RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right. Let's play a little word association. I say Nashville, you say country music. Because that's what the city is all about, right? There was a time though when Nashville had a lot of R&B going on - nightclubs, record labels, radio stations and TV shows with rhythm and blues at the center. There's now an effort to bring back some of that musical diversity to Nashville. Here's Jewly Hight of member station WPLN.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: These days, it's a rare treat to catch Jason Eskridge, Mike Hicks and Emoni Wilkins on one bill. They're each so busy that they have to cram a last-minute rehearsal of their show's finale into a sound check.
EMONI WILKINS: (Singing) Make it rain.
JASON ESKRIDGE: You can do it. Let's let it...
WILKINS: Oh, cool.
ESKRIDGE: Once we hit the B note together...
HIGHT: That's Eskridge offering direction. When he started taking singing gigs two decades ago, he was a NASA engineer by day, commuting from Huntsville, Ala.
ESKRIDGE: As soon as I got off work, I would drive to Nashville from Huntsville. And I had friends who were in the hip-hop industry, friends that were in the CCM industry, friends that were even in the country industry. Any time somebody asked me to sing, I would do it.
HIGHT: In addition to hip-hop and contemporary Christian, Eskridge eventually found himself harmonizing behind roots-pop guitarist Johnny Lang, the jammy Zac Brown Band and swinging country singer Lyle Lovett.
LYLE LOVETT: (Singing) You know, I wake up early in the morning.
ESKRIDGE: (Singing) In the morning.
LOVETT: (Singing) And you know I work until my day's done. And you know when I come home late in the evening I'm a happy son of a gun, yeah.
HIGHT: Eskridge got his foot in the door partly thanks to friends like Shannon Sanders and Tommy Sims, African-American producers who were already bridging genres in town. After that, it was up to Eskridge to apply his wide-ranging instincts.
ESKRIDGE: You just have to continually recreate yourself in a way that allows you to keep working because the music industry just - it's not a 40-hour a week thing that every week it looks the same. It's not set up like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ESKRIDGE: (Singing) Sunrise open my eyes. I know today's the day. Blue skies, going to be all right, tell everyone I'm on my way.
HIGHT: Eskridge left Rocket City for Music City 17 years ago. Emoni Wilkins moved down from Chicago in 2013, seeking new outlets for her gospel-trained soprano.
WILKINS: Yup. And I also have this. I put a scripture up once a month.
HIGHT: Since then, she's had to convert one wall of her suburban Nashville apartment into a chalkboard to keep track of her schedule.
WILKINS: It makes it so much easier. Like, I know the dates are in my phone. But if I'm getting up in the morning, I'm like, oh, yeah, you know, this is coming up Wednesday or Tuesday.
HIGHT: Some nights, Wilkins draws big crowds at a downtown Nashville blues bar. Others, she'll back gospel star CeCe Winans or learn Dolly Parton songs for a tribute show. And an appearance on "The Sing-Off" lead to tours with acapella groups.
WILKINS: The amazing thing is that we all do different projects with other artists. Jason and Mike both have, you know, projects. But I think they're prime examples of not forgetting to embrace the music that's inside of them.
HIGHT: And so is she.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONE TOGETHER")
EMONI AND THE KAHUNAS: (Singing) I don't want to do this on my own. And you shouldn't have to be alone. I would rather be alone together.
HIGHT: One of the people who helped Wilkins find her footing in Nashville was Mike Hicks. When he isn't out on the road playing keyboards for Keb' Mo' or Little Big Town, he's liable to camp out at this Fender Rhodes piano in a friend's studio and work on his own songs.
MIKE HICKS: (Singing) Bright-eyed, smart little child. Brown skin, a snaggletooth smile. At night, her imagination would run wild.
HIGHT: Hicks' sideman work lets him hire talented peers to play in his own recordings.
HICKS: The money that you make out there, you bring and you pour it back into the folks who believe in you enough to help out with music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HICKS: (Singing) And I'll make sure that the bills are paid. But every now and then, I may be a day late. And when it comes to sticking to the plan, I try to do the best that I can.
HIGHT: Hicks is also quick to champion others in the same boat, those making hip-hop, R&B and soul music with minimal support from Nashville's Music Row infrastructure. Several years back, his friend Jason Eskridge launched a twice-monthly gathering called Sunday Night Soul at an East Nashville bar. Both Hicks and Emoni Wilkins are among the many regulars.
WILKINS: That's where all the working musicians from all walks of life would come to get like a refill musically and just have a good time.
HICKS: (Singing) Baby.
HIGHT: Jason Eskridge acknowledges that Nashville is a highly competitive scene, and that can be a plus.
ESKRIDGE: But I think when you're a small thing like the soul music community in Nashville is, it's important that competition kind of go out the door and it be more of, all right, we're working together to build this thing to let people know, to have a voice, you know, that can be heard and not diluted.
HIGHT: The size of the crowd may be modest but what these musicians are up to is no small deal. They're forging unbounded careers while helping foster a scene that stands on its own. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET LOVE")
ESKRIDGE: (Singing) Early in the morning, in the afternoon or late at night.
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