NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Acuff-Rose: Why Atlanta Isn’t Nashville

The recent sale of Acuff-Rose Music by Gaylord Entertainment to Sony/ATV Music Publishing evokes one of the oldest chapters in Nashville’s music history. The venerable music publishing firm — home to some of the most distinguished song copyrights in music, from works by artists ranging from Hank Williams to Roy Orbison to the Everly Brothers — is perhaps the main reason that Nashville became the home of country music. Had it not been for Acuff-Rose, Atlanta or Cincinnati or Chicago or any of several other cities might well have developed into what Nashville became as the center of country music.

Acuff-Rose was formed in 1942, in an era when Nashville was one of many cities with a country barn dance show on the radio. The Grand Ole Opry on WSM competed with such powerhouses as station WLS and its National Barn Dance in Chicago, Cincinnati’s Barn Dance on WLW, Boston’s Hayloft Jamboree on WCOP, the Hayloft Hoedown on WFIL in Philadelphia, KRLD’s Big D Jamboree in Dallas and Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride on KWKH. Los Angeles had the Hollywood Barn Dance on KNX and the Hometown Jamboree on KXLA. Atlanta’s WSB was the first radio station in the South and became a country giant. Atlanta was also the site of many early country field recordings by the New York record labels. Most pre-World War II country recording was done in New York City, where station WHN’s Barn Dance competed with other New York country stations. New York was also the world’s music publishing capital.

Acuff-Rose was the first country music publisher in Nashville. It was a curious partnership: Roy Acuff was a staunch hillbilly singer — as they were known then — from East Tennessee, who was so famous that when Japanese troops attacked American forces in the Pacific during World War II, their battle cry was often “To hell with [President Franklin] Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff.” Acuff’s partner, Fred Rose , was a recovering alcoholic, a Christian Scientist and an accomplished Tin Pan Alley songwriter out of Chicago who wrote pop hits for Gene Autry and Sophie Tucker and penned such songs as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which many years later became Willie Nelson ’s first No. 1 single.

When Rose discovered the raw, young Alabama writer and singer Hank Williams in 1946, he found Nashville’s future, as well as his own. Rose groomed Williams like a son and so thoroughly coached him and polished his songs that to this day experts cannot agree on just how much of Williams’ songwriting genius was actually due to the old pro’s work.

Nashville became firmly implanted on the music map by the crossover success with Williams’ songs. Rose was able to call on his friend Mitch Miller, the A&R head of Columbia Records in New York, to place Williams’ songs with pop artists. After Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and Jo Stafford had success with Williams’ songs, the crossover appeal of Nashville songs became very apparent. Patti Page had a No. 1 pop hit with the Acuff-Rose song “Tennessee Waltz.”

Record labels began to set up permanent offices. RCA, Decca and Columbia established beachheads in Nashville, and recording studios sprang up. More song publishers appeared, and songwriters began to be attracted to Nashville. The Music City identity began to evolve.

Another Acuff-Rose legacy has been a paternalistic attitude that set the tone forever for Music Row. Acuff-Rose served as Hank Williams’ publisher, manager, booking agent, accountant, record producer, music arranger, and publicist. That kind of control has slowly flowed back to artists over the years — especially after rebellions by the likes of Waylon Jennings — but artists in many ways are still serfs.

(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo).