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Nashville vs. Austin: Musicians divide their time between Tennessee and Texas

Nashville music scene
Nashville's music scene Photo by GLKaiser/Flickr
Nashville -Austin musician Seth Walker with guitar
Seth Walker Photo Courtesy of Seth Walker
Lou Ann Bardash
Lou Ann Bardash Photo Courtesy of Lou Ann Bardash
Lou Ann Bardash and Tom Ovans
Lou Ann Bardash and Tom Ovans in the recording studio. Photo Courtesy of Lou Ann Bardash
Nashville the stage
Nashville's The Stage. Photo by Shelley Seale
Nashville and Austin live show
Nashville live show. Photo by Shelley Seale
East Nashville mural
East Nashville mural. Photo by Shelley Seale
Nashville guitar
Nashville guitar. Photo by Shelley Seale
Nashville music scene
Nashville -Austin musician Seth Walker with guitar
Lou Ann Bardash
Lou Ann Bardash and Tom Ovans
Nashville the stage
Nashville and Austin live show
East Nashville mural
Nashville guitar

Where Austin is known as the "Live Music Capital of the World" (an admittedly grandiose title), Nashville is known simply as "Music City." But the two cities have much in common beyond music, and many musicians have moved their home-base from one to another or spent time in both towns. 

"[Austin and Nashville] have a lot in common — they are both creative as well as music centers," says Michael McCall, writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He explains that the differences in the music scenes can be found in the cities' monikers themselves, with Austin focused on live music in particular.

"The big difference is that Nashville is a major record label hub. The people who feed the commercial system are based here, there are more recording studios, etc. Nashville is good for getting your name out there nationally. Musicians who go to Austin are more live music oriented; they know they are grassroots, kind of outside the mainstream."

McCall adds that Texas often functions as an inspirational center for many Nashville-based musicians. "They come to Nashville to record and get their careers to take off commercially, and then go back to Austin for their roots and inspiration."

Seth Walker agrees. As a musician who has spent time in both cities, Walker moved from Austin, where he got his start, to Nashville.

 "I think it's good to have a taste of both [cities] if you are going to be in music business. You just have to be very careful to balance the two, or else you will be stripped of your soul and the very reasons you started playing music." - Seth Walker

"Austin is simply soul. It's organic through and through. A great place to work, hone your chops and develop a loyal fan base," Walker says. "The community of music fans is also what makes Austin second to none. Nashville is much more business and structured, and is home to some of the best writers, musicians and studios in the world."

Austin music was a huge influence on Walker growing up in North Carolina, particularly Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. After discovering Stevie Ray Vaughan and T-Bone Walker, he moved to Austin in his early 20s and recorded his first album in 1997. The accomplished guitarist and singer says that he was greeted with a tightly-woven music community in Austin.

After more than a decade and four albums, though, Walker was ready for a change and new influences. So in 2009 he moved to Nashville, which also brought him closer to his family in North Carolina.

"I wanted to see first-hand how that city rolled," he says. There he recorded the Leap of Faith album, and has since self-produced the personal Time Can Change, which was largely financed by his fans through a Kickstarter campaign.

"Musicianship is high in both places," Walker adds. "I think it's good to have a taste of both if you are going to be in music business. You just have to be very careful to balance the two, or else you will be stripped of your soul and the very reasons you started playing music."

Husband-and-wife team Lou Ann Bardash and Tom Ovans followed the opposite trajectory, moving to Austin in 1999 from Nashville, where they spent 18 years recording and performing. Bardash, who is a painter as well as a musician, compares the entire creative scene in both cities, not just music.

"Both cities contain such creative energy and are filled with talented folks and are great places to live. Even though Nashville is known for country music, there are diverse types of creations going on there," she says. Through her work in the music business and in music journalism, Bardash says that Nashville was first and foremost a business town. "The words 'showcase' and 'deal' were prevalent."

The couple came to Austin originally in 1995 to do some shows with Toni Price, and fell in love with the city. "For years people from Europe would say to us, 'Why are you in Nashville? You should be in Austin!' And right from the start we just felt at home here, both living-wise and creatively."

Ovans is set to release his 14th CD this fall, and Bardash leads the folk-metal group The Effinghammer Trio while exhibiting her paintings around Austin and working on her next musical project.

For an Austinite's potential visit to Nashville, all three musicians have suggestions for places to visit:

  • McCall: The Bluebird Cafe for songwriters, Station Inn for a bluegrass hub, and 3rd & Lindsley for a more eclectic scene. And every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. the museum hosts Songwriter Sessions, often followed by panels or discussions.
  • Walker: Duffy Jackson is a must-see, and the Doyle & Debbie Show is hysterical. Outside of music, Walker recommends East Nashville for a growing cultural scene, and Lake Radnor as a "good place to bleed the radiator of your soul."
  • Bardash: Her favorite place to play and go was always Douglas Corner Cafe (in fact, it's where she and Ovans met).

Visitors can visit the official Music City tourism website for more destination information, and check out these other top spots for a great, musical Nashville getaway:

  • The Ryman Auditorium, where you can tour the "Mother Church of Country Music" or get tickets to see current live shows — not limited to country, acts as diverse as Mumford & Sons, R.E.M. and Coldplay.
  • Historic RCA Studio B, where greats such as Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton got their start.
  • The Grand Ole Opry, for live music shows in a brand new location.
  • Hatch Show Print, which has been making posters using the old-fashioned letter press since 1879.
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