Country Comes to Town: The Music Industry and the Transformation of Nashville

While some might think of country music as a repository of nostalgia, Hill argues that the genre is successful because its songs and its people address social and cultural issues as well as geographic change.

Excerpted from Country Comes to Town: The Music Industry and the Transformation of Nashville by © Jeremy Hill (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015) (footnotes omitted) By permission of University of Massachusetts Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 2

“Country Comes to Town”

A New Urban Identity for Country Music in the 1960s

In the mid-1950s, Nashville was home to a great many talented musicians but had few studios and no standout places to record music. WSM, the radio home of the Grand Ole Opry, had a strong roster of musicians, engineers, and producers, and in the 1940s and early 1950s, these talented individuals also brought their talents to other musical outlets. For instance, three WSM engineers had created Castle Studios in the downtown Tulane Hotel in the late 1940s, and had recorded both pop and country hits in the studio. But in 1955, WSM president Jack DeWitt decreed that WSM employees could not moonlight for other operations, and the side operations, including Castle Studios, shut down. This sudden vacuum was fortuitous for a pair of brothers who had been trying to establish their own studio operation in Nashville. In 1954, Owen and Harold Bradley purchased a duplex in a location chosen for its combination of lower price and proximity to downtown Nashville, in a residential neighborhood recently zoned commercial.

Harold Bradley was a talented guitarist who would go on to play on a number of classic rock, country, and pop songs. Owen was a band leader, producer, and, as it turned out, whiz at acoustic engineering and studio construction. Owen’s efforts to tweak and reshape the duplex and Quonset hut the Bradleys set up in the backyard wound up creating a string of hits that would reshape the sound of country music and its place in the mainstream of national pop music in the 1950s and 1960s. Owen converted the residential home into a recording studio by knocking out the first floor and turning the basement into a studio with an eighteen-foot ceiling. He hung burlap bags and blankets on the wall of his studio, creating acoustics that quickly became appealing to a wide range of performers and producers. When he and his brother purchased the duplex, the site was chosen mostly for pragmatic reasons, such as cost and accessibility. The success of the studio, however, and of those who followed in the Bradleys’ footsteps and constructed studios, publishing houses, and record label offices, created a new neighborhood with powerful associations for the genre of country music. This new neighborhood would spark the start of a new chapter in country music’s evolution, as various figures attached to Music Row hoped to use the urban neighborhood to produce and shape a different image for the genre and its people.

Country Goes “Pop”

Over the course of the 1940s, the careers of crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Tony Bennett had boomed while the big band era waned, and this trend toward coherent lyrics and the primacy of the lead vocal had helped to propel hillbilly songs as well. Beginning especially with the songs of country icon Hank Williams, pop stars such as Tony Bennett and Patti Page covered straight country songs for the pop charts, lending the songs a newfound degree of respect in popular music and foreshadowing the commercial potential of these combinations. The lyrics and melodies of country songs seemed to fit squarely within the mainstream of pop music, and Hank Williams’s tunes in particular resonated with millions of Americans. But many other hillbilly artists performed highly successful concert tours during this time as well. Even as high-profile postwar honky-tonk artists such as Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb captured the media’s attention, other country singers like Red Foley, Eddy Arnold, and even Hank Snow were offering up smoother sounds as early as the late 1940s. Eddy Arnold’s career had already straddled the line between hillbilly and pop, but in 1948, his singles still dominated the country side of the charts. That year, the top four country singles were all Arnold songs; nonetheless, in September of that year Arnold left the Opry to capitalize on his early glimmers of crossover potential and make movies and television shows for a broader audience.

Even without the Opry, though, Arnold still dominated the country charts. In 1955, he recorded an album with the Hugo Winterthaler Orchestra in New York City’s Webster Hall. His version of “Cattle Call” from this recording session sold 500,000 copies. Arnold’s smoother vocal in front of an orchestrated string section proved extremely popular, and this song would become something of a model for the next wave of “country-pop.” Arnold had recorded mostly in New York from 1945 through 1955, until the construction of the new RCA Victor studio on Music Row brought him back to Nashville full time. Roy Acuff, with his more traditional sound, had left the Opry in 1946 but had returned within a year after finding it harder to tour without the regular Opry performances. By contrast, Arnold never came back. He represented a new breed of country star who could exist without the Opry and was evidence of country music’s growing commercial influence beyond the Opry and beyond the previous confines of “hillbilly music.”

Industry leaders hoped the popularity of stars such as Williams and Arnold would lead to sustained commercial success for other country artists, but two different developments dealt setbacks to the genre just as it was fully coming into its own. Most famously, rock and roll shook up the entire pop music landscape. But the proliferation of the Top 40 format within the radio industry also impacted country artists’ profits. Radio stations looked to capitalize as much as possible on the emerging emphasis on recording-driven, chart-measured hits, as recordings were cheaper than live performances. Standardized playlists made the collection and selection of songs easier while making the stations’ prepackaged sets more attractive to advertisers. Because these standardized playlists cut across multiple genres, this shift dramatically reduced the number of country-only radio stations. But it also accommodated a new emphasis within country music at large, an emphasis on recordings over live performance that gave the studios on Music Row and the labels and performers a venue for making money and building a reputation without the Opry itself.

Rock and roll emerged out of both Tennessee music capitals, Nashville and Memphis, despite Memphis’s place in the historical imagination as the location of Sun Studios and Sam Phillips’s first Elvis Presley recordings. In the early 1950s, black R&B artists began covering what they referred to as “hillbilly” songs and white artists with some country connections began covering R&B songs. Other early rock artists recorded in Nashville, and Presley himself performed on the Opry and recorded with the Jordainaires, the background vocalists who also appeared on numerous Nashville Sound recordings later in the decade and into the 1960s. He toured with Opry legend Hank Snow and was referred to as a “hillbilly” singer in the mid-1950s, but by the end of the decade, Nashville’s country music establishment wanted no part of him. Rockabilly’s instant popularity had caused many previously honky-tonk and country-pop artists to release rockabilly songs, but then ultimately triggered a retrenchment within the industry and led industry figures to position country music as adult, dignified, and (given rock’s southern associations) national.

In 1955 and 1956, country disc jockeys began to argue that country stars and fans need not panic over the possible death of country music at the hands of rock; instead, they argued that country artists should sing country songs and not try to imitate other styles. They chastised country artists for trying to record rock records and instead advocated remaining true to “country,” but what that meant exactly was still up for grabs and subject to much contestation. Quality, simple songs sung with some minor pop instrumentation changes would, in these jockeys’ minds, retain the true country audience. Indeed, as rock began to fade slightly and shift direction (rhythm and blues solidified as its own genre and white rock had some of the rougher edges sanded off), country stars rebounded with successful country-pop singles and the pessimistic outlook diminished. Nashville record producers operating in the country genre thus found success with the national adult market because of a conscious attempt to modernize the sound of the genre, an effort that had been incrementally underway since at least the mid-1940s. The tantalizing goal of crossover success hinged on the “downhome” appeal of country artists harnessed with a less twangy vocal and instrumental sound that could reach those record buyers turned off by the sounds of hillbilly music.

Disc jockey and producer Connie Gay explained the marketing idea fairly transparently in 1957 when he used the past tense to describe “hillbilly music” to a journalist: “Hillbilly music was banjos, guitars, fiddles. We’ve added a sweet touch to it and taken out the twang. You don’t get the raucous plink, plank, plunk of a couple of decades ago.” Gay used the notion of a switch from hillbilly to country not just in name but in style too, conceptualizing hillbilly music as something substantively distinct from country in sound and bearing. He claimed, “Can’t can’t be can’t in hillbilly music—it’s cain’t. But can’t can be can’t in country music.” This conceptual change was mirrored in a style emerging simultaneously with the development of a new urban neighborhood of studios and publishing houses not too far from the Opry’s home in downtown Nashville.

Music Row and the Development of the Nashville Sound

When Owen Bradley first constructed the studio on Sixteenth Avenue, the demand for recording Nashville performers had exceeded the availability of quality recording space, but major labels were still reluctant to invest their own capital in new recording space. Bradley saw an opening and struck a deal with Paul Cohen, the head of the Decca record label, wrangling a guarantee of at least one hundred recording sessions a year from Decca artists in exchange for access to Bradley’s high-quality production site. The deal was central to the initial investment in Music Row, and the studio’s immediate success bred more success and more studio construction. Other combinations of country and pop had emerged and flourished for several years before the Bradleys purchased their duplex on Sixteenth Avenue. But the syncretic blend of country and pop, and its particular Nashville flavor, came from the session musicians hired for early Music Row sessions. These musicians created what came to be known as the Nashville Sound, playing, along with backing vocal group the Jordainaires, on many of the top recordings coming out of the Row. The remarkable efficiency of the Music Row studios and the availability of these session musicians meant that the sounds they produced appeared on hundreds of country records across performers, labels, and sometimes even genres.

Each of these musicians made a distinctive contribution to the Sound itself. Floyd Cramer, for instance, experimented with and then honed a “slip note” style, which he later said was like “making an intentional mistake, then recovering.” Cramer pointed out that this was quite similar to how steel guitar players “found” their notes as well. This style of piano playing often stood in for the steel guitar that producers increasingly left off of country records. In this way, the new sound preserved a form of continuity with country’s hillbilly past while still maintaining the desired association with a more modern approach. The Sound also depended on the close harmonies of the Anita Kerr Singers and the “oohs” and “aahs” of these singers and the Jordanaires. In tandem with a common use of echo chambers improvised in the original studios and later built into the new Music Row studios, this new vocal style surrounded the singer’s lead vocal and definitively marked a Nashville Sound record.

In 1957, Ferlin Husky’s softer, lusher, version of the country song “Gone” was the number one country single and spent ten weeks at the top of the country charts. Husky’s recording, made in Bradley’s studio, gained attention for its more ethereal sound (what background singer Millie Kirkham referred to as “kind of a soprano floating around in the clouds”), achieved through the use of a background choir of voices and the echo chamber in which they were recorded. These became defining features of the country records produced at Bradley’s studio. Along with larger developments within country pop (including Eddy Arnold’s use of a full orchestra), numerous imitations of Husky’s sound eventually crystallized into a recognizable new style. The general musical components of the Nashville Sound were the use of background choir groups and orchestrated strings instead of steel guitar and fiddle, and a lead vocal that consciously avoided the nasal twang often associated with country vocals.

As the neighborhood of Music Row developed and expanded, the phrase “Nashville Sound” gained even more traction from this easy spatial association with the congregation of recording sites within Nashville. Music Row thus developed simultaneously with country’s distillation of the new pop-country sound and its attendant commercial success. A wide range of figures began using the phrase to describe both the new country-pop direction put forth by the studios of Music Row and the general sense of rising commercial success that the recordings generated. The phrase was used as early as 1958, and was common enough to be referenced with little expository description by 1963. Pinning down an exact definition, though, would prove difficult. In 1963, Chet Atkins (who along with Owen Bradley was one of the admitted architects of the Sound) ambiguously described it as a “state of mind reflected in the spontaneous enthusiasm of the product.” Over time, the Nashville Sound came to take on negative connotations, though the tradition of referring to the Sound in terms of a vague “feeling” continued into the 1970s. Paul Hemphill, in his 1970 journalistic tract on the phenomenon of the Sound, portrayed it as “the loose, relaxed, improvised feeling found on almost anything recorded out of Nashville today.” The Nashville Sound quickly became the symbol for a new incarnation of country music: slick, overproduced, and expressly commercial. Regardless of one’s feeling about this development, it was clear that these characteristics would have been impossible to associate with country music even as late as the end of the 1950s; as chapter 1 showed, prejudicial depictions and understandings of hillbilly music still dominated national perspectives throughout the 1950s. Earlier industry figures undoubtedly played a role in the production of these images and roles, but they had done so in a more or less self-conscious attempt to create an appealing and in some cases marketable blend of rural and urban, contemporary and rustic. Given the prevalence, however, of a national discourse that missed this subtlety, the next generation of country music promoters would be much less likely to see the value of such a syncretic urban and rural blend.

The Country Music Association and “Country Comes to Town”

As the genre coalesced and expanded in Nashville, leading figures within the industry increasingly looked to the idea of the city as a way to distance the genre from the continuing negative associations of its rural past. They themselves presumably understood the ability of country stars to blend rural and urban but were worried that outsiders did not. Before 1958, the beginnings of the Nashville Sound germinated out of a combination of individual experimentation in the studio and a kind of free-floating dialogue about the future of country music playing out on the pages of trade journals and in the larger music industry press. Producers experimented with adding certain instruments or flourishes to their records, and journals editorialized or more indirectly commented on the relative value of these changes. The Country Music Association (CMA), established in the late 1950s, however, began to outline a strategy to take these shifts in the nature of the music and use them to enlarge country’s audience and reach. The CMA formed out of the meetings of various concerned individuals within the network of country music institutions and specifically sought out members from every corner of the industry. The original board of directors contained two slots each for the following nine categories: publishers, artists, management, disc jockeys, radio, records, trade journals, composers, and nonaffiliated individuals.

Powerful Interests

The industry had only very recently coalesced around certain generic features as well as institutional sites within Nashville. Prior to the CMA’s formation, the industry lacked a formal leadership organization. The Opry itself, along with its host station, WSM, had previously charted a course for the nascent industry (though it was hardly the only powerful player) by virtue of the show’s unmatched audience and the gravitational force that the Opry exerted on most hillbilly musicians and singers. The CMA, of course, recognized the significance of the Opry but did not necessarily assign it more importance than any other radio program. The association’s executive director, Harry Stone, in his 1960 published summary of the evolution of the industry, pointed to the many different cities with their own live country programs, rather than singling out WSM and Nashville. In fact, nowhere in his fairly detailed summary of the genre’s history did the word “Opry” appear.

But despite their differences, the association’s development was actually facilitated by structures in place because of the Opry. One example was the WSM Disc Jockey Festival, which in 1958 became a site for the CMA’s first pronouncements on its public relations strategy. The organization had formed its charter only months before and was still struggling with fundraising by the time of this 1958 meeting. The festival’s keynote speaker (and former program manager at WSM), publisher Jack Stapp, established national exposure for country music as the organization’s prime goal: “If country music does not become more accepted nationally … if we do not saturate the country with good publicity, if we do not educate the public, we must be prepared to suffer the consequences. The recent decline in the number of country stations across the nation (a product of both the rock-and-roll boom and the trend toward Top 40 formats) figured prominently in the CMA’s vision of a genre in struggle. In 1953, 65 percent of the nation’s radio stations played country music at some point in the day; by 1961, the CMA estimated that only 36 percent were playing any country at all.

Stapp and the other founders of the CMA saw inherent commercial potential in the sonic developments that had already begun to transform the genre, and realized the organization’s prime concern would be convincing key players in the broader national music landscape of this possibility. They chartered the CMA to begin the “fostering, publicizing and promoting of country music, by bringing the commercial possibilities of country music to the attention of advertisers, advertising agencies, station managers, and radio and TV networks.” For instance, Broadcasting still relied on older, stereotypically comical notions of the music; a 1959 article on Connie Gay’s uncanny ability to sell country music to city people scornfully described the music as “a deafening mixture of scraping fiddles, wheezing accordions and the wails of a love-struck mountain maiden singing through her nose.” The phrase “mountain maiden” evoked a much earlier time period, and the aural cacophony these lines suggested did not resonate with the songs of the early Nashville Sound era. Such a description might have been commonplace fifteen years earlier, but with the changes of the Nashville Sound already well underway, the language was jarring.

The CMA resented persistent assumptions about the intelligence, taste, and even hygiene of the musicians and their fans, which came to the fore at a series of congressional hearings in the late 1950s. The CMA believed (quite often correctly) that even as country stars moved ever closer to pop (both in terms of sound and commercial reach), these outdated ideas about hillbilly music still held sway with national journalists, station managers, and, importantly, advertising agencies. The CMA’s leadership set out to further persuade networks and advertisers to overcome their misguided assumptions about the income, intelligence, and geographic location of country’s fans in order to make the genre a truly national phenomenon. They circulated numerous mailings and press releases, gave presentations at agency meetings, and corresponded directly with disc jockeys as well. The CMA looked to emphasize that country fans were no longer rural hillbillies but were in fact modern urban consumers, and because of this, new country stations could be profitable for their sponsors.

As part of this central strategic decision, then, the CMA endorsed the musical changes already afoot on Music Row. The CMA’s 1960 mailing to advertising agencies in fact carried an implicit endorsement of the stylistic changes associated with the emerging Nashville Sound and explicitly connected the new sound to reaching new urban audiences: “No longer the toe-tappin’, fiddle-twanging music of the backwoods, country music has emerged from the darkness to become a highly commercial format for local radio. This modern ‘folk’ music can be programmed to a vast consuming audience in any metropolitan city.” This description harshly used the stick of country music’s present to beat its past. The mailing explicitly rejected two key elements of the traditional country sound with one crucial hyphenated phrase (“fiddle-twanging”), and located the older style of country music temporally in the past and spatially in the “darkness” of the backwoods. For the CMA, it was not just that the audience for the traditional music had expanded, bringing the music of the backwoods to the city; rather, the music itself had been transformed. This transformation was underscored as well by the modifier “modern.” The CMA acknowledged the historic prejudice against backwoods hillbilly music while at the same time quite clearly geographically distancing contemporary country music from the hillbilly music of the past.

The CMA endorsed the new Sound and then attempted to persuade country disc jockeys on the best way to sell the music. The CMA approached disc jockeys to ensure that country shows and country stations did not devolve into corny schlock that drew on and in turn perpetuated hillbilly stereotypes. Rather, its leaders sternly encouraged stations to treat country music with sincerity and sophistication. These exhortations invoked the dominant national hillbilly stereotype that had so exaggerated the Opry’s rusticity a decade previously. The CMA directly invoked the older set of hillbilly stereotypes as part of their argument for the need to reevaluate country performers and their fans. A CMA letter specifically lecturing disc jockeys and radio station managers on the importance of country radio show titles made the perceived prejudice against which they were fighting explicit: “There may be some frankly ashamed to admit that they listen to ‘Corncob Hoedown.’ The industry has come a long way in recent years and no one can deny that Country & Western has grown up. We are not a group of raggedy, country boys and girls with missing front teeth. We have acquired status. In choosing a title for your show, make it one that a listener would not hesitate to tell a friend about. Clearly worried about the rustic associations conjured by a title like “Corncob Hoedown,” the letter emphasized country’s new class distinction. The CMA saw a serious, respectful presentation of its music as the best way to approach the adult market.

Four years later, Tex Ritter told an audience of sales and marketing executives, “But the Country and Western entertainer has grown up. To think of today’s Country artist as an illiterate rube with a long beard, bare feet, and a crock jug would be as big a mistake as comparing a quiet country lane to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He is a big time entertainer.” These frequent references to missing front teeth, corncobs and hoedowns, bare feet, and jugs of liquor drew on a caricature of the hillbilly that the CMA still believed to be the dominant association with its music. The CMA’s direction to radio station personnel in some ways ideologically disagreed with the ethos behind the Opry’s stage presentations of the 1940s and 1950s (like the exaggerated rustic stylings of the Minnie Pearl character, for instance). In fact, the new approach adopted by the CMA and taken up by many other industry figures argued that clinging to comical or idyllic visions of the genre’s rural past was holding the genre back commercially. Instead of fully deconstructing the stereotypes, however, this project ended up reifying them in a way by suggesting that country performers and fans were no longer barefoot, drunken rubes. This discourse did not dispute the stereotypes but instead displaced them onto the genre’s past.

In order to counter these persistent hillbilly stereotypes, the CMA aggressively highlighted the urbanity of both country fans and stars. Its efforts to convince advertising agencies of the commercial viability of country radio stations centered on highlighting the fans’ residence within metropolitan areas around the nation and not just the farms of the Southeast or the hills of Appalachia. Unlike some traditionalist country fans, the CMA did not buy in to the notion that country belonged in the country, that rural Americans had any kind of exclusive claim to country music; in fact, the association’s promotional materials repeatedly argued the reverse. As with the CMA’s official declaration that country music was no longer the fiddle-twanging of the backwoods, the organization’s vision of country fans firmly located them in metropolitan areas. In the 1960s the CMA began to claim more forcefully that country music fans were the backbone not just of America’s rural spaces but more crucially of its urban areas. As a 1960 CMA mailing to three hundred advertising agency executives and time-buyers proclaimed, the country music audience was composed of “the every-day working people of any city large or small — the housewife, mill worker, fisherman, truck driver — in short, the people the advertiser wants to reach.” The mailing kept the idea of “every-day working people” (the very much still beating heart of country music’s identity) but removed any trace of the rural. The jobs were still blue collar but did not involve working the land. The geographic locale of this imagined audience was urban and national.

In the end, the promotional endeavors and geographic cultural positioning of the CMA worked. In terms of both commercial success and urban locations, country music had of course been “coming to town” since the beginning of its commercial career. But the early 1960s witnessed a large-scale awareness of that fact, and the language most often chosen to express this awareness invoked the migration from country to city. This trajectory was frequently captured with the phrase “country comes to town,” which was openly used in this period to celebrate country music’s commercial success in journal articles, advertisements, and album liner notes. The phrase was ubiquitous, but the geographic journey that it imagined missed the mark slightly; country music had been imbricated in urban spaces since its beginnings as a commercial genre in the 1920s.

No matter that country music had been previously recorded in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the level of sophisticated production on the Nashville recordings conditioned an understanding of the music as newly urban. The discourse was referring to an urban sensibility as much as it was an urban geography; the music was figured as more technologically urban even as it was now recorded more often in the less demographically urban Nashville. In this context, a series of album titles in the first half of the 1960s played with a mildly ironic city-country pairing, including Nashville Sound pianist Floyd Cramer’s Country Piano, City Strings; Roberta Sherwood’s Country Songs for City People; and Slim Whitman’s Country Songs, City Hits. Whitman’s 1960 album title in particular suggested that the songs could become a “hit” only in the city, that they were purely (and merely) songs out in the country. The back cover essay began, “To paraphrase an old saying: ‘You can take the song out of the Country, but you can’t take the Country out of the song.’ Actually, nobody wants to; Country songs are too good as is and, besides, they’re doing too well in the city! This album is proof of that statement; every one of these songs came from the Country, and every one was a big hit in the city — all cities, to be exact.” The essay fully endorsed the notion of a discrete city-country divide, replicating and rhetorically drawing on the easy but slippery assumption that the country was a place distinct from the city. But the essay tracked an explicit geographic journey that emphasized both the songs’ origins in the country and their successful transition to the city. The text’s emphatic declaration that the country songs had become hits in all cities paralleled the inclusive wording in the CMA’s mailing to ad agencies, which referred to “the everyday working people of any city.” Like the CMA’s materials, the album liner notes essay contained no trace of regional difference or particularity. The essay pridefully announced the success Whitman’s songs had with urban listeners while simultaneously making an argument that they remained, at heart, true country songs.

Whitman’s formulation, with its use of the “can’t take the country out of the boy” cliché, further contained a clear assumption that “country” as a category was not solely geographic. After all, the classic formula only works if “country” can also be something portable, an essence that remains intact even as its people are far from the farm. In this regard, “country” means actual rural space in the first part of the phrase (the country from which the boy leaves) but refers to country character in the second half (the country essence that remains inside him even in a bustling metropolitan space). As it had been for Acuff and Pearl, the trick was to balance both of these aspects of “country,” to somehow prove intrinsic character borne out of authentic rural experience while also asserting a comfort level and success within the city. The sound of Whitman’s album reflected this balance: the production borrowed much of the Nashville Sound instrumentation, such as the heavy use of choreographed background vocals, but Whitman still managed to slip in his trademark yodeling (on tracks such as “You’re the Reason” and “Bouquet of Roses”), a nod to an older style of country vocals.

Despite these nods to more traditional country styles, however, not everyone agreed that the balance of new and old could still truly be called “country.” The concerted push for an all-country radio station format was the CMA’s response to the larger shift toward Top 40 that imperiled the country industry. The CMA measured success through statistics on the number of radio stations that programmed country at some point in the day as well as the number of country-only stations; by these measures, their efforts were entirely successful. But whether the songs these stations played could truly be called country music was very much up for grabs. Country music culture was not uniform in its approval and enjoyment of the new sound; the Nashville Sound was being heard over more and more stations but much to the dismay of many fans. The main voices of dissent in the 1960s came from fans writing letters to trade journals such as Music City News, not from industry executives themselves or even prominent artists on the more tradition-minded Opry. Traditionalist fans took to letter to editor pages to bemoan both the specific changes wrought within the new studios of Music Row and the discursive shifts engineered by the CMA. These fans claimed instead that country music required fiddles and simple singing, and that, in fact, “city people” had no place in country. Such fans often blamed the influence of “city people” for the major shifts in the genre that, in their eyes, made country music less authentic. It was not just the association with pop music that tainted the new style in the eyes of resistant traditional fans but also the connection they saw between the new sound and urbanity itself.

The instrumentation changes associated with the Nashville Sound gave rise to heated debates about whether or not the new sound could still be called “true country,” and these debates often centered specifically on the geography of the fans and the locations where the new music was conceived and produced. One particularly passionate fan crystallized the oppositional sentiment by arguing that country music was the authentic music of the specifically rural and working-class people of America, and that the musical changes brought about by the Nashville Sound were destroying this connection. His 1965 letter to the editor invoked the key sonic touchstones of the Nashville Sound (horns, background choral groups) while pitting money-grubbing city folks against true country music fans:

Country Music belongs first to the laboring and rural people of this country. They have no musical training and often can’t even read music, but when the day’s work is done they can take down the old guitar, banjo, or fiddle and play the simple songs that tell about their way of life in a fashion that the finest symphony orchestras in the world can never imitate. They don’t want your horns or drums — they don’t want your chorus singing in the background or even your Jordanaires making little noises behind them. All that stuff is for the city people who jumped on the country music bandwagon when there turned out to be so much money in it.

The Divisive Nashville Sound

The writer belittled the much-celebrated Jordainaires and their “little noises,” and drew a stark divide between the “laboring and rural people” (to whom country music truly belongs) and “city people” who were changing the music for, in the writer’s opinion, blatantly commercial purposes. In specific contrast with the urban high art of classical symphonies, the letter writer argued that country music belongs to these people since it could be easily played within the home, after a hard day’s work, with the simple instruments at hand and nothing else. This argument describes a form of “authentic” country music in opposition to that being produced through modern technology in the studios of urban Nashville. Although it was unclear if this fan specifically blamed the CMA for the original changes, or considered its leaders the “city people” who jumped on the bandwagon, this kind of letter did explicitly contradict the language and ideology of the CMA’s promotional efforts. While the CMA had begun saying in 1960 that country music fans were the norm in American cities, this writer structured his lament around a different and more proprietary claim: that country music instead belonged to rural people.

This letter’s references to true fans’ instrumentation preferences were common among other critiques of the Nashville Sound as well. Defenders of the traditional sound of country music often pointed directly to instrumentation changes as the new sound’s principal sin. The switch from an older style of fiddle playing to the heavy use of orchestrated string sections or violins served for many as the main lens through which the changes were understood. Many of these fans invoked this shift even as they presumably understood that violins and fiddles are essentially the same instrument with different styles of playing, which made the strong preference for one over the other that much more striking. It was not that violins created intrinsically intolerable music, just that they could not be used for country music.

Another fan letter to Music City News in 1964 outlined rigid boundaries for country music and argued specifically that the Nashville Sound did not fit the criteria, again, in part because of the move away from the fiddle and toward nontraditional instrumentation: “Country music has gone so … Pop that we true Country Music fans don’t know what a true Country record sounds like any more. Violins and chorole [sic] groups certainly don’t belong on a country record. Indeed not — only guitars, steel guitars, fiddles, bass, singer and most of the time dobros… Perhaps the Nashville sound does satisfy a lot of people’s musical desires, but all of us true country fans can just look because you all are too busy to care about us.” For this fan, the new sound represented an unfortunate shift away from a treasured musical heritage and blamed city people and the industry’s willingness to sidle up to them for commercial reasons. The use of orchestrated violins and other more classical string instruments had become the principal signifier of country music’s twin demons of commercialization and urbanization. The CMA did not dispute this: in fact, their 1960 mailing to sponsors and radio stations explicitly rejected the older style of “fiddle-twangin’” music. The Nashville Sound was discussed favorably by stars and producers and belittled by traditionalist fans, but both sides understood the spatial dimensions of the situation.

In the early 1970s, after the commercial success of the Nashville Sound had peaked and many varied voices within country culture had begun to critique the new sounds, retroactive defenses of the Sound also tended to rely on spatial metaphors to associate the musical transition with geographic movement. They positioned the new sound as a necessary shift in the service of an admirable commercial aspiration that allowed country music’s stewards to transport the genre from a kind of mythical originary rural space outward into the cities and beyond. In 1972, Eddy Arnold told an interviewer, “I stayed pretty much with the same kind of song. What I did was just change my background a little bit — from the down-home kind of fiddle and steel guitar to the violin. And we orchestrated them, so that we could appeal to Middle America rather than just appealing to the minority. You see, for many, many years country music only appealed to a minority.”

Singer-songwriter Dave Dudley defended the transformation in a similar way in a 1973 interview, stating that “they’ve made it up town or whatever the word might be. I think they’ve done that for a reason, I don’t believe the songs have changed. I think that everybody including me would like to have more people like country music so we’ve made it more acceptable by putting on violins or whatever they do.” As with Arnold’s argument, for Dudley the violins were a virtually interchangeable piece that could be added in without altering the core of the song or its genre identification. Dudley’s dismissive phrase “whatever they do” shifted agency away from the country star and toward an unseen producer or engineer, suggesting that the song’s true country authorship and authentic feeling remained intact despite the modifications made by someone else, the producers. This rhetorical move at least made vaguely plausible his declaration that he did not believe “the songs have changed.” Arnold and Dudley openly admitted to wider commercial aspirations but did not attach the same negative connotations to commercialism as the irate letter writers who bemoaned the stylistic changes made in the name of increasing country’s audience. Arnold and Dudley defended the Nashville Sound by minimizing the “background” changes while maintaining that the songs themselves were still true country songs, and in fact had not changed at all. They made this provocative claim despite the fact that, as letters from angry fans showed, many fans defined country music in terms of instrumentation choices.

Both artists also invoked geographic markers, “uptown” or “Middle America,” in line with the need to appeal to wider audiences. Dudley’s notion of “uptown” differentiated the modern music from its rural past, and Arnold’s “Middle America” signified a desire to move away from associations with the rural South. The trick for the Nashville Sound’s defenders was to suggest that country music, whose principal feature was often its authentic connection to “the people” (a connection often defined in terms of earnest lyrics and natural singing), could still retain this country character while adding clearly marked urban accoutrements and openly moving “uptown.” Following a tradition established by performers like Little Jimmy Dickens and Roy Acuff, these defenders argued that inherent country character was not necessarily dependent on place or instrumentation. Inspired by “Town and Country” promoter Connie Gay as early as the late 1950s, one journalist described this idea by declaring, “Country music is not really a kind of music; it is a style, a way of playing. The one quality indispensable to a country music performer is ‘down homeliness’ — an amalgam of simple virtues of the kind that your sweet old Grandmother used to praise.” This powerful understanding of country music as a style or set of virtues resonated with descriptions of the Sound that persisted into the 1970s. But in the late 1960s, Nashville’s Music Row offered country music an opportunity to combine the new sound with a new understanding of the possibilities of urban space.

“Shantytown USA”: Music Row and Urban Renewal

Country had never really had a clear-cut urban “home,” and the establishment of Nashville as country’s primary base, in addition to creating a cohesive set of studios, musicians, and publishing houses, provided a platform for the industry to use its own neighborhood to promote the increasingly salient idea of country “coming to town.” Country music studios had been constructed on or near Sixteenth Avenue since the mid-1950s, but in the mid-1960s, the industry’s leading promotional organization settled there as well. The CMA’s journal, CMA Close-Up, set up shop in an office building across the street from Owen Bradley’s studio in 1965, surrounded by multiple publishing houses, talent agencies, and outposts for major labels such as Decca and Capitol. The journal’s masthead featured the downtown Nashville skyline as viewed from Music Row, and its columns and features covered local news events as well as business and personal notices about Nashville-based recording artists. The spatial orientation of the journal mirrored the consolidation of Music Row as a self-conscious industry neighborhood. The cover design of another industry journal, Music City News, also employed a shot of the downtown Nashville skyline from the perspective of Music Row, with some of the Row’s more modern buildings in the foreground. This was a particularly urban and modern vision of Nashville, which established a specific geographic identification for the area.

As Music Row grew both geographically and commercially, Nashville’s metropolitan government began to show more interest in the industry and work with Music Row leaders to smooth the neighborhood’s growth. Municipal leaders began to attend more country music functions to show the industry its due respect. Also, the CMA worked with the metropolitan government to secure land for the genre’s first hall of fame. The metropolitan government leased a prime piece of real estate at the north end of Music Row for the construction of the building, and in 1967, country music’s first hall of fame opened. Over the course of the 1960s, and especially with the hall’s construction, businesses in the surrounding neighborhood increasingly began to recognize the importance of Music Row’s presence. More neighborhood service and retail shops changed their names to reflect the area’s emergence as a distinct neighborhood landmark, and music-themed souvenir shops also opened in response to the increased flow of fans who were starting to discover the neighborhood and include it on their country music–themed pilgrimages. Businesses across the street and around the corner from the hall started using the moniker “Music City” in their names; signs for Music City Motors, Music City Service Center and Gas, and Music City Esso had all cropped up by the end of 1967. Even though the moniker “Music City U.S.A.” had been coined in 1950 and did not necessarily refer only to country music, the increased density of the industry’s presence in the late 1960s created this spatial association.

The explosive growth of Music Row over the course of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave the industry a material investment in the urban space of the neighborhood as well as a cultural investment in transforming the urban space to construct a particular image for the genre. As Music Row developed and consolidated, many industry leaders hoped to use country’s new neighborhood as yet another opportunity to refute tired hillbilly stereotypes. In much the same way that the CMA and promoters of the Nashville Sound hoped to show that country music did not have to be rustic and backwoods, those with an investment in the future of Music Row hoped to use the neighborhood to demonstrate that the genre could easily make a home in a clean, modern, upscale urban space.

Given this interest in promoting a specific image for the neighborhood, various figures were concerned about its structural and aesthetic integrity. Don Davis, whose Wilderness Music offices were in the heart of Music Row (operating since 1965 out of a house two blocks from Bradley’s original studio), invoked fairly extreme poverty and dilapidation when he publicly speculated, “Sometimes I wonder if Metro wouldn’t rather just take our tax money the way they’re doing now and let us stay here in ‘Shantytown’ from now on.” The reference to Shantytown contrasted sharply with the plans for modern office and studio construction that were either in the planning stages or already underway. An article in the 1968 Country Song Roundup Annual invoked a similar image of dilapidation when it described the prospect of a visitor coming to Music Row to get a glimpse of the “magic” and finding something else entirely: “Some of the buildings are old with wrinkled faces that tell their age by loose hinges and sagging windows. The streets and byways are narrow, as well as dimly lit. And the general look of the neighborhood isn’t the best.” It was this emphasis on the aging structures and infrastructure in the purportedly deteriorating neighborhood that Music Row planners were working to counter in the public’s imagination. Another article from earlier in the decade referenced “rickety homes” and “low-rent apartments” as reasons for renovation. Popular songwriter Tom T. Hall, in describing his first days in Nashville living on Music Row, disparagingly referred to the neighborhood with the ultimate marker of urban poverty: “The first apartment I had here was on 16th Avenue — when it was really a slum.” Like Davis’s reference to “Shantytown,” Hall’s provocative use of “slum” strongly suggested that an urban neighborhood, without proper maintenance and planning, could be a poor fit for modern country music.

It is also possible that Music Row figures had another neighborhood in mind when they made these dire proclamations. Music Row developed on the edge of a mostly white neighborhood that bordered a predominantly African American residential area. The census for the tract east of Sixteenth indicated the population was 90 percent African American in 1960, while west of Sixteenth was 95 percent white. In the push for Music Row Boulevard, industry figures who were advocating for renewal referred to the dilapidation of the neighborhood, but the greater preponderance of dilapidated structures were on the eastern edge of the historic African American neighborhood of Edgehill, several blocks east of Sixteenth.

Instead of thinking of country’s urban locale as contradicting their ideal image of country music simply for being urban, key industry figures instead saw it as the wrong kind of urban space and looked, as did many other municipalities and groups, to urban renewal to fashion the right kind of space for their neighborhood. The dilapidation of the neighborhood did not fit the industry’s idea of itself nor did the industry see it as an inevitable product of coming to the city; their support for urban renewal showed a belief that a city could in fact provide a comfortable home for country music. In fact, as late as the fall of 1968, investors (led by Eddy Arnold) planned on building a fourteen-story office building in the heart of Music Row. The building would have housed record labels, publishing offices, and talent agencies as well as a restaurant and a rooftop with a swimming pool and heliport. This was hardly an effort to keep the Row “downhome”; instead, it was part of a collective effort to build the neighborhood into a more dense urban space. Industry leaders looked to expand vertically, tearing down older buildings and replacing them with bold new construction, to fully differentiate the Row as a modern urban space. Music Row leaders’ vision of the future found its most perfect outlet when Nashville’s urban planners first included the neighborhood in their plans for the larger area’s renewal.

Nashville was one of the first American cities to fully utilize federal funding to embark on several large-scale projects between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. Nashville civic leaders used urban renewal beginning in 1949 to raze blighted housing and remake three neighborhoods: the downtown area, a large portion of East Nashville, and Edgehill. When Congress passed the 1949 Housing Act, Nashville’s already existing Housing Authority seized the opportunity for garnering federal funds, razing ninety-six acres of low-income housing north of Capitol Hill in order to construct a leg of interstate highway and commercial and retail development. Nashville then began the East Nashville Renewal Project, which involved both the replacement and rehabilitation of substandard housing. Although not near Music Row, the success of these two projects led the municipal government to apply for federal funding for even more renewal, and savvy industry figures saw an opening for their own neighborhood.

Music Row’s immediate neighbor to the west, Vanderbilt University, began looking to expand its campus in the early 1950s. In fact, university officials had been somewhat quietly buying proximal properties as they came on the market. The Nashville government, however, soon saw Vanderbilt’s desire for expansion as a way to bring federal urban renewal funds to the city. A clause added to the federal 1954 Housing Act regarding universities, hospitals, and other public amenities promised that any purchases these institutions made for land expansion would count toward the one-third local contribution which federal urban renewal regulations required. This made privately planned university expansion an attractive and inexpensive way for cities to secure federal funding for improving the infrastructure and housing base of the university’s surrounding neighborhoods. Private spending could count for the local share of public funding. Despite assertions by many community members that the areas around Vanderbilt were not really deteriorating and did not need renewal, the Nashville Housing Authority approved the school’s expansion plans as part of a larger municipal project, and the nearby Music Row was, at least initially, swept along in its wake.

Making Country Urban

The Nashville Housing Authority, which was in charge of urban renewal in addition to public housing, announced the plan in December 1960 along with ones for three other areas. As a smaller part of this larger project, the Housing Authority saw a potential boulevard through Music Row as the answer to traffic congestion between the city’s southwestern residential neighborhoods and the major east-west thoroughfares that funneled in to downtown. Twenty-First Avenue South was one of the city’s most congested streets, in part because of the university and in part because it was one of the few arteries connecting the two parts of the city, and the boulevard between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues was intended to divert much of that traffic.

The prospect of an impressive new boulevard running through the heart of Music Row, part of a much larger urban renewal project in the planning stages, led industry figures to believe that renewal could turn their neighborhood into a more tourist-friendly urban space with less substandard housing, better infrastructure and sewage systems, and open sight lines to make the space more aesthetically pleasing. In these efforts, industry boosters did not downplay the urbanity of Nashville but in fact trumpeted the urban possibilities of Music Row. Conscious of the notion of their historical role as barely tolerated hillbillies in a city that billed itself as “The Athens of the South,” industry leaders, artists, and fans hoped that “Music City Boulevard” would solidify country’s place as the premier industry, both symbolically and economically, in Nashville, as well as making Nashville itself a premier American music city. Nonetheless, despite the industry’s own ambitions for the project, the boulevard was never planned as or designed to be “Music City Boulevard.” It was not until the industry seized on the idea and began to bill it as such that the urban renewal project and country music became linked, and the boulevard’s informal name and attachment to country music became salient.

In April 1967, however, funding limitations forced the federal government to break the project down into two phases; the first stage was the land specifically associated with Vanderbilt’s growth and the second that of Scarritt and Peabody Colleges, which were much smaller but closer to Music Row. Thus, the piece of the boulevard designed to go straight through Music Row was delayed until the second phase. With the bulk of the university purchases now attached solely to the first phase, and therefore fewer university dollars counting toward the local contribution, the debate over the boulevard became a debate over whether local funds would be used to renovate Music Row. The music industry focused its attention on pressuring the metropolitan council to allocate the money, even as the project had been driven from the beginning by Vanderbilt’s expansion plans.

The ambitions held by Music Row leaders never fully factored into Housing Authority planning, despite the industry’s important and growing presence in the neighborhood. Music Row leaders were looking for a new way of arranging the visitor experience, in line with their discursive presentation of the new Nashville Sound and the promotional efforts of the CMA, which could showcase modern attractive features, not the dilapidation associated with their hillbilly past. Linked to this was the sense that local support for the boulevard would prove the city’s interest in presenting the neighborhood and country music as viable tourist attractions. Municipal support for country music had always been seen as tenuous at best, and industry leaders and rank-and-file members were keen to be given more visible shows of support from the Nashville establishment.

In these efforts, the music industry in fact had wide support among the Nashville business community; key members of the community saw the boulevard and its effect on country music enterprises as a good investment for the city. Edward Jones, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, argued for the boulevard by pointing out, “People write us and tell us they came to see Music City (row) and then couldn’t find it.” Jones was not affiliated with the industry but still argued that country music provided a benefit to the greater Nashville economy. Likewise, Metropolitan Trustee Glenn Ferguson, a longtime advocate of the music industry, argued that the building of the boulevard would pay for itself in increased tax revenues and suggested, “It seems strange to me that everyone the world over — except the city administration — recognizes the importance of this industry.” Ferguson used the worldwide commercial appeal of country music (which the CMA had frequently couched in urban terms) to argue for lucrative spatial changes in the Music Row neighborhood. As with the CMA and the promotional discourse around the Nashville Sound, this argument highlighted country music’s success with fans from beyond rural America. In fact, Ferguson positioned the metropolitan government, not country music, as out of step with the times.

In the end, though, the University Center Urban Renewal Project, as its title indicated, was principally driven by the expansion of Nashville universities, most notably Vanderbilt University. While the Row was ultimately excised from the project, the urban renewal debates did provide a platform for discussing the kind of neighborhood Music Row could and should be. At this point, industry figures and their supporters in local business and politics saw the boulevard project as an opportunity for the city government to make a crucial investment in renewing their neighborhood. The Metropolitan Council publicly debated the boulevard issue in October 1970, giving the industry a platform to make its case. Industry figures looked to increase their capital and symbolic investment in Nashville but did not fully have the backing of the city at this point. Mayor Beverly Briley had initially supported the boulevard plans but reversed his stance several months before the council vote, suggesting instead that they convert the two already existing streets to one-way streets. Although key community voices such as Jones and Ferguson had argued that the boulevard was necessary for the city, as country music was such an important part of the city by this point, Briley took the opposite stance, saying at the time of the vote, “Music Row is only one of hundreds of projects desperately needed in our city.” Councilman James Tuck echoed Briley’s sentiment, noting, “There are 35 other (councilmanic) districts which need projects also.”

By contrast, both local newspapers were in favor of the boulevard and couched their support in terms of how crucial country music was to the city. When Briley reversed his stance ahead of the council vote, the Nashville Tennessean’s editorial, “Music Row Promise Ought to Be Honored,” referred to Briley’s flip-flop on the issue as a “breach of faith with one of the community’s largest and most appreciated industries.” U.S. Representative Richard Fulton echoed this line of thinking in a telegram to Mayor Briley: “The music industry people have just been too good to Nashville to let this matter drag on. They have certainly helped us, and now, when they need it, I feel that we should give them all the help we can. The notion of reciprocity and symbolic support at times seemed to outweigh the economic arguments as the most compelling reasons for building Music City Boulevard.

Ultimately, the Metropolitan Council did not buy the industry’s arguments on the economic or symbolic importance of the boulevard, to Nashville or to country music. Once the boulevard was moved to phase two of the University Center Project, and federal funds were no longer guaranteed, the council balked at the inflated price tag of the needed property. Furthermore, land speculation in the neighborhood ahead of the renewal project had increased the land values and driven up the city government’s price tag for the entire project. Despite the vocal community support from the chamber of commerce, the city’s two newspapers, and other government figures such as Ferguson, the council vote went against the boulevard in October 1970. In the aftermath of the vote, music industry figures focused on the council’s lack of willpower. The defeat on the council vote led to widespread disillusionment with the metropolitan government among country music leaders, and industry leaders stopped attending council meetings and planning sessions for the future of Music Row.

Two multistory plans for new office buildings were on the books but were both cancelled when boulevard plans fell through. Also, media coverage suggested that, with the boulevard plans stalled, there were “slums creeping up around Music Row.” For all the rhetoric of “country coming to town” and the multimillion dollar success of the Nashville Sound, the industry was unable to convince the city of Nashville that its new urban home needed any substantial modernization. Even as the CMA’s efforts to convince radio and advertising industries that country fans were urban consumers were wildly successful, out on Music Row, in spite of the increasing recognition of country music’s importance to the city of Nashville, country music leaders were ultimately unable to fully remake their neighborhood into the clean, modern, showcase to which they aspired.

This failure may in part have been tied to persistent assumptions about the music that ran counter to the CMA’s and Music Row leaders’ vision of country music as a modern urban phenomenon. For instance, even media coverage in support of neighborhood renewal relied on rural iconography to describe the plight of an industry that was trying to distance itself from the negative associations of such imagery. An editorial cartoon in the Nashville Tennessean two months after the eventual council vote against the boulevard juxtaposed two images; the first showed a well-dressed gentleman in an automobile driving past a sign that read “Nashville: MUSIC CITY, U.S.A., World Famed Home of ‘The Nashville Sound.’” The second showed the same visitor encountering what looked to be a farmhouse, with a nearby shed; one lone, dead tree; and a sign tacked onto a bent stick in the ground reading “Music City’s Music Row.” The headline, “A Tale of Two Cities,” highlighted the contradiction between the world-famous Nashville Sound and its dilapidated neighborhood, but the image suggested rural poverty instead of the density more often associated with an urban neighborhood. Even as country figures used the language of urban poverty (“a slum”) to describe their neighborhood, the notion that country’s home base must be inherently rundown, dilapidated, and above all rural still persisted.

Despite the commercial progress country music had made, and despite the deliberate efforts on the part of the CMA and others to paint country as a plausible urban genre, pervasive hyperbolic rhetoric continued to associate country music with unredeemable rusticity, even in publications produced by the industry itself. In an article in the 1970 Country Music Who’s Who, for instance, Jack-Warren Ostrode insisted that the “credit for the appeal to present-day audiences really belongs to the pioneers of yesterday who wrote their songs from the privacy of their souls and sang them lustily behind a rusty plow on an ancient, barren hill. Blessedly, their talents have been constantly re-born in each new generation of Country Music artists.” The image of a “lustily” singing plowman played on stereotypes of simple, earthy, plain folk and the bizarre description of an “ancient, barren hill” further distanced these primordial country performers from the modern world. The image was over the top but represented a persistent idea that country music promoters still had to address in their push to market the genre as contemporary and urban.

Despite country music’s long association with rural poverty and humble origins, in the 1960s, the CMA looked to provide the genre with a markedly new socio-spatial identity while still preserving the music’s rural spirit and deep connection to “ordinary” Americans. Artists and commentators described the Nashville Sound as more urban or “uptown,” country marketers looked to situate their expanding audience in urban areas, and the new constellation of recording studios emerged in a neighborhood that industry figures believed could be turned into an appealing tourist destination through urban renewal. These three developments were linked by their shared investment in the notion that country music and its fans were becoming more urban, and that country’s newfound urbanity was preferable to its previous geographic and class markers. For these cultural actors and industry stewards, to make country music more modern meant making it more urban. They associated “the country” with the past and looked to cities as the future of the genre. But as the next chapter shows, urban Nashville contained its own set of complications, and the “country comes to town” discourse that imagined urbanity going hand in hand with modernity and middle-class comfort quickly bumped up against a city experiencing segregation, poverty, and the civil rights struggles which these conditions sparked.

Jeremy Hill, who earned a PhD in American studies from George Washington University, is an independent scholar who lives in Chicago.