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'Music City' Singing a Brighter Tune

Nashville draws praise as schools improve and local business thrives.

There's a tradition here in Nashville of saving the day with energy and ingenuity.

Back in 1897, for instance, a crisis of presidential proportions erupted when the portly William Howard Taft got stuck in a hotel bathtub. Mr. Taft's hosts quickly hoisted their embarrassed guest out, and they later even built him a stand-up tub where water flowed out of many tubes.

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Taft liked the new invention so much, he later had one built in the White House.

Today, Nashvillians are using that ingenuity to haul Music City out of some serious hot water.

Just 10 years ago, prostitutes peppered the street corners. Crime has been out of control: In 1997, there was one murder every three days. And a racially charged battle over segregation in schools has simmered for decades.

But now The Wild Horse Saloon and the NASCAR Cafe are part of an entertainment mecca downtown. A pro football stadium is joining a burgeoning skyline. And last month the city agreed to spend $206 million to resolve the school segregation dispute.

Some long-timers decry the fast-paced changes, but all these new elements add up to a city on the rise.

"There's a great energy in Nashville," says David Goldfield, professor of southern history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It's similar to the bustle in cities across the South, he says. And it's driven by the region's booming economy, an influx of people, including Yankees, and the strong conscience of the business community. Indeed, one spark plug of Nashville's renewal is the popular mayor, a Democrat named Philip Bredesen. This Harvard-educated transplant from upstate New York has tapped the business community to help engineer a downtown revival.

Back in 1991, when the downtown was a frumpy collection of bars and used-furniture stores, Mr. Bredesen persuaded the owners of the famed Opryland hotel to establish a downtown toehold by building The Wild Horse Saloon. The Wild Horse is now a bastion of two-stepping fun and a regular feature on cable TV's The Nashville Network. And legions of tourists flow between The Wild Horse, the Hard Rock Cafe, the refurbished Ryman Auditorium - known as "the mother church of country music," and the Nashville Arena, which hosts concerts and a new indoor football league.

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The other and more-controversial part of Bredesen's legacy is sports.

After getting burned in a failed 1995 attempt to woo pro hockey's New Jersey Devils, Bredesen pulled off a coup - getting football's Houston Oilers to come to Music City. The Tennessee Oilers start playing in their new stadium this fall. Pro hockey's Nashville Predators start playing next season too.

But one question lingers: Is Nashville a sports town? Many don't think so.

"What was he thinking?" asks resident Rundi Ream about the mayor. "You start with one team - and build a sense that this is ours," she says. With all these teams, "I don't see how we can keep up."

Rebuilding education

Nashville is perhaps making the most progress in its schools.

Tensions over schools began in 1956 when a black family filed suit. A federal court later ordered the city to equalize its schools, and Nashville has been under court order since.

But that's set to end after the city council last month agreed to spend $206 million on a plan that has support from all sides. This arrangement essentially ends crosstown busing of kids, but it aims to maintain some integration of the races.

"Unlike most cities that have ended busing, we've still got the goal of keeping our schools integrated, at least to some degree," says Dave Shearon, an attorney who's running for a spot on the school board.

The new plan carves up the city so most kids will go to schools closer to home. But the dividing lines still zig and zag to ensure there's diversity in the classroom.

Also, to make sure the plan doesn't result in suburban-urban inequalities, much of the money will go to building new "enhanced" schools downtown.

They may be the best in the city. They'll have a mandatory 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio. They'll be bursting with computers. They'll have after-school care and extra money for field trips.

Planners hope these schools will be so good they'll attract white students from the suburbs. But it won't be clear for several years if the idea will succeed.

"That's a big if," says one longtime observer.

Meanwhile, on crime, progress has been a bit slower.

The biggest problem is guns. "It's a part of the culture here," Bredesen explains. "We're awash in guns." The city is now boosting jail sentences for residents caught with guns, but without permits, to a mandatory 30 days.

There's also The Nashville 100 - a collection of rap sheets on the top repeat offenders. It's an effort to make sure that when they are arrested they don't slip through the justice system's cracks.

Some criticize the list as draconian. And Bredesen concedes it may be a slight compromise on civil rights, but says, "it's worth it if you can cut down on crime."

Musical comeback

Perhaps nowhere is the transformation of Nashville culture so evident as in the music industry. Business is done differently now. A handshake and a smile used to suffice. Now starch-shirted lawyers from the Coasts pore over million-dollar contracts.

"Six multinationals control the business," explains Chris Dodson, president of Makin' Music. "It's all about numbers. You may be sitting on the next James Taylor, but if you can't show a profit, it doesn't matter."

There's also a new generation of performers, such as Garth Brooks, "who have no dreaming notion of what poverty is like, so they can't sing about it," laments local historian John Egerton. "And then they get marketed by guys from California who don't know anything about country but know a lot about marketing."

But despite the changes the music industry, just like the city, was built on creativity. And that's the only way either will thrive. No matter how much money or hype, says Mr. Dodson with a smile, "It all still comes down to the song."

Nashville Firsts

* The city was the first in the nation to get an FM radio license - in 1941.

* Nashville had the first black-owned bank in the US. One Cent Savings Bank opened in 1904 - and operates today as Citizen's Savings Bank and Trust.

* In 1928, Nashvillian Morris Frank introduced seeing-eye dogs to the US.

* In 1924, the world's first airmail service began when a plane carrying letters departed Nashville.

* When Capt. William Driver retired after a life on the sea in 1837, he brought home his American flag, which he called "Old Glory." The nickname stuck.

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