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Just Off Music Row, Nashville's R&B Scene Thrives

Late on a Wednesday afternoon at Nashville's 3rd and Lindsley Bar and Grill, Emoni Wilkins, Jason Eskridge and Mike Hicks are trying to tack a bit of last-minute rehearsing onto their sound check for the night's show. They're each slated to perform a solo set, before wrapping up with a collective finale. With guidance from Eskridge, who's strumming an acoustic guitar, they ease into sympathetic three-part harmony on the chorus of James Taylor's "Shower the People." Eskridge encourages Wilkins to vamp, and she responds with fluttery, athletic vocal runs. Then Hicks, a mellow presence bent over a keyboard next to them, succumbs to delighted laughter. "You're gonna take me out," he tells Wilkins. "I quit. I'm packing up my stuff and going on home. I'm done. That's some good singin'."

During any given week, these three friends work as musicians for hire, tugged in diverging directions by tour dates and recording sessions with nationally known acts. It's hard enough for Eskridge, Hicks and Wilkins to find a night that they're all available to appear on one bill. Scheduling a separate run-through would be out of the question, and hardly necessary for singers at their level anyhow. But what draws them together on this and other occasions is a shared commitment to helping foster an underground Nashville R&B and soul scene, a music community in which they have a satisfying creative outlet and a real stake.

There was a time when Nashville was actually in the R&B business. The city's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum devoted a lavish exhibit to the period from the mid-1940s up through the '60s when the influence of the R&B programming on local radio station WLAC could be felt throughout the southern U.S., nightclubs on Jefferson Street hosted local and touring acts, labels like Bullet took a chance on talent, a bustling recording scene yielded occasional hits like Robert Knight's "Everlasting Love" and the variety show Night Train, a precursor to Soul Train, beamed performances into living rooms.

Eventually, that work dried up. Though there are countless examples of meaningful exchange between country and Southern R&B (see: rock 'n' roll), for musicians of color, possessing professional chops honed in R&B didn't necessarily translate into a lot of opportunities in Nashville's dominant country scene. The exhibit's mastermind, museum editor Michael Gray, says that the handful of exceptions — like Bobby Hebb, who was in Roy Acuff's band and later scored a pop hit, and Jimmy Sweeney, who wrote country songs while fronting a doo-wop group — largely proved the rule. That mostly held true in the '90s, when writer-producer-players Tommy Sims and Keith Thomas parlayed massive CCM success into pop and R&B work, and the early 2000s, by which time Shannon Sanders was starting to pick up R&B and country credits with his interracial production duo Drew & Shannon.

Wilkins, Eskridge, Hicks and a number of their music-making peers represent a slightly more recent phenomenon. Side by side, they're straddling Nashville's music scenes, trying to make themselves indispensible to the industry even as they band together outside of it.

Like countless African-American musicians before them, these three received early lessons in musicianship from church music. Eskridge's grandfather sang bass in a down-home gospel group in East Tennessee, and both Georgia-born Hicks and Chicago-bred Wilkins were preachers' kids. Wilkins cut her teeth in the youth choir New Direction and learned her way around her hometown's storied gospel scene. But she insists of her move to Nashville, "I didn't come here to sing only gospel." That's abundantly clear looking at the wall of her suburban apartment; she's transformed it into a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard so that she can more easily keep track of each day's gigs. Besides harmonizing behind gospel star CeCe Winans, Wilkins has also become a resident crowd-pleaser at a downtown blues club, sung on artists' albums and Disney theme park soundtracks, studied Dolly Parton's material and mannerisms for a tribute show and appeared on the reality competition The Sing Off and spin-off tours.

Wilkins was already living in Nashville when she was approached about the television show. That was her introduction to the world of a cappella pop, and it led her to explore new uses of her extravagant instrument, cavernous and sensual in its lower ranges, meteoric at its high notes and used with thrilling control. Not long ago, an artist asked her to emulate a Tarzan call in the studio, and she had no trouble figuring out how to perfectly recreate the primal bellowing. "I remember going out on the back porch when I was a kid and listening to the birds sing or chirp and trying to imitate that sound," Wilkins says. "It was always like, 'Oh, I hear this sound,' and trying to figure out how I could make that happen. I didn't know until a couple of years ago, 'Hey, this is a real thing. This could really make me money.' "

A fan made a YouTube video out of clips of her performing on TV and in concert. It was meant to showcase her ability to hit notes from the basement to the rafters, but it also put a different sort of range on display. When she saw it, she says, "I was just floored by the vastly different genres I was singing."

Eskridge started looking for singing opportunities in Nashville a couple of decades ago. Not long out of college, he was making his living as a NASA engineer, pulling in a respectable salary and benefits and devoting his downtime to music. As he made contacts in Nashville, he started commuting from Huntsville, Ala., on weekends. "I had friends who were in the hip-hop industry, friends who were in the CCM industry, friends that were even in the country industry," he recalls. "Yeah, anytime somebody asked me to sing I would do it."

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