James D. Vaughan, “the father of southern gospel music,” was born on December 14, 1864 in Giles County, Tennessee. Vaughan grew up in Middle Tennessee surrounded by the sounds of gospel music. As a teenager, he attended his first singing school and showed an early aptitude for shaped note music. By the age of eighteen, Vaughan was teaching singing classes. Shortly thereafter, Vaughan started his first male gospel quartet with his brothers to advertise his school throughout the region.
After his marriage in 1890, Vaughan and his family moved to Texas. Vaughan began a new aspect of his music career in the Lone Star State after attending a singing school directed by Ephraim T. Hildebrand, operator of the Hildebrand Burnett Music Company. Hildebrand’s visit encouraged Vaughan to try writing his own gospel songs. By 1896, he was a published writer in the shaped note gospel collection, Crowning Day No. 2. After a devastating tornado hit their Texas town, the Vaughans moved back to Giles County, Tennessee, where James became a school principal at Elkmont Springs School.
Upon returning to Tennessee, Vaughan began to publish his own music. In 1900, he published Gospel Chimes, a volume of shaped note hymns. In 1903, Vaughan founded the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Over the next six years, his company averaged sales of sixty thousand songbooks a month.
Vaughan’s most significant business decision came in 1910 when he revived the idea of the professional quartet. He hired a group of four male singers to travel around the local area and sing in churches, singing schools, or anywhere someone would let them perform, in order to promote Vaughan’s music books. In its first engagement at the Cumberland Presbyterian Assembly in Dickson, Tennessee, the Vaughan Quartet sold five thousand songbooks to a crowd of fifteen hundred. The success of the traveling quartet underpinned the beginning of both Vaughan’s media empire and the professionalization of southern gospel music. Within a few years, Vaughan employed sixteen quartets, purchased a Ford automobile for the company, and sponsored trips as far away as Illinois.
Vaughan was a master at marketing his company and created a model for Tennessee’s burgeoning music business. In addition to his professional quartet system, Vaughan started a subscription newsletter known as the Vaughan Family Visitor. Subscribers received spiritual advice along with advertisements about Vaughan’s songbooks and quartet appearances. The Visitor kept Vaughan in touch with his consumers on a monthly basis. By the mid-1920s, the Visitor boasted greater circulation than any other southern music journal and published continuously until the late 1960s.
In November 1922, Vaughan took his music empire further into the modern age by purchasing WOAN, the first commercially licensed radio station in Tennessee. WOAN reached visitors as far away as Canada with gospel music and advertisements about the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company. The radio station coupled with the Vaughan Family Visitor made James D. Vaughan a household name in the South during the 1920s. By 1929, however, the station proved unprofitable and Vaughan sold it. For a short time, he tried his hand at recording with the Vaughan Phonograph Company, but neither radio nor records gave him as much success as his songbooks and quartets.
Over his lifetime, James D. Vaughan wrote more than five hundred songs, printed and sold over six million gospel songbooks, founded the first radio station in the state, and pioneered professional southern gospel music. He died on February 9, 1941, at his home in Lawrenceburg. The community of Lawrenceburg and the southern gospel community remember Vaughan as a pioneer who found his strength in his God. Downtown Lawrenceburg has honored Vaughan with many memorials, including the Vaughan Memorial Nazarene Church and the James D. Vaughan Museum.