Nashville: After the flood, the music stayed alive

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Itzhak Perlman, Nashville Symphony,
reopen Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
(Click for Tennessean.com Photo Gallery)

Last night, I attended an amazing musical event in Nashville, the city I call home and a place where music is our first name.

It’s pretty challenging to stage an “amazing” musical event in a place called Music City, so first, some background:

Last May, after what is now being called a “thousand-year flood, I wrote a post I titled, “Because it is Nashville, a new song starts tomorrow”. (At the bottom of this post, I have links to other posts I wrote that are flood-related.)

Despite being massive in scope, as captured in this photo collection on Boston.com’s Big Picture blog, during the first few days of the flooding, other major news events (a foiled car-bomb in Times Square and BP’s run-away oil well) kept Nashville’s flood away from the typical Anderson Cooper-style coverage such an event draws. (At the time, I wrote, being snubbed by the national may have been a good thing. And within 72-hours, the lack of national attention became a national story, itself. Even Cooper showed up, eventually.)

The flood was actually a two-part disaster. It was caused by rain: lots-and-lots of rain. More rain in two days than we’ve ever had in the entire month of May. More rain in one day than we’ve ever had in one day – twice as much more. So much rain that areas not considered floodplains were “outed” as floodplains by creeks and small rivers and ditches no one had ever seen water flow through before. And, unfortunately, on these un-declared floodplains were located lots of houses ranging from suburban developments to urban cottages and HUD-financed subsidized housing.

And then, came the second-part. Overwhelmed by the volume of water raging into the Cumberland River from these tributary floods, in a series of decisions that will likely be debated for years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, did what I’ve only heard as an expression of speech: They opened up the flood gates. While the Corps admits communication glitches (including their Verizon-powered internet connection being down for 12 hours), they claim their flood control measures kept downtown Nashville (and the Opryland Hotel area) from flooding even more. That can be debated, but one thing is for sure: After they opened the dam, some of the city’s best known icons flooded, to differing degrees: its football stadium, the Opryland Hotel and Opry House, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the city’s new Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

That’s when the national media took notice.

With such natural disasters, a most-amazing thing occurs: A community pulls together. And then, people from all over feel moved to join in the relief efforts. On a couple of occasions, I spent some time volunteering in Mississippi and New Orleans after Katrina, so I know the pull of wanting to go somewhere and help, despite feeling that the needs are too big for any one person to make much impact. And so, when the disaster hit Nashville, I understood and greatly appreciated the number of people who contacted me — and who, in so many ways, reached out to Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Thousands of people from all over the U.S. — and country music fans from around the world — have travelled to Nashville to support the rebuilding effort.

We saw dozens of groups, including the Nashville blogging, social media and tech communities, spring into action in response to the disaster. Groups like the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee have collected and distributed millions of dollars related to flood relief efforts.

But, back to the music. On this blog, on a few rare occasions when I’ve blogged about music, I’ve sometimes noted that I’m not a big fan of the “commercial” country “Nashville music” one hears on the radio. However, I’ve also noted Nashville music is amazingly diverse.

On Flickr, some of the thousands of photos of
the Garth Brooks flood relief concerts.

However, post-flood, I’m going to amend my previous comments about commercial country music (and apologize for using the word “sucks”) with this observation: Having superstars like Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, Vince Gill, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and many others simultaneously use their star-power to raise the visibility of a cause in their “hometown” is an amazing thing. I may not be a fan of all of their music, but there are some country music executives and stars who are now and forever will be, on my list of amazing people. A natural disaster turns even superstars into regular people, neighbors who share the same hurt.

And the most amazing is Garth Brooks. While I’ll probably continue to avoid his music, I am now his fan for life. During the week leading up to Christmas, Garth Brooks (along with wife, Trisha Yearwood), held nine Nashville concerts that netted $3 million for flood victims. Because Brooks no longer tours, his fans flocked to Nashville, purchasing 140,000 tickets and increasing Nashville’s December tourism-related revenues by up to 20%. Between the re-opening of Opryland Hotel and the Opry House and Brooks’ concerts, along with the Music City Bowl and a downtown New Years Eve celebration that grows larger each year (it features a dropping guitar), the December, 2010 travel-related economy could equal a typical June, the month of the 800-lb. gorilla CMA Music Fest.

That brings me to last night.

The last major musical venue to open after flood repairs was the five-year-old Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The video embedded on the right (if you’re reading this on my blog) from the Tennessean.com provides an overview of the $40 million it took to repair the flood damage. Watch it and you’ll grow queazy when you see what 25 feet of water does to two $100,000 Steinways. (Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Nashville flood destroyed millions of dollars worth of musical instruments.)

Last night, in a New Years Eve concert, Itzhak Perlman joined the Nashville Symphony in what was a fun, uplifting, celebration of the end of 2010 and the re-opening of the Schemerhorn Center. I was there and I’ll never forget the evening. Not just the music (what more can I say about the Nashville Symphony, which is on a hot-streak of Grammy nominations these days, and Itzhak Perlman?) but the sheer energy and joy in the room.

As we walked out of the concert around mid-night, our small group in black tie, we immediately mingled in with the bluejean crowd looking up to see the guitar drop. Almost on cue, right after the fireworks went off and the guitar dropped, it started to rain.

It seemed like the right note on which to start a new song — and a new year.

Posts I wrote during the first week of May, 2010: