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.