A new sound in Nashville

Times Staff Writer

MAKE no mistake: This is still Guitar Town, and the cavernous Nashville Used Music store is proof. Here, amid rows of new and used six-strings, one finds country music veterans, hirsute rock dudes and honky-tonk strivers picking away most hours of the day in a gloriously dissonant jumble of twang.

But in a back corner, co-owner Charlie Shrader has been stocking, in ever-growing numbers, the gaudy symbols of the new Nashville: the Gabbanellis.

That is, Gabbanelli brand push-button accordions -- bright, spangled things, some tricked out in the red, white and green stripes of the Mexican flag, and all marketed to the norteno and cumbia musicians who play an altogether different kind of country music.

It is a businessman's response to a changing clientele: The percentage of foreign-born residents in Nashville and the surrounding county has quadrupled since 1990. Today, the Census Bureau estimates as many as 1 in 10 of Nashville's 549,850 household residents are foreign-born, lending a cosmopolitan flair to an area that, like many in the South, was long defined in the old racial binary of black and white.

The newcomers to what was once billed as Music City USA are Ethiopians, Somalis, Bosnians and Iraqis -- including what is believed to be the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Most, however, are Latino. Shrader's store is on Nolensville Road, a long commercial strip on Nashville's south side that locals now call Little Mexico. In the last six months, he has hired two Spanish-speaking workers to deal with his new customers.

"That's the way it is," Shrader said. "You either go with the flow, or you don't go at all."

The influx of foreign-born residents has been "rapid and dramatic," said Vanderbilt University sociologist Daniel B. Cornfield. However, he noted, it has only brought Nashville in line with the national average.

Still, immigration tensions didn't command center stage until recently, with a proposal for an "English first" law, which would restrict local government to communicating in the native tongue of Milton and Mel Tillis.

A version of the law -- which allowed use of other languages in a few limited situations -- was approved this year by the Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Council. But it was vetoed by Mayor Bill Purcell, who said it would make the city "less safe, less friendly and less successful."

Supporters have since vowed to launch a signature drive for a 2008 ballot referendum.

Tennessee's capital is not the first American city to pass such a law, but it is the largest. The measure's sponsor, Councilman Eric Crafton, said he introduced it in response to "pent-up frustrations" over the federal government's failure to curb illegal immigration. He also said it would spur immigrants to learn English faster.

But the debate has widened to encompass questions about the kind of city Nashville hopes to become. In the last few years, a different kind of international flavor -- that of foreign business and investment -- has become a key part of Nashville's thriving economy. Many civic leaders do not want to spoil a good thing with a law that might seem unwelcoming.

Others -- perhaps unsurprisingly in this foundry of heartland song and symbol -- are worried about the fate of the culture that was here before.

Councilman Jim Gotto, who supports the proposal, sees some "disturbing parallels" between today's immigration trends -- particularly illegal immigration -- and those that preceded the decline of the Roman Empire.

"I welcome the people who come here legally, and it's kind of fun having the different flavors," he said. "At the same time, we don't have to lie down and give up our culture and heritage."

NASHVILLE was a frontier settlement, founded in 1779 on the banks of the Cumberland River by white pioneers who traveled west from North Carolina. It thrived as a port city and railroad hub, and, later, an insurance and healthcare center. The music industry flourished with the nationwide broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1932, and the rise of a number of recording studios and publishing houses.

Nashville's close ties to country music make for a unique calling card, but one that offers a somewhat distorted image. The great populist troubadours of Music Row have long shared the city with the scholars of Vanderbilt University and an influential moneyed class that earned its wealth in more traditional industries.

Nashville had pockets of sophistication, but not diversity. With the exception of a wave of German immigrants who settled in the 1800s, foreign-born residents were a rarity for years here, the result of the city's distance from the two coasts, as well as strict immigration policies imposed by the federal government for much of the 20th century.

"When I grew up in Nashville in the '50s, we had black people and white people," said novelist Sallie Bissell, a Nashville native who lives in North Carolina. "Mexicans to me were as exotic as gypsies. If they'd walked down my street, I'm sure everybody would have walked outside and watched."

There were ripples of change in the 1970s and '80s. In 1975, a state chapter of Catholic Charities USA began resettling refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Since then, the group has brought nearly 20,000 refugees from these and other troubled countries to Nashville and the surrounding area. Japanese businessmen became a fixture starting in 1980, when then-Gov. Lamar Alexander lured a Nissan plant to nearby Smyrna, Tenn.

The first Latino immigrants arrived in significant numbers in the late 1980s, and their numbers have grown since. They were attracted by an economy that was flourishing, thanks in great part to global trade.

As car and car-parts makers gravitated from Rust Belt to Sun Belt, Nashville became a major trading hub. In the last five years, the 10-county area saw more than 450 companies relocate or expand into the region, attracted by low taxes and good weather. Thirty-nine were foreign-owned -- among them Nissan Motor Co., which announced in November 2005 that it was moving its North American headquarters from Gardena, Calif.

Houses, malls and sports venues sprouted up along the way, and many immigrants were there to do the building.

In a matter of years, a city that had only a couple of Mexican restaurants could count more than 100, according to Conexion Americas, a local immigrant support group. Many compete for customers along two bustling commercial strips in south Nashville, Nolensville Road and Murfreesboro Pike -- where Spanish is only one of the languages spoken.

For years, these wide streets played host to a utilitarian mix of used-auto lots, muffler shops and small restaurants whose signs were all in English. Today, Kurdish halal butchers share the streets with Mexican tire shops and Somali lunch counters blaring Al Jazeera TV. Rick Q. Vu, a Vietnamese American dentist, advertises in the Spanish-language newspaper, and draws 1 in 5 customers from the Latino community.

Down the street, a former Catholic Charities worker from Sri Lanka, Patricia Paiva, runs Aurora Bakery and Cafe, where she cranks out authentic Mexican pan dulce: mantecadas, guayabas, polvorones. She also assembles baklava, writes Amharic messages on birthday cakes, and offers English classes for her mostly Latino staff.

"All of those people know that if they want to get ahead, they've got to speak English," Paiva said. "And they do learn."

Print-shop worker John Taylor, a Nashville native, is worried that the new immigrants are not making enough of an effort to mingle, sticking to their own languages and settling in hermetic enclaves. To him, it feels like something the South has had enough of: segregation.

"I don't like the cordoning off of people," said Taylor, 34. "I'm not a big thumper for civil rights and what MLK did, but it was the right thing to do."

Mechanic Randy Bruce, 49, has been frustrated watching the old Nashville change before his eyes.

"It doesn't matter who you call or where you go -- you can't understand anybody; convenience stores, fast-food restaurants," Bruce said. "When they came over, our forefathers wanted to be American. Nowadays nobody wants to. They want to come change our country."

CRAFTON, the councilman who wrote the English-first measure, is a 39-year-old homebuilder and Nashville native who met his wife in Japan while he was working toward a postgraduate degree from Tokyo's Keio University. Last year, as his colleagues debated the proposal, he offered a few of his opinions on the subject -- in fluent Japanese.

"I did that to drive home the point that if we don't have this legislation, at any point, anyone from any country could come in and not want to participate in English," he said. "And there you go -- you'd have a big problem."

Residents on both sides of the language debate acknowledge that many immigrants and refugees have been warmly received in Nashville. Southern hospitality is a point of civic pride here. It also helped that there have been enough jobs to go around, with unemployment averaging about 3.9% annually since 1990.

In recent months, police have noticed that some immigrants, particularly Latinos, have been singled out by criminals because they are believed to keep their money in cash, and are less likely to cooperate with authorities. Such motives appear to have driven a string of home invasion robberies this year, as well as a March 11 murder and attempted robbery, Nashville police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford said.

Nashville's best template for coexistence is its civil rights history. But locals don't always agree how its lessons should be applied. In the 1950s and '60s, activists like the Rev. James Lawson pitched a high-profile campaign to desegregate the city. That struggle, though sometimes violent, was less traumatic than those in other Southern cities, thanks in part to a tradition of moderate political leadership.

Councilman Gotto suggests that it is opponents of illegal immigration who have the moral high ground this time.

"It's morally wrong for us as a nation to allow this and embrace this, because it does, in a way, enslave a group of folks," he said.

"It's not about being bigoted or prejudiced."

Gotto has drafted two other bills that would punish business owners and landlords for hiring or renting to illegal immigrants, based on similar laws passed in Hazleton, Pa., that are being challenged in federal court. Gotto said his proposals are on hold until the outcome of the case.

Many in Nashville's business community fear such moves will create a big public relations problem, reminding outsiders -- particularly, outside investors -- of an Old South that was hostile to minorities.

"I think there are a lot of long-held beliefs out there with regard to the entire Southeast," said Christine Karbowiak, a vice president at Japanese tire maker Bridgestone Corp., which runs its Americas operation out of Nashville.

The English proposal in particular, she said, "sends a very negative message to the international community."

SO the city waits, watches and listens for ripples in the culture, the cuisine, the language, and even the music.

The sounds that came from here have always been a hybrid of black and white, sacred and secular, city and country. Mexican music has been an influence too: Johnny Cash famously added mariachi-style horns to "Ring of Fire" after hearing them in a dream.

On a recent weekday morning, Shrader, the music store owner, listened closely to a CD that one of his Mexican employees was blasting through a PA system. It was a norteno arrangement, with Spanish lyrics.

The words were a mystery to Shrader, but the melody was like an old friend: It was "Cotton Fields," the old Lead Belly song that had been covered by the likes of Bill Monroe and Buck Owens.

The accordion players might not be jamming with the Anglo cowboys yet, Shrader said. But this song hinted at the possibilities.

"One day," he said, "there may be some blending here."

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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