Nashville Tennessee is the self-proclaimed “Home of Country Music.” The theme park-ish Opryland – operated by Marriott – is miles from the Grand Ole Opry’s previous home, the storied Ryman Auditorium and light years from the atmosphere of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where Opry performers used to hang out. Today, Nashville churns out formulaic music described by Tom Petty as “like bad rock with a fiddle.”
Nashville’s country-music image is white. Charley Pride broke the Nashville color line in 1966, the first African-American artist to hit the country-music record charts. Five decades later, Darius Rucker is the current non-white face in country music. But the city’s memoir, music and otherwise, includes an unsettled racial history.
Students from Fisk University made news in February 1960 with sit-ins at Woolworths and S. H. Kress lunch counters, a week after the first one in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The city today is facing up to its Civil War history with the restoration and documentation of Fort Negley. After taking possession of Nashville in 1862, the Union forces built a fort to defend against an attempt by the Confederate Army to re-take the territory. Well, the Union army didn’t actually build the fort; slaves – with the promise of freedom when the Union won the war – and “impressed,” i.e. conscripted, free blacks did the building. Of the more than 2,700 laborers, something between 600 and 800 did not survive the work, and only 310 received any pay.
But back to music. Post-World War II Nashville had a thriving rhythm-&-blues scene. Nightclubs and auditoriums hosted touring acts while recording studios broke racial barriers, hiring musicians who could play, regardless of race. WLAC radio, the 50,000-watt counterpart to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, sent R&B out into the night and gave wide exposure to black artists. The clubs and studios provided emerging artists the chance to learn their craft and earn a paycheck. Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox were part of the scene in the early sixties, before they went on to worldwide fame. Nashville native Bobby Hebb scored a smash hit on the pop charts in 1966 with his “Sunny.”
Somewhat belatedly, in 2004, the Country Music Hall of Fame put up a year-long exhibition “Night Train to Nashville” to honor the city’s R&B legacy that grew along side the better-promoted country music.
The Exhibition is gone, but you can still enjoy the music: “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.” The album – yes, by definition, it’s still an album – contains 38 R&B gems from Arthur Gunter, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Johnny Adams and others – even a WLAC commercial from Little Richard. You’ll recognize some of the songs from cover versions done by later pop artists, including The Beatles. You can buy it from the usual places, or better yet, from your local record store.
And now for something completely different: