Various Artists: Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970
It's a shame that when most people think of Nashville, Tennessee, what comes to mind most readily are images of Garth Brooks in that silly hat and shirt or Shania Twain in a cat suit. Because, quite honestly, Nashville is -- and has been for more than half a century -- fertile ground for musical artists of every ilk and ethnic persuasion. Nashville, whether folks know it or not, earned its moniker, Music City U.S.A., fair and square and deserves it. The two CD compilation, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues, 1945-1970, produced by the Country Music Hall of Fame's new record label CMF Records, is one very solid piece of evidence supporting such a claim.
The first disc documents what was happening in R&B in Nashville during the late '40s and '50s. Not surprisingly, the music reflects precisely what was going on in other cities, Memphis in particular, which, right or wrong, tends to get all the credit for early rock and roll. Beginning with Cecil Gant's "Nashville Jumps", a rollicking piano house rocker, and concluding with bonus tracks of Little Richard singing a "Royal Crown Hair Dressing Ad" in 1956 and Earl Gaines and Gene Allison singing the "White Rose" theme for popular radio station WLAC in 1959, the first disc enlightens and entertains. It is interesting to note that Little Richard found steady work in Nashville prior to his fame.
The second track on disc one, "Buzzard Pie", recorded by Rudy Green and His Orchestra, is an upbeat jump blues in the vain of Louis Jordan, very popular at the time. The women are represented here by blues singer Christine Kittrell, whose recording of "L&N Special" made in 1953 rocks harder than Bill Haley and his Comets ever could have dreamed of rocking, and Audrey Bryant, who sings a little ditty called "Let's Trade a Little". "Pig" Robbins, the legendary Music Row session pianist, plays on this track along with several other unnamed Nashville cats, providing evidence of the musical experimentation, boundary crossing, and open-mindedness that seems to have been quite common in Nashville at the time. Country guys didn't just play country.
Favorites on disc one include "Sittin' Here Drinkin", a jazzy, slow, and heart-wrenching blues song by Christine Kittrell, and "Just Walkin' in the Rain", a vocal classic sung by the Prisonaires. The Prisonaires were a vocal group that sounded a lot like the Ink Spots or the Mills Brothers and were formed by Johnny Bragg in Nashville's segregated Tennessee State Penitentiary. They were so darn good the warden let them out every so often to perform and record with Sun Records in Memphis.
The coolest and grittiest track on disc one is Nathan Gunter's raw and sexy "Baby Let's Play House", later recorded by Elvis Presley. The most touching tune, and also the most representative of '50s pop, is Gene Allison's recording of "You Can Make It If You Try", made in 1957. The song was later covered by the Rolling Stones.
Disc two documents the '60s. One immediately hears the influence of Motown in songs like Joe Tex's "I Want To (Do Everything for You)", The Avons' "Since I Met You Baby", which foreshadows female groups like the Supremes, and Joe Simon's "The Chokin' Kind", recently recorded by the precocious Brit R&B singer Joss Stone. Personal favorites are Etta James's version of the early Ray Charles hit "What'd I Say" and Ruth Brown's "Nashville version" of her hit "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean". The most recognizable is a song called "Sunny", written and recorded by Bobby Hebb and released in 1966.
Honestly, every track here is worth listening to. Not only is the collection significant historically, it also holds up quite well on its own as an artistic piece. Unlike many retrospective or "complete recordings" releases, Night Train to Nashville leaves out the second and third takes of songs, the scratchy or unlistenable recordings, the tracks only hardcore music history buffs or collectors find valuable. What is left is a highly listenable collection of great music, all of which, in some way, shape, or form, is connected to Nashville, Tennessee, Music City, U.S.A.