Nashville, Tennessee: Music City. Though Nashville isn't as buzzed about these days as Austin or Brooklyn or Portland, Oregon, it still boasts a reputation as one of the few places in America where people go and try to break big in music.
Kansas City, conversely, has successfully maintained its status as a place where talented musicians get born, get their chops and then get out — Charlie Parker, et al.
But when Ben Grimes moved to Nashville a year ago, the then-29-year-old had no intention of making it.
You'll remember Grimes as the stylish, croppy-headed frontman of the Golden Republic, one of KC's famous-for-being-almost-famous bands. There's no need to retell its rise and fall here. After the band called it quits in early 2007, Grimes hung around town for a few months. He and his wife had a child, and Grimes began writing songs with a few other local rockers under the moniker Soft Reeds. It did not take off.
The Republic Tigers, however, did — buoyed by flagship single "Buildings & Mountains," which Grimes had written with his Golden Republic bandmates, including Tigers leader Kenn Jankowski. Grimes and Jankowski had agreed to share ownership of it.
A breakout hit for the Tigers, "Buildings" became Grimes' apparent swan song. Toward the end of '07, as the Republic Tigers prepared to launch on a label and as "Buildings" got placement on the TV show Gossip Girl, Grimes and his family moved to Nashville in November to be near his wife's family. The Republic's fall had left a bad taste in his mouth, and he had given up music — or so he thought.
"When I started that band, Kenn and I used to sit on the front porch all night," he tells me over the phone from his home in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. "We'd sit out there till the sun came up, drinking cheap beer and smoking cigarettes, talking about the crazy, amazing things that we were gonna do with our music and our careers and the places we would go. We were naïve and we were excited, and music was just about life and rebellion and youth and sex and all this stuff that was so invigorating and visceral.
"And by the time we had split up the Golden Republic, it had become about losing friends and meeting expectations and trying to make deadlines and being under pressure and alienation and trying to look cool and all this stuff that music's not really about. There was definitely a process I had to go through to heal from that stuff and allow it to come back around to where, like, I can still lose sleep at night because I'm so excited about a song that I wrote ... to have that thrill in your heart about doing something like music."
Nashville, Grimes says, "has a way of sucking the music out of you, in a good way."
Though he characterizes the scene as being full of transplanted upstarts with heads full of entitlement and Coldplay, music is definitely alive in Nashville, particularly the business of songwriting.
"In Kansas City, I felt like I met a lot of people to whom the art of writing a song — what you have to put into that, what that means on a personal level — was the least important aspect of being in a band," he says.
For these people, Grimes says, writing a song was just a means of getting onstage.
"After coming here, I've had this series of revelations where, like, it's OK to take that seriously — to want your song to shine more than your gyrations or your light show," he says
Having recovered his muse, Grimes is again writing and recording as Soft Reeds. Less guitar-driven than the Golden Republic, the Soft Reeds' sound employs atmospheric instrumentation (keys, synths, acoustic guitars) and daring, sharply defined lead vocal lines evocative of David Bowie or the Killers.
To sharpen his Reeds, Grimes has been working with fellow KC-to-Nashville transplant Jon Yeager, who relocated this past August, in part to work with Grimes and in part because he, too, needed a change of scene. (Read more about Yeager this week on the Wayward Blog.)
Grimes and Yeager are coming home for Thanksgiving, and the two will enlist several other locals for the hometown debut of Soft Reeds on Wednesday, November 26, at the Record Bar.
And then it's back to Nashville, Music City.