In the collective consciousness of the country music industry, Nashville, Tennessee is the focus for country music – where the magic happens, if you will.
And it’s not just an opinion. Most of the music suited for country airplay release is written, recorded and published in Nashville, and writers and performers either live there or make frequent trips to town. It’s where most aspiring musicians travel looking for a chance, and where dozens of recording studios line the city’s business districts. Music Row is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as plenty of record labels and publishing companies.
So, how did Nashville attain its historical importance in the country music industry? The answer changes depending on whether or not one refers to its importance from an artistic standpoint or a business standpoint.
Artistically, country music is noted by many, including noted historian Bill C. Malone, as a southern-bred entity. Country music, Malone argues in Country Music, U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History, “developed out of the folk culture of the rural South,” further stating that “the music developed lineally out of the rural styles of the past, and the bulk of its performers today, in point of origin, are southerners who came from farms or small towns or who are only a generation a way from a farm background.” The American South, to Malone, stood far outside the nation’s mainstream, though, as he conceded, its folk music was deeply influenced by music outside the region. Nevertheless, Anglo-Celtic music traditions once widespread in popularity throughout colonial British North America “endured in the South long after they ceased to be important elsewhere,” giving it credence in helping to shape and contribute toward a lasting regional music.
Country music, in other words, started as a commercialized extension of rural southern folk music, but much of its identity and historical development is explained by its southernness, at least according to Malone. In truth, while it casts a large shadow over country music’s beginnings, the South didn’t solely confine the music. Similar grassroots musical traditions flourished throughout the United States and much of Canada during this time, including in New York State, New England, the American Midwest and in British Columbia and the Canadian Maritimes.
Geography, then, remains central to country music studies, especially when examining the music’s cultural roots. In the most basic sense, country music is a fusion of American commercial music traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as minstrel shows, vaudeville, ragtime, blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley sentimental balladry, and hymnody and gospel music, both African America and Anglo-American. The documentation and evidence is there early hillbilly recordings.
To break down each component of that fusion, the minstrel stage is both the easiest and most controversial element to discuss first. One can’t ignore the problem of its origins – a problem that in the past engendered some mean-spirited, racist denigrations of African-American entertainers to the genre – though musically, minstrel traditions are most visible in songs created for the stage that long outlived the form of presentation. A few examples: Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” Daniel D. Emmett’s “Old Dan Tucker,” and Sam DeVere’s “Carve Dat Possum,” all titles that came to be associated with performers like Uncle Dave Macon and Grandpa Jones. Thankfully, too, some of the most racially offensive songs are known today only as instrumental pieces, stripping away the lyricism. Nonmusically, the show style gave performers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff early experience while heavily influencing the performance style of several early country music shows; it usually contained a mix of music and humor spearheaded by a master of ceremonies, the most “recent” modern manifestation being something like, say, Hee Haw. Furthermore, scholars have made the case for the role of the minstrel stage in making the banjo and certain play styles traditional in the southern mountains.
The Tin Pan Alley influence, however, is one example of northern influences shaping the genre. In the late 1880s, the sheet music-publishing business became centralized on New York’s 28th Street. A cluster of publishers, given the aforementioned name by a newspaper reporter, produced most of America’s most popular music for more than four decades. Certain titles were already long current in hillbilly repertoires and encountered by folk-song collectors, including “When You And I Were Young, Maggie,” “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Letter Edged In Black.” They predated the geographic “Tin Pan Alley,” yet came from the same urbane professional songwriting tradition. The primary marketing tools used to garner public interest in these songs were the song sheet and the stage show. The successor to the minstrel show was “variety,” remained in 1871 with the French term “vaudeville.” Tony Pastor is largely credited with sending the first vaudeville troops on tour, including to, in the 1920s, many southern and midwestern cities like Nashville, Cincinnati and Birmingham, occasionally including hillbilly acts and offering increased opportunities to blend popular music and folk traditions.
The cycle continues: ragtime’s influence entered country music through the older African-American folk ragtime tradition on songs like “Beaumont Rag” and “East Tennessee Blues,” furthered highlighted by early pioneers of the style within the hillbilly genre like Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats. Other peformers, like McMichen and Jimmie Rodgers, were fascinated by jazz, and Bob Wills would borrow from both jazz and blues to craft western swing. Technology also helped caused a widespread interest in old folk songs. Wind-up cylinder and disc-playing machines were mainstays in rural towns in the South early in the twentieth century; Rodgers learned “Bill Bailey” from an early pop recording while McMichen doted on the classical violionist Fritz Kreisler.
So, while the hillbilly genre’s southern roots are debatable from a geographical and cultural standpoint, country music, as it came to be known, certainly found its business footing there. Given the southern origin of country music’s earliest performers, it’s not surprising that many of them migrated to major southern cities for experience, exposure, and (hopefully) a livelihood. Cities offered opportunities like fiddling contests, busking in busy street corners and radio stations in search of talent, even if, at first, that search didn’t want to include hillbilly talent. Once convinced of the commercial viability of the music, though, record executives discovered that searching out and recording the talent in its native territory made sense. A field-recording trip was certainly cheaper than paying travel and lodging costs for musicians to come to New York or Chicago, and it helped keep musicians close to their radio jobs and touring dates.
Georgia on My Mind, Nashville in My Heart
Atlanta, Georgia, dubbed the “cradle of country music” by writer Wayne Daniel, is where Fiddlin’ John Carson first proved country music’s marketability on disc. Radio station WSB began broadcasting in 1922, programming fiddlers and string bands for rural listeners across the United States. Polk Brockman, a furniture dealer and phonograph record distributor, persuaded Okeh Records executive Ralph Peer to record Carson in June 1923. An initial pressing of 500 discs sold out within a month, surprising Peer and persuading him to sign Carson to an exclusive contract. Atlanta now had its start as a recording center.
For years, WSB remained an important base for new country talent. They featured shows such as Cross Road Follies and in 1940 launched the WSB Barn Dance, featuring a plethora of early hillbilly artists like Boudleaux Bryant and Hank Penny. But by the early 1950s, live radio entertainment was largely a thing of the past, and the program folded. Atlanta would re-emerge in the 1960s as a hotbed of musical activity, spawning talent like Jerry Reed, Ray Stevens and Billy Joe Royal, but it would never become the center for studio recording and music publishing that it might have been.
Northeast of Atlanta lay the Piedmont city of Charlotte, North Carolina. In his quest to scout local talent, Peer supervised Charlotte sessions for Victor on August 9, 1927, just days after his famous stop in Bristol, Tennessee where the first-known recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family came into formation. He found no comparable talent on that trip, but did record a few acts; he’d return four years later to make a hundred recordings over a two-week period. Among the group of acts recorded was the Carter Family and Jimmie Davis. When the worst of the Depression era had passed, Eli Oberstein brought Victor equipment into Charlotte and nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina, during 1936-38. Bill and Charlie Monroe first recorded in Charlotte, as did popular brother duets of the era, including the Blue Sky Boys. To put it bluntly, what ended Charlotte’s potential as the epicenter of country music was World War II, even though radio station WBT continued to act as a home base for several popular country performers.
Texas emerged as another contender for the country music capital in the 1930s. Station WBAP in Fort Worth aired what appears to be the first country radio barn dance in January 1923 when Captain M.J. Bonner fiddled square-dance tunes for an hour and a half. Dallas was second only to Atlanta as a regional recording site for major record labels in the 1930s (Jimmie Rodgers recorded both in Dallas and San Antonio, for instance, and spent his last several years there). Record executives regularly set up makeshift studios in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio hotels to record bands and others just years before World War II, among them Al Dexter and Ernest Tubb – acts which constituted the first generation of a new style called honky-tonk, named for the rowdy bars in which it was performed.
Three other large cities in the United States – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – were vital to country music’s development in the years before World War II. Most major record companies had their home offices and best studios in New York. Performers like Eck Roberston and Henry Gilliland migrated there from Texas and Oklahoma, and when they persuaded Victor to record their fiddle tunes in 1922, commercial country music had its start. Singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter lived there, the latter lured by the Broadway stage and found work on New York City radio. As previously mentioned, country music’s proven commercial viability eventually spurred field recordings, though most country music discs were recorded in New York than anywhere else prior to World War II. Vernon Dalhart alone – who had the first million-selling song in country music – could count as evidence for the city’s predominance. Plus, New York was the capital of the nation’s publishing business, and most of the publishers that would handle hillbilly music were based around Tin Pan Alley.
Again, the emergence of areas closer to where most country music artists came from as viable recording spots eventually made New York a less attractive hub for country music, though some performers still were drawn there in later years: Wilf Carter from Canada, Elton Britt from Arkansas via California and Jim Robertson from Texas, for a few examples. Even some recordings – like Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” for RCA in 1954 and Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat” for Columbia in 1957 – were recorded in the Big Apple.
Chicago became important to country music through radio station WLS and the National Barn Dance. Founded in 1924 and featured on NBC radio from 1933-46, it was country music’s most popular barn dance until the end of World War II. And, as you might imagine, major labels frequently held Chicago sessions. Los Angeles, on the other hand, was important as the nation’s film capital. The allure of the movie industry drew some stars to the Golden West, and those stars eventually came to be known as singing cowboys. Gene Autry left Chicago in 1934 to make his first films while Tex Ritter came from New York in 1936 to do the same. Even non-cowboy hillbilly talent made their way over for a few movie appearances – Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Pee Wee King and many more were among the artists on that list. They might have stayed, too, had they not instead opted for Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in January 1943.
The West Coast still retained its prominence as a country music hub for quite some time, even though Hollywood eventually lost much of its usefulness for hillbilly stars. Musically, however, it was doing just fine. The first weekly Billboard charts to track country discs, beginning with a jukebox chart in 1944, featured mainly West Coast artists – including Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Merle Travis and more. And honky tonks from L.A. to Bakersfield were filled with country music. Postwar prosperity for country music (which is another conversation in its own right), coupled with massive population shifts, made country music a national industry during these years. A few scattered radio barn dances hosted in Boston, New England and Philadelphia provided some temporary bids for country music’s capital; even Washington D.C., too, though it would be better known as a center for bluegrass music in the 1950s, since so many of the genre’s best performers hailed from nearby Virginia and South Carolina. But California would recapture some lost luster in the 1960s, this time in Bakersfield rather than Los Angeles. Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, migrants settled in Bakersfield in search of a better life, and as an oil and farming community, it supported a lively country music scene that, through pioneers like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, would offer an alternative to the increasingly stale Nashville Sound of the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
At this point, it should be noted that several cities had even just a small chance at becoming country music’s capital before all roads led to Nashville, and trying to cram a mention for every one of them in would eventually dull the ultimate point of this piece; though there are still many noteworthy mentions, and a lack of a mention is in no way a slight to the many crucial pieces that fit the country music puzzle. Shreveport, Louisiana, for example, was home to the single most successful radio and stage show after World War II (aside from the Grand Ole Opry). On April 3, 1948, the Louisiana Hayride off KWKH at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium made its debut, and the Saturday night program hosted a variety of stars: Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton and Faron Young are all alumni. But a full-fledged music industry never grew up around the Hayride, and though the show endured the same battle country music faced to remain relevant in the rock ‘n’ roll era, the loss of its last big star – Johnny Horton, in a 1960 car accident – signaled the end for the program.
Another city that closely rivaled Nashville as a country music hub in the late 1950s was Springfield, Missouri, on account of one radio show that switched to television – the Ozark Jubilee. Radio station KWTO launched the show in July 1954 and soon lined up ABC radio affiliates to carry it on a network basis. For the next seven years, former Opry star Red Foley hosted the show and its later versions, Country Music Jubilee and Jubilee USA. The consistently good ratings provided country music with its first long-term exposure on national television, and gave performers like Brenda Lee, Porter Wagoner, Leroy Van Dyke and numerous others a chance to showcase their skills. Once ABC cancelled the show in 1961, Springfield’s place as a country music center faded, and Nashville clearly cornered the market in every area but television production.
Turn on Your Radio
But even in its native state of Tennessee, Nashville faced competition from a few other cities at first. Bristol, for instance, was the site of the legendary sessions of July and August 1927 in which the first recordings from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family came into fruition. Knoxville also drew talent from Georgia and Kentucky. A center for fiddling contests and old harp-singing schools, it attracted ex-farmers into its coal mines and factories, many of whom brought with them their musical aspirations.
But eventually, Nashville won. Like other stories told thus far, radio played a prominent role in Nashville’s development as a legitimate country music capital. WSM, based in Nashville, took the barn dance format a step further when it introduced the Grand Ole Opry. They began broadcasting Oct. 5, 1925. Before this, Dave Macon, a banjo-skilled vaudeville professional – who would later become the Opry’s first big star – had appeared in what later became the Opry’s home and “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium.
WSM succeeded due to a quality investment behind it, unusual for the broadcasting industry in those times. The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, co-founded by the Craig Family, owned the station. The idea to venture into broadcasting came when Edwin W. Craig, son of company president C.A. Craig, suggested that a radio station could help with marketing and selling insurance. With velvet drapes, first class microphones and a gorgeous studio, it was a station ahead of its time, especially for one crucial to the rise of hillbilly talent. It also had one of the most powerful signals in the South. Initially rated at 1,000 watts, this put WSM in the top 15 percent of radio stations across the United States, giving exposure in locations hundreds of miles away.
The Grand Ole Opry began a month after the station began broadcasting. Over the next three decades, many well-known Saturday night country music-based shows would air on radio and television, airing in locations all over the country. However, these shows paid their artists very little. The performances did, however, mean free exposure for the artists to allow them to book into schoolhouses and gyms around the local areas. Unfortunately, these live shows also paid very little for the artists. By 1932, the Opry continued to maintain a unique identity among other radio shows. They built a tower on Concord Road in Brentwood, Tennessee that, at the time, was the tallest radio tower in the world. Wanting to also maintain its first-class status, they upped the signal to 50,000 watts.
This first-class status didn’t mean the Opry didn’t have its competitors, though. In 1937, John Lair created the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Unlike The Opry, Lair forbade cowboy attire, and he also won a General Foods sponsored CBS network pickup for his Valley Where Time Stands Still homespun mix of an all-women string band, comedians in overalls named Homer & Jethro and a media savvy Red Foley. And, as previously mentioned, Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride offered some healthy competition as well. It became known as the “cradle of the stars” for launching stars like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. In contrast to The Opry, Louisiana Hayride welcomed drums and female singers, giving a start to both Kitty Wells and Rose Maddox.
The Opry fought back, seeking to remain the best and biggest station by recruiting many of the biggest stars of the day, one of whom was the aforementioned Williams. By making it star-studded, this attracted record companies in Nashville. It became easier to bring the equipment there and record rather than taking the artists to, say, Dallas or Chicago.
In the three decades after the end of World War II, country music’s golden age centered more on the story of Nashville as a center of music production than it did on radio. Radio can, however, be thanked for the country music genre’s music publishing. Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was started by the National Association of Broadcasters to challenge the Tin Pan Alley music publishers of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). In addition, new institutional players were emerging, such as Fred Rose partnering with Opry idol Roy Acuff to establish Acuff-Rose, a publishing wing on the growing Music Row. Rose, for instance, could network with Mitch Miller, head of A&R at Columbia Records in New York, to get Rose’ biggest signee Hank Williams’ songs covered by pop superstars like Tony Bennett. In terms of the music business, Nashville during this time was swiftly becoming an industry town.
Then, of course, there’s Music Row itself. No one is sure when the name was coined or who coined it. The area was developed before 1900 as a neighborhood of majestic homes for the wealthy. Some of Nashville’s most prominent citizens – including doctors, college presidents and architects – lived there 100 years ago, but the first half of the twentieth century represented a long, slow decline for the area that would become Music Row. The Great Depression decimated many residents’ fortunes, and the rush to suburbia following World War II further tarnished the neighborhood’s luster. Music Row, in 1955, was a blue-collar backwater, filled with decaying homes, rooming houses, duplexes and a few small retail businesses.
Country music came to its rescue. WSM, as previously mentioned, produced hillbilly records early on, but parking and other problems hampered downtown Nashville locations as legitimate sites for music enterprises. Music Row was born when brothers Owen and Harold Bradley opened a studio at 804 Sixteenth Avenue South, in a renovated house. They’d previously opened other film and recording studios, but the Sixteenth Avenue South enterprise would prove to be the one that flourished. Since the late 1940s, Owen had organized recording sessions for Paul Cohen, country recording chief for Decca Records. Cohen, however, eventually told the brothers he was planning to take his business to Jim Beck’s Dallas studio. So Owen asked him if he’d reconsider if he built a studio here. Cohen liked the idea, and offered to be a silent partner, though he never contributed the promised funds.
The facility opened in 1955, and by late 1956 was producing country-crossover hits like Ferlin Husky’s “Gone.” The brothers spent an additional $7,500 to install a surplus army Quonset hut in back, initially for use as a film studio and later for making records (it became known as the “Quonset Hut”). The Bradley Studios opened at the right time, given that, as previously mentioned, record labels increasingly found it cheaper to record country artists in Nashville as opposed to Chicago, New York or Hollywood.
And though this piece is largely meant to outline how country music got to Nashville, its continued place as the country music capital of the world is worth another few posts in its own right (and has, in fact, inspired several books on the subject). And like country music’s journey throughout the world, there’s not enough room here to outline the many facets that comprised Nashville’s rise, even aside from the examples mentioned. WSM’s Studio B was the site of Eddy Arnold’s first RCA session in December 1944, and soon after, Opry announcer Jim Bulleit had started Bullet Records and was regularly recording country, pop and blues artists there. The location of permanent studios in Nashville was almost dictated by the presence of not just talented artists, but talented sidemen in Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, the Bradley brothers, Bob Moore and more. Publishing companies to copyright songs and market them to A&R men increased in number – Acuff-Rose, as already mentioned, Wallace Fowler, Tree, Cedarwood and the many since. This attracted writers from all over the country, and soon there was more business in town than a single booking office could handle. Disc jockey conventions evolved into extravaganzas, and award ceremonies soon followed. Nashville soon had such a solid foundation that it no longer had any serious rivals as the country music capital of the world.
And that’s the beauty of country music as a whole. It’s a diverse melting pot of different times, places and sounds that all, in their own way, contribute to its vibrant history as an art form. Even now, geography plays an important role in its development. Beyond a thriving Texas and Canadian country music scene, Kentucky has introduced talent artists like Tyler Childers, Kelsey Waldon, Ian Noe and Chris Stapleton into the fold in recent years. When the sound or product gets too bland or formulaic, new sounds will emerge and old ones will be revived. In any case, the circle will remain unbroken and country music will be here to stay.