Just Off Music Row, Nashville's R&B Scene Thrives

Mar 24, 2017
Originally published on March 24, 2017 1:07 pm

Late on a Wednesday afternoon at Nashville's 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill, Emoni Wilkins, Jason Eskridge and Mike Hicks are trying to tack a bit of last-minute rehearsing onto their sound check for the night's show. They're each slated to perform a solo set, before wrapping up with a collective finale. With guidance from Eskridge, who's strumming an acoustic guitar, they ease into sympathetic three-part harmony on the chorus of James Taylor's "Shower the People." Eskridge encourages Wilkins to vamp, and she responds with fluttery, athletic vocal runs. Then Hicks, a mellow presence bent over a keyboard next to them, succumbs to delighted laughter. "You're gonna take me out," he tells Wilkins. "I quit. I'm packing up my stuff and going on home. I'm done. That's some good singin'."

During any given week, these three friends work as musicians for hire, tugged in diverging directions by tour dates and recording sessions with nationally known acts. It's hard enough for Eskridge, Hicks and Wilkins to find a night that they're all available to appear on one bill. Scheduling a separate run-through would be out of the question, and hardly necessary for singers at their level anyhow. But what draws them together on this and other occasions is a shared commitment to helping foster an underground Nashville R&B and soul scene, a music community in which they have a satisfying creative outlet and a real stake.

There was a time when Nashville was actually in the R&B business. The city's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum devoted a lavish exhibit to the period from the mid-1940s up through the '60s when the influence of the R&B programming on local radio station WLAC could be felt throughout the southern U.S., nightclubs on Jefferson Street hosted local and touring acts, labels like Bullet took a chance on talent, a bustling recording scene yielded occasional hits like Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love" and the variety show Night Train, a precursor to Soul Train, beamed performances into living rooms.

Eventually, that work dried up. Though there are countless examples of meaningful exchange between country and Southern R&B (see: rock 'n' roll), for musicians of color, possessing professional chops honed in R&B didn't necessarily translate into a lot of opportunities in Nashville's dominant country scene. The exhibit's mastermind, museum editor Michael Gray, says that the handful of exceptions — like Bobby Hebb, who was in Roy Acuff's band and later scored a pop hit, and Jimmy Sweeney, who wrote country songs while fronting a doo-wop group — largely proved the rule. That mostly held true in the '90s, when writer-producer-players Tommy Sims and Keith Thomas parlayed massive CCM success into pop and R&B work, and the early 2000s, by which time Shannon Sanders was starting to pick up R&B and country credits with his interracial production duo Drew & Shannon.

Wilkins, Eskridge, Hicks and a number of their music-making peers represent a slightly more recent phenomenon. Side by side, they're straddling Nashville's music scenes, trying to make themselves indispensible to the industry even as they band together outside of it.

Like countless African-American musicians before them, these three received early lessons in musicianship from church music. Eskridge's grandfather sang bass in a down-home gospel group in East Tennessee, and both Georgia-born Hicks and Chicago-bred Wilkins were preachers' kids. Wilkins cut her teeth in the youth choir New Direction and learned her way around her hometown's storied gospel scene. But she insists of her move to Nashville, "I didn't come here to sing only gospel." That's abundantly clear looking at the wall of her suburban apartment; she's transformed it into a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard so that she can more easily keep track of each day's gigs. Besides harmonizing behind gospel star CeCe Winans, Wilkins has also become a resident crowd-pleaser at a downtown blues club, sung on artists' albums and Disney theme park soundtracks, studied Dolly Parton's material and mannerisms for a tribute show and appeared on the reality competition The Sing Off and spin-off tours.

Wilkins was already living in Nashville when she was approached about the television show. That was her introduction to the world of a cappella pop, and it led her to explore new uses of her extravagant instrument, cavernous and sensual in its lower ranges, meteoric at its high notes and used with thrilling control. Not long ago, an artist asked her to emulate a Tarzan call in the studio, and she had no trouble figuring out how to perfectly recreate the primal bellowing. "I remember going out on the back porch when I was a kid and listening to the birds sing or chirp and trying to imitate that sound," Wilkins says. "It was always like, 'Oh, I hear this sound,' and trying to figure out how I could make that happen. I didn't know until a couple of years ago, 'Hey, this is a real thing. This could really make me money.' "

A fan made a YouTube video out of clips of her performing on TV and in concert. It was meant to showcase her ability to hit notes from the basement to the rafters, but it also put a different sort of range on display. When she saw it, she says, "I was just floored by the vastly different genres I was singing."

Eskridge started looking for singing opportunities in Nashville a couple of decades ago. Not long out of college, he was making his living as a NASA engineer, pulling in a respectable salary and benefits and devoting his downtime to music. As he made contacts in Nashville, he started commuting from Huntsville, Ala., on weekends. "I had friends who were in the hip-hop industry, friends who were in the CCM industry, friends that were even in the country industry," he recalls. "Yeah, anytime somebody asked me to sing I would do it."

Eskridge had a gig with contemporary Christian pop-R&B balladeer Nicole C. Mullen waiting for him the moment he left Rocket City behind. Another friend, Shannon Sanders, handled choir arrangements and production work for the wryly swinging country singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett and the roots-pop singer-guitarist Jonny Lang, and helped Eskridge land spots with both.

After that, Eskridge signed on with jammy, stylistically diffuse country-rock outfit the Zac Brown Band. Eskridge acclimated to each new situation by putting his wide-ranging musical sensibilities to use. "You find out pretty quickly that to have any sort of longevity here, unless you're the 1 or 2 percent of artists who end up being huge or whatever, you have to be able to multitask and do other things," he observes.

Hicks can identify. He wouldn't have pictured himself playing keyboards for Keb' Mo'. After the easeful blues-pop performer moved to Nashville half a decade ago, Hicks was introduced to the artist by his given name, Kevin Moore, at a recording session. "I was on my way home and I Googled," Hicks admits. "I was like, 'Let me see who this dude is.' Keb' Mo' kept coming up. I was like, 'Oh no!' ... I wasn't really a blues aficionado, so I wasn't hip. And I surely didn't see it turning into what it has. I tell folks all the time, I feel like I am forever indebted to Keb' for taking a risk on a young kid."

Not only did Hicks master a new repertoire, he encountered a new audience—one that tends to skew middle-class, middle-aged and white. On the road, he found it hard to process news about the suicide of Sandra Bland, who was jailed after a racially motivated altercation with a traffic cop, and the massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. "It's tough," he says, "because in those moments, I'm away from my family and the people who we normally cling to ...There was a time when I think I had written probably about 10 or 12 songs in a span of a couple of weeks, all centered around the heaviness of injustice, specifically racial injustice."

Like Hicks, Eskridge has solo projects of his own, including a new album in the works. It's when he's working under his own name that he really displays the scope of his instincts, gliding between the roles of gospel shouter, sensual country-soul loverman and soft-rock singer-songwriter. "It's always been important to me to make sure that as a musician, at any point in time I could draw from any one of those sources and still be legit and not be faking it, but it really be kind of a part of who I am musically," he says. "As much as there's the soul singer that's going for it and singing about whatever, there's also the guy who has stories about his own life that he wants to tell. I take pride in being able to seamlessly transition between those folks and it still make sense."

Wilkins, too, is working on confessional new music. She was inspired to get back to writerly self-expression by both a string of personal losses and a transcendent experience at a Peter Gabriel arena show. She marvels, "The amazing thing is that we all do different projects with other artists, but never forget about our first love, and that is music that speaks to us within our hearts." Earlier in her Nashville tenure, she recorded a mixtape, When Worlds Collide, stocked with imaginative reinterpretations of pop and R&B songs, including a dogged rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady," featuring the band that backs Wilkins around town, and an a cappella reading of the ZEDD and Hayley Williams dance number "Stay The Night." With sly, tentative syncopation and robotic harmonies cocooning her breathy delivery, Wilkins finds melancholy in the fleeting nature of the latter's romantic rendezvous; in her hands, the song really does have a new meaning.

Hicks points out that it's his touring income that enables him to record his socially conscious neo-soul songs. He'll book one of his friends' studios when he can, and aim for lush, Earth, Wind & Fire-level orchestration with singers, players and engineers from his inner circle. "The money that you make out there, you pour it back into the folks who believe in you enough to help out with music," he explains. "The sideman thing pays for, at least at this point, it's paying for the hustle of doing my own artistry and my own vision."

He goes on, "The Nashville music scene, at least the circles that I'm involved with, they're very good at looking out for each other and challenging each other. So it's not merely, 'Well, let me call my friend to play bass, because he plays bass and he's my friend. I can pay him.' If he wasn't good, I wouldn't call him."

Regardless of how accomplished they are musically, Hicks, Eskridge and Wilkins strike a welcoming posture toward new arrivals. Hicks relishes being one of the first people musicians reach out to when they get to Nashville, and one of the first to offer them a platform in his role as music director for occasional multi-artist tributes to standard-setters like Missy Elliot, Kanye West and Erykah Badu. When Hicks planned the set list for a show devoted to Outkast's catalog, he couldn't find anyone able to nail the early track "SpottieOttieDopaliscious." During a rehearsal, a young stranger strode up to the microphone and announced that he'd heard they needed someone to tackle the song and was there to deliver. Hicks was prepared to let him down easy. "Now I'm gonna have to tell this kid, 'We appreciate you coming out, but it's OK,'" Hicks remembers. "And he ran through it and blew us all away. And then that moment at the show was probably one of the hypest moments I've ever been a part of in any capacity."

Sometimes the roles are reversed. Due to his stature in multiple Nashville music communities, Eskridge finds himself getting called on to bring diversity to otherwise homogeneous live lineups, like a Tom Petty tribute show he played with local roots-rock and folk-pop fixtures. "Quite frankly, I'm the only African American or person of color that has anything to do with the show," he observes. "That being said, I always try to say 'yes' just for the sake of letting people know, 'Hey, there is soul music in Nashville.' "

Several years back he decided that the best thing he could do for the scene would be to start a gathering for its like-minded music makers and music lovers. The result, Sunday Night Soul, happens twice a month at the East Nashville bar The 5 Spot, a venue Eskridge selected "because they don't pigeonhole themselves as being the rock club or country or whatever." His band can be counted on to get people onto the small dance floor with rootsy, mischievous reimaginings of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Blackstreet covers. Every show also features guest performers: artists from elsewhere swinging through town; locals like Classik Levine, Kyshona Armstrong and CoCo Ko; fellow pros for hire like Jonny Lang's keyboardist Dwan Hill, LeAnn Rimes' guitarist Akil Thompson and DeMarco Johnson, who's played keyboards for Marc Broussard. Hicks and Wilkins are most certainly regulars too.

"Sunday Night Soul is probably one of the places where I've found so much peace, because it felt like that's where all the working musicians from all walks of life would come to get, like, a refill musically," Wilkins reflects. "We all just hug and love on each other and laugh and have a good time."

Others have tried to foster similar spaces. 3rd and Lindsley has its Soul Machine series, presented by promoter Tatia Rose and Rose Music Group. The Hype Artist Collective has put on all-women She-Hype showcases. And Lovenoise, a longtime concert promoter and presenter of music and poetry nights, rolled out a festival named for a historic Jefferson Street nightclub. Bilal, Mint Condition and Talib Kweli headlined, but the lineup also drew from local scenes with Hicks, Nashville emcee Mike Floss and alt-R&B singer Kiya Lacey.

What Lacey and Floss are up to appeals to the college crowd, at whom the blog 2 L's On a Cloud is aimed. (It's the place to hear the latest from lots of other young, Nashville-affiliated talent, like Milly Roze, Bella Moon, Saaneah, Johnny Phrank and Villz). Hicks, Wilkins and Eskridge, on the other hand, are associated with adult R&B, neo-soul, soul-jazz and nostalgic '90s hip-hop that draws a slightly more mature audience. But given the chance, they champion the full range of Nashville artists making R&B, soul and hip-hop with minimal support from Music Row's infrastructure. "Competition is good in a setting where there's a lot of one thing happening," observes Eskridge. "But when you're small like the soul music community in Nashville is, I think it's important that competition kind of go out the door and it be more of, 'We're working together to build this thing, to let people know, to have a voice that can be heard and not diluted.' "

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. Let's play a little word association. I say Nashville, you say country music. Because that's what the city is all about, right? There was a time though when Nashville had a lot of R&B going on - nightclubs, record labels, radio stations and TV shows with rhythm and blues at the center. There's now an effort to bring back some of that musical diversity to Nashville. Here's Jewly Hight of member station WPLN.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: These days, it's a rare treat to catch Jason Eskridge, Mike Hicks and Emoni Wilkins on one bill. They're each so busy that they have to cram a last-minute rehearsal of their show's finale into a sound check.

EMONI WILKINS: (Singing) Make it rain.

(LAUGHTER)

JASON ESKRIDGE: You can do it. Let's let it...

WILKINS: Oh, cool.

ESKRIDGE: Once we hit the B note together...

HIGHT: That's Eskridge offering direction. When he started taking singing gigs two decades ago, he was a NASA engineer by day, commuting from Huntsville, Ala.

ESKRIDGE: As soon as I got off work, I would drive to Nashville from Huntsville. And I had friends who were in the hip-hop industry, friends that were in the CCM industry, friends that were even in the country industry. Any time somebody asked me to sing, I would do it.

HIGHT: In addition to hip-hop and contemporary Christian, Eskridge eventually found himself harmonizing behind roots-pop guitarist Johnny Lang, the jammy Zac Brown Band and swinging country singer Lyle Lovett.

LYLE LOVETT: (Singing) You know, I wake up early in the morning.

ESKRIDGE: (Singing) In the morning.

LOVETT: (Singing) And you know I work until my day's done. And you know when I come home late in the evening I'm a happy son of a gun, yeah.

HIGHT: Eskridge got his foot in the door partly thanks to friends like Shannon Sanders and Tommy Sims, African-American producers who were already bridging genres in town. After that, it was up to Eskridge to apply his wide-ranging instincts.

ESKRIDGE: You just have to continually recreate yourself in a way that allows you to keep working because the music industry just - it's not a 40-hour a week thing that every week it looks the same. It's not set up like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESKRIDGE: (Singing) Sunrise open my eyes. I know today's the day. Blue skies, going to be all right, tell everyone I'm on my way.

HIGHT: Eskridge left Rocket City for Music City 17 years ago. Emoni Wilkins moved down from Chicago in 2013, seeking new outlets for her gospel-trained soprano.

WILKINS: Yup. And I also have this. I put a scripture up once a month.

HIGHT: Since then, she's had to convert one wall of her suburban Nashville apartment into a chalkboard to keep track of her schedule.

WILKINS: It makes it so much easier. Like, I know the dates are in my phone. But if I'm getting up in the morning, I'm like, oh, yeah, you know, this is coming up Wednesday or Tuesday.

HIGHT: Some nights, Wilkins draws big crowds at a downtown Nashville blues bar. Others, she'll back gospel star CeCe Winans or learn Dolly Parton songs for a tribute show. And an appearance on "The Sing-Off" lead to tours with acapella groups.

WILKINS: The amazing thing is that we all do different projects with other artists. Jason and Mike both have, you know, projects. But I think they're prime examples of not forgetting to embrace the music that's inside of them.

HIGHT: And so is she.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONE TOGETHER")

EMONI AND THE KAHUNAS: (Singing) I don't want to do this on my own. And you shouldn't have to be alone. I would rather be alone together.

HIGHT: One of the people who helped Wilkins find her footing in Nashville was Mike Hicks. When he isn't out on the road playing keyboards for Keb' Mo' or Little Big Town, he's liable to camp out at this Fender Rhodes piano in a friend's studio and work on his own songs.

MIKE HICKS: (Singing) Bright-eyed, smart little child. Brown skin, a snaggletooth smile. At night, her imagination would run wild.

HIGHT: Hicks' sideman work lets him hire talented peers to play in his own recordings.

HICKS: The money that you make out there, you bring and you pour it back into the folks who believe in you enough to help out with music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HICKS: (Singing) And I'll make sure that the bills are paid. But every now and then, I may be a day late. And when it comes to sticking to the plan, I try to do the best that I can.

HIGHT: Hicks is also quick to champion others in the same boat, those making hip-hop, R&B and soul music with minimal support from Nashville's Music Row infrastructure. Several years back, his friend Jason Eskridge launched a twice-monthly gathering called Sunday Night Soul at an East Nashville bar. Both Hicks and Emoni Wilkins are among the many regulars.

WILKINS: That's where all the working musicians from all walks of life would come to get like a refill musically and just have a good time.

HICKS: (Singing) Baby.

(APPLAUSE)

HIGHT: Jason Eskridge acknowledges that Nashville is a highly competitive scene, and that can be a plus.

ESKRIDGE: But I think when you're a small thing like the soul music community in Nashville is, it's important that competition kind of go out the door and it be more of, all right, we're working together to build this thing to let people know, to have a voice, you know, that can be heard and not diluted.

HIGHT: The size of the crowd may be modest but what these musicians are up to is no small deal. They're forging unbounded careers while helping foster a scene that stands on its own. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET LOVE")

ESKRIDGE: (Singing) Early in the morning, in the afternoon or late at night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.