Geography and music, two things that most people don’t associate with the other. Listening to a song on the radio does not, in most normal people, lead to a consideration of the peculiar geography of many of the music styles which emerged over the past century. And yet, musical style has a clear geographic expression, at least in its origins.

Today, we consider two key centers of American music. Memphis, one of the great Mississippi River cities, was simultaneously the epicenter of the blues and Gospel. Just a couple of hundred miles east, Nashville became the home of country music. These two Tennessee cities have had very different paths over the past fifty years, with Nashville emerging over the past twenty years as one of the fastest growing mid-size metropolitan areas in the country.

From 1970 to 2020, Memphis grew by 47%, lower than the United States rate of 63%. Nashville not only overtook Memphis as Tennessee’s largest metropolitan area, it more than doubled in size and becoming one of the major growth centers of the last two decades.

While it is tempting to relate the fortunes of these two areas to shifts in musical tastes, the reality is a more complex study in economic geography. Memphis has, since its founding, been one of the primary ports on the Mississippi River which is the shipping lifeline of one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the world. Its growth and relative decline in importance over the decades reflects changes in agricultural production (the decline of cotton and the rise of agriculture for ethanol production) and transportation modes. It is no accident that the largest cargo airport in the United States is in Memphis, home of FedEx.

Nashville was chosen as the capitol of the state because of its central location, and its growth in part mirrors the growth of government in general over the past decades. But the recent growth can be at least in part traced to the mainstreaming of country music and the resulting growth in tourism. Urban oriented tourism leads to a vibrant downtown, and this in turn makes the city attractive to other industries – in this case health care and publishing. In recent years, the city has attracted a number of major corporate headquarters.

If we look at the population density of the two cities over time, we can see several major trends –

  • The depopulation of the inner city of Memphis is in direct contrast to the revitalization of downtown Nashville
  • In Nashville, growth has been largely to the south and southeast along the I-24 and I-65 corridors to the point where towns with formerly separate identities (Franklin, Murfreesboro) are now simply suburbs of the city
  • In Memphis, the time series shows primarily the decline of older parts of the city as families have moved to suburban areas, but the overall “footprint” of the city has changed much less than in Nashville

Site location research is often oriented to looking at the current situation – who lives here today? – and not at the longer term. This is especially true of retail location analysis, where time horizons tend to be short. For commercial and industrial development, the spatial context of a location becomes critical as horizons are longer. Understanding the changing locational advantage of cities is key to making decisions for the long term.