The story of Tennessee’s contribution to American music is essentially the story of three cities: Nashville, Memphis, and Bristol. While Nashville is most famous for its status as the long-time capital of country music, Bristol is recognized as the “Birthplace of Country Music”. Memphis musicians have had an enormous influence on blues, early rock and roll, and soul music. Bristol is best known for being the site of the first commercial recordings of country music, showcasing Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and later a favorite venue of mountain musician Uncle Charlie Osborne. Bristol is also the birthplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford.
In 1927, Ralph Peer of Victor Records began recording local musicians in Bristol to capture the local sound of traditional ‘folk’ music of the region. One of these local sounds was created by the Carter Family. The Carter Family got their start on July 31, 1927, when A.P. Carter and his family journeyed from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer who was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. They received $50 for each song they recorded. The U.S. Congress recognised Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music” in 1998 for its contributions to early country music recordings and ongoing influence.
Nashville, the most populous metropolitan area in the state, is home to the Grand Ole Opry (est. 1925) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (est. 1967), and bears the nickname “Music City, U.S.A.”. In a tour of Great Britain and Europe in 1873, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first former slaves to tour Europe after the Civil War, performed the spirituals “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Go Down, Moses” for Queen Victoria in April. According to local oral tradition, Queen Victoria was so impressed by the Singers that she commented that with such beautiful voices, they had to be from the Music City of the United States. Hence, the moniker for Nashville, Tennessee – Music City USA – was born. They returned to Europe the following year, touring from May 1875 to July 1878. This tour raised an estimated $150,000 for the university, funds used to construct Fisk’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and still stands. Ryman Auditorium, opened in 1892, is a world-famous music venue in downtown Nashville, known for hosting the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974 and The Johnny Cash Show from 1969-1971. WSM (AM) signed on in 1925, the same year launching WSM Barndance soon known as Grand Ole Opry. The weekly stage show and broadcast would play an important role in the popularization of country music and is today the longest running radio program in the world.
By the late 1950s, the city’s record labels dominated the country music genre with slick pop-country (Nashville sound), overtaking honky-tonk in the charts. Performers reacting against the Nashville sound formed their own scenes in Lubbock, Texas and Bakersfield, California, the latter of which (Bakersfield sound) became the most popular type of country by the late 1960s, led by Merle Haggard. Progressive country and outlaw country emerged to challenge the prevailing Nashville sound. Nashville’s predominance in country music was regained by the early 1980s, when Dwight Yoakam and other neo-traditionalists entered the charts. Even as country music became central to Nashville’s identity and music commerce, a string of clubs on Jefferson Street played host to electrifying rhythm and blues. It’s where Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth and where Etta James ‘Rocked The House’ on her 1964 live recording from the New Era Club. Meanwhile, white and black met in Printer’s Alley, where Music Row studio musicians gathered at day’s end to play jazz and rock and roll. Nashville’s WLAC radio was a vital source for R&B from the mid 1940s through the 1960s. The 2004 compilation album Night Train to Nashville, spawned by an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, showcased and celebrated this history.
In 1966, Bob Dylan released his landmark Blonde on Blonde album, primarily recorded in Nashville, assisted by local session musicians the Nashville Cats by suggestion of producer Bob Johnston. The album’s success helped transform Nashville’s conservative music reputation and artists including Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen soon followed to record there with Johnston. Dylan continued his relationship with the city on 1967’s John Wesley Harding and 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Exit/In is a long-time Nashville club, opened in 1971, having played host to many rock legends and locals including Jason & the Scorchers and featured in Robert Altman’s Nashville. Lucy’s Record Shop was an independent, locally owned record store and all-ages music venue in Nashville in the 1990s. During its five and a half years of operation, Lucy’s supported a growing punk and indie music scene in Nashville, and even received national notoriety as a prominent underground music venue. Lambchop played some of their first shows at Lucy’s. Outsider music greats from Nashville include R. Stevie Moore and Dave Cloud.
Today, there is still a thriving country music scene in Nashville, however there are other scenes and genres gaining in outside attention, such as indie, rock, and metalcore. Infinity Cat Recordings, home of Jeff the Brotherhood and Be Your Own Pet, and Jack White’s Third Man Records are prime examples. Dolly Parton, “the Queen of Country” and owner of Dollywood, had 2 #1 Hot 100 hits, including “9 to 5” in 1981. In pop music, Kesha from Nashville has had 3 #1 Hot 100 hits on the Billboard charts, including “Tik Tok” in 2009. Miley Cyrus from Franklin had a #1 Hot 100 hit with “Wrecking Ball” in 2013. The pop punk band Paramore, also from Franklin and fronted by Hayley Williams, had a #1 album on the Billboard 200 with Paramore in 2013. Country superstar Kenny Chesney from Knoxville has had 7 #1 albums on the Billboard 200 from 2002-2013 like When the Sun Goes Down in 2004. Lady Antebellum from Nashville had 3 #1 albums on the Billboard 200 including Need You Now in 2010. The Civil Wars, an Americana and folk duo, also had a #1 album on the Billboard 200 in 2013. Additional bands from Tennessee include The Box Tops “The Letter” (1967, pop rock) from Memphis, Fuel “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” (2000, post-grunge) from the Jackson area, Saliva “Click Click Boom” (’01, rap metal) from Memphis, 10 Years “Wasteland” (’06, alternative metal) from Knoxville, Jack White’s The Raconteurs “Steady, As She Goes” (’06, garage rock) from Nashville, SafetySuit “Someone Like You” (2008), Hot Chelle Rae “Tonight Tonight” (2011, dance-rock) from Nashville, Moon Taxi (progressive rock), Judah & the Lion “Take It All Back” (2017, folk). Memphis rapper Yo Gotti “Down in the DM” (2016).
Additional country musicians from Tennessee include Old Crow Medicine Show “Wagon Wheel” (’04, bluegrass, written by Bob Dylan), duo Big & Rich “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” (’04, country rap), Craig Morgan “That’s What I Love About Sunday” (2005) from the Nashville area, Rodney Atkins “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows)” (2006) from Cumberland Gap, married duo Thompson Square “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” (2011), A Thousand Horses “Smoke” (2015, Southern rock), and Kelsea Ballerini “Peter Pan” (2016, country pop) from Knoxville.
The state of Tennessee once had a strong Old-time music tradition. In its earliest days the Grand Ole Opry featured banjo players, fiddle players, and string bands from Middle Tennessee such as Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Sid Harkreader, the McGee Brothers, Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers, the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, and The Crook Brothers String Band. East Tennessee old-time artists include Clarence Ashley, Charlie Bowman, Uncle Am Stuart, Theron Hale, Curly Fox, and G. B. Grayson. Country blues artists from Tennessee include Memphis Jug Band, The Two Poor Boys, Howard Armstrong, Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon, Son Bonds, Noah Lewis, Deford Bailey, John Henry Barbee, Memphis Willie B., Hattie Hart, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Brownie McGhee, Blind James Campbell, Hambone Willie Newbern, Sonny Boy Williamson I, and Terry Garland.
Memphis’ most significant musical claims to fame are as “Home of the Blues” and “Birthplace of Rock and Roll”. Famed African-American composer W.C. Handy is said to have written the first commercially successful blues song “St. Louis Blues” in a bar on Beale Street in 1912. Handy resided in Memphis from 1909 through 1917. He also wrote “The Memphis Blues”. Memphis blues is a regional style created by area musicians such as Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie, and Memphis Jug Band in the 1910s-1930s, with stylistic origins in Country blues and Delta blues. Memphis was a center of blues music for much of the 20th century. Pianist and singer Booker T. Laury was born in Memphis in 1914 and Blues Hall of Famers Johnny Shines and Memphis Slim were born there in 1915. During the 1940-50s, Memphis was the home of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Rosco Gordon, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Willie Nix, and Joe Hill Louis. Duke Records was started in Memphis in 1952. Also in 1952, Sam Phillips started Sun Records, a seminal early rock and roll and electric blues label. Among the artists who made their first recordings on Sun were Elvis Presley (d.1977) “the King of Rock and Roll” (who had 18 number 1 hits in the U.S.), Johnny Cash (d.2003, buried in Hendersonville), Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins (d.1998), and Charlie Rich.
R&B singers Big Maybelle and Luther Ingram were born in Jackson. Tina Turner was born in Nutbush. Clifford Curry was born in Knoxville. Willie Mabon was born in Memphis. Roscoe Shelton was born in Lynchburg. Saxophonist and bandleader Paul Williams was born in Lewisburg. Arthur Gunter, Bobby Hebb, and Jackie Shane were born in Nashville. Excello Records was based in Nashville. Tennessee’s location in the Bible Belt has led to an active southern Gospel music scene with such groups as The LeFevres, as well as being the origin of some notable Christian rock bands such as Memphis’s DeGarmo and Key. The country group the Oak Ridge Boys started in 1945 as the Oak Ridge Quartet, a Southern Gospel group based in Knoxville who performed for workers at the nearby Oak Ridge facilities during World War II.