Nashville has always had its mainstays. Characters that come up every time someone starts talking about all the exciting things that are going on in the city. Best kept secrets you simply have to go and see, who make records you simply have to hear. Erin Rae is one of those characters, a beloved fixture that people point to whenever they want to show you how much the city has to offer; its quietly beaming golden child.
Born in Memphis, she grew up in Jackson before moving to Nashville with her family at the age of 11, but it wasn't until she was in her late teens that Music City started to take a serious grip. After dropping out of her first semester of college, she learnt to play guitar - a high school graduation gift from her parents - and began playing open mic nights around town, in particular at the weekly open mic night at Café Coco, a round-the-clock hangout for Nashville’s countercultural teens and twenty-somethings.
She got some early musical guidance from Kathy Mattea, a close friend of her parents, and she in turn introduced Rae to voice coaches and musical educators Phoebe and Bob Binkley, who’d written songs for Marty Robbins.
Billed as Erin Rae and The Meanwhiles, she began to make waves over on the side of Nashville that likes to keep its country a little more loose, adding her distinctly Southern lilt to songs with a folkier West Coast sound.
10 years later and three albums in she’s hitting full stride, playing shows at Newport Folk Festival and the Ryman Auditorium, and opening up for The Mountain Goats, Courtney Marie Andrews, Dawes, Hiss Golden Messenger, Jason Isbell and Iron And Wine among others. She's also part of Nashville’s legendary women’s songwriter song swap nights, alongside everyone from Lily Hiatt and Brittany Howard to Becca Mancari and Margo Price.
Proving there was more to Nashville than the slick country productions of Music Row, Erin Rae has always challenged what it means to be a singer and a songwriter coming out of the city, gently tapping into country music heritage at the same time as carving out a unique path of her own.
Produced by Jonathan Wilson, her latest album, Lighten Up, widened the soft melancholic Americana of her previous albums to embrace spacey heartfelt pop, cosmic country and laid back Laurel Canyon folk. It features star turns from Meg Duffy, Ny Oh and Kevin Morby along its way, aligning her sound more with the country-tinged pop of Weyes Blood, Jenny Lewis or Father John Misty.
Holler spoke to Erin Rae about growing up in Nashville, what living there still means to her and how the city has changed over the 10 years she’s been playing in and around it.
Whereabouts in Nashville are you?
We lived in Bellevue when we first moved here, which is a suburb of Nashville about 30 minutes to the west of the city center. But now I'm on the East side. I’ve kind of bounced around a lot and lived with different friends of mine over the last several years, but I just moved back to near the Lockeland Springs and Five Points area.
Was music something that drew your family to Nashville?
My parents played music growing up, so it was a big part of our family. Our household had a lot of family friends that were big music fans, and we had friends in Jackson that put on house shows. When we moved to Nashville we definitely found more musician friends in common, so it was always a big part of my life growing up.
I remember my dad saying when we moved here that virtually everybody was a musician; if you're in the gas station, the attendant is likely to be a musician, or whoever's waiting tables probably is. Like in L.A., how in a lot of restaurants the servers are often actors. There's just this abundance of creativity. So it always felt like part of my life, but it wasn't until later on when I was 18 or so that I began to think maybe this was what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
In the video for 'Modern Woman' you featured a lot of Nashville creatives and local entrepreneurs. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to uplift the community around you?
I definitely feel like that song is meant to kind of be uplifting; a celebration of all kinds of folks. I feel very fortunate to be part of this rich community, with its vast swathe of different types of creativity and women-owned businesses.
Nashville is so cool, so I just really wanted to show that. That's been one of the themes throughout my creative life here - I want to remember these moments in time where all of these people who are so talented existed with their various creations. It's been a favourite thing of mine to do over the years, having a camera around and getting these snapshots of different songwriter friends of mine, at a song swap or whatever, or at a diner after a show. Then years later, you see the trajectory of it all and it's just cool to reflect on it that way.
Do you ever try to be part of the mainstream or are you just intent on building a separate side to Nashville? Is Broadway even a part of your world?
I think there are some great artists in the pop country world, and there's some really cool things that are starting to happen with artist like Mickey Guyton, and I love the Brothers Osborne. There’s a lot to celebrate within that community, but I’ve never really felt like that's my path.
I think when Sturgill Simpson, Margo price and Chris Stapleton had their breakouts in their careers – especially when Margo did it in like 2015 or 2016 - it solidified that you can carve out a different path that's separate from the mainstream, because we have this very rich community in East Nashville of songwriters with immense talent. I remember we had a party to watch Margo’s performance on SNL at the Basement in East Nashville.
I don't imagine that I really belong in the mainstream world, but I'm not against it. Whatever the universe wants for me.
It’s interesting, because what you see with Margo Price and with you is that you appeal to people outside of country music in a way that mainstream country artists never could. They don’t even register in these spaces. Are there any other artists you’ve felt have broken out more recently?
Aaron Lee Tasjan had been making music a long time around here, and then he went to touring more nationally, and Sierra Farrell did the same recently. There's a big list, I feel like it just goes on and on and everybody is kind of like carving out their own path. Kelsey Walden signed to Oh Boy records a few years ago, and she's been a mainstay in the in the East Nashville scene for a long time, even though she lives outside of Nashville now.
Is it still thought of as being a separate “scene” in East Nashville?
I think it is, but it's definitely shifted. There's always a new crop of musicians adding to it. And also, depending on where everyone can afford to live. At the moment it seems like there's a real scene around Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, which is in the Madison part of town.
What are your favourite places to play in the city?
I really love the American Legion. I love the Basement in Nashville, the original Basement. There's just something really special about that place and we don't know how much longer it'll be around. I think there have been rumors of the lease being up, but at least for now still there. That’s just one of the rooms where I feel like a lot of people got started. You play a New Faces night and then you get to play your own show.
I really like Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. We've done some house shows too, in the house that I now live in, prior to me living here. It’s my friend Langhorne Slim's house, and I love going to house shows in Nashville, so those were some of the most magical. I remember, that was one of the first places my friends Teddy and the Rough Riders played. They did a backyard show when everybody was first vaccinated and we could all gather around together again.
Do people think of singers and songwriters as celebrities in Nashville, or is everyone just used to them being everywhere they go?
There are definitely “real”, true celebrities that you see occasionally, especially when I was working waiting tables. I feel like Gillian Welch to me is still a celebrity. We have mutual friends, but I've only really met her one time; I’ll still be slightly starstruck if I see her walking around, not to be creepy.
One time I was waiting tables, at a place that's no longer here, this brewery restaurant called Boscos, and Taylor Swift came in the afternoon I was on. She was just out shopping with her brother. And I was just open mouthed. She's tall. She's so tall. I mean, I'm tall, but she's taller. It’s still kind of shocking to see people like that.
How has Nashville changed for you in recent years?
In the last 10 years, I think it’s just changed in the way the development in the city has skyrocketed. The skyline itself is three times the size that it was 10 years ago, just the width of it, there used to only be a handful of tall buildings and now there's tons. I feel like there was definitely a peak time where it felt like a lot of older buildings down in the Music Row area were getting torn down.
Where the Virgin Hotel is now, there used to be all these 100-year-old houses that they tore down, and that was really sad to me. Now I guess I’m a bit more that I'm just more at peace with the situation. It’s a very vibrant place to live.
I will say that with all of the development and gentrification of stuff, the worst part is people getting priced out of their neighborhoods and pushed out. Whenever the tornadoes have come through - like this last one and the one that was in ‘96 - that's kind of like when you first saw the gentrification start in Nashville, because a lot of these old buildings got torn down. So developers bought the land and flipped it. I remember someone saying that will happen again, and it definitely is.
Fortunately the venues have held on and there still is a lot of magic here. The American Legion is one of my favorite places to see music, especially its Honky Tonk Tuesdays night.
I also think there's a lot more awareness about the level of segregation that our town still had, so it's been cool in the last couple of years, especially to have more integration as far as just awareness of the different kinds of music being made in Nashville that aren't just white country artists. There are very vibrant hip hop and rap scenes, and very vibrant pop scenes. There's so much more available here than just the country music world. More room is slowly being made for a mixture of artists and genres to take the center stage.
Erin Rae's latest album Lighten up is out now on Thirty Tigers/Good Memory. You can purchase and listen to the record from Holler's selected partners below: