The campaign to convince the world that modern Music City is more than country music has been a rousing success. It’s safe to say the national audience is now aware that Nashville nurtures and produces rock and pop acts. The city’s history in R&B and rock and roll recording has been well told via popular exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Yet back when Nashville was given its famous nickname - Music City USA - on a national broadcast of the Red Foley show in 1950 from WSM-AM, the understanding of Nashville as an all genre town - with pop and gospel, jazz and classical - was unremarkable. WSM itself was and had been a general purpose radio station for 25 years, graduating stars of network pop and even grand opera.
The Nashville lover can now find this whole diverse legacy between two covers in the coffee-table size, richly designed new volume Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline by historian and Belmont University professor Don Cusic. It’s impressionistic, with short notes or essays about hundreds of subjects, organized in chronological order. It’s brimming with graphics, album art and photos, many of them unfamiliar to even seasoned students of Nashville history.
One can read through it in sequence to get a mosaic picture of key events, people and recordings. Or it’s a browser’s delight, inviting you to jump in anywhere. If I could have suggested a change, it would have been to put the years at issue on every page, delivering more clearly and with better orientation on the “timeline” premise. But without a doubt, this will be showing up in recording studio lounges and under Christmas trees for years to come.
The first entry is about Davy Crockett, a state pioneer who happened to be a fiddle player. The last is about Nashville’s multi-dimensional impact on the 59th Grammy Awards in February 2017, spotlighting Maren Morris and Sturgill Simpson, among others. In between are all the familiar landmarks - the birth of the Grand Ole Opry, Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut on what would become Music Row, Opryland USA and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But here are seven items covered in Nashville Sound that are lesser known or especially curious.
John W Work III - Born in Tullahoma in 1903, John Wesley Work studied at Julliard, Columbia and Yale before becoming a mainstay on the faculty of Fisk University. He was one of the nation’s leading folklorists, documenting Mississippi folk culture in the 1940 for the Lomax archive at the Smithsonian.
"Near You" - The first million selling record out of Nashville wasn’t country. It was a pop recording written and performed by WSM staff bandleader Francis Craig, recorded at WSM’s studios, released on a new indie label (Bullett) started by a WSM alum. How it became the top record of 1947 nationwide is a crazy story.
Al Gannaway - We’ve got amazing performance footage of the Opry’s top performers from the mid 50s because this writer/producer developed a show and shot them mostly at Bradley’s Quonset Hut.
Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears - The rare concept album and the rare activist album by a major Nashville star in the 1960s, Bitter Tears examined the Native American experience with stark candor.
Area Code 615 - Woefully under-appreciated then or in the years since, this band of Nashville studio musicians plugged Music Row into a national art rock scene. The music was complex and free-wheeling and hip. The group evolved into the longer-running, more vocal forward Barefoot Jerry.
“Drift Away” - Everybody knows the gentle sway of Dobie Gray’s hit version, but it’s less known that the record was cut at Quadraphonic Sound Studio in mid-town Nashville with an opening riff by guitar legend Reggie Young.
Soundscan - It sounds geeky but as a music business professor, Cusic knows a little technological change can create huge waves. In this case it was the bar-code scanning of the early 90s that replaced manual logs and that proved to a skeptical music industry that country music could in fact sell on par with pop music.