Not the man in black here, but the black men (and women) of Nashville are the lone stars of this collection.
When it comes to surveying Tennessee’s rich musical history, it would be easy to lazily assume that all the great white music derived from Nashville, whereas most of the funky blues and soul stuff came out of nearby Memphis. But this second collection of Nashville rhythm & blues music begs to differ with such a flippant assumption. It’s true that country music gave Nashville its popular Music City nickname, but there has also always been a whole lot of wonderful black music—and of almost every variety—being created in this famous cowboy hat town, too.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that this two-CD set is actually the second volume of Nashville R&B released by the Lost Highway label. It’s not leftovers, either, but more of the good stuff. Although the most of these artists were primarily regional stars at the time, at best, there are still quite a few familiar names included here. Ivory Joe Hunter was in town to record “All States Boogie” for instance, and folks like Clyde McPhatter, Ester Phillips, Arthur Alexander, and Joe Simon are all represented on this 39-song set.
The liner notes to this collection detail how Jefferson Street acted as the city’s black music central, if you will. In addition to detailing this strip’s rich history, the essay includes one photo of Jimi Hendrix, who was playing with King Kasuals in 1962, and a shot of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in the doorway of Club Del Morocco, one of the regions hotspots at one time.
This package spans the years 1945 to 1970 so, stylistically, it’s all over the map. Listening to it all the way through is a little bit like taking a journey across the history of black music. Disc one begins with the romping piano of Jimmy Sweeney doing “Boogie Woogie Jockey, his tribute to WLAC disc jockey Gene Nobles. This overview then works its way through to Joe Simon’s sweet soul of “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On,” which comes along toward the end of disc two.
Although this release is intended to specifically highlight the non-country sounds of Nashville, it’s nearly impossible to keep country music entirely separate from the other music that got made in that town. Take the song “Love, Love, Love,” for example. Ted Jarrett, a black man, wrote it, but country singer Webb Pierce scored a number one country hit with it in 1955. In the CD notes, Jarrett tells the story of when he won a BMI songwriting award for the tune. “They were all familiar with the song, but in the farthest stretch of their imaginations, they didn’t associate Webb Pierce’s song with a black writer Anyway, I got really wonderful applause, and I was proud of my award.” Jarrett, who was actually more of a behind-the-scenes guy, is heard doing a version of his own song here. Conversely, “You Belong to Me,” which was written by country bandleader Pee Wee King, is given an R&B treatment by Helen Foster here.
Many of these artists may have unfamiliar names, but all of them perform with quite familiar R&B styles. One of the best cuts here is an instrumental called “Soul Poppin’”, which sounds a little bit like The Meters—albeit with horns. Another standout is Earl Gaines’ pleading “Don Take My Kindness for a Weakness.” One particular curiosity, however, is “She Can Rock” by Little Ike, which sounds like a previously undiscovered Little Richard gem.
Without a doubt, Nashville is a wonderful music town. It’s great that Lost Highway, which is a label that is most closely associated with adventurous country music, has released this fine new collection of neglected R&B songs. This Tennessee city will never compete with Detroit or Philadelphia when it comes to pinpointing America’s soul music capitals, but it nevertheless has a notable history of which to be proud. Even if there hadn’t have been this much black music created in Nashville, this area would still be considered soulful in its own unique way. That’s because, at its best, country music is the white man’s soul and blues.
Do yourself a favor, and make plans to take this Nashville soul train sometime soon.