Texas has been locked in competition with Tennessee for years—maybe even since Davy Crockett told his home state to go to hell. The divide between “Texas country” (raw, traditionalist, fiercely independent) and “Nashville country” (polished, trendy, unabashedly mainstream) has been a mostly civil war since the seventies, when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings first turned their backs on Nashville and the country music establishment. Residual bitterness over losing the Oilers to Tennessee has since calcified into one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries, and lately that bad blood seems to have spread to our hockey teams too. Now that historic friction promises to get even more complicated, as a Nashville company snapped up a major piece of the Austin music scene.
Earlier this week, the Nashville-based Ryman Hospitality Properties announced its purchase of Austin’s Block 21, a site that’s home to both the W Austin hotel and, significantly, ACL Live at the Moody Theater. That it paid $275 million for a block of prime downtown real estate is plenty noteworthy on its own. But there’s something especially symbolic about the sale of the home of Austin’s famed musical export, the Austin City Limits TV series, to the company that owns the Grand Ole Opry. These cornerstones of our respective cultures getting mashed together suggests that the crucial Texas versus Nashville distinction is in danger of being blurred and further homogenized into marketing-friendly corporate blandness—not unlike what’s happened to country music in general.
This would just be (admittedly paranoid) conjecture were it not for Ryman’s other, more ambitious plan for the building. Along with typical gushing about cross-promoting its various brands, the company’s press release adds that “we also believe there are significant opportunities to create content that will position Austin and Block 21 as a must-visit destination for country lifestyle consumers through our new TV platform, Circle, which is set to launch in early 2020.” That very consumerism is exactly what Waylon and Willie were rebelling against when they first quit the Nashville machine. Now, it seems, this outlaw outpost they built here will be just another branch of the country music franchise.
The key lies in the aforementioned vague promises of making Austin a part of its upstart TV network, Circle. The group recently unveiled an initial lineup of sixteen Circle shows set to debut on January 1; the highlights include Opry Live, a (decidedly not live) clip show featuring newly recorded performances on the Grand Ole Opry stage; a chat-and-fishing show starring Opry mainstay Elizabeth Cook; and a reality series focused on the not-as-famous spouses of country music and NASCAR stars. Circle says it’s also interested in reviving the variety show Hee Haw for a third generation, bringing its cornpone comedy (and presumably its country guest stars) into the twenty-first century. All will be running on Circle’s over-the-air broadcast network, which is currently scheduled for more than 50 markets. Notably, Austin isn’t currently one of them—and neither is Nashville. Instead, Circle will likely be packaging the idea of those cities for more far-flung markets, wherever “country lifestyle consumers” can be found.
For now, at least, it seems like there’s little reason to worry about changes coming to Austin City Limits itself. The series operates independently from the venue, and so far there’s been no discussion or even speculation that it could make the jump from public broadcasting, where it’s lived for decades. (Still, that certainly doesn’t preclude Circle from potentially buying up and repackaging syndicated reruns of its country-themed episodes, the way CMT did in the early aughts.) More likely, Ryman intends to wring all-new content out of the theater, which is already rigged for television, that will vie with its namesake. Who knows? Maybe Austin will get its very own Hee Haw.
Granted, neither the Moody Theater nor Austin City Limits have been major players in the country music scene for a while. Unsurprisingly, the show’s just-announced 45th season finishers are heavy on pop, rock, and indie names like Billie Eilish, the Raconteurs, Cage the Elephant, and Sharon Van Etten, with nary a country performer in sight. The only Texas artist, meanwhile, is Austin-based electro-soul group Black Pumas. So there is certainly an argument to be made that the addition of country, Nashville or otherwise, to upcoming seasons would be an improvement for fans.
Still, it can’t help but feel like some historic battle has been lost here. Nashville has spent a lot of time lately locked in a largely one-sided competition with Austin, positioning itself as a more affordable spin on a Southern cultural oasis. Trend pieces have even posited Nashville as “the new Austin,” while “Nashville vs. Austin” remains a popular Reddit debate. More generally, it’s long vied with Texas philosophically, with that discord between its nakedly commercial ambition and our proud independence that defines not just our music but the core of our spirit. Now, it seems, that spirit could end up being just another useful marketing tool for somebody’s Nashville lifestyle brand. Guess if you can’t beat ’em, you buy ’em.