The Nashville recording industry actually began after World War II, although there were several earlier events and factors that played a significant role in its success. During the 1920s and 1930s recording executives traveled across the country, making field recordings of local talent. The birth of contemporary country music is considered to have occurred in August 1927, when Victor executive Ralph Peer recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol. Peer and other recording executives visited several southern cities, but made only one stop in Nashville; in September 1928 Peer recorded a number of Grand Ole Opry acts. Nothing came of the effort, and neither Peer nor any other field recording executives returned.
During World War II local entrepreneurs, including WSM executive Jim Denny, established small recording companies that catered to the influx of soldiers and enabled service men to record greetings and messages for their families at home. The major “recording” studios belonged to radio stations and recorded transcriptions for broadcast and advertisements. The first recording session for a major label occurred in WSM's Studio B, when Eddy Arnold recorded four songs for Victor on December 4, 1944; he recorded again the following July. WSM employee Jim Bullet, who founded Bullet Records, also recorded some sessions at WSM's Studio B.
The real beginning of Nashville recording studios came in 1946, when three WSM engineers, Aaron Shelton, George Reynolds, and Carl Jenkins, launched Castle Recording Studios. Castle initially used the WSM studios, before setting up a studio at the Tulane Hotel in 1947. The studio recorded radio commercials for local businesses as well as recording major label artists. Decca's Paul Cohen became the first A&R man to record regularly in Nashville; he recorded Ernest Tubb and Red Foley in August 1947. The same year, the Nashville studios had its first “million seller” when the Francis Craig Orchestra recorded “Near You” at the Ryman Auditorium. The song became the theme song of Milton Berle's Texaco Theater show. In addition to Castle Studios, the Brown Brothers Transcription Service and Thomas Productions also did recording sessions.
The post-World War II recording industry in Nashville was aided by a number of factors. After 1946, the Grand Ole Opry dominated country music as the result of its network exposure on NBC and the decline of its major competitor, the National Barn Dance on Chicago's WLS. Major record labels, including Mercury, Capitol, RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca, opened offices in Nashville to tap the talent pool attracted by the Opry and those musicians generally employed by WSM for its musical shows. Later, in 1956, the death of Dallas studio owner Jim Beck sent a number of Texas country music acts to Nashville. The Nashville local of the American Federation of Musicians under George Cooper gave area musicians an opportunity to play because it did not require members to demonstrate the ability to read and write music, a requirement in many other locals. Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins emerged as corporate leaders for Decca and RCA and based the country divisions of these labels in Nashville. Perhaps most importantly, the Nashville songwriting community, spurred by the strong publishing outlets, created a body of top quality songs.
In 1954 Owen and Harold Bradley moved their recording studio to Sixteenth Avenue South to become the first business on what would be known as “Music Row.” Bradley's studio was in a Quonset Hut, built to film songs for TV. The initial venture proved unsuccessful (although later this same format would be used for music videos), but the recording facility succeeded and soon attracted business from Decca and Columbia. RCA Victor used the Brown Brothers' Studio, built in the early 1950s for an advertising agency, before constructing their own studio in 1954 on McGavock Street in space rented from Methodist Television, Radio, and Film Commission. Chet Atkins managed the McGavock Street facility.
In 1957 RCA built the first permanent record company office on Music Row; this later became known as Studio B. In 1961 they expanded the original building and three years later built an adjoining building, which housed executive offices as well as Studio A.
In 1958 Owen Bradley took over as Decca's head of country music. In 1962 Columbia purchased Bradley's Studio and made it the label's headquarters; Bradley then built Bradley's Barn in Mount Juliet. By this point, there were a number of studios in Nashville, and the “Nashville Sound” had developed around a small group of musicians who played on the majority of Nashville recording sessions. As the major labels established permanent offices in Nashville, the demand for recording studios grew, and independent studios soon outnumbered label-owned studios.
By the 1960s, Nashville was firmly established as the center for country music recording, although it had a creative challenger in Bakersfield, California, with the “Bakersfield Sound,” a honky-tonk style antithetical to the smoother “Nashville Sound.” The Nashville Sound eliminated fiddles and steel guitars in favor of strings and a basic rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The Nashville Sound’s “A Team” of session musicians consisted of a core group: guitarists Harold Bradley, Grady Martin, Ray Edenton, and Hank Garland; bass player Bob Moore; pianists Floyd Cramer and Harold “Pig” Robbins; drummer Buddy Harman; steel guitarist Pete Drake; fiddler Tommy Jackson; saxophonist Boots Randolph; and harmonica player and “utility man” Charlie McCoy, who played on the majority of sessions with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley the major producers overseeing many of these sessions.
The major studios in Nashville at that time were at RCA and Columbia. RCA Studio A was a large studio, capable of recording an orchestra, while RCA Studio B, built in 1957, was the smaller but pioneer recording facility where many hits were recorded by artists such as Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, the Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, and Roy Orbison. Columbia had three studios. The Quonset Hut was the original studio built by Owen Bradley in 1956 on what later became known as “Music Row.” Later additions created Columbia Studio A and Columbia Studio B. The RCA Studios recorded most of the acts on the RCA label roster while the Columbia Studios recorded those on Columbia, Epic, Capitol, and Mercury. Johnny Cash, Sonny James, Roger Miller, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton recorded hits in the Columbia studios.
During the 1960s, Nashville and country music became synonymous. In 1958, the Country Music Association was formed; in 1963 the Country Music Hall of Fame was created, and in 1967 the original building that housed the Country Music Hall of Fame opened at the head of Music Row. All of these events solidified Nashville’s claim as the capital of country music. The music increasingly found a home on television during the 1960s. “The Jimmy Dean Show” premiered on ABC in 1963, and Roger Miller hosted a show on NBC in 1966. In 1968, the “Country Music Association Awards Show” was first televised, and by the end of the 1960s there were network shows hosted by Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash as well as “Hee Haw,” a popular comedy show based on country music. There were also syndicated shows hosted by Porter Wagoner, the Wilburn Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and others.
The period 1963-74–from the death of President John Kennedy to the resignation of President Richard Nixon–is loosely described as “the Sixties.” During this period, the counter-culture dominated musical news. From the Beatles and the British invasion to psychedelic music, the youth culture heard this soundtrack as they demonstrated against the Vietnam war, marched in protest against “the establishment,” pushed for Civil Rights, and immersed themselves in “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.” Country music was a counter to the counter-culture; it represented the “silent majority,” Middle America, and a conservative strain in American culture. One of the reasons for the popularity of country music during this period is that it spoke to a whole generation of Americans who could not relate–in fact, often detested–the counter-culture. This was best expressed in the patriotic and pro-American songs of this period, particularly Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” Although Haggard was not a Nashville artist (he recorded in California), his song set the tone for the political leanings of most of the country music audience and was reflected in the recordings that came out of Nashville.
Although country music represented a “conservative” musical culture during the 1960s, the “Outlaw Movement” of the mid- to late 1970s, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, invited young people into country music. Here is where the counter-culture caught up with country music as musicians grew their hair long and increasingly used rock-type instrumentation on their recordings, which often featured a heavy drum and bass.
During the 1970s, artists increasingly wanted to choose where they recorded instead of having to record in the label-owned studios, so the major labels sold or closed their studios as independent studios flourished. The Opryland theme park provided an important Nashville-based training ground for future artists.
Although Nashville is known for country music, a varied group of artists recorded in Nashville studios. Early rock acts such as the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent recorded in Nashville during the 1950s. In 1966, Bob Dylan recorded much of his Blonde on Blonde album in Nashville, and Dylan’s example convinced other pop/rock artists to record in the city, erasing some of the prejudices the rock world held against “Music City, USA.” Simon and Garfunkel, Joe Tex, Roy Orbison, Perry Como, Carol Channing, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Elvis Presley recorded in Nashville during the 1960s and 1970s. Nashville also became the center for the recording of gospel music, both black gospel (primarily at Woodland Studios) and southern gospel. By the end of the 1970s, a number of contemporary Christian artists recorded in Nashville, including Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, and the Imperials. Within a decade, Nashville was the center for contemporary Christian as well as country music. As studio technology advanced during the 1980s, an increasing number of Nashville-based artists and songwriters built studios in their homes and recorded there.
During the 1990s, both country and contemporary Christian music thrived in the city. The introduction of the compact disc (CD) in the early 1980s led consumers to switch to the new format, spurring sales of catalog as well as current releases. The editors of Billboard magazine, the major trade publication, turned to computer counts of sales to compile its influential charts of hits; this switch in technology ended the prejudice against country music by many retailers and distributors who reported sales numbers to the trade magazines. The new charts showed that country music competed with the top rock, pop, and rap acts in terms of sales, which in turn encouraged retailers to stock more country music, especially by the top-selling acts, and created more sales as consumers found the country artists they liked. The rise of Wal-Mart to become the dominant retailer during the 1990s was a boon to country music. Wal-Mart’s willingness to stock country music and welcome the country consumer, who felt uncomfortable in the mall record store staffed by young rock fans, was another reason for the increase in sales of country music recordings.
Country music was never more profitable or more dominant than during the mid-1990s as more radio stations played country music than any other format; many artists regularly sold over a million copies of an album; the genre’s share of overall music sales rose to almost 20 percent; and stars such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Clint Black, Reba McEntire, and Billy Ray Cyrus emerged to compete with rock stars in recording sales and concert audiences. Artists and executives were attracted to Nashville during this period as the music industry saw explosive growth. However, the internet-based music-sharing service known as “Napster” was created in 1999, computers with CD burners became widely available, and the sales of recordings took a plunge. This new technology soon had an impact on Nashville, although country consumers generally caught on to the new technology later than rock fans.
Contemporary Christian music, connected to the conservative political movement in the country, also grew exponentially during the 1990s. Benefiting from the fact that Wal-Mart (and other mass merchandisers) stocked the CDs, the genre became widely known and accepted. Artists such as Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Kirk Franklin, and Yolanda Adams sold as well as rock or country acts. In Nashville, the gospel music industry employed more people than the country industry primarily because the Christian distribution system was housed in Nashville while the distribution network for country was part of the major label operations based in New York or Los Angeles.
During the twenty-first century, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou created a new awareness of old-time country and bluegrass music as the movie appealed to a non-country audience who purchased the soundtrack album. The Country Music Hall of Fame moved downtown in 2001, and the new century’s beginning saw the sound of mainstream country recordings becoming closely aligned with the sound of rock and pop music, particularly the rock and pop of the 1970s and 1980s.
The Nashville recording industry adapted to all of these changes. After Opryland closed, Belmont University and Middle Tennessee State University became the main talent pool for executives and musicians in the Nashville music industry, although other colleges also supplied interns, artists, musicians, and executives. The songwriter community in Nashville (and the song publishing industry) remained strong, becoming the new Tin Pan Alley of the music industry.
Nashville remains firmly established as one of the three major recording centers in the United States (the others are Los Angeles and New York). It has a vibrant creative community, a well-educated music industry workforce, and the ability to attract top creative talent from all over the world. Nashville was named “Music City, USA,” in the early 1950s and since that time has earned that sobriquet. “Music City” became the brand for Nashville, advertised in Chamber of Commerce campaigns as well as being used in informal conversations. By the twenty-first century, the Nashville recording industry was not just a local business with a national impact; it was the image that the city of Nashville presented to the world.