Independent rock finding Southern hospitality in Nashville

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Dan Auerbach moved from Ohio to Music City, he found a local rock ‘n’ roll scene populated with bands that not only like each other, but also work toward a greater good. The Black Keys guitarist sees it as an uncommon harmony.

“It’s really pretty cool, and it’s very much its own thing,” Mr. Auerbach said. “There doesn’t seem to be too much ego involved, which is surprising. I remember there was that whole Detroit scene, and it was just like ego city. The same thing is happening in Nashville, but you throw Southern hospitality in the mix.”

That all-for-one attitude is stripping away Nashville’s country music veneer to reveal the nation’s hottest rock ‘n’ roll scene. Think rock is dead? Not in Middle Tennessee, where multiplatinum transplants like the Keys, Jack White and Kings of Leon have teamed with a vibrant menagerie of young homegrown bands like Jeff the Brotherhood, Turbo Fruits, the Features, Pujol and Natural Child to expand what the word Nashville means to music fans.

“We’ve done a lot of positive work to make something that’s really big and great,” Turbo Fruits lead singer Jonas Stein said. “Who knows how long it’s going to go on for? But it’s Nashville’s rock ‘n’ roll time.”

Rolling Stone has called it the nation’s best music scene. A headline in the Guardian of London proclaimed “there are more thrilling new bands in East Nashville than anywhere else on earth.” And most major music magazines and bloggers are mining the scene to bring news of Heavy Cream, Diarrhea Planet, the Weeks, D. Watusi and dozens more to hungry fans.

The secret’s out, and all this attention is a significant change.

The town regarded as the capital of country music has had a few stellar rock ‘n’ roll moments. Jimi Hendrix, first as a frequent visitor from nearby Fort Campbell, Ky., then as a resident, learned how to really play guitar while in Nashville during the early 1960s. Bob Dylan fell in love when he recorded one of nascent rock’s defining records, “Blonde on Blonde,” before returning to cut his country album, “Nashville Skyline.” And Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney spent time here recording.

But the rock scene wasn’t bright enough for outsiders to see past the city’s rhinestone glitz. Matt Pelham of the Features remembers his band getting a little interest for a brief time in the mid-‘90s. But it didn’t last long.

“I think the fact that we came out of Nashville almost hurt us at that time more than helped us,” Mr. Pelham said. “I think they automatically had the association with country music, and I also felt there was sort of this shadow over Nashville.”

What changed?

“To be honest, when Kings of Leon came along, I think they sort of broke through that stereotype … and a lot of doors opened up for bands in Nashville,” he said.

Originally from Oklahoma, KOL’s Followill family has formed the record label Serpents and Snakes to help bands like the Features and Turbo Fruits gain wider exposure. Mr. White also has adopted the locals, putting out seven-inch and live concert releases by bands such as Jeff the Brotherhood and Pujol with the hip Third Man Records’ seal of approval. And Mr. Auerbach recently produced Jeff the Brotherhood’s latest album, “Hypnotic Nights.”

“They’re amazing,” Mr. Auerbach said of JTB’s Jake and Jamin Orrall. “They’re just like absolute characters, and they’re definitely the heart of that scene with those younger bands.”

The Orralls run Infinity Cat Records with their dad, Bob, who also was an early Taylor Swift producer and songwriting partner. Like Miss Swift, he’s helped nurture the local scene — almost literally. The label has put out 74 releases in its 10 years, and many on the roster are childhood friends of his sons.

“We’ve got Cy Barkley’s first full-length coming out, and the funny thing about it is, I used to drive him and Jamin around in like car seats,” Bob Orrall said. “Jonas [of Turbo Fruits], I coached Jonas on the hockey team. … So like all this history goes back a long, long time because Infinity Cat really grew out of wanting to put friends’ records out.”

The Orralls formed Jeff the Brotherhood while in their midteens, and over time they’ve laid down a blueprint for other do-it-yourself-leaning bands.

“I think running a small label like this has maybe helped a lot of children out, just realizing they can do this stuff,” Jake Orrall said. “Like a lot of children have asked me how to start a record label and started doing their own thing. And we’d started building up contacts and relationships with promoters in other cities after years and years and years of just touring basements. When our friends start touring, it’s a huge jumping off point for them.”

Do all these good vibes mean Nashville is the next Seattle or Montreal? With buzzy bands moving to town every day — Deer Tick’s John McCauley moved here recently from Rhode Island, and the Whigs migrated north from Athens, Ga. — everyone’s sure it’s just a matter of time.

“I’m sure a band is going to come along and just blow up,” Mr. Stein said. “Maybe it’s one of us. Maybe it’s a band that’s a little younger. You just never know. In the meantime, I think everyone’s always going to support each other. I think everyone’s just really happy and stoked on each other. Maybe that’s the way Nashville is in general. People have open arms here.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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