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Music City, U.S.A.

Governor Clement's defense of BMI's practices illustrates how closely its fortunes and those of country music were intertwined. Nashville was rapidly becoming one of the nation's major music centers. Business was so brisk that when WSM announcer David Cobb casually referred to Nashville as "Music City U.S.A." during a 1950 broadcast, the term stuck. Furthermore, while it has become common to think of country music as antithetical to rock & roll, it is not only one of its main roots but mutually supportive of its development in many ways. Elvis's signing by RCA Victor was facilitated by Julian and Jean Aberbach, owners of the prestigious Hill & Range publishing firm, in exchange for the publishing rights. With his signing, RCA acknowledged the need for a branch office in the Southeast and chose Nashville as the natural location. It was there Elvis's first RCA recording sessions occurred.

Nashville played an even more crucial role in the career of the Everly Brothers. Sons of country musicians Ike and Margaret Everly, they had come to the attention of Chet Atkins in 1955, and he, in turn, introduced them to Wesley Rose, who signed them as songwriters to Acuff-Rose. Rose's friend, Cadence Record owner Archie Bleyer, heard the duo and teamed them up with one of Acuff-Rose's foremost songwriting teams, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The result was a string of classic hits, including "Bye Bye Love" (#2 on the pop charts in 1957), "All I Have To Do Is Dream," "Wake Up Little Susie," and "Bird Dog."

Nashville's stature was clearly growing in the music industry, and any number of New York and Hollywood-based publishing companies set up offices in the city. However, as rock & roll now dominated the airwaves, country sales dropped. Record executives realized that country must modify its format to compete in the marketplace and "cross over" onto the pop charts. Two of the chief architects of this transformation were Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. Bradley, a former staff pianist and bandleader for WSM, was owner of one of the first recording studios on what was soon to be known as Music Row, Nashville's Sixteenth Avenue South. Atkins, a virtuoso guitarist, had been working part time as an A&R assistant for RCA since 1952 and was appointed to run its new Nashville studio in 1957. Each found a way to soften and sweeten country music, thereby facilitating its wider public acceptance. Mellow strings and vocal choruses were added, and the smooth, sophisticated result was eventually dubbed the Nashville Sound.

Atkins and Bradley also had great ears for good songwriting. Atkins signed up singer/songwriter Don Gibson, who scored an enormous double-sided hit in 1958 with "I Can't Stop Loving You"/"Oh Lonesome Me." He also was not shy about recording pop material with country acts, as evidenced by the crossover smash when he had the Browns record "The Three Bells," a song popularized in France by chanteuse Edith Piaf.

Bradley was just as successful, first with Brenda Lee and then with vocalist Patsy Cline, who Bradley had been producing since 1955. Although they scored an initial hit with "Walking After Midnight," written by Alan Block and Don Hecht, in 1957, it was not until 1961 when "I Fall To Pieces," written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, reached #1 on the country charts and #12 on the pop charts that Bradley's faith in Cline's talents fully was justified.

Another beneficiary of the "crossover" climate was Roy Orbison, who had started out with Sam Phillips's Sun Records. His moody tenor never quite suited the label's predominantly rockabilly catalog, and in 1957, Orbison moved to Nashville and signed on as a staff writer with Acuff-Rose. There, he met another young songwriter, Joe Melson, and together they furnished material Orbison recorded for his new employer, the local Monument label, owned by Fred Foster. Their second recorded collaboration, "Only The Lonely," became a million seller, while "Crying," recorded in 1961, epitomized the soaring ballad style that made Orbison a successful recording artist until his death in 1989.

A sign of the solidarity of the Nashville community was the founding in 1958 of the Country Music Association. Radio executives, writers, performers and music publishers led the organization and set about regaining country's place in the public consciousness. From the start, the CMA made sales presentations for broadcasters and advertising executives in major radio markets like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. It aimed to convince advertisers that country music could sell products and brought in everything from market surveys to top country entertainers to prove it. Furthermore, in 1961, the CMA established the Country Music Hall of Fame to instill pride in country music's history.

BMI was fully committed to the changes in Nashville and its desire to take a rightful place in the music industry. Its support for the CMA was immediate: BMI vice president Bob Burton joined its first board of trustees as director at large in 1958. That same year, BMI underscored its involvement with the community by establishing a branch office in Nashville. At first, this was a modest enterprise consisting of just one person, Frances Williams, now BMI president Frances Preston, who ran the office out of her home.

Preston remembers: "During that first year, I used to meet with writers in coffee shops, because I didn't have an office and a lot of the writers were working downtown at the WSM studios. So I signed many of the first people at the Clarkston Coffee Shop next door to WSM, because I would meet them after they came off the radio shows.

"When we opened our first real office, it was located in the Life and Casualty Tower, Nashville's first skyscraper.

"We signed everybody. I mean, they came in from far and near to join BMI. When the first statements started coming in, some writers came in almost crying, saying, `You know, this is the first time I've ever received any money like this, the very first time.'

"In those early days, country songwriters didn't know music as an industry. It was strictly an art form. They wrote their songs and kept them in shoeboxes. They wrote about their everyday lives. They didn't think about writing a song as a way to make money. If you had told Hank Williams, when he was just starting out, that somebody wanted to record his song, he would have paid them to do it."

The restoration of music business confidence in Nashville soon paid off. In 1962, only 81 radio stations played country music full-time, and by 1969 the number had risen to over 600.

Most of the major record labels now had set up offices in Nashville. Columbia Records bought Owen Bradley's studio, while Capitol Records and ABC Paramount began operations at the same time. Recording proceeded at a furious pace, with 500 sessions a year by 1958. That number would increase ten-fold in the ensuing decade.

BMI publishers flocked to the city, too: these included Fred Foster's Combine Music, Al Gallico Music, the Peer organization, whose involvement in country went back to the 1920s, Cliffie Stone's Central Songs, Jack Clement's Jack Music, Pete Drake's Window Music, and Owen Bradley's Forrest Hills.

By 1964, the CMA could boast that Nashville housed "10 recording studios, 10 talent agencies, four record pressing plants, 26 record companies, 265 publishing houses, more than 700 songwriters." It had truly become Music City U.S.A., or Tin Pan Valley, as Music Reporter's Charlie Lamb liked to call it.


 

 
 

1. Foreword

2. A Creative Alternative

3. Innovations

4. Country Climbs On Board

5. The Rise of Rhythm & Blues

6. Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay

7. Music City, U.S.A.

8. The Sound Of The City

9. All That Jazz

10. The Concert Hall

11. International Harmony

12. Revolution

13. Stage & Screen

14. Hooray For Hollywood

15. Changes & Transitions

16. Country Crosses Over

17. Rhythm's Gonna Get You

18. Toward The Second Half-Century

 

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