Music City, USA, the 13th documentary in NPT’s award-winning Next Door Neighbors series, premieres Monday, April 27, at 8 p.m. This edition of Next Door Neighbors traces the musical voyages of four people, each a first- or second-generation immigrant, who came to Nashville to pursue careers in music. They came from South America and Ivory Coast – Michigan and Alabama.
Music City, USA will also air Thursday, April 29, at 8 a.m. and Saturday, April 30, at 1 p.m. on NPT2, and will be available for online viewing at video.wnpt.org/show/next-door-neighbors. The April 27 premiere will be followed by an encore presentation of NPT Reports: Whose Music?, a panel discussion about the relevance of music genres and cultural appropriation.
NPT’s Music City, USA opens with shots of Broadway’s colorful neon signs of clubs and venues glowing against pitch-black sky, the street and sidewalks teeming with people. Stopping at the iconic Robert’s Western World, the documentary tells the story of its proprietor Jesse Lee Jones. A native of Brazil, Jones came to the U.S. virtually penniless, guitar in hand. He learned English partly by watching Sesame Street with the children of the Illinois family who took him in. He also established himself as a hard-working musician, eventually attracting local media attention. Given his affinity for country music, coming to Nashville was an obvious step.
“I began visiting some of these thrift stores, and getting myself old suits, and the old Western ties,” Jones says in Music City, USA. “It was like I was always meant to be there, and I had finally found myself.” But he wasn’t your average country boy, as noted by Robert’s legendary house band, BR-549, who started referring to him as a Brazilian hillbilly. The name stuck and Jones’ band became Brazilbilly.
As it happens, Jones and Robert’s played a role in the career of another Music City, USA’s subject. Rachel Rodriguez was in town with her father and heard a set at Robert’s that included Brazilbilly. That was the pivotal evening when she decided to move to Nashville, she recalls in the documentary.
“It never dawned on me that there were no women of color, or really anybody of color at that time, on mainstream country radio,” she says in the documentary. “I did not look like your typical country artist. People, unfortunately, listen with their eyes, sometimes. So I really had to put myself together and figure out, OK, now what am I going to do?” She now flavors her beloved country music with elements of rock, soul and Tejano music.
Giovanni Rodriguez (no relation), a Dominican-American musician who grew up in Italy and Huntsville, also makes Latin-influenced music. Giovanni – who was recently featured in a Nashville Scene cover story about Latin musicians – prefers a multicultural take on salsa. “I try to bring in as many different people as possible, whether they be from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Columbia, even other Americans,” he says in Music City, USA.
Rounding out the documentary is the story of Peter One, a musician from Ivory Coast. One was part of a duo that played stadium-size venues throughout West Africa in the 1980s. He left his home when political conditions deteriorated and then put his music career on hold while trying to make a living in the U.S. Though One’s story comes last in Music City, USA, he was the first of the documentary’s artists to catch the attention of producer Shawn Anfinson, via a feature on WPLN.
“Here was this guy who’d had a hit record in West Africa back in the 1980s, and it was chock full of country-western influences.” Anfinson said. “I wondered if there were more stories like his.” NPT was airing Ken Burns’ Country Music series when it came time for a new Next Door Neighbors documentary, so when Anfinson met Jesse Lee Jones and then randomly encountered Rachel Rodriguez, the theme was set.
As for Peter One, he’s working with Nashville musicians to create a record that reflects his African roots and his American aspirations. “You never know what’s going to happen, so live your life,” One says in Music City, USA. “Live your life the best way you can where you are. Nashville is the right place for me… and I’m really grateful.”
NPT’s Next Door Neighbors: Music City, USA is made possible by the generous support of The Nissan Foundation.
NPT’s Next Door Neighbors series looks at Nashville’s status as a destination city for refugees and immigrants and explores the rich diversity of people now calling Nashville home. Through documentaries, extensive outreach and continued relationships with Nashville’s immigrant and refugee communities, the Next Door Neighbors project aims to increase understanding of unfamiliar cultures, highlight the experiences and successes of Nashville’s immigrants, and mediate a community-wide conversation about who we are as Nashvillians. Anfinson’s most recent documentary in the series was the Emmy-nominated Taste of Home, about the culinary traditions of Middle Tennessee’s Ethiopian, Palestinian and Venezuelan communities.