Folk music expresses the oldest and most basic forms of Tennessee music carried into the region by its earliest settlers and usually passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition. Though instrumental music–especially that of the fiddle and banjo–formed part of this tradition, vocal music was at the heart of it, and on the Tennessee frontier singing was an important and widespread recreation. One body of music was designed for public performance, in church gatherings, at dances, corn shuckings, and other community events. A second body was a domestic tradition, performed in the home for family gatherings or evening chores. Early collections of folk songs indicate that as many women sang as men, though more men tended to be fiddlers and banjo players. Most genuine traditional singers sang unaccompanied, developing highly ornamented styles, unorthodox phrasing and meter, and even “gapped” scales, which relied on five or six notes rather than the standard seven.
Many of the vocal songs, especially in the domestic scene, were ballads, or narrative songs. The oldest of these had pedigrees that went back to seventeenth-century England, Ireland, and Scotland, and many had been brought over by the Scots-Irish and English immigrants. Tennessee was not unique in giving a new home to these old ballads (sometimes dubbed Child ballads in honor of the Harvard professor who catalogued them); they were found all over the South and even into the New England states. But Tennessee, due to its many isolated areas in which old traditions were preserved, was unusually rich in ballads and attracted the attention of numerous pioneering folk song collectors. As early as l912, E. C. Perrow was publishing Tennessee songs in The Journal of American Folklore, and by 1917 the British scholar Cecil Sharp was trouping through East Tennessee gathering texts and music for his classic English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians (l932).
Various collections made in the state reveal that songs like Barbara Allen and The House Carpenter seem to have been the most popular here. Both are sad, tragic stories that many of the old singers referred to as “love songs” and that go on for as many as twenty or twenty-five stanzas. Soon Americans were crafting their own ballads, modeled on the older imports. A local favorite was the murder ballad “The Knoxville Girl,” in which the narrator kills his fiancee and throws her body into the “river that flows through Knoxville town.” Though many listeners have assumed the song referred to a real murder in Knoxville, it was in fact a reworking of the British “Wexford Girl,” with the place names changed. Other native ballads, though, were based on actual local events. “The Hills of Roane County” was a well-known account of a nineteenth-century murder that took place in Spencer while “The Braswell Boys” described a killing and hanging in Putnam County. Broadside ballads–songs about specific tragedies or newsworthy events often sold on printed cards or sheets of paper–continued another old British tradition. “The Newmarket Wreck” described a train crash early in the century; “Shut Up in the Mines at Coal Creek” dealt with a mine cave-in north of Knoxville; “The John T. Scopes Trial” chronicled the “monkey trial” at Dayton. From the l930s well into the 1970s, local singers were still using the broadside form to protest the building of the Norris Dam, working conditions at a Tullahoma laundry, and highway engineering at Knoxville’s “malfunction junction” or “Bloody Highway 31W.”
Throughout the nineteenth century, other musical streams fed into this river of traditional song. Minstrel shows, which became popular in the 1840s, spread songs throughout the rural South, some of which (such as “Walk, Tom Wilson”) remained in repertoires until the present day. The original Davy Crockett song, a piece called “Pompey Smash,” was a minstrel show favorite that Tennesseans liked to sing for generations before the Walt Disney theme that began, “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee.” The Civil War spread many composed songs throughout the area such as “Lorena” and “I’m a Good Old Rebel.” Sentimental parlor songs such as “The Blind Child,” “Girl in Sunny Tennessee,” and “The Orphan Girl” sold thousands of sheet music copies and at one time their composers were well known, but over the years these songs also entered folk tradition across the state, especially in Middle Tennessee. Starting in the l920s, a similar transformation occurred with phonograph records, when songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Carter Family were learned and put into tradition.
Following in Sharp’s footsteps came a number of dedicated folk song collectors. One of the first native Tennesseans to do this was a Fisk chemistry professor named Thomas Talley. In addition to being the nation’s first African American folksong collector, Talley was also one of the first to explore the black song traditions in Middle Tennessee; his Negro Folk Rhymes, originally published by a national press in 1922, revealed a wealth of non-ballad material and showed the extent to which black and white music overlapped. Lucien and Flora MacDowell, working from their base in the Smithville area, gathered songs and play-party games from the area, though they had to publish their best work through an obscure press in Michigan. Edwin Kirkland, an English professor at the University of Tennessee, made some of the first field recordings in the state in the late l930s, while his student Ruby Duncan made an important ballad collection from the Chattanooga area. Other early field recordings in the l930s were made by John Lomax (prison songs from Nashville) and Sidney Robertson Cowell (songs from the Cumberland Plateau and the Homestead project). George Peabody College professors Charles Pendleton and Susan Riley encouraged graduate students to make regional collections of songs for M.A. theses, resulting in fine material from Cannon, Macon, Maury, Overton, Carter, and Putnam Counties. George P. Jackson, another Nashville scholar, explored the complex heritage of religious music starting with his classic White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (l933).
Later decades saw further work by Mary Barnicle and her husband Tilman Cadle, who traveled around the Tennessee-Kentucky mountains with a portable disc cutting machine in the 1940s and 1950s. In the l960s East Tennessee State University professors Thomas Burton and Ambrose Manning continued to gather and record songs from the Appalachian area–especially the singing traditions on Beech Mountain–and made pioneering efforts to integrate the music into their college courses. In the 1950s another important academic, George Boswell, who had grown up and attended Peabody in Nashville, embarked on a major collection of folk songs not from the mountains, but from the Middle Tennessee and Nashville area. He found to his delight that these areas were as rich in song as the more colorful ones to the east, and eventually he amassed the words and music to over twelve hundred songs, some of which were published in l996 as Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee (ed. Charles Wolfe). In the 1980s Bob Fulcher of the Tennessee Department of Conservation initiated the State Parks Folklife Project, which involved extensive documentation of a wide variety of traditional cultural forms. Fulcher’s most important discovery was Dee Hicks from Fentress County, who had one of the richest and rarest repertoires of any modern ballad singer and who sang at the fiftieth anniversary of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song.
Instrumental music in the nineteenth century was built around the fiddle and the banjo. The former was imported from British and continental sources, replete with a battery of tunes. In prewar times figures like Andrew Jackson danced to the fiddling of slaves, and for much of the nineteenth century as many blacks played the fiddle as did whites. Though it was sometimes called the “Devil’s Box” because of its association with parties and dancing, by the 1880s the fiddle had become the central icon in the “War of the Roses” between Tennessee’s “fiddling governors,” Alf and Bob Taylor. The banjo, or “banjar” as it was sometimes called, was an import from Africa, played often by slaves and popularized by minstrel shows. An easy instrument to make on the frontier–a cured skin head and gut strings were common in the early days–the banjo began winning middle-class acceptance in the l880s, when it was a common instrument on the vaudeville stage. Other instruments used in vernacular music in the state included the autoharp (a favorite in East Tennessee, especially as a device to accompany singing), the harmonica (especially popular in Middle Tennessee, where it sometimes substituted for the fiddle in a string band), and the dulcimer. The latter included the familiar mountain dulcimer (in the upper east end of the state), the hammered dulcimer (a totally different instrument, often characterized by a set of as many as fifty-two taunt strings, and popular in Middle Tennessee), and the “Tennessee music box,” a square-shaped instrument played like a mountain dulcimer but found primarily in the southern part of the state.
Starting in the late 1800s, various “fiddler’s carnivals” or fiddlers’ contests sprang up around the state, some attracting dozens of area musicians. Bigger festivals since have emerged to celebrate not only the fiddle, but other instruments, old-time buck dancing, square dancing, singing, and crafts as well. Among the longer-running festivals are those at Smithville, Murfreesboro, Memphis, and Norris. Smaller community festivals are emerging yearly, as much to attract tourists as to maintain tradition, and by the 1990s the concept of “cultural tourism” was winning favor in the halls of state government.
During the late nineteenth century ragtime became one of the first native American musical forms to become internationally popular. Though many fans today associate it as a musical style featuring a honky-tonk piano and the Gay ‘Nineties repertoire, serious ragtime was an important style of music composition and performance. And while Scott Joplin, the best-known composer of the age, did not start publishing his rags until l899, earlier composers helped pave the way. Tennessee played a minor but vital role in the early development of the genre.
Most Tennessee ragtime composers came from the mid-state and created compositions so distinctive and numerous (some eighteen rags were published there around the turn of the century) that some historians speak of a “Nashville style” in early ragtime. Perhaps the most prolific and well known was Columbia native Charles Hunter (1876-1906), who worked for the French Piano Company in Nashville and had many of his early works published by Frank G. Fite in Nashville. Hunter became a master of the kind of “folk rag” that predated the later classic rags of Joplin; his “Possum and Taters, A Ragtime Feast” (l900) was derived from rural string bands he had heard as a boy, and “Just Ask Me” (l902) became a staple in folk ragtime repertoires. His “Tickled to Death” (l899) also became a standard of sorts, and was even recorded on early Victrola records by Prince’s Band. A graduate of the Tennessee School for the Blind, Hunter later moved to St. Louis, where he worked in the red light district before his early death.
Tennessee’s other great ragtime composer was Thomas E. Broady, of whom far too little is known. Though a native of Illinois, he moved to Middle Tennessee (possibly in Clarksville) and began publishing pieces through the H. A. French Company as early as l898. Critics consider his “Mandy’s Broadway Stroll” to be one of the best ragtime marches, while “A Tennessee Jubilee” (l899) and “Whittling Remus” (l900) are both important links between older cakewalks and the new rag styles. Both Hunter and Broady are still performed by modern ragtime players and have been recorded on LP and CD. A third composer was Lew Roberts, who wrote and self-published numerous more derivative rags such as “The Glad Rag” in the first decade of the century.
During the l920s and l930s a number of rags were routinely featured on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry by performers who converted the piano rags to string band style. Prominent among these were the McGee Brothers, Sam and Kirk, and the band of Dr. Humphrey Bate. In the early 1950s a young Gallatin native named Johnny Maddox began recording piano ragtime for a local label called Dot records and soon became one of the most popular instrumentalists in the country. In 1951 a Nashville native named Adeline Hazelwood, working under the stage name Del Wood, recorded a ragtime piano version of the old pop tune “Down Yonder” for another Tennessee independent label, Tennessee. It became a national best-seller, won Wood a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and began a long series of ragtime LPs for the prestigious RCA label.
Though the term “blues” has been traced back to the 1740s, it has historically been associated with an emotional state rather than a specific music. Only in the early twentieth century did the term become attached to a musical style, and Tennessee musicians played crucial roles in popularizing and defining it. Two of the earliest figures were composer and bandleader W. C. Handy (1873-1958) and singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937). In addition to being founders of the genre, both shared a number of characteristics: both based their music on deep-rooted African American folk traditions, both utilized the mass media in popularizing their music, and both took their music far beyond Tennessee to achieve national popularity.
Handy, the son of ex-slaves, was actually born in Florence, Alabama, a few miles south of the Tennessee state line; there he absorbed a rural black musical culture that ranged from church music to fiddle tunes and from minstrel shows to brass bands. As a young man, he lived in Mississippi and Kentucky before settling in Memphis about l908. In Memphis he began translating some of the black folk music to written form; his first publication was “Memphis Blues” (l912), derived from a campaign song he had written for Edward H. “Boss” Crump. In 1914 he issued “St. Louis Blues,” which was to define the blues for millions of fans and become one of the most widely performed songs in American history. During this time, Handy also led a popular dance orchestra, playing on riverboats and for fancy Memphis balls. Handy had won fame in earlier days as a cornet player, and while his orchestra (which began recording in 1917) was not very jazz-like, it was a good representation of the popular dance music of the day. In 1918 Handy moved to New York City, where his career as a performer and music entrepreneur continued. He often visited Memphis in later days, where he was honored by having a park on Beale Street named after him.
Bessie Smith, still referred to by many as “the world’s greatest blues singer,” grew up in Chattanooga in extreme poverty and made her first stage appearance at the Ivory Theater there at age nine. Learning from a local singer named Cora Fisher, Bessie soon found herself traveling the South in tent and minstrel shows; by l923 she had started recording for Columbia Records in New York. She specialized in singing the “classic” blues or “city” blues, usually on vaudeville stages, accompanied by a piano, a jazz band, or a jazz soloist like young Louis Armstrong. Her recordings of “Gulf Coast Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “After You’re Gone,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” sold thousands of copies both to white and black audiences. By l929 her national fame was such that Hollywood featured her in a short film called St. Louis Blues. Her turbulent life, complicated by bouts of alcoholism, was cut short when she died in an automobile accident as she was on the verge of a comeback in l937.
The golden age of blues in Tennessee was the decade from l925 to l935 when dozens of skilled musicians, mostly from West Tennessee and the Delta, recorded for major record companies at “field sessions” staged in Memphis. The Victor Talking Machine Company along with other major labels recorded annually in the city from l927 until l930. Especially popular was a group called the Memphis Jug Band, an informal street-corner assembly that featured homemade instruments such as the kazoo and jug (blown into to create a false bass), as well as harmonicas, guitars, banjos, and even fiddles. Led by a young black Memphis native named Will Shade, the band enjoyed huge hit recordings with titles like “Sun Brimmer’s Blues” and “K. C. Moan.” The band recorded extensively through the 1920s and enjoyed considerable sales during the depression. A rival jug band group was Cannon’s Jug Stompers, led by the talented songster and banjoist Gus Cannon, who was then living in Ripley, where he worked with his harmonica player Noah Lewis. Their signature songs included “Going to Germany,” “Minglewood Blues,” and “Feather Bed.” Such bands were transitional in nature, mixtures of the “pure” archaic blues with vaudeville tunes, ragtime, and even early pop music. Their infectious music attracted thousands of new fans in the l960s when young folk music fans like Bob Dylan heard it reprinted on LPs.
During the l920s and l930s Memphis became the nation’s leading recording center for the most basic and influential form of blues, the “Delta blues.” Though the form, which featured complex figures played on an acoustic guitar as well as intricate vocals, was centered in northern Mississippi, most of its practitioners were drawn to Memphis to record or seek fame. One of the best was Furry Lewis, who recorded in the l920s and continued to be active through the l960s. A genuine Memphis native was Frank Stokes, a versatile guitarist who recorded widely and often performed as one-half of a duo called the Beale Street Sheiks. Of the same generation was Mississippi Fred McDowell (l904-1972), who actually enjoyed his greatest popularity touring at folk and blues festivals in the l960s. One of the new women stars from this era was Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), who started out playing on street corners in Memphis; she was a superb guitarist and singer, as well as a composer. Her first signature song was “Bumble Bee Blues,” and in the l930s she and her husband, another bluesman named “Kansas Joe,” moved to Chicago, where she became one of the most-recorded singers of her time. In 1941 she wrote and recorded her most popular song, “Me and My Chauffeur,” and in l958 returned to Memphis, where she continued to record before her death in l973.
Areas around Memphis also produced many fine bluesmen. From Brownsville came the intense Sleepy John Estes, who featured songs about local events that were intensely autobiographical; Yank Rachel, a frequent companion of Estes who featured the mandolin, an instrument seldom associated with blues; and Hammie Nixon, who often backed Rachel at country dances and shows. All of them knew Sonny Boy Williamson, a composer and harp player who was the center of a nascent blues scene in his hometown of Jackson, where he was born in 1914. Though Sonny Boy (not be confused with a later artist of the same name associated with blues radio) eventually took his music north, his records, like the memorable “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” circulated throughout the South and were widely imitated.
After World War II new generations of West Tennesseans continued to develop and popularize the rich blues traditions. Many of these newer singers utilized modern instrumentation such as the electric guitar, drums, amplified harmonica, and saxophone. Key figures of this new era include Big Maybelle (born Maybelle Louise Smith in Jackson, l924), who started her career singing in Memphis in the l930s before going to New York to work with various jazzmen. In the late 1940s she became one of the pioneer rhythm and blues singers. Pianist Memphis Slim (aka Peter Chatman, born in Memphis in 1915) for years played with the legend Big Bill Broonzy before going out on his own and winning great fame overseas, especially in France. Bobby Blue Bland (born Robert Calvin Bland in Rosemark in l930) developed a soulful, intimate blues style in the 1950s and l960s with hits like “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Turn on Your Love Light.” Other second generation artists to win major fame include singer Koko Taylor, guitarist and singer Johnny Shines, pianist and singer Cecil Gant (who worked out of Nashville and often did studio work for country singers), Sparky Rucker, Little Laura Dukes, widely recorded singer and guitarist Brownie McGhee (from Knoxville), and pianist-singer Leroy Carr. Tina Turner, who, following a long career performing with her husband in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue in the 1960s and 1970s, became one of the country’s most popular solo artists in the 1980s, hailed from the tiny West Tennessee town of Nutbush.
By far, though, the best known of all the modern blues giants from West Tennessee has been Riley “B. B.” King. Coming from a poor sharecropping family in Indianola, Mississippi, where he was born in l925, he started out singing gospel music until after his service in the army and later moved to Memphis in l947. He soon got a disc jockey job on WDIA, billing himself as the “Blues Boy from Beale Street,” a sobriquet which eventually was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then to “B. B.” Starting in the 1950s, he began recording for a variety of independent labels, eventually crafting such classics as “Lucille” and “The Thrill is Gone.” During the rock-n-roll era of the l960s, he used his newly won prestige to become an articulate spokesman for the blues, for younger blues musicians, and for the historical study of the blues. In the 1990s he was serving as a spokesman for Tennessee tourism and involved with a Beale Street nightclub.
Though the term “country music” did not come into general use until the late 1940s, the commercialization of Anglo-American folk music had been underway since the early l920s. During that decade the traditional singing, fiddling, and banjo playing that had been endemic throughout the South gained access to the new mass media such as radio, the phonograph record, and the mass-produced songbooks. The result was a new commercial art form, as well as a new class of professional and semiprofessional entertainers, one that was in many ways centered in Tennessee. Called variously “old time music,” “old Southern tunes,” “hill country tunes,” “native American melodies,” and “hillbilly music,” this new hybrid music was as much folk as it was commercial.
Tennesseans played no part in the first recorded fiddle record (in 1922) or the first recorded country vocal record (in 1923), but by 1924 several Tennessee performers had made trips to New York to commit their music to wax. Most were “discovered” and promoted by a Knoxville record dealer named Gus Nennsteil, who worked with the statewide Sterchi Brothers furniture stores and had good contact with an early label called Vocalion. These pioneers included Charley Oaks, a street singer from Knoxville; Uncle Am Stuart, a fiddler from Morristown; and George Reneau, the “Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains,” from Cocke County; and the most important, Uncle Dave Macon from Kittrell in Rutherford County.
David Harrison Macon (1870-1952) hailed from Smartt Station in Warren County, where his father had been a distiller and former Civil War captain. As he grew up, he learned to play different styles on the banjo and to sing old folk songs, parlor songs, vaudeville tunes, and many comic songs drawn from African American sources. For much of his life Macon farmed and ran a freight line between Murfreesboro and Woodbury, but when trucks put his mule teams out of business in the early l920s, he began to play professionally, first on the Loew’s vaudeville circuit and then on the new Nashville radio show that would become the Grand Ole Opry. A superb comedian, clear-voiced singer, and dexterous banjoist, he became the first Tennessean to win national fame through music. Among his signature songs were “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” “Cripple Creek,” “Rockabout My Saro Jane,” and the gospel song “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be.” During the l930s and 1940s Macon traveled widely with Opry show groups, became a star on the radio, and even appeared in the Hollywood film Grand Ole Opry (1940). He recorded for almost every major record company, amassing a total of over 170 sides. Many of his records stayed in print into the 1990s, and an annual music festival named in his honor was started in Murfreesboro in l978. Historians view him as country music’s most important link between the rural folk music of the nineteenth century and the more modern country music of the twentieth.
By 1926 the record companies were bringing their studios to the artists rather than paying for them to make long trips to New York or Chicago. The most important of these field sessions was the one the Victor Talking Machine Company staged at Bristol in July and August 1927. This has been referred to as the “big bang” of country music–the event that in one dramatic two-week period at once established the music’s aesthetic and commercial validity. Two of early country music’s greatest acts, blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers and the singing Carter Family, were discovered there, and dozens of others, from a gospel quartet from Alcoa to Bristol’s Tenneva Ramblers string band to a Kentucky holiness preacher and his congregation, had their music preserved and disseminated. The Bristol sessions were such a dramatic success that they set off a trend for other field recording in the state. Victor returned to Bristol again in l928, as well as setting up shop in Nashville for that city’s first recording; Columbia did sessions in Johnson City and Memphis in l928 and l929, while Vocalion tried its luck in Knoxville in l929 and l930. All of these recordings yielded a rich trove of Tennessee music as it sounded at the dawn of the commercial era, and a number of artists used them to establish regional reputations. From Chattanooga came the prolific vocal duet of the Allen Brothers and the eclectic fiddle music of former coal miner Jess Young. The Knoxville area could boast of the influential duet harmony singing of McFarland and Gardner with their songs like “When the Roses Bloom Again,” the popular tenor High Cross (“Wabash Cannonball”), and the charismatic family string band the Tennessee Ramblers. Upper East Tennessee was home of the remarkable singer and fiddler G. B. Grayson (“Lee Highway Blues”) as well as the fiddler Charles Bowman. Another family band, the Weems Family, from Perry County, made what many critics deem the finest two string band sides ever recorded, “Davy Davy” and “Greenback Dollar” (l928). Around Memphis, the duet of Reese Fleming and Respers Townsend adapted the blues to their harmony singing and falsetto yodeling and recorded dozens of sides for major record companies. Around Nashville, most of the popular acts shared their recording fame with broadcasting stints on the Grand Ole Opry.
Though Memphis was becoming the home of the blues, the older African American instrumental traditions of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin continued to be strong in other parts of the state. The Sequatchie Valley was home of the early duo of the “Two Poor Boys,” Evans and McClain, who recorded rags, hoedowns, pop songs, and blues for numerous record companies. The square dance of John Lusk was for generations popular with both white and black dancers and was finally recorded by a team from the Library of Congress in l946. Nashville could boast a number of black string bands which did “busking” on street corners; the best of these was the duo of Nathan Frazier (banjo) and Frank Patterson (fiddle), whose remarkable archaic work survives also only through the efforts of the Library of Congress. The Nashville Washboard Band often played in front of the State Capitol in the 1940s and 1950s, and the eclectic band of James Campbell was popular with dancers in Nashville for generations. Howard Armstrong and his band did similar work in Knoxville and in the 1970s were discovered by young folklore enthusiasts and won new fame as Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong. Young Brownie McGhee grew up playing both country blues in Knoxville, while guitarist-singer Leslie Riddle from Kingsport taught both songs and playing techniques to Virginia’s famed Carter Family. The 1980s brought attention to Linden’s McDonald Craig, who featured the classic repertoire of white bluesman Jimmie Rodgers.
The Great Depression curtailed the field sessions (as well as sales) for most record companies, and starting in the 1930s radio became the dominant medium for country music. Among the first Tennessee stations were WOAN in Lawrenceburg (one of the state’s very first stations, started in 1922 by gospel music publisher James D. Vaughan), WMC in Memphis, WDOD in Chattanooga, WNOX in Knoxville, WOPI in Bristol, and WSM in Nashville. All had taken to the air in the l920s, and in those days before network feeds, all drew upon local talent for a bevy of live programs. Several of these won serious fame and influence: for example, WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round in the 1930s and WJHL (Johnson City) with its Barrel of Fun show in the 1930s. In the 1940s Bristol’s WOPI began its Farm and Fun Time, which became a launching pad for bluegrass greats like Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. But most successful of all was WSM in Nashville, which took to the air in October 1925 and three months later started what would become the Grand Ole Opry.
Increasingly throughout the l930s the stars of these radio shows were country vocal soloists. Though centers like Nashville and Knoxville were attracting more and more artists from out of state, an impressive number of native Tennesseans played key roles in the development of modern country music. Probably the most famous of these was Roy C. Acuff (1903-1992), from the Maynardville area, who grew up actually listening to old mountain ballads, as well as working in one of the last rural medicine shows. After winning fame over Knoxville radio with a strange gospel song called “The Great Speckled Bird,” Acuff joined the Grand Ole Opry in l938 and within months had become the show’s biggest star. Singing in a high, lonesome mountain tenor, Acuff specialized in sentimental and gospel songs; he was featured on the NBC network portion of the show and made a string of Hollywood musicals in the 1940s. Through the 1970s and 1980s he became a fixture on the show as the “King of Country Music,” a gray-haired and gracious ambassador to visitors like President Richard Nixon. A female counterpart to Roy (and an occasional duet partner) was Kitty Wells, born Muriel Deason in Nashville in 1919. She began her career on Nashville radio (WSIX) in 1936, soon married another local singer named Johnny Wright, and began a musical career that took her from Knoxville to Shreveport, Louisiana. She developed an emotional, plaintive singing style with an ornamental “tear” that was perfect for the new kind of “cheating songs” that were beginning to emerge in the 1950s. Her 1952 recording “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” is considered to be the first modern country song from a woman’s point of view, and its success opened country doors for women to enter this male-dominated profession.
Another contemporary of Acuff’s was Eddy Arnold, the “Tennessee Ploughboy,” who was born in Chester County in 1918. He won his initial fame singing with Pee Wee King on the Opry in l940, but soon went out on his own and developed a smooth, baritone style that had more in common with Bing Crosby than Acuff; by the 1960s he was singing in a tuxedo and with a large orchestra to supper club audiences, regaling them with “Bouquet of Roses” and “Anytime.” In doing so he set the stage for a whole new style of “cosmopolitan” country that would encompass later singers like Jim Reeves and Ray Price. In East Tennessee a local singer and disc jockey (who often sang along with records on the air) named Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991) moved country another few notches toward pop when he moved to the West Coast, started a popular TV show, and recorded one of the biggest-selling records in history, “Sixteen Tons.”
A key figure in the development of Nashville into a recording center also came from East Tennessee: guitarist Chet Atkins, who hailed from Luttrell, north of Knoxville. As a musician, Atkins learned to play “Travis style” guitar, where the instrument is fingerpicked instead of strummed. Starting his career at WNOX in Knoxville, he settled in Nashville in l950, where he quickly learned he could make a living in the record studios that were just then starting to proliferate there. His versatility and skill soon led to his becoming a producer of sessions for RCA as well as a key architect of the “Nashville sound,” a style of studio backup that dominated the music for the next two generations. Another key player in the creation of the studio system was sound genius Owen Bradley, born in Westmoreland in 1915. Growing up, he was interested in big bands and pop music and served as a musical director at WSM. In 1952 he opened a film studio in downtown Nashville, but soon was busy recording artists like Kitty Wells for Decca; three years later he created a new studio that became known as the Quonset Hut. It was one of the first studios on the strip now known as Music Row, and for years its legendary acoustic qualities made it the best studio in town.
By the 1960s Nashville had become the center for country music recording and publishing as well as the hub of the radio empire of the Grand Ole Opry. Dozens of talented musicians from around the country settled in Nashville to work there, but there remained an impressive cadre of native Tennesseans. These included Dolly Parton of Sevierville, who parlayed her singing style, songwriting genius, and buoyant personality into a music empire that included the huge theme park, Dollywood. Others included Carl Smith (from Maynardville), Dottie West (from McMinnville), Ronnie McDowell (from Fountain Head), Melba Montgomery (from Iron City), and smooth singer George Morgan (from Waverly) and his daughter Lorrie (from Nashville). From Centerville came the Opry’s most beloved comedienne, Sarah Ophelia Colley (Minnie Pearl).
The 1980s and 1990s saw country music go through a number of changes, both stylistic and commercial. Bluegrass music, which Bill Monroe (though a Kentuckian) had been defining from the Opry stage since 1939, reached new heights of popularity. Key players in the sound of Monroe’s music included Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin (from Sneedville). Earl Scruggs, a North Carolina native, moved to Tennessee in 1946 and used the state as his base as he popularized his unique “Scruggs style” banjo playing, eventually winning a National Heritage Fellowship in Washington for his contribution to American traditional culture. Second (and third) generations of younger bluegrass musicians, like the award-winning Nashville Bluegrass Band, moved the style into the 1990s. The so-called new traditionalism of the 1980s took Nashville music back to its roots, while the “Americana” movement of the 1990s led the music into a more eclectic direction. The development of the Opryland theme park in 1974, as well as the cable system Nashville Network (TNN) in 1983, gave Nashville an even bigger boost toward becoming a national “third coast” music center.
With the exception of a few scattered venues in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee never developed a permanent and well-defined jazz venue like the larger cities of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Many of the jazz musicians who came from the state had to go north to nourish and develop their art, a pattern found in many rural southern states in the l920s and l930s. Though a good case could be made for including the state’s two great blues artists, Bessie Smith and W. C. Handy, in jazz histories, and for thinking of many of the great Memphis country blues artists in terms of early jazz, there was a separate cadre of purely jazz players–a cadre that influenced almost every chapter in jazz history.
At the very dawn of jazz, when Louis Armstrong was forging his new style in Chicago, he was encouraged by Memphian Lil Hardin Armstrong, his piano player and after l924, his wife. Though overshadowed by her dynamic husband, Lil was a forceful pianist who later played with greats like Sidney Bechet and Henry “Red” Allen. Another key traditional musician was William “Buster” Bailey, a clarinet player from Memphis who moved to New York to perform with greats like Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver. One of the few early jazzmen to receive professional training, Bailey in later years made numerous guest appearances with symphonies across the country. A third Memphis native, Johnny Dunn, was a pioneer trumpet player in New York and was considered the hottest player there until Armstrong arrived. Pianist Lovie Austin (from Chattanooga) was a key figure in the early Chicago scene, and trumpeter Bob Shoffner (from Bessie) played second trumpet behind the great King Oliver himself.
In the l930s jazz moved into its second stage, swing, and the big bands emerged as the forum for the new style. For many, the essence of this new swing was Kansas City bandleader Count Basie, and one of the cornerstones of the Basie band was the Centerville native Dickie Wells. His trombone style was one of the most influential of the time, with its unexpected octave jumps and rhythmic changes, and in later years scholars singled out his solos as reflecting the very core of swing style. Along with Basie’s band, one of the other top four swing bands was that of Jimmy Lunceford, and it too came out of Tennessee. Lunceford was a high school teacher in Memphis, though his band was first formed at Fisk in Nashville. By l934 it began to enjoy the reputation as one of the best-disciplined big bands, performing difficult arrangements by people like Sy Oliver. The group remained an important force through the 1940s and served as a training ground for modern greats like Jimmy Crawford and arranger Gerald Wilson. The state also boasted some of the best “territory bands,” groups which decided not to go north but to carve out a niche in the Mid-South. Memphis had the exciting band of Charlie Williamson, whose leader became an RCA Victor talent scout for local blues singers; of Slim Lamar and his Southerners; and of Blue Steel, one of the strangest bandleaders of the time (he reportedly had fits of violence and had a metal plate in his head).
Nashville could boast of the orchestras of the fine black pianist Brenton “Doc” Banks as well as the white bandleader Francis Craig. Related to the Craigs who owned WSM, Francis Craig began his career in l925, became a fixture at the old Hermitage Hotel, and trained a vocalist named James Melton, who would later become one of the most popular tenors of the 1940s. In l948 Craig’s band had a huge nationwide hit–probably the first million seller to be recorded in Nashville–with his lilting song “Near You.” Another Nashville band, led by Beasley Smith, became a training ground for jazz greats Phil Harris, Ray McKinley (later associated with Glenn Miller), and clarinet player Matty Matlock (long associated with Bob Crosby’s band). In Knoxville, the big band of Maynard Baird was a fixture at WNOX and at the concerts at Market Hall.
Later in the 1940s, as jazz continued to evolve, Tennessee contributors included boogie-woogie pianist and Kingsport native Cripple Clarence Lofton; the Charlie Parker-influenced alto saxophonist Sonny Criss of Memphis; Oakdale native King Pleasure, who developed jazz bop singing, in the manner of today’s Manhattan Transfer; pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. (Whitesville), who spent his apprenticeship with Lionel Hampton and the Tennessee State Collegians and later worked with the legendary Charles Mingus; modern trombonist Jimmy Cleveland (Wartrace); tenor saxophonist Yusef Lateef (Chattanooga), who experimented in fusing eastern music with jazz; and saxophonist-flutist Charles Lloyd (Memphis). Isaac Hayes, whose scoring for the cult film Shaft made him known across America, helped put Memphis on the map as a center of soul music. Also winning national acclaim in the l960s was Aretha Franklin (born in Memphis), the “Queen of Soul,” who started singing in the church at which her father, the well-known C. L. Franklin, pastored. Nashville in the 1950s was the home of popular electric organist Lenny Dee, and in the 1980s saw the emergence of pianist Begee Adair.
In terms of mainstream pop singing, the state’s best-known artist was probably Winchester native Dinah Shore. Born Francis Rose Shore in 1917, she won her initial fame singing over Nashville station WSM in the late l930s. During this time, WSM was feeding a great deal of programming to the national networks, and soon Shore had moved to New York, where she sang with Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat and appeared on NBC’s jazz program with the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. She soon began to record as a soloist, enjoying seventy-five hit records from l940 to l954 on labels like Bluebird, RCA Victor, and Columbia. These included classic pop singles like “Blues in the Night” (1942), “I’ll Walk Alone” (1944), “The Gypsy” (1946), “Buttons and Bows” (1948), and “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” (1949). During the 1950s she devoted her talents to television, first with The Dinah Shore Show from 1951 to 1957, then with the Dinah Shore Chevy Show from 1953 to 1963 (with its famous theme, “See the USA in your Chevrolet”), and later with a morning talk show, Dinah’s Place, from 1970 to 1980. She was married to actor George Montgomery from 1943 to 1962 and died from cancer in 1994.
Though Tennessee is most readily associated with types of vernacular music, it did produce a number of performers and composers working in the more formal European tradition. As with jazz, the lack of suitable performance venues in the state in earlier times caused many performers in this mode to seek their careers in larger northern cities. One such performer was Emma Azalia Smith Hackley (born in Murfreesboro in 1867), who was one of the first great African American soprano soloists. She eventually settled in Chicago, where in her later years she became very active in encouraging the careers of other black artists who excelled in formal music and fought to gain recognition for her own African American folk song heritage. In 1910, shortly before her death, she even traveled to Japan to expose this heritage to oriental audiences.
An even better known singer in his time was Roland Hayes (1887-1977), a tenor who was born in Georgia but brought up in Chattanooga. Like Emma Hackley, he was exposed as a youngster to the rich world of black folk music and by 1910 was singing and even recording with the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville. He moved to Boston to continue his studies of vocal music, having his first solo recital there in 1917. Soon he toured Europe to great acclaim, and performed at Carnegie Hall in l923. He was an outstanding interpreter of spirituals, but was equally at home with Schubert, Brahms, and Debussy. At least one historian has identified Hayes as the leading black male singer of his time, especially as a concert tenor during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
A third African American to straddle the borders between art music and vernacular music was John Wesley Work III (1901-1967), a Tullahoma native who came from a family of important black composers, collectors, and scholars. His father, John Work (b. 1873), was the Harvard-educated leader of the Fisk Jubilee singers, and his uncle Frederick Jerome Work (b. 1880) published string quartets and sonatas, as well as collections of spirituals. After studying at Fisk, Work traveled to Columbia and Yale to further his work in composition, eventually returning to Fisk in 1933 to serve in various roles. His large output ranged from orchestral pieces to piano sonatas and arrangements of spirituals; in l946 his cantata The Singers won wide acclaim. He also was an important pioneer in studying black folk music, expanding vastly on the interest in spirituals shown by his father and uncle and working with folksong collector Alan Lomax to gather and record blues and black string band music.
Anglo-American composers from Tennessee also sought to bring the folk song tradition into more formal musical settings. Perhaps the best of these was Charles Faulkner Bryan (1911-1955). Bryan was a native of McMinnville who grew up in the hills of Warren County listening to local folk music, Sacred Harp singing, and pioneer broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. An early supporter and president of the Tennessee Folklore Society, he was especially interested in the history of the dulcimer and traveled widely to build an impressive collection of the instruments; he also made early 78 rpm records for an educational company in Chicago singing and playing the mountain dulcimer. After studying at Peabody College and serving as a state director for the WPA Federal Music Project, he journeyed to Yale, where he studied composition and theory with the distinguished composer Paul Hindesmith. This yielded a Guggenheim fellowship and the time to finish his first major work, The Bell Witch cantata, which had its premiere in Carnegie Hall under the direction of Robert Shaw. His lush, romantic White Spiritual Symphony emerged in the early 1950s, and in l952 he attracted national attention with his opera Singing Billy, coauthored by Vanderbilt writer Donald Davidson, and built on the life and music of the nineteenth-century songbook publisher William Walker. He also produced a number of folksong collections for elementary and high schools.
Later composers from or active in the state include H. Gilbert Trythall (b. 1930) and his younger brother Richard (b. 1939); both natives of Knoxville, the brothers were active as composers and teachers during their careers. Gilbert especially has been a pioneer in electronic music. David Van Vactor (b. 1906), a composer and flautist, had established an impressive career before he moved to Knoxville to establish the school of fine arts at the University of Tennessee. His works include five symphonies including the well-received Walden in l971. In the 1990s a new generation of composers emerged, sharing their serious work with careers in the Nashville recording industry; these include double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, as well as violinist Mark O’Connor, who premiered his Fiddle Concerto with the Nashville Symphony in l995.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, gospel and religious music was pretty much a congregational affair, and the leaders were by and large composers and publishers such as M. L. Swan, whose mid-nineteenth-century songbooks were printed in Knoxville and Nashville. By the latter years of the century, though, several gospel performers began to make a name for themselves. One was the songleader and composer Homer Rodeheaver (1880-1955), who came to age in the rough mountain logging communities of upper East Tennessee and was for twenty years a songleader for the popular evangelist Billy Sunday. During this time he helped popularize a new type of religious song, one that was more lively and more personal than earlier ones and which gave the actual name “gospel song” to the genre. Another was the group known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, organized in l871 as a desperate ploy to raise money for their university. During the next three decades the group traveled widely both in the United States and abroad, issuing its own songbooks, exposing millions to the rich, if somewhat orchestrated, sounds of the African American spiritual. As early as l909, long before any other vernacular folk music had been recorded, a quartet drawn from the Singers recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The original quartet was organized by John Work II and included James Myers, Alfred King, and Noah Rider. These were the first of a large number of recordings the Singers made for a variety of pre-World War I labels. Through the years the Jubilee Singers continued to perform in a wide number of venues and even to have a regular radio show over WSM. They survive as a singing group into the twenty-first century.
White gospel music, or as it is known today, “southern gospel,” started in Tennessee and in neighboring states through the efforts of music publisher James D. Vaughan (1864-1941). Born in Giles County, Vaughan studied music with the Reubusch-Kieffer company in the Shenandoah Valley and learned a special, seven-shape note system that had won favor in the South at that time. After a tornado destroyed his home in Texas, where he had moved to teach music, he returned to Tennessee and about 1901 began to publish his own collections of locally written, new gospel songs. The first of these was Gospel Chimes, and soon Vaughan was producing a new book every year and within ten years was selling over eight hundred thousand copies a year. These books were “convention books,” as opposed to regular church hymnals, and were used for special singings in the church–Wednesday night singings, competitions, and singing school exercises. Sometime about 1912 Vaughan hit upon the idea of having some of the workers at his Lawrenceburg publishing office go on the road as a quartet to demonstrate the new song books for prospective congregations. To that end, he provided for the singers’ expenses and for a car, and the first “Vaughan Quartets” hit the road. This was a spectacular success with church members, who soon began to enjoy the quartet music more than the songbooks themselves; the tail began wagging the dog. By l924 Vaughan had no fewer than sixteen different quartets traveling around the country singing for free and selling hundreds of the little songbooks out of the trunks of their cars.
Starting in l922, Vaughan began to use mass media to promote his music. He opened WOAN, one of the first radio stations in the state, and began his own company, Vaughan Records, the very first southern-based record company. “Now you can have a Vaughan Quartet in your home without having to feed them,” announced one of the advertisements. As the quartets developed, some began to break away from the support of the publishing company and go out on their own. By the l930s some such groups, such as the Speer Family and the John Daniel Quartet, were winning slots on local radio stations like WSM. The publishing company also ran annual singing schools in Lawrenceburg in which thousands of Tennesseans learned the rudiments of harmony, meter, and composition. After Vaughan’s death and the increasing development of music in the public school curriculum, these singing schools began to decline; the Vaughan Company itself, though, continued to publish through the 1990s and a variety of ownership changes.
During the high-water mark of the southern gospel movement in the l930s and 1940s, Tennessee also had several other noteworthy publishers/promoters to emerge. One was the Tennessee Music and Printing Company, located at Cleveland in the late l920s, which boasted the talents of men like Otis McCoy and Connor B. Hall. In Chattanooga, one found the eastern branch office of the powerful, Texas-based Stamps-Baxter company, and in Nashville the venerable John T. Bentson Company. In Dayton was the extremely popular company of R. E. Winsett, whose books included the venerable Soul Winning Songs and remained popular until the l960s. By the l920s the McDonald Brothers, then headquartered in West Tennessee, became the first professional group to make a living full time with gospel music, as they popularized up-tempo pieces like “Rockin’ on the Waves.” Soon the “gospel quartet” style–which could refer to any configuration of small group singing–was becoming popular with local amateur and family groups as well as increasing numbers of radio and touring groups. This tradition reached a peak of sorts in l947, when a transplanted Georgian named Wally Fowler (b. 1917) moved to Oak Ridge to organize a slick, country-sounding group called the Oak Ridge Quartet. This led to Fowler’s starting to book gospel groups in marathon concerts that he called “All-Night Sings”; the first of these dated from l948, and continued to be a venue for two decades.
By the 1990s several gospel quartets around the state maintained both the black and white gospel traditions. In Memphis, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet served as a training ground for dozens of good singers and a means for maintaining the gospel style. In Nashville, the venerable Fairfield Four, dating from the l920s and nationally popular on radio in the 1940s and 1950s, survived numerous personal changes to keep alive their rich harmonies and songs. In the east, the Anglo-American tradition was preserved by Kingsport native Doyle Lawson and his group Quicksilver. Though often associated with bluegrass music, the Lawson band relies best on tight vocal harmonies and even a capella arrangements of some of the old Vaughan and Stamps favorites. In the meantime, Nashville emerged as the locus for a powerful modern gospel scene, sparked by Bebe Winans, Take 6, Bobby Jones, Amy Grant, and Gary Chapman.