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.
“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.