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September 7, 2012

On the Scene: From South Carolina to Nashville

South Carolina musicians and musicians with state ties are scattered all over Nashville

NASHVILLE STARS: In the first two hours of my four days in Nashville last week, I shook hands with two of country music’s rising stars.

Am I that good? Hardly. Lucky? You bet. And Nashville, like Las Vegas, is a city where good luck is rewarded. (Maybe that’s why Nashville is often referred to as NashVegas.)

I was in Music City USA for a series of stories that I’m writing about musicians with South Carolina ties who have moved to the capital of Tennessee, the fourth-largest Southeastern city — more than 600,000 — according to 2010 census data. Nobody is from Nashville, I was told repeatedly. But it’s a place countless numbers of talented singers and songwriters relocate to every year in hopes of permanently calling the city home.

In the last few years, many would-be success stories have moved from South Carolina to Nashville.

My first stop off the plane was Music Row, an area southwest of downtown Nashville that is the epicenter of the country music industry. It’s like the Times Square of country music, only there aren’t any skyscrapers, billboards or flashing signage. It’s just houses converted into offices and studios populated by guitar-carrying people wearing jeans, T-shirts and boots.

I was meeting Rob Crosby, a Sumter native who spent years playing in Columbia bars before moving to Nashville more than 25 years ago. Crosby, who has written for Martina McBride, Lee Greenwood, Lady Antebellum, Brooks & Dunn and Trace Adkins, invited me to writing session he was having with James Dean Hicks and Columbia native Jake Etheridge of the band CherryCase.

The song the trio wrote, a pop tune that could kick up dust on country radio if it had to, is still stuck in my head. As we were walking to lunch, a guy driving a Chevy Silverado and wearing his hat backward (that’s the thing in Nashville these days) pulled next to us. It was Sumter’s Lee Brice, who, along with singers like Jason Aldean and Chris Young, is one of country’s next generation of leading gentleman.

“I’ve been gone for six weeks and I leave tomorrow,” said Brice, a former Clemson University football player who will play Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum on Nov. 23, the night before the Tigers’ annual game with USC. “It’s a good time in life.”

On our way back from lunch, we ran into Eric Paslay, by far the hottest songwriter in Nashville. Paslay has written No. 1 hits this year for Jake Owen, Love and Theft and Eli Young Band. It’s rare to have that kind of success in a calendar year.

“To have two No. 1’s, you’re rocking,” Camden native Patrick Davis told me as we drove to a concert. “It’s not the norm. If you have a hit single every two or three years, you’re doing well.”

Davis, who has spent a decade in Nashville, writes with Paslay once or twice a month. They allowed me to see how a song, in a day, is written from scratch and then recorded so that it can be shopped to producers, publishers and record labels. It was scary how good Paslay and Davis sounded harmonizing while sitting around a table in front of their laptops in an otherwise morose office bereft of wall art.

That experience, which I’ll write about in detail for the profile on Davis that will be published later this month, was toward the end of my trip. On my first night in the city, I tagged along with Davis to the Grand Ole Opry to see Thomas Rhett, an upstart singer ready to ascend to star status. Rhett is signed to Big Machine Label Group, the label home of Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts. Scott Borchetta, Big Machine’s founder, was backstage at the Opry.

So was Davis’ wife, Virginia, who partnered with Borchetta and Irving Azoff, executive chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, to form B.A.D. Management, Rhett’s management company. (To give you an idea of the powerful company the Davises keep, in January, Azoff was ranked No. 1 in Billboard Magazine’s The Power 100.)

Davis, who knew just about everyone backstage, shook as many hands as Rhett, who had a line snaking through the hallway for his post-performance meet-and-greet. Some of Rhett’s fans also stopped for photos with Chris Young outside of Young’s dressing room. (Country musicians and executives, at least the ones I met, were so friendly. I wonder if that’s the norm in Nashville, if it’s like that when people are trying to sell them song.)

Headlining the Opry that night: Hannah native Josh Turner. Another South Carolina connection: Camden native Pat Severs was playing guitar in the Opry’s house band. South Carolina musicians and musicians with state ties are scattered all over Nashville it seems. Besides Crosby, Etheridge and Davis, I interviewed Haley Dreis, Hannah Miller, Lauren Lucas and Julie Roberts. Stories on each will be published when they perform in the area, starting with Miller, who plays next Friday at Old Towne Tavern in Camden.

Last Friday, the night after USC’s underwhelming performance at Vanderbilt, Davis threw a Gamecock Party concert at The Rutledge, a small downtown Nashville club with a crisp sound system. Davis wrote “Big Ole Cock (Just a),” an ode to the Gamecocks that USC has played in Williams-Brice Stadium. He also produced a series of videos featuring himself interviewing former Gamecock greats.

The show, opened by Lucas, was attended by more than 100 Gamecock fans. There will be as many as can fit when Davis performs at Tin Roof on Oct. 5, the night before USC plays Georgia. (Go here for tickets.)

Nashville might be the place to go make songs, but surely it feels good to come home and play them.

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