Emma Swift is a singer, writer and radio personality who has just finished a stint in Australia hosting Saturday Night Country on ABC national radio. In 2012, she won a broadcasting grant from the British Council to investigate radio and folk community in the United Kingdom. Born in Sydney and raised in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Swift now calls Nashville, Tennessee home. Here, she gives Billabout a lesson in the city.
Describe Nashville in three words?
Effervescent, inspiring and fun.
There are approximately 1.6 million people in Nashville. Does everyone love country music?
Not at all! There’s a big music industry and lots of people work in it, but there are also people who just don’t care about it at all. I was living in a share-house with a girl from Washington, D.C., who loved hip-hop and had never listened to country music until this completely strange Australian girl showed up at her house with 80 records.
Do the music lovers stick together?
Within the music-making community you kind of get to know everyone. I’ve got a friend, Kelsey Waldon from Kentucky, she just did a Daytrotter Session and whenever we go for a drink all we do is talk about Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton; I’m 31 and she’s 23. It’s the first town I’ve lived in where I haven’t felt like a total freak!
Did growing up in the country put the passion for country music in you?
I was raised on Australian folk music artists like Paul Kelly and Tex Perkins. All my dad would play was Talking Heads and stuff like that, so it’s not like I was raised in a house where people were obsessed with twang. But when I was about 20 I moved to Sydney for university and I started listening to this really old school depressing music: Ryan Adams put out Heartbreaker, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, and old-school Gram Parsons. I bought this pair of cowboy boots and I guess I was reconnecting to my past in an overly romantic sense. I am so fanatical about country music now, my mum and all my sisters, and a lot of my friends are now into at least some country, just by being in proximity. I live to convert.
How did you set yourself up in Nashville?
I’d been to Nashville before moving there and I rented a shitty apartment that I found on Craigslist. I was there reporting on the Americana Music Festival and Conference and there was something about this magical place where my heroes had lived. People like Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, and I would go to these shows at night of young and emerging Americana country artists and by day I’d go to thrift stores and find as many bedazzled outfits from country artists of yesteryear as I could; endless sequins and shoulder pads. I love thrifting and I love country music and it all kind of came together in Nash.
Is Nashville all about music?
When I first moved I didn’t really know anyone, but I’m in love with music and the music culture and there are gigs on all the time; I’m amazed at the eclectic scene. So many legends live there like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, indie bands, rock and rollers, Jack White, Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. It’s a diverse city, young and really fun!
What’s happening with your EP?
I won the Smoky Dawson Songwriting Fellowship grant last year and I’m writing an EP at the moment which I’m really excited about it. It’s an homage to traditional country singers like Tammy Wynette and Emmylou Harris but I’m also really interested in the more contemporary, folk stylings of when Cat Power was making acoustic records. I’m releasing it in November. (You can support Emma’s EP here.)
Have you always been writing songs?
I’ve only just started. I got to 29 and thought, “I’ve been singing for such a long time, but not ever doing much with it!” I was writing for my work, but couldn’t put it to music. I am doing that now, so that’s really exciting. I’m recording the EP in Nashville with a friend of mine, Annie McHugh, she’s an Aussie too, but she’s been living in Nashville for about six years.
Can you tell us about the panel you were in at SXSW recently?
Last year I wrote this blog piece in defense of old school country and Americana music and it went viral, so I did this panel called People of Letters and was asked me to read it. The whole show was inspiring, funny, moving and delightful. I sat on stage in between Buck 65 and Neil Gaiman! I was beyond terrified, my hands were shaking, but it was great and afterwards I sung a Gram Parsons song. I’m so glad I got to be apart of it.
Where must one go when in Nashville?
1.The Country Music Hall of Fame is an incredible place with a wide range of memorabilia and different exhibitions on all the time. It’s also got the best gift shop of any place I’ve ever been to and I love a cheap trinket! I’m into old school country music and when you go the museum you can see Gram Parson’s Nudie Suit and old guitars owned by people like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and George Jones. The museum is put together very tastefully and is a big beautiful building worth checking out.
2. Grimey’s Records is a small but brilliantly curated music store in Nashville on 8th Avenue. It has a wonderful selection of vinyl as well as CDs and DVDs, and the staff there are real enthusiasts. I think if you’re going to buy hard copy music anywhere in the world, going to Grimey’s is great because they’ll turn you onto things that you’ve never heard of before and get you excited and inspired. They’re about to open a store of vintage collectables next door called Grimeys II and you can go get music memorabilia, which is great!
3. Ryman Auditorium is Nashville’s most revered music venue. They call it the “Mother Church” of country music and you sit in pews to watch the music. It started during Prohibition, then it became a music room and it’s just magical. A diverse selection of artists play there from the Grand Ole Opry featuring people like Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris or Dwight Yoakam. Contemporary artist include Gotye and Nick Cave. Famously, Johnny Cash, in his wild days, did a show at the Ryman and there were all of these stage stage lights above the stage and he was on a bender and he smacked down all of the lights!
To drink and listen?
1. The Stone Fox in West Nashville is a bar and a music room. You can see emerging artists or established types, I know Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash played there recently with their daughter Chelsea Crowell. It’s decorated beautifully and has a great map jigsaw of America. The ladies bathroom has old vinyls pinned to the walls and old school pictures of country singers. Order the whisky sour; they say that Nashville’s a drinking city with a music problem!
2. Robert’s Western World is the last remaining great honkytonk on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. It focuses on traditional country music and was the first place I went to in Nashville. I fell in love with it: the walls are lined with cheaply framed photographs of people like Hank Williams, George Jones, Conway Twitty and Tammy Wynette, and then there’s another wall that’s all cowboy boots. It’s a tourist destination for the young and the old. I’ve seen Jack White there as well as met newlyweds — she was 81 and he was 69 and they had come to Nashville for their honeymoon so she could dance to Patsy Cline songs! I took a few friends from New York City, Sophie Mallam and Amelia Tovey, two amazing, vibrant creative girls, and they loved it. Nashville has a real romance to it, because the people who visit it are real music lovers; they’re so passionate. But they can be really really young, or in their retirement years. Whenever I’m in Robert’s, I feel like I’ve retired, I just sit at the bar with a vodka and people watch and listen to the music, and it’s great.
3. The 5 Spot for its $2 cheesesteaks and $2 pints of Yazoo Pale Ale. There are five bands and they play four to five songs each and it’s really diverse. I’ve seen Bobby Bare Jr. and the Alabama Shakes there. Nashville is one of those towns where you will see bands before they get big.
How do you rate the food?
The restaurant community is building up and because it’s an arts and culture city, it’s cheap and there are lots of interesting little restaurants opening. I really love dive-style diners such as Wendell’s in West Nashville; it’s everything you’ve ever imagined about the South.
Where should one go to thrift?
1. Southern Thrift, East Nashville: I’ve bought more sequin tops and scuffed up boots in this store than any other. There’s also a great selection of records and books.
2. Goodwill, Berry Hill: There are two Goodwill stores at Berry Hill and they are next to door to each other. One is your more regular store, the other has concrete floors and giant bins to sift through. I’ve bought some great vinyl in the first one, as well as Dolly Parton’s autobiography. The second one is good too but is for hardcore thrifters only.
3. Music City Thrift: Huge and doesn’t have as many bargains as Goodwill or Southern Thrift but it has a lot of variety and the last time I was there a really great selection of vintage leather bags.
Full disclosure: The interviewer and editor of this piece has had the pleasure of calling Emma Swift her friend for a couple of years. Aside from being super talented, Emma’s energy and enthusiasm for all things Nashville is second to none.