon. I see the ads for Goo Goo Clusters and remember how whenever I traveled outside of Tennessee, my mom would often give me a box of Goo Goos to pass along to my hosts. I see the Opry House and remember going to an R.E.M. concert there, on the Life’s Rich Pageant tour. The long sequence of Ronee Blakely’s emotionally damaged country star Barbara Jean performing at The Showboat Theater in Opryland conjures multiple memories, from visiting Opryland as a customer in the 1970s (when my mom watched shows like “I Hear America Singing” while my brother and I rode the rides) to working at Opryland in the 1980s (where I was sometimes an usher at shows just like that one, and roamed behind the park’s fences in the backstage areas).
These are mostly just places, and it’s hard to give Altman credit for “getting the Parthenon right” or “getting Opryland right” when all he did was film his cast in front of them. I do, however, think Altman and his cast and crew never got their due from the affronted cultural defenders of 1975 for staging a pretty spot-on imitation of a typical mid-1970s Grand Ole Opry show. The music critics who lambasted Altman for not representing the best of country and western must’ve never sat through a real episode of the Opry in those days, when the show was more dominated by novelty numbers and cornpone skits than it was by some country legend or another singing “Orange Blossom Special.” Nashville’s fake stars Haven Hamilton, Tommy Brown, and Connie White all sing hokey songs, but no hokier than something like “It’s Hard To Be Humble” or “I’m Going To Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home” (the latter of which I saw performed live by David Frizzell and Shelly West at a fairground in the early 1980s).
If anything, the musical elements of Nashville hew closest to my experiences as a resident—especially during my post-college years, when I was finally old enough to go see shows at the legendary Exit/In, and when my job writing about local music had me haunting the cramped clubs that pop up again and again in Nashville. The latter were the places where industry showcases and songwriters’ open-mic nights typically happened, because they had the classic C&W authenticity the labels wanted. But I also visited a few antiseptic recording studios like the one where Haven Hamilton records his hackneyed bicentennial anthem “200 Years” at the start of Nashville, surrounded by the new breed of longhaired session musicians that he resents for going against Music City’s clean-cut Americana.
For as long as I can remember, there’s been a complicated relationship between art and commerce in Nashville. In some cities, the indie-rock acts stayed afloat by working day jobs at Kinko’s and the like; in Nashville, I often talked to rockers who spent their days in office parks with other songwriters, cranking out potential country and contemporary Christian hits as part of the industry’s mill. The character Frog in Nashville (played by the soundtrack’s main composer, Richard Baskin) is representative of this split in the city’s character. He’s everywhere in the movie, playing with the old guard, the new guard, and anyone else who’ll pay his fee. But he wouldn’t be in demand if he weren’t talented. He’s a stand-in for session men like Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Kenny Buttrey, and Ben Keith, who were “discovered” to some extent when rockers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young came to Nashville to record.
There was a whole wave of these “rock star goes to Nashville” stories in the years leading up to Nashville, beginning when The Byrds arrived in spring 1968 to record the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The stories were often of affection curdling into disillusionment, as these freaky-looking hippies arrived expecting to share their love of Hank Snow and The Carter Family with the locals, only to be treated with distrust and derision. One major exception was The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which won Nashville over with its 1972 album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, in part because the group hired country music legends like Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs to play on the record. It’s been said that Nashville’s hostility to Robert Altman’s Nashville is due in part to the relative lack of actual Music City musicians in the film (save for fiddler Vassar Clements, a veteran session musician whose legend grew when he was heavily featured on Will The Circle Be Unbroken). If so, that would be in keeping with the way the town has often treated outsiders who’ve dared to define what Nashville is—or what it should be.
But then Nashville itself has often been pretty conflicted about its best qualities. Critics who blasted Nashville for being inauthentic failed to note that in a lot of ways, the movie reflected a city that had transitioned from a cultural capital to a tourist trap. In 1975, the Grand Ole Opry had recently moved from the downtown Ryman Auditorium to the suburban Opryland, where it’s located in the movie; the spirit of Nashville that Haven Hamilton (and the real-life country icons that he’s meant to represent) obstinately defended was more of a Hee Haw Nashville, where people put on their redneck costumes and stood in front of painted plywood farms. It was in the mid-1990s, right around when I moved away from Nashville for the second time, that the city began re-embracing venues like The Bluebird Café, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and a restored Ryman—finally becoming the Nashville that Nashville-haters thought they were protecting from Altman’s barbs.
For those who think Altman and Tewkesbury were being openly contemptuous, I’d point to Nashville’s fatuous BBC reporter Opal (played by Geraldine Chaplin, and inspired by Tewkesbury herself, jokingly re-creating her initial fact-finding missions), and the condescending Hal Philip Walker rep John Triplette (played by Altman’s old pal Michael Murphy at his smuggest), both of whom are made to look like jerks when they mock or misinterpret Nashville. But I’d also hasten to add that even though I lived in Nashville from 1978-1988, and again from 1992-1995, it doesn’t really matter whether I believe Nashville is accurate. There are few forms of criticism more frivolous than the “expert-check,” such as when someone who served in the military says a war movie gets combat right, or when someone who lives in Chicago painstakingly explains why The Blues Brothers is logistically impossible. What matters in Nashville’s case is that the version of the city that Altman and Tewkesbury concocted works for the story they meant to tell. Ultimately, Nashville is a document of Tewkesbury’s personal experiences in Music City, filtered through Altman’s grander vision of America in the mid-1970s, boosted by two dozen actors who added their own ways of seeing this world at this time. The opinions of actual Nashvillians don’t matter much.
And yet… the Nashville sequence that makes me feel most like I’m back home is the enormous traffic jam early in the movie, because I spent a lot of my life crawling along I-40 myself, and because my impressions of my hometown aren’t of the rustic South; rather, they’re dominated by concrete, asphalt, and metal, with the only greenery relegated to embankments and median strips. That traffic-jam sequence best defines the city, because it’s so lively and so chaotic. It shows celebrities and commoners, insiders and outsiders, all sharing the same space, and all talking over each other about what that space means. That’s Nashville. That’s Nashville.