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Nashville Scene A New World Record

Off 12th Records is a long-overdue addition to Nashville record retailing

By Jim Ridley

MAY 1, 2000:  Last winter, in a piece on Nashville record retailing, several Scene writers bemoaned the lack of small, independently owned record stores offering a broad selection of music--not just indie rock, but jazz, punk, hip-hop, dancehall reggae, honky-tonk, drum-and-bass, what have you. "It'd be great," we wrote, "if some visionary music fan with lots of disposable cash decided to set up shop somewhere in town--in 12South, or Hillsboro Village, or along West End."

Well, ask and ye shall receive. There's only one criterion Matt McKeever doesn't meet in the sentence above--the part about "lots of disposable cash." In all other respects, McKeever's Off 12th Records, located at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Halcyon Street in the burgeoning 12South neighborhood, is the answer to a lot of Nashville music lovers' prayers.

What's impressive about Off 12th isn't that it stocks every record made in the past 10 years; its living-room size barely accommodates one long rack of vinyl and several small crates of CDs. It's that the store knows what's worth carrying--and that the musical selection adds up to something more than just stock. By offering Rawkus NYC hip-hop alongside vintage Lee "Scratch" Perry dub, or pioneering free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler in the same racks as The Carter Family, Off 12th is presenting more than just product. It's attempting to give curious listeners a map of the musical world.

By the standards of the chain retailers and mass distributors that dominate the record industry now, Off 12th is a gnat scarcely big enough to swat. The storefront is marked only by a sandwich board stood against a chair outside the door; a high wind sends it scattering like a skipped stone. A leather couch rests against one concrete wall, beside a folding table neatly stacked with issues of Punk Planet, Life Sucks Die, and other fanzines. As in dozens of other underground record shops across the country, the bunker-like walls are spattered with posters and punk graphics for bands of the moment: Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, Murdered Minority.

But it's the stuff in the unfinished wooden racks that sets Off 12th apart. Browse through the long rack of vinyl, and you'll find mid-'60s James Brown reissues, '70s electronica, skronky No Wave LPs, the latest Yo La Tengo album, and a plethora of up-to-the-minute punk singles and EPs. On CD, perhaps because the selection is so much smaller, the variety and unvaryingly high quality of the stock is even more dramatic. Thus '50s hillbilly-jazz bandleader (and American psycho) Spade Cooley rubs shoulders in the rack with Teutonic electro-prog-rockers Can, R&B vocalist Ann Peebles, and British troubadour Nick Drake. There's no musical segregation at Off 12th.

What's more, the music all seems to have been chosen out of a depth of knowledge and a music fan's genuine curiosity. The jazz section might have only a handful of discs, but they're all primo Coleman, Coltrane, Mingus. The reggae section is the size of a Sunshine Grocery fruit crate--in fact, it is a Sunshine Grocery fruit crate--but it eschews obvious selections in favor of artists such as Augustus Pablo and the stunning '70s vocal group The Congos. It's as if you'd stumbled upon a corner-tavern jukebox that only had 50 selections, but every song was something you'd always wanted to hear.

"To me, what [we're] trying to do is represent a history of music," says Chris Davis, a former Tower jazz buyer and a fixture on Nashville's underground music scene who helps McKeever select and place his orders. Davis' influence can be seen in the store's Delta blues, jazz, and experimental-music sections; he's especially proud that Off 12th stocks such hard-to-find items as a box set of progressive 1960s jazz from the French label Actuel. "The down-home folk stuff is related to the avant-garde, in that they all tried to reduce things to basic noise," he says. "[Putting them together] puts things in more perspective: It says it's all music."

Fittingly, Off 12th opened in late January at the former site of the Five Star General Store, the cozy, idiosyncratic boutique that served during its short life as an informal gathering place for a segment of Nashville's bohemian underground. If the overall mood resembles Lucy's Record Shop in its (no pun intended) halcyon days, that's not just coincidence. McKeever moved to Nashville from Virginia almost five years ago, when the brief but brilliant Lucy's era was in its heyday, and he became a regular at the music shop/punk club.

"Toward the end of Lucy's, I started thinking about opening a record store," says McKeever, a tall, soft-spoken 26-year-old. He got a job at Sunshine shortly after he moved here, and he started saving up money; by the end of last year, he'd paid off all his credit cards and had enough left over to consider opening the store. A friend from Sunshine, known to customers as Zeke, agreed to split the rent of the 12South space; his side serves as the bookstore Ancestral Spirits. Another friend got some lumber and built the store's front counter.

That camaraderie adds to Off 12th's yard-sale vibe. When McKeever's working at Sunshine, the store is staffed by friends, some of them his bandmates in the great speed-punk group the Hissy Fits. Thus far, though, according to Davis, they've all turned down salaries until McKeever can get on his feet. That makes the store something of a neighborhood cooperative. Other patrons, like 91 Rock drum-and-bass tastemaker DJ Chek and reggae fan Garrett Martin, have given him tips on what to carry.

"One thing I like, he's making the city a little more bearable," says Martin, a Meharry student from Washington, D.C., who misses his hometown's cultural diversity. "[Nashville record stores] seem pretty homogenized, but the stuff Matt gets in is less commercial. And he's able to tell you what's good about it. It's like a custom tailor versus Macy's."

Right now, the size and selection at Off 12th Records are extremely limited. But in its adventurous eclecticism, it's the kind of store that could have an impact far larger than its modest store space. Like Grimey's over in Berry Hill, it's the sort of deeply personal, select record shop Nashvillians have been craving: a place that opens music fans' ears to new sounds and different avenues worth exploring. It also demonstrates that a record store is more than simply a place that sells records. With support, it'll grow.

"I have a lot of faith it'll succeed," says Chris Davis. "People who aren't immersed in indie culture can go in and not feel intimidated. And people who feel disenfranchised by the mainstream can meet people of like minds. I've met people [at Off 12th] who have similar taste in music that I had no idea lived around here. It's entirely unavoidable at this point that people who come in will find something else different they might like. It's like Duke Ellington said, there's two types of music: good music, and bad music."

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