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Real Tennessee Denim: Nashville’s Love Affair with Music and Jeans

In 1984, an iconic album cover juxtaposed the American flag, an American singer and a pair of blue jeans claiming that they were all born in the USA. While, strictly speaking, denim was first woven in France, in the town of Nîmes and sewn into jeans in Genoa, Italy (Gênes), the blue jean has become as American as apple pie or Appeltaerten as a Dutch cookbook called it in 1514. But that doesn’t matter. Like other U.S. immigrants, over the years denim became truly American.

In the U.S. after World War II, the blue jean transitioned from work attire to a lifestyle choice. By the Cold War, denim was strongly connected with youth culture and the cool, hip and progressive. Recognized worldwide as peculiarly American, U.S. jeans were treasured alike by ally (Japan) and foe (Russia). So, when Bruce Springsteen chose to don that pair of Levi’s and make them part of his statement, he was rightly claiming the connection between America and the blue jean and, also in that image, connecting it all back to the values of America’s manual laborers and, of course, the music that for Springsteen put all those values together.

Fast (fashion) forward a few decades and America’s denim hegemony may have faded, but it remained intact, like a pair of comfy Wranglers. Denim production went global, and while American brands still dominate the world market, others like G-Star and Pepe made the top 10 list. Of course, denim has rarely been about production, either manufacture or design. It is about where it is worn with style and how a pair of jeans hugs the culture of that place, as Amy Leverton recently noted in Rivet, “Despite the number of countries that produce and manufacture denim around the world, from Thailand to Pakistan to Japan to Turkey, there are only a number of true denim meccas. These are the places that denim lovers either long to go, or, if they’re lucky visit on a regular basis in hope of finding inspiration, business or production. These places are rare denim gems, known the world over, discussed and revered across communities.”

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She makes the case for Los Angeles. I believe an even better case can be made for Nashville, Tenn.

Was it an accident that while Nashville was the number one cotton producer in the world, Queen Victoria of England, hearing an a cappella group from Fisk University, also declared that Nashville was “Music City”? That name stuck. Long after King Cotton had moved its throne to Memphis and long after New York, London, and Los Angeles became known for their music, Nashville remained Music City.

Nashville’s density of music activity is 10 times greater than New York or Los Angeles. Or as Billboard magazine put it, “You’re more likely to have a neighbor in the biz in Nashville” than in any other major music city. Every waiter, bartender and counter clerk is likely to be a musician, singer or songwriter. Even the founder of Nashville Arts arrived from London as Tammy Wynette’s lead guitarist.

With that kind of creative density, other creative industries are booming. In fact, according to one measure, “Nashville ranks above Austin in the creative vitality index.” Its score is almost twice as high.

Nashville’s denim connections grow out of that connection with cotton, music and creativity, but that’s not the whole story.

Frankly, Nashville is not Los Angeles, or Amsterdam, or Paris, or Milan. And it never will be nor does it aspire to be. Nashville is authentically different. It is authentically American, down-home, creative as hell and denim saturated.

Nashville was a frontier town with spunk, sitting in the heart of America where major transportation arteries converged, bringing in and sending out cargo on the way to the rest of the U.S. Nashville was always a work city and never developed as a cosmopolitan center, although it was and is Tennessee’s capital. It has also never let its historic roots wither.

As a result, Nashville’s indigenous culture remains largely intact and thriving. Those who come to live in Nashville join that culture, make it theirs and elaborate it. Those who visit joyously immerse themselves in it. Nashville is down-to-earth, hardworking, creative and proudly casual, wearing its denim as a statement about its identity.

Walk up Broadway from the mighty Cumberland River. By the Cumberland, a replica marks the spot where frontiersmen James Robertson and John Donelson, one coming by land and the other by water, converged in 1779 and built Fort Nashborough from logs, naming the stockade in honor of Revolutionary War General Francis Nash. For the next 150 years, cargo came in and out, filling the riverfront warehouses along 1st Avenue, whose upper floors on 2nd now serve as music venues or museums in honor of the legends of country music.

If you walk from the waterfront up Broadway, music pours from five blocks of elbow-to-elbow honkytonks, sometimes three-stories high, each floor with a band playing. Locals and global visitors crowd Broadway, brought together by the exciting music from talented musicians, sharing an authentic sense of what the pure and unchanged American spirit feels like and wearing denim.

It is like the Wrangler brand, which has the headquarters of its workwear division here. Founded by Nashville native C. C. Hudson, Wrangler’s market embraced railroad workers, youth culture and cowboys. Music luminary Tim McGraw can usually be spotted in an iconic pair of Wranglers cowboy cut jeans and that about says it all.

The feel is friendly, forward thinking, hardworking and downright so down-to-earth that everything in town has a strong artisanal feel. The best food places, which stack up nicely against foodie paradises like Portland, Ore., offer a mash up of hot chicken experiences at places like Princes and refined pleasures like Husk. No surprise (to Nashvillians) that Martin’s BBQ was just named one of the top 50 restaurant in the U.S. along with two very chic Nashville restaurants Bastion and Henrietta Red. Everything is locavore (which is a feature of every urban area) and the menus reflect local culinary traditions.

This sense of place has given rise to an amazing array of independent designers—the largest per capita in the country. That includes nationally known luminaries like Natalie Chanin and Elizabeth Suzann and soon-to-be nationally knowns like Jamie & the Jones, who hand dye and marble all their cloth. It also includes beautiful handcrafted designs, like those by hat and tie maker Otis James.

But if you love denim—and who doesn’t—try trendy 12th Avenue South (or “12 South” as locals call it) where real Tennessee denim rubs up against the denims of the world. Tennessee denim abounds. There you will find Draper James, the flagship store of actress Reese Witherspoon’s apparel brand. The brand’s denim lines are named after iconic Nashville music venues like Bluebird Café and Tootsies. At Emerson Grace, with its Belgian and French inspired minimalism, you can find the brands that owner Courtnay Page sells in Los Angeles and Portland. At Moda Boutique, the denim comes from Los Angeles companies like Frame and Dutch ones like Scotch & Soda. Or you can rummage through the large collection of stunning denim reruns at Savant Vintage.

Also on 12 South you will find the repurposed filling station that serves as home base, fueling spot for emerging Nashville jean giant Imogene and Willie. Since 2009, country singers, music legends, cowboys and creatives of every stripe have donned their renowned selvedge jeans. With stores around the country, Imogene and Willie’s signs at each location point visitors back to their brand’s Nashville roots. Real Tennessee denim.

Or hop over to the groovy East Nashville scene, home of hot chicken, cool coffee houses and a great assortment of stores. There is Two Son, where Los Angeles refugee David Perry and his wife Leigh Watson (a musician, of course) vend their namesake denim brand. And visit The Trunk, which proclaims its fashions are “for all the badass women of the world!” including its badass denim. Then there is Hip Zipper, another modish emporium of post-consumer jeans.

Nashville is a place where the authentically artisanal, the pioneering spirit, the passion for creativity, history and down-home spirit meet. And denim runs through it all, like the warp of native indigo produced by Sara Bellos’ Stony Creek Colors. And if we want to find the woof, it is music. It is as Fast Company noted in their article “Denim and Music: An Enduring Love Story:” “If ever a product was made for music, it is denim.” If you follow the Pythagorean logic of this, then QED, Music City = Denim City. However, unlike denim elsewhere, in Nashville it is not just a lifestyle statement. It is a statement about our lives.

Led by brands like Imogene and Willie and Two Sons and the others that are soon sure to follow, fostered by the Nashville Fashion Alliance, fed by Nashville’s love of music, reinforced by its history and the value that it places on its cultural roots, and supported by the entire community, Music City will soon be recognized for what it also is—Denim City.

Denim may not have been born in the USA, but it is alive, well and growing strong in Nashville.

David Rosen, the author and denim devotee whose family stores sold both Wrangler and Levi, is an Independent Consultant and Nashville Fashion Alliance Board Member, co-leading the business planning process for the NFA’s Fashion Accelerator Innovation Resource Center (FAIR). He was formerly president of O’More College of Design and Kendall College of Art and Design and Senior VP at Woodbury University, all offering BFAs in fashion.