A Conversation with Award-winning Artist Shannon Sanders

Part 3 in a 4 part series on Nashville Tourism and the African-American Community

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Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

How Music City’s Diverse Culture is Playing a Growing Role in Nashville’s Tourism Boom

Nashville’s own Shannon Sanders is a GRAMMY, Emmy and Dove award winning recording artist – and an outspoken leader in his own hometown. Sanders recently lent his talent and vision to a video project for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. that features his song, “We Are Music City.” The Nashville Voice connected with Sanders to learn more about this recent project and why Nashville’s draw extends far beyond Lower Broadway and downtown.

How did you get involved in the Nashville CVC’s “We Are Music City” video project – and why is this an important cause to you?

This all went down after I performed for the city’s Fourth of July concert in 2018. The CVC asked me to perform, and I thought that was really cool and a great opportunity to showcase the musical diversity of the city. I usually don’t perform a lot of my own stuff because I do so much producing for other artists, but as I was planning for that show I thought the perfect closing song for my set that night would be one I had halfway written called “We Are Music City.” At the time the song wasn’t totally finished, so the Fourth of July concert gave me a good reason to finish it. So I did and after I performed it and walked off stage, the folks with the CVC, Butch Spyridon and his team, were blown away and told me they wanted to find a way to work together and use the song to help promote the city.

A little while later the CVC came back to me and said they wanted to produce a video that displayed the true diversity of the city and thought “We Are Music City” would be the perfect backdrop. And so, I recorded it specifically for that reason. But the version I recorded for the video was different than the one I performed at the Fourth of July celebration. That one took a more urban, Americana approach. When I went into the studio and began recording it, that version didn’t feel right. I felt like I was boxing the city in. I felt like it wasn’t reflective of everything that we are. So, I took a chance and tried to incorporate as much of who we are as I could. If you listen to it there are elements of R&B, elements of hip hop. There’s some pedal steel in there. There’s some pop. There’s some gospel. So, everything that I could get in there that’s reflective of what the city is musically I tried to incorporate into the production of the song. So that’s how it came about.

The video covers so many of the places across Nashville, but it’s all tied together by the song. How does that reflect the spirit of Nashville to you?

The video is a chance to showcase the city’s diversity and show the true fabric of the city. That’s what we hoped to achieve. How can we push that message forward? How can we let people see ways the city is diverse and hear in the music what Nashville is really all about? Instead forcing the video to be what the song is, we really forced the song to what the video needed to be to make them work together and have the most impact.

There’s been some rhetoric that Nashville’s tourism boom is having a negative impact on the city, and only benefits downtown. Your song and the video paint a very different picture.

Nashville is an onion. You start to peel it away and you realize how many layers are here. You dig down and get into the history and you see what a pivotal city it’s always been culturally, especially in the South. It’s always been culturally rich and diverse. There’s always been a sense of pride in the community about being from Nashville. And honestly, it hasn’t always felt that Nashville has been proud of everybody, but seeing that change now and being a part of what attracts people to this city is really a good feeling. It feels good to have anyone at the table to be able to be represented and to be seen and acknowledged as part of the Music City family and landscape.

Is the stereotype that Nashville is all about Lower Broad and bachelorette parties harmful for the city and does it work against what you’re trying to say with this song and video?

Well, all of that is a byproduct of the success the city is experiencing as a tourist destination, but at the same time it’s part of the beauty. I mean, who would have thought 20 years ago when downtown was desolate that it would be a top party destination in the United States. Honestly, it’s good to know that people deliberately come here to have a good time. I travel a lot, and when I tell someone I’m from Nashville you should see their faces light up. They tell me it’s a city they’ve always wanted to come to. I never would have heard that 15 or 20 years ago, so to hear that now tells me something is working. So when I think about how the CVC is marketing the city, and how they’re doing it, then it makes sense. They’re obviously doing a great job of working to change perceptions about who we are.

Exactly. Many visitors come to Nashville expecting country music and honkytonks and are surprised by the complexity and richness of our culture once they explore the city. Your song celebrates this. Do you feel like more visitors are coming to Nashville because they’re more aware of Nashville’s diversity and culture now than they were maybe four or five years ago?

Yes, absolutely, and a lot of that has to do with the great work the CVC is doing in marketing the city to a wider base of potential conventions and tourists. From the outside in, people tend to think we’re all country. But we know we’re so much more, and that’s what the song says: we’re so much more. That’s what this video’s all about. It’s been great that it’s resonating with people and I’ve found that it’s a point of pride for black businesses and the black community. You see other videos that feature different people and places, but there isn’t one specifically produced to highlight black culture in Nashville and the beauty of that. The richness and vastness of that. That hasn’t been marketed with the city before now, and I think it’s brilliant that the CVC is strategic about that. And I think that’s a big reason why so many more diverse demographics are considering Nashville now. And they know when they get here where they want to go and explore and spend their money. They know that Jefferson Street is here. We have a whole area that’s really a historical district of black businesses and black commerce and black music in Nashville. Then we have the anticipation of the National Museum of African American Music, plus historic institutions like Tennessee State University and Fisk. We have a lot we can talk about. It’s amazing. So for Nashville’s diverse cultures to be branded and marketed with the city right there with the Country Music Hall of Fame and country music, it lets people know that we’re a lot more then maybe what they think we are.

Do you think people come to the city with one impression and leave thinking something else?

No question. A lot of times people will come for a convention or come because they have to, and what I’ve found is some of those people come back on their own. And one thing that’s great about the video is that even though you see some of downtown, you also see a lot of local businesses. So it encourages people to come to the city and check out some of the neighborhood communities. Taste local food and get a feel for the local flare.

Any off the beaten path destinations you care to share that visitors might not know about, but would better understand Nashville for visiting?

Oh man, there are so many little pockets that have their own identity. You go over to Lipscomb and it’s its own little world with the Copper Kettle or The Well. It’s the same thing over in 12 South and the Melrose/8th Avenue South area. Or over on the East side with Five Points and Eastland. There are so many little places to get lost in and take in local flavor, and they’re all completely different. If I didn’t live here I’d want to visit, and I’d probably be surprised that there’s so much more going on here than the music.

Shannon will be spreading Nashville’s gospel early next year in Australia where he’ll be shooting a new movie about Elvis Presley staring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Then he’s back to Nashville in March to help produce the annual Spring Sing concert with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. To learn more about Shannon’s work, visit shannonsanders.com. For more about the “We Are Music City” video, go to visitmusiccity.com/we-are-music-city.

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