NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Nashville’s Soul on Parade

Hall of Fame Exhibit and CDs Spotlight a Rare Musical Heritage

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The dual tribute by the Country Music Hall of Fame to Nashville’s R&B heritage is such a sterling example of how to preserve and present regional musical history, I wish it could be done for every region of this nation. Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970 is both a 2-CD release and an exhibit (which opens March 27 and runs through next year).

Country music and R&B were close neighbors in those years in Nashville. It’s wonderful to look through some of these old photographs and see the likes of the country greats Hank Garland on bass, Floyd Cramer on piano and songwriter Boudleaux Bryant on guitar backing up Jimmy Sweeney in a recording session. Or to see producer and publisher Buddy Killen in the studio with the great Joe Tex. The latter has said his formula for success was to use “half soul musicians, half country musicians” for his studio band. Or to see Mac Gayden and Buzz Cason backing up singer Clifford Curry at a gig at Nashville’s Centennial Park. Gayden and Cason wrote and produced Robert Knight’s big pop and R&B hit “Everlasting Love.” U2 and Gloria Estefan have both since covered that song.

I had forgotten, before this exhibit, that B.B. King made his first recordings in Nashville in 1949 for Bullet, the first independent record label in town. At the same time, Ray Price was also recording for Bullet. Owen Bradley, the great producer, recorded the first release on Bullet with “Zeb’s Mountain Boogie,” with Bradley billed as “Brad Brady and His Tennesseans.” Chet Atkins also made his first recording on Bullet with “Guitar Blues.”

Bullet founder Jim Bulleit also had a hand in one of the more interesting tales from Nashville’s music history. The Prisonaires were five black inmates at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville (later to be the site of one of Johnny Cash’s great live prison-filmed concerts and also the locale for Robert Redford’s movie The Last Castle.) The prison’s warden, James Edwards, was a big fan of the group and encouraged them. Bulleit got his hands on a radio tape of the Prisonaires and sent it to Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips liked what he heard, and Edwards sent the Prisonaires to Memphis — with one guard and a prison trusty driver — to record for Sun Records in 1953. Their release of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” sold well, and the group soon found itself entertaining at the governor’s mansion and at functions throughout Nashville. The song lured a young Elvis Presley to Sun Records. It also became a smash pop hit for Johnnie Ray three years later.

But an impressive index of names figured in Nashville’s R&B mix in those days, including Etta James, Arthur Alexander, Arthur Gunter, Joe Henderson, Ruth Brown, Bobby Hebb, Johnny Jones, Arthur Alexander and the sadly underappreciated black diva Christine Kittrell. Jimi Hendrix was a fringe figure on the scene when he was a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Campbell and played at the Club Del Morocco on Jefferson Street.

A key factor in the R&B scene’s importance was Nashville’s clear-channel, 50,000-watt radio station WLAC. The station’s reach and influence were enormously influential on countless thousands of young music fans — both black and white — who could find this music nowhere else. Ron Wynn, in his fine liner notes, recalls how formative WLAC was on him during his teen years in Knoxville, Tenn. I was listening to the station from Fort Worth, Texas, and ordering 45-RPM singles by the likes of Hank Ballard and Roy Brown from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tenn., a big advertiser on WLAC, along with Ernie’s Record Mart.

What Wynn (who is black) and I (who am white) didn’t know at the time was that most of the hip-talking and R&B-savvy disc jockeys on WLAC were white guys: Bill “Hoss” Allen, John R (John Richbourg) and Gene Nobles. You can hear fabled DJ John R doing one of his famous airchecks in this CD package, along with a commercial for Royal Crown Hair Jelly on WLAC by Little Richard. Today, WLAC is a sports-talk station and carries bloviator Rush Limbaugh’s show. Not too much soul there anymore.