Joe Nolan is a renaissance man — musician, songwriter, painter, photographer, journalist — and a hell of a nice guy, too. With a batch of songs and paintings, and a photographer’s eye, he moved to Nashville in 1992 and set up shack on this side of the river back when loose, raving, inner-city dogs far outnumbered wandering tourists in Five Points. So, add gutsy pioneer to his description above. There may have been an assurance he could survive and even prosper here, because Joe Nolan is originally from Detroit, an excellent proving ground for anyone moving to East Nashville 28 years ago.
Nolan’s songs have been praised by the likes of Performing Songwriter magazine, who called him a “true poet,” the Ear to the Ground blog, which called his music “timeless,” and the Phoenix Sun who said “Nolan is an artist who pours his heart and soul into his music … no matter what he may be tapping into it always keeps a certain folksy quality that is simply unforgettable.” And Joe wasn’t a full year in town when he snagged a publishing deal with Black & White Music.
What has followed have been eight critically albums and a great deal of touring America and Europe. He also doesn’t follow rules. His last release was November’s Phantom Punch, a single released on cassette only. “It sort of happened on the heels of vinyl coming back,” he explains, “and I think there’s a feeling that cassette tapes have a certain kind of tone that they like. And in some ways the thing I always liked about cassettes — and I’ve worn them out and they just break — but the one thing I always liked about them compared to vinyl was they are so durable. You don’t have to worry about not dancing too crazy and making the record skip. And when I was growing up cassettes were primarily the way I listened to music.”
“Phantom Punch is one of those things where you think it’s a cool title and you reverse engineer it. And in this case, it was just sort of telling the story of who Sonny Liston was and who at that time Cassius Clay was because that was the first fight where he became Mohammed Ali and wanted people to use his new identity. So, it was me getting to indulge my love of boxing and write a little song about it, you know.” For those (many, many, many) people out there who don’t own tape decks, check out his latest mini LP, Rootsy House Stations, and discover his other great albums like Goodbye Cinderella and Cry Baby.
At 49, Nolan has settled down from the road life. “I don’t really tour,” he relates, “but I do play locally pretty often. It was a little less than normal last year because I got really busy with the visual stuff. That was all I planned to do, but everything else kind of snowballed and last year I did six exhibitions in three states and four cities. So, all these opportunities kind of came to me.”
Nolan has a way with visual matter that might become totems for those who moan our metamorphosis and how our city has gone from Nashville to Sodom and Antioch. A topic he started exploring in 2015 through his photograph series Pikes Project.
“I think a lot of people go down Gallatin or Dickerson and think it’s this blighted place, but it’s really full of beautiful things and great energy by real Nashvillians, small business owners, not people who moved here with a million dollars to do some kind of project. And I felt like there was just all that to be seen there. I felt the need to photograph it.”
“Within 48 hours I had two different curators of two different galleries ask me if I wanted to show these photos in a gallery setting…”
Nolan had been doing radio stories on the arts for WPLN radio, but was looking for ideas that would interest them from an online perspective. “So, I told WPLN I would like to do an online photo essay of Gallatin Pike, Nolan continues. “I wasn’t necessarily known as a photographer, I had no proof I could pull this off, but they were interested in seeing what I could do. And by the time I had picked what I thought were the best images, I felt like we were onto something. And when they saw it, the station said — there’s a storytelling element in all these little sites, street art, and just strange arrangements of things. So, it was very well received.”
Nolan’s life turned on a dime. “Within 48 hours I had two different curators of two different galleries ask me if I wanted to show these photos in a gallery setting,” Nolan says, perhaps with a little surprise even years later, “I wanted to do a couple more of these first and if I was going to display them there was a lot to consider about how I would do that. So, it took me a little time, but it was clear that I had found something that was of interest and it was speaking to not just people who listened to the radio, but also in the fine art community.
“I think it’s been an important reminder that the kind of growing pains we’re having here — they’re happening in many places all over the country. So, I think there’s all this moving back to the urban centers and that’s upsetting a lot of communities. And I think that these photos translating well beyond Nashville is that people recognize it in lots of places.”
In what became known as “The Pikes” series, Nolan has done roughly one photo show a year. The first one in 2015 was on Gallatin Pike, then he documented Nashville’s other Pikes with photo exhibits of Nolensville Pike, Charlotte Pike, Dickerson Pike, and Lebanon Pike. Now Nolan is training his lens on his original stomping ground, with the show, “Gallatin Pike Part Two.” His photos find meaning in an exposed brick run down building, an American flag from directly underneath it, a door painted blue, and apologies to Rod Stewart, but every picture tells a story. And like another musician, Tom Waits, Joe Nolan sees the beauty in things that are rarely considered to be such.
“With Nolensville, I took so many photos because it’s so visually dense, Nolan says. “From the highway all the way down to Old Hickory – between there, it’s long and it’s so dense, and you see like five different languages and every kind of food. El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, a very diverse mix of people over here. And then Lebanon Pike is somewhat rural when you come out of downtown, and by the time you get to Donelson, it’s Mayberry and suburbia. Part of what I’m getting at with all this stuff is that Nashville has a visual identity internationally, and it spotlights and rhinestones and cowboy boots and all that stuff. And all that’s real, but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that’s completely different and in many ways more important when you’re not just a tourist or music industry professional, you’re somebody who lives here.”