I’d much rather people watch the Nashville episode of the Foo Fighters’ HBO series Sonic Highways to get a feel for this city than the ABC soap by the same name. The power behind Nashville is the creative community that thrives here, not the stars that hover over it or the sleaze that often flows out of it.
Having been fortunate enough to score two seats to the Foo Fighters’ instantly sold out Halloween concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium, I was able to screen that particular episode amongst 2,000 fellow Nashville Foo fans. In it, band leader Dave Grohl talks with legends and outsiders and comes face to face with the gospel music that forms the very foundation of rock, blues and country. Then the band came out in corpse paint and rocked the Mother Church of Country Music relentlessly until 2 in the morning.
To create Sonic Highways, Grohl and the band spent a year traveling the United States, setting up camp in nine different cities, learning about the local culture and music and challenging themselves to write and record a song there. His central thesis is that place affects people, and people make art, so therefore place must also shape art. As our online culture increasingly averages out regional dialects, this is an important concept to consider.
Regional artists speak into the musical process, but the primary impact of these cities is on Grohl’s lyrics. Phrases from his interviews and observations work their way into the songs. The contributions of musicians such as New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty or Nashville’s Zac Brown are all done organically and not as cartoonish call-outs. As a result, the Sonic Highways album works as a logical, next-step Foo Fighters record rather than some kind of high-concept exception. Although the Foo Fighters started 20 years ago as a post-Nirvana, Dave Grohl solo project, his music has grown to embrace the power of community.
Regional artists speak into the musical process, but the primary impact of these cities is on Grohl’s lyrics.
There is nothing incredibly innovative about Sonic Highways, to be sure. Epic melodies, inspiring lyrics, massive tone and Grohl’s muscular and dynamic vocals deliver relentless, arena-sized hooks. This is most evident in the Nashville song “Congregation.” In the episode, viewers get to see a band in the process of composing. They try some country-ish licks, but settle on a classic Foo power-pop riff. Along the way, as Grohl contemplates the profound influence the church has had on the music of Nashville, he comments that it’s great to hear music that’s based in faith instead of misery. Though he asserts that he is not “a religious guy,” he certainly embodies the passion and fervor of a preacher when he wails, “Open your eyes, step into the light, the sound becomes a congregation!”
It occurred to me there in the Ryman that the Foo Fighters have more in common with Springsteen, Tom Petty or U2 than most of the artists of the Internet generation. Sonic Highways is ambitious, to be sure, yet Grohl mostly creates resonance by crafting feel-good rock that traces ecclesiastical threads woven throughout the human experience. Those threads have brought him to the essential power of human community. I wonder where they’ll take him next.