The Music Business in Nashville - A History
Built On Radio
Many people trace the origins of Music City to the birth of Music Row in the 1950s or the birth of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s, but the truth is that Nashville’s affinity for music shaped the city even in the 19th century. Hymnal publishing started in the 1820s, and the years after the Civil War saw the formation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who achieved worldwide fame and performed for Queen Victoria. Then in 1892, work was completed on the Union Gospel Tabernacle, soon to be renamed The Ryman Auditorium. By the early 20th century the Ryman had earned a reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South” for its wide-ranging and sophisticated programming, spearheaded by general manager Lula Naff. The greats of the age, including Paderewski, Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa performed at the Ryman, which also staged operas and old-time music shows. Its eclectic approach pointed to Nashville’s rich and wide-ranging musical future.
Nashville’s vehicle to becoming Music City in the modern era was radio. Several small stations went on the air in the early 1920s, but in 1925 Nashville got a station with national stature and ambitions. WSM was launched and owned by the National Life & Accident Insurance Co., and their mutually reinforced growth over the next fifty-plus years would create the conditions that made a music industry possible. Almost immediately, National Life sparked imitation at its competitor company Life & Casualty, which launched WLAC in 1926. Both stations earned full-power, clear-channel status from the federal government, assuring that Nashville music could be heard nearly across the entire U.S. over two powerhouse radio signals. It also meant that if you were a singer, picker, piano player or gospel group, there were two big outlets in Nashville that might put you on the air and maybe even pay you. Thus did the city become a magnet for talent.
Both WSM and WLAC grew during the Depression, and both were dedicated corporate citizens during WWII, covering the war and pursuing public service on the home front. Then in the prosperous post-war era, those stations’ two decades of producing live music shows put them in a great position to shape the new Nashville. WSM proved to be a veritable business incubator, as its employees spun off the first major music publisher in the city (Acuff-Rose), the first recording studio (Castle), the first independent record label (Bullet) and the first artist booking agency, which broke away from the Grand Ole Opry. Then when WSM band leader Francis Craig recorded “Near You” in WSM studios and had it released by WSM alumnus Jim Bulleit on his new company Bullet Records, the disc became the nation’s biggest hit of 1947, giving Nashville its first million-seller, with all home-grown talent. No wonder in 1950 WSM announcer David Cobb proclaimed that Nashville was “Music City USA.”
WSM band leader and music director Owen Bradley built his famous Quonset Hut studio in 1958, marking the first business on what would become Music Row. That was also the same year the term “the Nashville Sound” was seen in the press. It referred to a new wave of production in country music, spearheaded by Bradley and Chet Atkins, that added strings, background vocals and pop music techniques to what had been stripped-down hillbilly music sessions. Encouraged as a way to compete for adult ears while rock and roll soaked up the attention (and dollars) of America’s youth, the Nashville Sound produced country music’s first true crossover stars, including Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Ferlin Husky and Patsy Cline. With success piling on success, most of the major record companies and scores of independents opened offices along 16th and 17th Avenues, and by the early 1960s, Nashville was the top recording center in the U.S. outside of Los Angeles and New York. The A-Team studio musicians worked three and four sessions every day, and legendary songwriters like Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran cranked out great work that sold millions. Country music was the city’s core business, but it was hardly a monopoly. Elvis Presley commuted from Memphis to make most of his RCA recordings, and icons like Bob Dylan sought out Nashville as a place with quality studios, world-class musicians and producers and a historic vibe that couldn’t be recreated anywhere else.
The growth of Nashville’s music industry might not have been as robust had it not been for its often underappreciated diversity. As the Country Music Hall of Fame’s long-running special exhibit Night Train To Nashville described, the city was a hub of R&B and blues from the late 1940s until the 1970s. One important catalyst was radio station WLAC, where several black and white DJs began to play black music late at night. John Richbourg, Gene Nobles, Hoss Allen and Don Whitehead spun Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, B.B. King and much more, to the delight of a growing audience of fascinated fans across the Eastern U.S. These broadcasts inspired numerous iconic careers, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Levon Helm of The Band. Closer to home, an infrastructure grew up to take advantage of interest in this remarkable music. Record labels like Excello and Republic (not to mention Bullet) released the music. Mail order outlets like Randy’s Record Shop and Ernie’s Record Mart (both sponsors on WLAC) moved the music to customers. And over on Jefferson Street, clubs throbbed with the astonishing music of Ray Charles, Etta James, a young Jimi Hendrix and local artists Earl Gaines, Gene Allison and Bobby Hebb.
Nashville’s country music industry cycled through trends in fashion and style. The so-called Outlaws (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, etc.) fought for and won the right to oversee their own production and use their own bands, breaking some of the creative grip the labels had on Music Row. Dolly Parton took her glamorous look to television in a time of variety shows featuring more middle-of-the-road country stars. The 1980 film Urban Cowboy made country cool and helped the music become further accepted by the mainstream media. But few changes had as much impact as the birth of The Nashville Network in 1983. Launched by National Life, the same company that owned and operated the Grand Ole Orpy and WSM, TNN put country artists and the country music lifestyle on national TV around the clock. The growth of the network over the next two decades would closely track with the rapid growth of the country music business to previously unimaginable heights.
Also vital was the growth of the Country Music Association, which was launched in the late 1950s as a re-organization of the short-lived Country Music Disc Jockeys Association. Under the leadership of Jo Walker-Meador, the CMA was wildly successful encouraging radio stations around the country to adopt a country music format, which rose from a few dozen in the 60s to more than 2,000 today. At the same time, the CMA Awards, which began with an untelevised ceremony at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium in 1967 (Eddy Arnold was Entertainer of the Year), grew into a major live event that has moved over the decades from NBC to CBS to ABC, where it currently is hosted. Also vital, the CMA Music Festival, was born 1972 as a collaboration between the CMA and the owners of WSM. During its long run at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds it was called Fan Fair, and it became famous for its live shows and its marathon autograph sessions by country stars. In 2001, the event moved downtown. In 2004, its name was changed to the CMA Music Festival and ABC began airing an annual highlights special featuring its main stage in the Tennessee Titans’ home, LP Field.
The Big Time
As radio and TV helped country music expand its audience, Music Row evolved from a cottage industry to a corporate juggernaut more valued and more influenced by the coastal entertainment centers and the global music business. The evolution of modern day Music Row could be personified aptly in the career of Jimmy Bowen, who moved to Nashville from Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Richly experienced in producing hit pop records (Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra among them), Bowen became a dominant figure as a label executive and record producer. He brought West Coast ambition and connections, setting the tone for an influx of similarly-oriented business people. Bowen fought for bigger recording budgets, championed digital recording and gave artists a much larger role in producing their albums. He gave many promising executives important jobs, including future MCA Records president Tony Brown, and he influenced the blockbuster careers of Reba McEntire, George Strait, and the biggest of all, Oklahoman Garth Brooks.
Brooks became the face of Nashville in the 1990s. He redefined success in country music, hitting unprecedented benchmarks for sales and concert appearances and pulling along a whole generational cohort of new stars, as he made his way to becoming the second biggest-selling solo album artist in music history, after Elvis himself. However such dizzying heights couldn’t be maintained. The music business in general reached its peak in 2001, but because of a variety of forces including widespread song-sharing on the internet, album sales declined steeply through the first decade of the 21st century. Labels closed or consolidated. By some estimates, the decade saw the number of people working in mainstream record labels and publishing companies cut roughly in half.
But Nashville seems to know not of defeat. Recent years have seen a surge in re-invention and entrepreneurship. Independent companies found success, most remarkably Big Machine Records with its discovery and backing of superstar Taylor Swift. After many years of trying and near success, Music City began developing national and international rock stars, most notably Kings of Leon and Paramore. The arrival of Jack White’s Third Man Records was seen widely as a signal of Nashville’s new cultural cachet. Meanwhile dozens of lesser-known but vibrant companies launched with new business models for the development of talent and social media marketing. In some ways, the city is reprising the 1950s and 60s, when music was done by local businesses with national ambitions and a sense of anything is possible. A sense of renewal and renaissance is palpable. The story of Music City in the 21st century is being written before our ears.