Nashville music: Tin Pan South

Singer/Songwriter Wade Bowen, a superstar on the Texas music scene, brought his soulful voice and heart-wrenching songs to Tin Pan South in 2009, photo Joy C. Frank-Collins

This week’s guest post is from Public Relations and Communications professional, Joy C. Frank-Collins.

As a creep of bright green begins enveloping winter’s grays my mind travels not to botanical gardens or cherry blossom festivals, but to Nashville, Tennessee. Lured by the plaintive hum of an acoustic guitar, the silence of a crowd packed into a tiny club and the smell of hope and heartbreak mixed with stale beer and barbecue, I get lost and found a thousand times during the week of Tin Pan South.

Named to honor New York’s famed singer/songwriter/musician collective Tin Pan Alley, Tin Pan South is a super hero of sorts – a music symposium at the local convention center by day, city-wide singer/songwriter showcase in nightclubs and listening rooms by night. An effort by NSAI – The Nashville Songwriters Association International – aimed at raising funds for their legislative branch (which fights for songwriter rights), this year’s Tin Pan South Festival takes place from March 29 – April 2.

To me, Tin Pan South is about the music. That’s why I never go to the symposiums. I fancy myself an amateur songwriter (actually it’s because of the festival that I openly admit that truth), but you don’t have to be a songwriter, or even a fan of country music, to enjoy the festival.

Songwriter Wendell Mobley (who’s written hits for Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney) warms up for an intimate in-the-round performance at the Bluebird Café, photo/ Joy C. Frank-Collins

Typically, TPS organizers pair together anywhere from three to five singer/songwriters, put them into any one of the gazillion music venues in downtown Nashville and set them free to put their “show” together. There are many end results to this system – I’ve seen intimate acoustic in-the-rounds (the audience literally sits all around the performers), three singer/songwriters who pull together a back-up band (that, although they claim is unrehearsed, hits every note and cue perfectly), a group of friends who seemingly wander in off the golf course jump up on a stage and tell stories and play songs almost unaware of the audience and more traditional stage/band set-ups. There are two shows, featuring different performers each night at between eight and ten at clubs across the city. Pick your shows accordingly to avoid having to leave the first show early just to drive across town to get in line for the second show.

Take note – you can only see the shows if you get into the clubs – and in Nashville during TPS week, that’s a big IF. TPS organizers make it easier if you’re willing to shell out $90 for a Fast Access Pass. This beauty gets you into almost every show during the festival (save shows at places like the Bluebird Café, where reservations are required). It also gets you in before the general admission line, which means you have a chance of getting a seat and/or table.

The show line-up for Tin Pan South is like a liner note nerd’s ultimate fantasy. The festival features around 300 performers, mostly songwriters, some up-and-coming recording acts and bona fide stars. While the recognizable acts get a lot of attention, it only makes the unassuming songwriters participating more impressive when they gently strum a song they wrote on the way to their grandfather’s burial service; especially when the audience immediately recognizes the song. The song could have been a huge hit for Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley, but to hear the writer who felt those words sing it changes the whole dynamic. And that’s the cool thing about Tin Pan South.

Rivers Rutherford, a wildly successful songwriter with a string of number one hits to his name, photo Joy C. Frank-Collins

The performers, stars of liner notes and stage, are for the most part approachable – although there are inherent rules. Don’t draw unwanted attention to the person; they are, after all already chatting with you. Say a few words, compliment them on the show or a particular song and then take your leave. They don’t care about your life story. ALWAYS offer to buy them a drink (ask the bar to send one to the stage during the performance). And never, ever give them a business card or a CD of your music. That’s called gherming. Any rapport you built will fade and you could suffer a multitude of indignities ranging from an eye roll to a snort of laughter to watching them politely walk away, quickly.

Nashville is the perfect backdrop for this madness; it is a city built on music, not all of the country variety. The clubs are tiny and worn down, the pace is slower and residents are pretty much nonplussed by celebrity. They do, after all, grocery shop with Faith Hill, go to hockey games with Carrie Underwood and shop for boots with Sheryl Crow.

Brave the line at the Pancake Pantry (try the sweet potato pancakes) for an amazing breakfast – and the chance to see a few stars, photo/Joy C. Frank-Collins

If you’re interested in doing a little star-watching during the day, there are places you can go to increase your chances, like The Pancake Pantry near Vanderbilt University or The famous Loveless Café on Natchez Trace Parkway. Expect a wait at both places. Wait at the Pancake Pantry. Not because you’ll see a star, but because the pancakes are THAT good. Loveless is an excellent restaurant, but it’s so popular that the wait for a table can be as long as three hours. I just don’t have that kind of time.

Don’t plan on eating at the shows during Tin Pan South. Some of the clubs offer food, but to me, it interrupts the experience. I’ll grab a late lunch, top off with some queso and guacamole at La Paz before the first show, then take my chances at finding food after the second show or have a late breakfast, followed by a big late lunch. Nashville does close down early by larger city standards, so know what you’re doing for dinner to avoid having to eat at one of the Waffle Houses dotting the city.

Navigating Nashville is simple with a GPS and understanding that Demonbreun (pronounced De-mon-brie-un) Street snakes across the city with no rhyme or reason. Parking isn’t that bad as long as you’re willing to walk a little. I recommend against relying on cabs simply because I don’t see enough out to convince me they’re available when you want them.

Tin Pan South is not a slick festival designed to draw in hipster-types by the thousands. Its aim is simple, to celebrate the song. And where better to do it than the place where songs are a way of life and as organic as the Cumberland River. A place where, at the end of March, winter’s gray is swallowed up by the bright greens of the approaching spring.

Editor’s note: If you are into the Nashville music scene and are an aspiring songwriter or want to hear them perform, you’ll love Tin Pan South.















Joy C. Frank-Collins is a Public Relations and Communications professional with a background as a journalist, writer/editor, corporate PR Manager and consultant. The owner of the strategic business solution firm The Frank-Collins Group, LLC for the past seven years, Joy spends her downtime writing, traveling, working out and reading. She lives in Marietta, Ohio with her husband and two sons. Follow her exploits on Twitter.



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