In spite of what some recent TV documentaries suggest, the record industry didn’t suddenly invade Nashville in one massive movement in 1945 and set up the studios that would make the town “Music City.” It was a slower, more piecemeal process — the major labels were not at all sure that recording on location here was worth the trouble — and as late as 1955 Columbia was still doing a lot of its country recording in Dallas.
But one of the factors that eventually won the majors over was the success of a number of feisty Nashville independent labels that popped up and flourished in the decade from 1945 to 1955. While the best-known independent labels were King (in Cincinnati) and Sun (in Memphis), there were some important imprints in Nashville. The earliest was Bullet, which chronicled everything from pop hits like Francis Craig’s “Near You” to novelties like Johnnie Lee Wills’ “Rag Mop” and the gospel of The Fairfield Four. Then there was the Tennessee label, which released over 150 discs from 1950 to 1952; Republic, which released some 130 discs in its 7000 series between 1952-1956; Hickory, which began as an arm of Acuff-Rose in 1954; Dot, the remarkable pop, R&B and country label which was actually headquartered in nearby Gallatin, Tenn.; great rhythm and blues labels like Excello and Nashboro; and lesser known companies like J-B, Speed, Delta, Select and Belmont.
All of these and more are chronicled in two huge box sets newly released by Germany’s Bear Family Records. Known together as A Shot in the Dark, one volume concentrates on blues and R&B and is titled Nashville Jumps (BCD 15864 HL); the country box is titled Tennessee Jive (BCD 15854 HL). Each set contains eight very full CDs and a 12-by-12, hardbound, 270-odd page book. If you really love country music from this early modern era — the sort of thing played today by BR5-49, Big Sandy and others — then this set just may be enough to make you want to sell off the old Packard and buy a CD player.
On eight CDs, Tennessee Jive includes some 203 cuts, and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them in a short review such as this. On a superficial level, there are a number of first recordings of performers who later became country legends and even members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. These include Chet Atkins (“Guitar Blues”), Minnie Pearl (“Jealous Hearted Me”), Ray Price (“Jealous Lies”), Pee Wee King (“That Cheap Look in Your Eye”) and Sheb Wooley (“California Honky Tonk Gal”).
Then there are recordings by radio and record veterans who had recorded in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Pete Pyle, who was an Opry mainstay in the ’40s; Johnny Barfield, the Georgia singer who recorded the first country boogie for Bluebird back in the ’30s; Bill Nettles, the Louisiana singer who recorded for Bluebird; Smiley Burnett, the long-time sidekick of Gene Autry who came from a long radio and records career; Wally Fowler, whose secular career extended back to the early ’40s on Capitol; Kirk McGee, who recorded in the 1920s with the likes of Uncle Dave Macon; and Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, who had made their names on the obscure Rich-R-Tone label before signing with Hickory.
Given this many sides, one can expect a certain amount of third-rate honky tonk and derivative (and interminable) “boogies,” as well as a share of dated, ’50s-style novelty songs. But there’s some good red meat here as well. Try out the cuts by Zeke and Zeb Turner on CD one — especially “Guitar Reel” — for some fine, hot lead guitar work. The Turners (their real names were Grishaw) came from South Carolina and became charter members of the first real Nashville A-team of studio men. Zeke, the younger of the brothers, backed people like Red Foley and Hank Williams, and crafted the famous guitar riff that opens the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me.”
Then there’s the soulful Ernest Tubb sound-alike Allen Flatt, who was once well-known enough to get gigs on Tubb’s “Midnite Jamboree.” (Sadly, Flatt dropped out of sight after the recordings heard here were done, and nobody knows what happened to him; one source says he was originally from Atlanta, and another says he was some kind of second or third cousin to Lester Flatt. Does anybody out there know about him?)
Other highlights include the cuts by Rebe and Rabe, Louvin Brothers sound-alikes who made it big on Birmingham radio; Mississippi Slim, the proto-rockabilly singer from Tupelo who was one of the first singers young Elvis Presley listened seriously to; and Leon Payne, composer of the classic “I Love You Because,” is heard here on his own early versions of “Lost Highway,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me” and a half-dozen others. Don’t overlook Wilma Lee and Stoney’s “Row Number Two, Seat Number Three,” one of the most powerful honky-tonk tunes they ever recorded. J.D. Simpson’s “Oilfield Blues” is a nifty, seldom-heard occupational song that calls to mind shades of Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell. Winding out the CD is a set by Big Jeff and his Radio Playboys, one of the hottest Nashville bands of the 1940s, that featured the kicking guitar of the tragic Jabbo Arrington.
The set is based on the decades-long research project of British historian Martin Hawkins and contains dozens of photos and biographies. Also present are complete lists of all the released titles from the independent labels and valuable interviews with founders like Jim Bulleit. All told, it is a remarkable resource, and one that opens up a whole new vista of a part of country music history that has been too long in the shadows.
This article is the latest column from music historian Dr. Charles Wolfe, who reviews reissues for country.com. To read more of his articles, go to Vintage Country with Charles Wolfe.