CR017/PH03 – The Nashville A Team

1200 630 Cocaine & Rhinestones

The Nashville A Team

 

 

Now that we’ve established Owen Bradley as the single most important producer in the history of Nashville, let’s take it further and acknowledge he’s one of the most important figures in the history of all recorded music, even if for no other reason than assembling the first group of musicians to become known as the Nashville A-Team. Were we to erase their work from existence, every book about pop, rock or country music in the second half of the 20th century would need to be entirely rewritten. Just ask Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, 3 out of 4 Beatles, The Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, etc. And those are just the people who can speak from first-hand experience. If you want to start talking about the influence of the records, well, strap in.

 


Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)


Primary Sources

In addition to The Main Library and the Season 2 Library, these books were used for this episode:

 


Transcript of Episode

 

Soft & Loud

There are only so many notes available to songwriters hoping to create music which will be enjoyed on a large scale in the Western world. Twelve notes, as matter of fact. Consequently, much of our response to music is determined by the techniques used in sounding notes rather than which of the twelve they are. We’re affected more by “how” the notes are than “what” they are. This is why, even though there are only twelve notes, there are dozens of symbols used in sheet music to communicate how those notes should be played. If the “what” was the most important thing, sheet music would be simple dots on simple lines. Instead, composers blanket their sheet music with annotations to instruct musicians on the duration a note should be held, techniques to manipulate the delivery of a note, methods of approach and departure, the level of force to apply and so on. So many hows for each little what…

The modern piano was invented less than 100 years prior to the signing of the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Before piano, keyboard instruments built for concert performance were limited to pipe organs and variations on the harpsichord. Unlike a snare drum, every tone sounded by a harpsichord is approximately equal in loudness, regardless of how much force is or isn’t applied by the musician. Same thing with a pipe organ, which also happens to be the loudest musical instrument on the planet. While there’s nothing stopping anyone from playing the beginning of the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on a pipe organ, it would sound ridiculous and convey none of the feeling intended by the composer. Similarly, Keith Jarret’s Koln Concert would not be one of the best-selling jazz albums ever had he chosen to play a harpsichord instead of a piano. The piano was invented purely with the intent of introducing dynamic range to keyboard instruments. “Harpsichord with soft and loud” is the English translation of its Italian creator’s full name for his design, which was abbreviated to pianoforte, meaning “soft loud.” Pressing a key on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s piano caused a small hammer to strike a string inside the instrument with a variable level of force, determined by the force of the key press. This required intricate construction, which set a huge price tag on his invention, making it only affordable to the ruling class, like the rich and powerful Medici family who funded Cristofori’s work. For nearly the first hundred years of its existence, piano belonged exclusively to high society and those they funded or favored. Then came the Industrial Revolution, which made pianos easier and less expensive to manufacture, even with updates widening the design to 88 keys, thus providing the full musical range of a standard orchestra, from the lowest note on a contrabassoon to the highest note on a piccolo. And what composer wouldn’t kill to have a miniature orchestra on call 24/7 to try out every idea which occurs in the process of writing a symphony? With this new tool, composers became more adventurous and their music more complicated, more personal, more emotional. Increased access to this dynamic instrument, able to roar out chords and sing single note phrases (even simultaneously, if you like), coincides with the beginning of classical music’s Romantic era.

 

Bartolomeo Cristofori and his piano

 

Of course, once pianos became affordable to the general public in the 1800s, they were used to play other kinds of music. Loretta Lynn once summed up the difference between fiddle and violin by saying “a fiddle is a fiddle, but a whole buncha fiddles is a violin.” Well, “pianuh” became something very different to poor individuals in the United States who didn’t have “a whole buncha fiddles” at their beck and call. Following several centuries of classist and racist exclusion, the expressive power of a symphony was granted to the people. Within a hundred years, calloused hands created completely new genres, like ragtime and Vaudeville, which are major influences heard in pop, rock and country music to this day. Any musician with access to a piano gained the ability to compose and arrange for a full band on an instrument which could also be used to show each band member their part, without requiring anyone involved to be able to read music. Just gather around the piano and run it down real fast, handing bass lines to Bob Moore or Henry Strzelecki, fiddle melodies to Tommy Jackson or Buddy Spicher, guitar parts to Grady Martin or Hank Garland and, obviously, piano rolls to Floyd Cramer or Pig Robbins. These members of the Nashville A-Team are not household names. Their contributions to legendary songs, albums and the history of music often go unrecognized by the millions of people who’ve purchased and enjoyed their work. It’s only ever been the obsessed few who take the time to learn what really happened, slowly scanning liner notes and album credits for a hint of gold, like “guitar by Chip Young.”

As with the Nashville Sound, this is yet another piece of country music history subject to much confusion, another term widely misunderstood and misused for many years: who were the Nashville A-Team? Well, I can tell you pretty specifically who they were but I can also tell you who they were not. The A-Team didn’t include every musician who ever found studio work in Nashville. Charlie Daniels playing some guitar on other people’s albums early in his career didn’t put him on the A-Team. Same thing with Gary Stewart playing piano in some sessions prior to getting a record deal. Even a legendary sideman like Ralph Mooney doing some studio work in Nashville didn’t make him a member of the A-Team. The original Nashville A-Team was a much more exclusive group than you’d be led to believe by lists on the Internet. One way we could clear up the matter is by taking those lists apart and putting the individual musicians on a timeline but let’s start somewhere else. Let’s start with Henry Strzelecki. Anyone who knows what they’re talking about would put Henry Strzelecki on a list of A-Team musicians. In 1990, Henry told the Country Music Hall of Fame he was really part of the second A-Team, the fresh blood getting started in the late 1950s and early 1960s with other newcomers like Pig Robbins, Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Kenney Buttrey and Chip Young. We’ll come back to these youngsters later but Henry just point-blank stated the A-Team was a generational thing and, if our aim is to understand history, we should listen to him. Here’s his list of musicians on the original A-Team: Buddy Harman, Bob Moore, Floyd Cramer, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, [Junior] Huskey, Harold Bradley and… Owen Bradley. If we could ask Henry today, I am 100% certain he would say neither list he gave was complete or meant to be. He was merely offering names as they came to him but he said more than enough to glean historical facts. Every musician Henry named as a member of the original A-Team shares one glaringly obvious connection, a connection we can safely assume would extend to any other name he’d add to the list. For everyone who thinks reading these transcripts out of order is a good idea, this is where you need to stop, go back and read the previous episode’s transcript because the glaringly obvious connection in Henry’s list is Owen Bradley.

And the glaringly obvious exclusion is Chet Atkins. There are a lot of reasons it’s not possible Henry simply forgot to name Chet. For one thing, most of Henry Strzelecki’s early studio work was in sessions produced by Chet. For another thing, Chet Atkins is one of the best rhythm guitarists who ever lived, he played on thousands of sessions and gave legendary guitar parts to career-making hits by artists like Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers. If we could ask Henry whether he accidentally forgot to name Chet as a member of the original A-Team, I’m confident he would say no. Because it’s not a list of the best or most prolific or most successful studio musicians in town at the time. The reason  Henry’s list looks identical to Owen Bradley’s personal first-call sheet is because that’s what it is and that’s who the original A-Team were. Since at least the late 1930s, Owen made it his business to collect the best musicians in Nashville – first for big band gigs in nightclubs around town, then for WSM’s house band, then for session work at Castle. By the time Owen Bradley built his own studio, he’d been collecting musicians for nearly two decades and working with his favorite first-, second- and third-call players at Castle for years. Now, Castle was never anything but a fast and dirty makeshift operation to solve the problem of nobody being willing to bet the farm on building a permanent studio. When Owen Bradley was first to bet the farm at 804 16th Avenue in 1954, the rest of the Nashville record industry, as usual, followed his lead. In 1956, Jim Denny moved Cedarwood Publishing from downtown to across the street from Owen so Cedarwood’s songs would be closer to where they got turned into hit records. Also in 1956, RCA purchased a lot around the corner from Owen and began building their first permanent Nashville studio, which is the place Chet Atkins ran after it opened the following year. Before long, so many labels and publishing companies had offices in the area, everyone began calling it Music Row. So now Owen Bradley’s first-call musicians, the gang he brought over from Castle, are showing up to work every day in Nashville’s brand-new recording district, which only exists because of how great they and their boss are at making hit records. When an entire industry relocates to fall in line behind your crew, I think you’re allowed to give yourselves a nickname…

 

Bob Moore Grady Martin Buddy Harman

L-R: Bob Moore, Grady Martin, Buddy Harman

Chet Atkins Buddy Harman Floyd Cramer Bob Moore

Front, L-R: Chet Atkins, Buddy Harman, Bob Moore. Rear: Floyd Cramer

 

NOTE: Today, in order to take a closer look at the Nashville A-Team, their instruments and their influence, it will be necessary to give brief and incomplete summaries of many careers which deserve further commentary and will continue to receive it during future episodes of this podcast. For example, Hank Garland is easily one of the three most important guitarists in Nashville history. I could spend the rest of this episode talking only about his life and his guitar parts and it would be a great episode. But delivering the overview of the Nashville A-Team necessary at this time precludes such comprehensiveness.

 

Fingers on Fire

Since guitar is the instrument Owen Bradley correctly predicted in the 1930s would become the sound of the future, we may as well begin there. It’s likely Owen said this to his little brother because electric guitars and amplifiers had recently made it possible for guitarists to play lead lines over big band instrumentation in a fashion previously impossible with feedback-prone acoustic guitars. Hank Garland got his first acoustic guitar in the mid-1930s, when he was around 6 years old, living near Spartanburg, South Carolina. A couple years later, he heard Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith play electric guitar on a local radio station and little Hank tried to achieve this new sound by twisting the wires of an electrical cord directly onto the strings of his acoustic guitar, then plugging the cord into a wall socket. He did almost set his guitar on fire but, thankfully, nobody was hurt. By 1945 Garland had acquired a real electric and enough skill to impress a touring Grand Ole Opry act who stopped by his local music store while Hank was playing a guitar inside. They invited him to be their guest on The Opry if he ever made it to Nashville, so Hank begged his parents until they agreed to let him do it. This band was Paul Howard and His Arkansas Cotton Pickers, largely forgotten today but credited with being one of the first acts to use drums on The Grand Ole Opry, perhaps the first to use electric guitar on The Opry and certainly the band who popularized western swing on The Opry. Since young Hank Garland had spent hours copying licks from Bob Wills records, he fit right in. Paul Howard offered him a job with The Cotton Pickers and Hank accepted… for two months, which is apparently how long it took for someone to ask which member of the Cotton Pickers was an expert on child labor laws or if this 15 year-old kid was a member of the Musician’s Union or what. Paul sent Hank home and told him to come back to Nashville when he turned 16, which is what he did. In 1947, Hank joined Cowboy Copas’ band for long enough to lay down some solos on a few records, like “Opportunity Is Knocking at Your Door.” He wasn’t bad for a teenager. But then the Nashville cats turned the kid on to jazz. He was renting a room from Ernest Tubb’s guitarist and Harold Bradley’s boyhood friend, Billy Byrd, so Harold and Billy (who’d played jazz guitar together since youth) showed Garland a few records, a few licks and let the obsession take over from there. Then Chet Atkins told him about Django Reinhardt and there was no going back. (Since he’s come up on the podcast before, small sidebar on Django Reinhardt: This is the Romani guitarist who, in the late 1920s, lost most control over two fingers of his fretting hand in an accident, then became a legend on his instrument in the 1930s. In an era when most Nashville guitarists were personally obsessed with jazz and at least needed to be able to play it if they wanted to find live work around town, Django Reinhardt was probably the most pervasive influence.) Hank Garland was clearly listening to a ton of Django in the period leading up to “Sugarfoot Rag.” Check out his solo from a month earlier on Autry Inman’s “You Gotta Leave Those Other Guys Alone,” recorded at Castle in 1949, the year Hank’s old boss, Paul Howard, left The Grand Ole Opry and Little Jimmy Dickens hired a bunch of Cotton Pickers into his own band.

 

Hank Garland

Hank Garland

 

Grady Martin

 

One of those Cotton Pickers was Grady Martin from middle Tennessee. In Grady’s first session with Little Jimmy Dickens, they cut “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed,” the biggest hit of Jimmy’s career so far. When Owen Bradley booked Grady Martin and Hank Garland for a Webb Pierce session at Castle in 1951, they cut Webb’s first #1 country song, “Wondering.” For the next ten years, either Hank Garland or Grady Martin played lead guitar on close to 100% of Webb Pierce sessions, from which were released nearly nothing but Top 10 country singles. It would take a long time to figure out what percentage of all the Top 10 country hits recorded by everyone in Nashville over the next decade featured Grady or Garland on guitar but over 50% feels like a conservative guess. Above any other musicians, these two set the pace for guitar in the Nashville Sound, routinely turning in diverse, innovative solos that sent everyone else back to the practice closet. That’s Garland showing off on Eddy Arnold’s 1954 recording of “I’ve Been Thinking.” And, of course, nearly all of you are familiar with Grady Martin’s guitar work on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” But their impact and influence goes much deeper than guitar solos. It’s in the precise intros, main riffs and tasteful interjections always complementing the melody of a song, never crowding the vocalist. Ultimately, both players clocked in to serve the record, not their egos. Grady Martin, especially, must be recognized as more than a guitarist. When several A-Team musicians appeared on a 1964 episode of The Jimmy Dean Show, Jimmy intro’d their segment by calling Grady Martin the most creative musician he ever met. When he wasn’t playing piano on a session, Owen Bradley finished a rundown by going in the control room and leaving Grady in charge of the live room. When you see Grady Martin’s name in a session for any producer other than Owen Bradley, chances are very good Grady did a lot more than play guitar. “Producer” Don Law once allowed Grady Martin, a studio guitarist, to eject famous actor George Hamilton from a Lefty Frizzell session because Grady thought Hamilton was a distraction from their work. After Hamilton left, they cut “Saginaw, Michigan,” Lefty Frizzell’s first #1 hit in over a decade. It’s impossible to imagine Johnny Horton’s career without Grady Martin. Most fans know Grady played the baritone electric on Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m a One Woman Man.” But Don Law, producer of record for “The Battle of New Orleans,” wasn’t even on the property when Grady produced Johnny Horton’s second #1 hit. And Johnny’s first #1, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska,” would have been cut in waltz time if Grady hadn’t decided to change it to 4/4. Don Law relied on Grady Martin to such a degree, he’d bring Grady into his office when managers, publishers or agents brought a potential new artist to Columbia Records. The artists auditioned for Grady, not Don. This is just one guitarist, so it bears repeating: there’s no telling how many production credits in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s rightfully belong to various members of Owen Bradley’s Nashville A-Team.

Grady Martin was credited with producing Ruby Wright’s only album. Ruby is one of the great coulda-shoulda-woulda stories in country music. Her parents were Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright, which got 13-year-old Ruby signed to RCA, where Chet Atkins did approximately nothing with her. There were various attempts to put her in a girl group but none of them worked, so she lost her record deal. By the mid-1960s, Ruby was reduced to cutting dreadful material, like the parody/answer to Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” which became the title track to Ruby’s album, Dern Ya. This LP only exists because that single went Top 10 country and Kapp Records leased the masters of Ruby’s most recent recordings. Of much greater merit than the title track is the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song Ruby cut in the same session, called “Such a Silly Notion.” Ruby’s vocal is perfect and the arrangement Grady Martin put behind her is probably what Ray Price’s Nashville Sound years would have sounded like if Owen Bradley was his producer. And if we’re calling this pop country, then I’ll still take two copies ‘cuz one’s gettin’ worn out. But, really, it makes a lot more sense to call this a country record with Nashville Sound production. Just like it makes sense to call Carl Smith’s 1957 single “Why, Why” a pop record with Nashville Sound production. Even though it’s arguably a pretty great record which went #2 country, even though Wayne Walker wrote these insipid lyrics with Mel Tillis (“Why do I thrill the way I do / every time you say ‘honey, I love you’? / Why? Why? Why? Why? / ‘Cuz I love you that’s why”), if this isn’t a pop song, then pop songs do not exist. Grady Martin “led the session,” just as he did on nearly every other Carl Smith session in the 1950s, so it’s possible the hot potato vocal arrangement was his idea and I’d be willing to bet $100 he’s the person who told Buddy Harman to hit the snare drum like he meant it.

 

Sugar Beat

If we’re looking for the original line in the sand of the great pop country debate, it’s in the beat. Also commonly called “rhythm” (as in rhythm & blues), a heavy beat accompanying or (especially) in place of a melody was all-but-guaranteed to piss off country music purists in the first half of the 20th century. And God forbid you use a backbeat, accenting 2’s and 4’s to make the beat stand out even more between notes of a bass line. (This is the rhythmic space where upright bassists of pro-backbeat country bands slap the strings and fingerboard like a percussion instrument.) Backbeat is one of the specific problems many traditionalists (and many racists) had with Bob Wills using drums in the 1930s and 1940s. This is the specific controversy Hank Williams tried to skirt by not having a drummer in the band, instead having a rhythm guitarist relax his grip on a barre chord to deaden the strings and strum a backbeat on the 2 and 4. You can hear this technique mimicking a brushed snare from Hank’s first hit – “Move It On Over” in 1947 – all the way through to the last single released during his lifetime because Hank always wanted a heavy rhythm but he didn’t want any of the grief that came with putting a drummer in a country band. For all the flak he caught over his backbeat anyway, he may as well have hired a drummer. Well into the 1960s, when contemporary country fans referred to pop music’s influence on their beloved genre, one of the things they were talking about was any use of backbeat, with or without drums.

Nashville native Buddy Harman became the staff drummer on The Grand Ole Opry in 1959. Prior to Harman, there was no staff drummer at The Grand Ole Opry because drums were not allowed on The Opry stage. (A rule which was obviously broken several times over the years before the ban was officially lifted.) Buddy Harman’s first studio work came in 1952, when he was booked to play at Castle behind Moon Mullican on Boudleaux Bryant’s drumming-pun “Sugar Beet.” By the time Buddy took the Opry gig, he’d played on hits for Brenda Lee, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, you name ‘em. Even after taking the Opry gig, he continued to work sessions for everyone from the major labels down to little indies, like Starday. His instrument being so controversial, it’s quite illuminating to observe the various ways he was asked to play, depending on the producer. For example, listen to Buddy’s iconic drum part on The Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” in 1960 with the help of a cutting-edge tape looping machine on loan from RCA’s New York City studio. Bill Porter (the guy credited with giving RCA’s Nashville studio its “sound”) manually turned the machine on and off while the band played to create a delay effect live-to-tape and make Buddy’s drums sound like two drummers doubling a part. Years later, Bill Porter told the Country Music Hall of Fame how Don Everly always instructed Buddy Harman to “play them drums loud, man, and hard!” As you’ve heard, RCA sessions under the control of Chet Atkins typically came with different instructions. Chet usually wanted the drums audible and not a bit louder. It’s possible (if not likely) he’s the producer in a story Buddy Harman used to tell about being asked to play softer and softer until finally Buddy pulled out a handkerchief and started hitting the cymbals with that, asking if it was soft enough now.

 

Bill Porter Jim Reeves Chet Atkins

L-R: Bill Porter, Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins

 

To some fans, The Grand Ole Opry hiring Buddy to play drums in 1959 meant they’d sold out and gone pop country. To everyone else, it meant “country music has drums now.” In the wake of The Opry’s decision, many artists felt more freedom to experiment but the decision was only made because of how many artists already had. By 1959, George Jones, Hank Snow and Ray Price were all regularly using flagrant drums on record and had done so for at least a couple years. Most Ernest Tubb records from 1953 forward have a drum, usually either a brushed, barely-there snare or closed hi-hat. Take a song like “Have You Seen My Boogie Woogie Baby” from 1955. The title probably gave some fans a bit of a shock. Had Ernest Tubb switched sides in the great rock and roll war?! Well, no. There’s a drummer on the session but I sure can’t hear them doing anything. You can hear the drum in his next session on “Yellow Rose of Texas” but barely. This use of a drum was maybe an inch further than the honky tonk backbeat he and Hank Williams were getting out of guitars (and slapped bass strings) since the late 1940s. Ray Price is definitely the most interesting case study on this topic. His first hit singles came out in 1952 with no drums at all, although the piano player on his cover of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” does slip in a heavy backbeat rhythm during a honky tonk solo. Ray had no major singles in 1953. “Much Too Young to Die” from 1954 has three snare hits in it but only as a ticking clock special effect for the lyric “time is passing, passing, passing us on the fly.” Ray had no major singles in 1955. There is an unmistakeable drum played with brushes on his first big hit of 1956 (“Run Boy”) but the song is also a waltz, so there’s no backbeat to upset anyone. Then we get to “Crazy Arms,” the country shuffle which went #1 for five months and took a whole piece of the genre in an entirely new direction. After analyzing his previous records, straining to hear any kind of drumming at all, “Crazy Arms” sounds like there’s a drum circle on it. But there are no drums. Not one. What you’re hearing is a combination of the old honky tonk acoustic guitar trick plus an electric guitar clicking around on muted notes adjacent to the bass line, which creates something very close to what would soon be known as tic-tac bass. Ray’s next big hit of the year does the same thing. There are no drums on “I’ve Got a New Heartache,” just a ton of tick-tick-ticking sounds. By 1957, Ray Price was the dancehall king of country and no longer had to tip-toe around the beat. His big hit of the year, “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” has Buddy Harman playing drums like he may actually be awake back there.

 

Three on a Match

If you ever read, say, six dozen books on recording music in the first half of the 20th century, you’ll find a lot of stories about not getting a good standup bass sound in the studio. There were several points in the signal chain where they simply did not yet have sufficient technology to create or capture a satisfactory low-end, so everyone experimented to find their own workarounds. After moving to Nashville in 1960, bassist Henry Strzelecki did a few sessions with Owen Bradley. Even as late as the ‘60s, Owen was still moving the microphone on the standup bass to different places in the room depending on the key of a song. If a song was in a different key than the last one or if they decided to change the key of a song, everyone waited for the bass mic to be repositioned. It’s just what they had to do to get a good sound. And if whatever the weather was like outside made the air inside too humid, the bass was gonna sound like shit no matter where they put the mic. But by the time Henry came to Nashville, they were also using another trick to help mask the problem…

Though it’s often called one and sometimes even credited as such, tic-tac bass is not an instrument. It’s a sound created by the interplay of two instruments: the big, booming notes of an upright bass doubled by the clicking, palm-muted strings of a baritone electric guitar. Bass-ically, instead of wasting time trying to capture a perfect balance of punchy attack and huge timbre from one instrument, tic-tac allows the big bass to bring a fat low end and it’s okay if the tone is a little muddy because the picked baritone gives a defined attack when doubling the notes. And if it was humid outside, the baritone could pick out additional notes to create a busier sound on top of the muddy standup bass. As you heard in the Ralph Mooney episode of Season 1, the whole reason Ray Price told Buddy Killen to play a 4/4 bass line (and probably the reason for all the pre-tic-tac bass) on “Crazy Arms” was to disguise a bad bass sound. If you revisit Brenda Lee’s “Heart in Hand” and pay attention to the bass, you’ll hear it’s tic-tac: Harold Bradley on baritone guitar, ticking all around the booming notes from Bob Moore’s doghouse bass. The concept of instruments sharing parts in a song was not remotely new but the specific pairing of upright bass with electric baritone has a distinct sound and was adopted as standard procedure for over a decade in Nashville. As with a lot of this stuff, nobody’s really sure which (or if an) individual person should be credited with inventing tic-tac. Harold Bradley may not have invented it but he’s widely believed to have recorded more tic-tac baritone than anyone who’s ever lived and there’s no reason to doubt this assumption. When you see his name in the credits as one of three guitarists but only hear two guitar parts, listen for tic-tac because his baritone is probably there. And it’s there on major pop records. These sounds were developed by Nashville musicians while recording country and pop hits, regularly reaching Top 40 radio and influencing artists in every major genre. Everyone knows the original hit recording of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” from late 1956. In 1961, after he was finally allowed full control of her sessions and the tropes of the Nashville Sound were well-defined, Owen Bradley had Patsy cut a new, poppier version. After noting the prominent tic-tac bass, toy organ and background vocal arrangement, you will also note the Beach Boys recorded their first single about a month after this. The sound Brian Wilson landed on just a few years later owes a clear debt to Owen Bradley’s work with Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and other pop or crossover artists. And it’s no wonder because virtually everyone recording upright bass in any genre of music took notice of the Nashville Sound method for creating and capturing low end.

 

Harold Bradley Bob Moore

A rare photo of Bob Moore (R) on electric bass with Harold Bradley (L) doubling on baritone.

 

As far as Memphis studio guitarist Reggie Young was concerned, the definition of “that Nashville Sound” was the doubling of a doghouse bass with an electric baritone, both instruments following the piano player’s left hand. Now, for the non-musicians, the reason Reggie talks about bass following the piano player’s left hand (and the reason Owen Bradley auditioned bassists the way he did) is because bass and piano are inseparable in popular music. The lowest note of a piano is all the way to the left on the keyboard, the highest note all the way to the right. Sliding your hand across the keys from left to right could soundtrack a cartoon character running up a staircase. From right to left, the cartoon character runs down the staircase. On stringed instruments, a right-handed player must hold notes on the fingerboard (or fretboard) with their left, fretting hand before the notes can be played with their right, bowing (or picking) hand. The piano being a percussion instrument, every available note is laid out on the keyboard with no need of being fretted. All you have to do is select the note you want and touch it with a finger. So a right-handed guitarist sitting at a piano still uses their right hand much the same way they would in fingerpicking a guitar, except their left hand is totally free of the need to fret notes. That left hand doesn’t have to do anything, in fact, but it probably should if it ever wants to make money from playing a piano. In popular music, the typical approach to piano is for the right hand to play the notes of a melody on top of the left hand’s low-end rhythm work, either rolling out single-note bass lines or pumping chords. This is what and why a Nashville Sound bass player needs to follow on piano.

For reasons which should be evident by this point, Owen Bradley’s chosen instrument was central to most Nashville Sound producers’ idea of how to make hit records in pop music, country music and basically everything else except bluegrass. Take a listen to Webb Pierce’s “Honky Tonk Song” from 1957 and you’ll hear Owen Bradley throw down on some honky tonk piano. Pianos showed up in country music about as soon as pianos showed up in the country. But even if they arrived in decent shape, saloon pianos didn’t stay that way for very long. Nobody’s entirely sure where we got the term “honky tonk” but it could be modified from “honkatonk,” which could be an onomatopoeic reference to piano played with a heavy backbeat, as it had to be played in order to be heard in the loud and lowly drinking establishments everyone eventually started calling honky tonks, where pianos went long stretches without tuning and generally suffered a level of abuse unknown by instruments uptown. Rather than mangle popular melodies attempting single-note runs on an out-of-pitch instrument, honky tonk players favored a heavy rhythmic approach with many chords to help disguise (or even incorporate) the dissonance of any warped individual tones. In the pop country debate, much has been made of how supposedly impossible it is to define the “twang” element in country music. Well, I’m game. Remember when you were a kid and you put a rubber band around two fingers then plucked it with your other hand? That’s twang. The sounds we associate with country music came from poor people working out techniques to produce art on cheap, low quality, often damaged, sometimes straight-up broken instruments. If a note had to be kicked, shoved or bent into place, well, it got there in the end. For many country fans in the mid-20th century, major label producers like Chet Atkins making pop records with finely-tuned piano and calling it country music was tantamount to selling out the genre by returning piano to the way it sounded when poor people weren’t allowed to play it. To country music fans, it sounded like these rich assholes were trying to fix something they thought was broken. But it wasn’t broken. It was bent just the way country fans liked it.

Floyd Cramer was born in Louisiana, raised in Arkansas, then went back to Louisiana in 1951. His first notable job in the music business was playing piano for Webb Pierce when Webb was a Louisiana Hayride artist. The first time Floyd Cramer went to Nashville for a Webb Pierce recording session produced by Owen Bradley, Floyd met Chet Atkins, who was also hired to play in the session. Back in Louisiana, Floyd worked with more country stars on The Hayride and did some touring with Jim Reeves and Hank Williams. In 1955, after Chet Atkins began regularly leading sessions for RCA, he talked Floyd Cramer into moving to Nashville to become a studio piano player. This is how Floyd came to be on “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley’s first single for RCA and his first record to sell a million copies. Like Chet himself, Floyd Cramer was not an exclusive employee of RCA and other producers in town began to book him. He soon became a favorite of Owen Bradley’s and was booked on sessions for Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline. Floyd is another person Chet Atkins frequently named when discussing who should get more credit for what people thought was Chet’s sound. Chet consistently asked Floyd’s input on creative decisions, how he thought certain parts of a song should go and so on. But we must give Chet Atkins credit for handing Floyd Cramer the sound he’d use for the rest of his life, to great fame and fortune. Chet had a Hank Locklin session coming up and Don Robertson, the writer of one of the songs they were going to cut, played piano on his demo tape in an unusual style Chet wanted on the record. He gave the demo to Floyd and told him to figure out what Robertson was doing so Floyd could replicate it on the session. Floyd heard what Chet was talking about but he made significant modifications to the technique, cleaning it up and exaggerating the “how” of it. The debut of slip-note piano on Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” in 1960 was so influential, standing on this side of history it sounds less like the revolution it was and more like someone playing country music piano correctly. But what you’re listening for is a thing Floyd Cramer always described as “an intentional error.” On the way to playing the “correct” (or consonant, in-key) notes of a chord, Floyd briefly strikes “wrong” (or nearly dissonant, “blue”) notes, typically a full step away from the destination note rather than the more common slur of a half-step. You could think of slip-note as a method to reintroduce some “twang” on a finely-tuned piano. It’s a little touch of wrong on the way to making something sound right. Like exploitation of dynamics, syncopation or allowing tic-tac bass to become slightly out-of-sync with itself for dramatic effect, slip-note piano is another technique used in the Nashville Sound to playfully toy with our expectations and keep us actively engaged with whatever’s coming next. Whenever an artist had a big hit featuring one of the Nashville A-Team’s new gimmicks, it was standard procedure to release an instrumental record based around the gimmick. After Grady Martin accidentally discovered a fuzz tone on Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry,” the A-Team went back in and cut “The Fuzz.” While these pieces were rarely hits on their own, they were as good as instructional YouTube videos to musicians around the world, who studied the records like audio flashcards, listening over and over until they figured out the gimmick or riff or whatever other hook was there. When “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” became Hank Locklin’s biggest single ever, a #1 country record and a Top 10 pop hit, Floyd Cramer leaned all the way in to slip-note by releasing an instrumental record featuring the style. Written as a showcase for his new “how,” nearly every chord of Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date” contains slipped notes. This instrumental record just missed the country Top 10 but it became a #2 pop hit and cemented slip-note piano’s place in the Nashville Sound. Boudleaux Bryant wrote lyrics for “Last Date” and Skeeter Davis had a Top 5 country record with it. Over a decade later, Conway Twitty wrote different lyrics for the song and had a #1 country hit. Ten years after that, Emmylou Harris recorded Conway’s version and had a #1 country hit.

A year after hitting big with the original instrumental of “Last Date,” Floyd Cramer was in his first session for Loretta Lynn, her first session produced by Owen Bradley. One of the songs they cut was “Success.” You can pick out Harold Bradley and Bob Moore on tic-tac bass along with Floyd’s slip-note piano. There’s also Cecil Brower and Tommy Jackson on fiddle, Don Helms on steel. Everything Loretta Lynn ever recorded with Owen Bradley (which is everything from here in 1961 all the way into the ‘80s, all her greatest hits, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter”) is an example of the Nashville Sound and every second of it is country music, as if anything with Loretta’s voice on it could ever be anything else. When Owen signed Loretta Lynn in 1961, he signed a country singer and produced her as such, which is why her Nashville Sound records include traditional country instruments and arrangements where Brenda Lee’s Nashville Sound records do not.

 

Floyd Cramer

Floyd Cramer

 

Owen Bradley Loretta Lynn

Owen Bradley & Loretta Lynn

 

 

Four Strings, More Strings, Singers & Chords

Bassist Henry Strzelecki was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1939. His father worked in a steel mill. In high school, Henry was the kid who played guitar and wrote songs. There was a drive-in movie theater where he liked to hang out during the day, when it was empty and he could be alone to write songs and play guitar. One day, Henry was sitting at the drive-in when Tex Ritter and his band pulled into the parking lot. While watching Tex and his band get out of their vehicle and walk over to the radio station across the street in their matching stage outfits, Henry got the idea for a song he finished writing the next day. After high school, Henry formed a group called The Four Flickers with his brother and a couple friends. “Long Tall Texan,” the song he wrote about seeing Tex Ritter at the drive-in, wound up on the b-side of their first record in 1959. Neither side of the single did much but it was covered by a few other groups and, somehow, The Beach Boys heard one of these versions because they added “Long Tall Texan” to their set lists and included it on their 1964 album, Beach Boys Concert. This being the first live album by anyone to go #1 pop, it surely sent some decent-sized checks Henry’s direction but, back in the ‘50s, when the Four Flickers didn’t really work out, he decided to try being a jazz guitar player instead of a songwriter. When he was about 21 years old in 1960, Henry moved to Nashville and saw Hank Garland playing guitar in a jazz club. Mistakenly assuming every guitarist in Nashville must be as good as Hank Garland, Henry decided to quit guitar and play electric bass instead. By the time he found regular session work on Music Row, things were starting to change.

Owen Bradley sold his studios to Columbia in 1962. In 1964, RCA opened a second studio on Music Row and Fred Foster opened a studio downtown. In 1965, Owen opened Bradley’s Barn outside of town. With Owen’s first-call musicians splitting their time between the city and the Barn and all these live rooms running major label sessions every day, the original A-Team could no longer cover all the work. Nashville’s growing studio system required more players to maintain its rate of production. The musicians who stepped in to meet demand at this time, like Henry Strzelecki, became the second, much less exclusive generation of the Nashville A-Team. Let’s take another look at Henry’s list of the original A-Team: guitarists Hank Garland and Grady Martin and Harold Bradley, bassists Bob Moore and Junior Huskey, drummer Buddy Harman, piano players Floyd Cramer and Owen Bradley. No fiddle. No steel guitar. Now, we could take this to mean “A-Team” exclusively referred to the core group of players whose instruments were on every session, regardless of genre. Since Henry’s list of the second generation A-Team also lacks fiddle and steel guitar, this theory starts to look good but then you spot Charlie McCoy’s name in the second list. Charlie was a utility man, most well-known as a harmonica player but also the person to call when you had some other odd job. So you won’t hear Charlie or his instruments on every Nashville Sound record because he wasn’t booked for every session, regardless of genre. If the A-Team referred to a “core group,” Charlie wouldn’t qualify, yet he’s listed by Henry, as he should be. The simplest explanation, again, is Henry’s lists weren’t complete, they were just enough for us to get the idea. I believe Henry and any other informed student of country music history would agree a more complete roster of his second-gen A-Team contemporaries must include, among others, pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake, vocal group The Nashville Edition and fiddle player Buddy Spicher. Backdating this logic to the original A-Team, a more complete roster must include, among others, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, vocal groups The Jordanaires and Anita Kerr Singers and fiddle players Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter.

 

The Tunesmiths with Buddy Harman Dale Potter and Junior Huskey

 

Buddy Spicher gave credit to Dale Potter for inventing the “Nashville style” of harmony fiddle through innovative use of double stops. See, like many other fiddle players, Dale Potter learned from Bob Wills records but he didn’t realize the twin fiddle parts were created by two individual musicians, so Dale just learned how to play both parts, simultaneously, by himself. You can hear him doing this on the instrumental version of “Faded Love” he recorded in 1967. Buddy Spicher also said the few sessions Dale Potter did with Bill Monroe were the “hottest fiddle work” Spicher ever heard on a Bill Monroe record, which is saying something. Listen to Dale Potter and Tommy Jackson play the final solo in Monroe’s 1957 cut of “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and try to convince your brain it’s only hearing two fiddles. Dale Potter and Tommy Jackson are all over Nashville Sound records. Webb Pierce’s “Any Old Time” from 1956 kicks off with Tommy and Dale screaming their fiddles at each other over a chugging honky-tonk rhythm like two freight trains racing toward a cliff. Two months later, Webb’s next session was his first with The Jordanaires and his first experiment with rock material. You won’t hear any fiddle on “Teenage Boogie,” the lone rock song in the session and only song featuring The Jordanaires. Every other song in the session (like “We’ll Find a Way”) has Dale Potter and Tommy Jackson playing fiddle. As the Nashville Sound took over in the late 1950s, Webb Pierce continued to record a mix of country and rock material in his sessions. He also continued to book both fiddles and a vocal chorus for the same session even though he never used them together. When a late 1950s Webb Pierce single has a vocal chorus on it, there will be no fiddle because it’s a rock song, like “I Ain’t Never.” This rule applies even if it’s called “Honky Tonk Song” and has The Jordanaires saying “honky tonk” 100 times in the background. When you do hear a fiddle on a late 1950s Webb Pierce single, you won’t hear a vocal chorus because you’re listening to a country record, like “I Think of You.” This rule applies to songs cut in the same session, fifteen minutes apart. So anyone still resisting an update to their personal definition of the Nashville Sound must believe it was a switch in the studio they flicked on and off between takes on a song-by-song basis rather than a collection of production techniques used for entire sessions by everyone on Music Row (except Bill Monroe).

And while the presence of a Nashville-style vocal chorus is not the difference between the Nashville Sound and some other kind of record, it can be the difference between a great record and an unlistenable one. For example, once you notice what The Jordanaires are doing behind the guitar solos on Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” it’s pretty inexcusable. Neck-and-neck with string sections, The Jordanaires and Anita Kerr Singers take the brunt of Nashville Sound criticism. I’ve often seen both groups negatively compared to mooing cows. As with Chet Atkins’ productions, vocal groups cannot be written off completely. When it’s great it is undeniably great but when it’s bad it’s the fuckin’ worst… Because string parts and background vocals live or die by their arrangements and these were typically left unwritten until in a session to record songs neither the backup singers nor musicians had ever heard. There are a lot of challenges with creating art on a production line and this is arguably the biggest one. With vocals and strings given so much space in a Nashville Sound mix, it’s just impossible to ignore when they weren’t working from a good arrangement. And, unless, we’re talking about jazz, if you don’t have a good “what,” the “how” isn’t ever going to matter very much. For better or worse, The Jordanaires and Anita Kerr Singers are ubiquitous in the Nashville Sound. But one of the strangest things about those who negatively view vocal groups in country music as an invasion from pop music is they never seem to ask where pop music got it from.

The Jordanaires were a gospel group formed in the late 1940s in Springfield, Missouri. After getting a record deal with Capitol and joining The Grand Old Opry in 1949, they started showing up as background vocalists whenever a major country artist wanted to record some gospel music. As you’ve heard, in the early ‘50s, artists like Ernest Tubb, Red Foley and Hank Snow began using The Jordanaires (and Anita Kerr Singers) on secular country music. Elvis Presley was an enormous country and gospel fan who loved The Jordanaires and promised to use them as his backing group if he ever got a real record deal, which he did in 1956. The first time he went in the studio for RCA, the day they recorded “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis asked if he could have The Jordanaires in the following day’s session. Well, The Jordanaires were signed to Capitol and Elvis Presley’s session leader, the musician tasked with hiring the other musicians, just so happened to be Chet Atkins, who just so happened to’ve recently signed a different gospel group to RCA. Now, Chet knew whatever was released from this session was going to be a massive hit. Elvis was on his way up, which is why RCA acquired him from Sun in a bidding war against other labels and why RCA was guaranteed to throw their full promotional weight behind the first Elvis Presley single they released. So, probably figuring Elvis wouldn’t know the difference between one gospel group and another, Chet hired only Gordon Stoker from The Jordanaires to join the RCA gospel group on the session in order to have Chet’s new act associated with the inevitable hit. But Elvis did know the difference and he really, really did not appreciate Chet’s ruse. Still, he cut a #1 record for his new label. When Chet tried to use the same mashup group of singers on the next Elvis session a few months later, the results were disastrous. They got stuck doing take after take of one song and never got a master they could use. Producer Steve Sholes had to create Elvis’ second #1 record by splicing together tape of two attempts at “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” Elvis wouldn’t even go back to Nashville for his next recording session. To keep him happy, RCA flew Elvis and all of The Jordanaires into New York City to cut his next single. (This is widely believed to be the first single from any artist to give billing on the label to backing singers. However, there are many records out there to debunk this. For example, Johnnie Ray’s earliest hit singles, beginning with “Cry” in 1951, gave label billing to The Four Lads.) But the a-side and b-side of Elvis Presley’s first record with The Jordanaires both went #1 pop. And the reason The Jordanaires’ part on “Don’t Be Cruel” is so much better than their part on “Hound Dog” is because the b-side was recorded earlier in the session, prior to the point went one of the other studio players had to leave and Gordon Stoker moved to piano, where he couldn’t sing with the rest of The Jordanaires. That’s what you’re hearing on “Hound Dog” and why it is so bad. Regardless, this was Elvis Presley’s best-selling single in the U.S. ever, so The Jordanaires sang on nearly everything he recorded until 1970. And it was largely Elvis Presley’s gravitational pull in all commercial genres of music which caused the Nashville vocal chorus to be branded a “pop” sound when it became a standard feature of Music Row sessions, a.k.a. a trope of the Nashville Sound.

 

Chet Atkins Elvis Presley The Jordanaires

L-R: Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley & The Jordanaires

 

Behind the scenes, The Jordanaires’ impact on popular music was even greater. While the seeds of this concept existed in published music theory since at least the 1700s, The Jordanaires were responsible for simplifying and popularizing what is now known as the Nashville Number System, a standardized method of musical annotation and communication for informally trained or self-taught musicians who don’t read sheet music. Even if most A-Team musicians had formal music training, the production line nature of Music Row was never conducive to the use of sheet music. Each individual musician would have needed copies of the sheet music and each copy would require someone to turn pages, as well as some uninvented form of silent paper so the sound of turning pages was never picked up by any of the microphones, ruining a take. And the expenses don’t stop there. How about the cost of everyone standing around doing nothing while they wait for new sheet music to be printed every time someone changed anything to improve a song they just heard for the first time? Sure, you could have the musicians ink in updates and key changes on their original music, if you want to waste 30 minutes of every session finding out everyone doesn’t have their notes coordinated… Or you could just get a bunch of musicians who play everything by memory, sound and/or sight, which is what Nashville did until the 1960s. This is still, however, not a perfect system. Say you’re in the last song of your third session in a day, the key’s been changed twice, you’re in the middle of a take and your mind blanks on the approaching chord change. You manage to signal another musician and silently communicate your problem in the very few seconds you have before the take is botched. They somehow manage to silently communicate to you (while still playing their own part so as not to ruin the take) the approaching chord is a G. It is not a C or a D or an E, all of which are visibly indistinguishable on silent lips. It’s a G. And you get to the G before ruining the take! Alright, now what’s the next chord? And the chord after that? If you somehow save the take through two or three chord changes in this manner, it’s possible your mental map of the whole song may return. Or, it may not. When everyone’s in this room to make a hit record right now and there’s an actual list in the other room of people who can and will come do your job if you can’t do it, these are not mistakes you want to make. The solution? The Nashville Number System: a quick and simple way to communicate the harmonic relationships in a composition, regardless of key.

NOTE: If you’re not familiar with basic harmonic theory and you’d like a quick introduction, get a pen and piece of paper. Everyone else, this’ll only take a minute but you can skip ahead a couple paragraphs if you want.

Our musical notes are named after the alphabet, so write down your ABCs up to the letter “G.” From the twelve notes in commercial music of the Western world, we pull out seven to form a diatonic scale, which is the foundation of every song most of us have ever heard. In A thru G, we’ve just written down the seven notes of the C major scale (a.k.a. the white keys on a piano). Every diatonic scale is built on top of a root note, so write the number “1” beneath the letter C. Any time C is the 1, we’re in the key of C, using the seven notes of the C scale to build the chords in the key of C. On your paper, skip D and E to write the number “4” under the F and the number “5” under the G. These are the fourth and fifth notes in the C scale, as well as the fourth and fifth chords in the key of C. When you hear someone say a song has a 1-4-5 progression, they’re using the Nashville Number System to communicate a harmonic relationship between chords, which can be mapped on to any key. If you run through this 1-4-5 progression in the key of C on whatever instrument you play, it will sound very familiar to you.

Now, go back to the paper. Following the G where you stopped before, start over and write your ABC’s again up to the letter “D.” Write the number “1” over the letter G, then skip A and B to write the number “4” over the C and the number “5” over the D. These are the first, fourth and fifth notes in the G scale, as well as the, first, fourth and fifth chords in the key of G. Play through this 1-4-5 progression on any instrument and you’ll hear the same harmonic relationship from the key of C, only now it’s in the key of G. This is a perspective on musical composition which the Nashville Number System treats as a practical language. If you do get momentarily lost in a take, all you need is a number – someone to hold up four fingers, tap their foot four times or even mouth the word “four” – to instantly communicate your current location in a song as well as everywhere else the song is going. This is a much faster, easier and more efficient method than trying to silently communicate one of the seven musical letters, five of which rhyme. There’s obviously a lot more to harmonic theory and the Nashville Number System than this quick overview but you get the point.

In 1959, Charlie McCoy was a teenager from Florida with talent contest dreams of rock & roll stardom who took a trip to Nashville and got the opportunity to hang out in a real recording studio as a spectator for the day. Charlie witnessed the entire process, from Owen Bradley playing everyone the demo of a song for the first time and running it down on piano to the recording of Brenda Lee’s first U.S. pop hit “Sweet Nothin’s” in just three takes without any of the musicians at any point in the session writing anything down. Charlie was educated in music theory and he knew how to sight read sheet music, so he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He could not fathom how there were people making hit records from songs they never heard before with no sheet music or any other kind of notation involved in the process. In the next session Charlie watched, The Jordanaires were there to sing behind country singer Carl Butler on “Grief in My Heart” and Charlie noticed one of The Jordanaires writing something down while their vocal part was being arranged. After the session, Charlie talked to Neil Matthews Jr. and asked what he’d seen Neil writing down. Neil showed Charlie the musical shorthand used by The Jordanaires, which was the basis of what we now call the Nashville Number System. Charlie took this information with him back to Florida but he moved to Nashville permanently the following year, 1960. For a while, he pursued his own career as a recording artist but the session work he took on the side soon became his main focus.

The thing about Charlie McCoy is he could play a little bit of just about any instrument: guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, trumpet, harmonica, etc. When Chet Atkins found out who played harmonica on the demo of a song RCA chose for Ann-Margret to record in 1961, he hired Charlie for the session. Also on Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” Buddy Harman on drums, Bob Moore on upright bass with Harold Bradley adding tic-tac, Ray Edenton on rhythm guitar and Hank Garland playing lead guitar through Grady Martin’s new favorite faulty mixing board channel, The Fuzz. It hit the pop Top 20 and The Beatles started covering it live. At the end of the session, Bob Moore booked Charlie to play harmonica later in the week on Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man,” the Top 40 hit b-side of his #2 pop record, “Cryin’.” After that week, Charlie McCoy was Music Row’s new harmonica player. Then one day Chet Atkins asked him to play a very simple vibraphone part and Charlie had an epiphany: the more of these odds-and-ends he could provide, the more studio work he could get. So he dove into practicing fringe instruments and came out the other side Nashville’s go-to utility player. Those are Charlie’s vibes on Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” in 1963. The Jordanaires’ system of using numbers instead of letters proved invaluable to Charlie as he jumped from instrument to instrument. When the other musicians saw him talking to the backup singers and writing things down, they too became interested and the Nashville Number System spread to the rest of the A-Team, first- and second-generations. Then, the Nashville Number System spread to the rest of the world. Could it possibly be a coincidence how harmonic innovation exploded in every genre of commercial American music during the mid-1960s, at the same time the spread of the Nashville Number System gave informally-trained and self-taught musicians a way to communicate basic music theory to each other? Nah, it had to be the drugs, right? No musicians ever took drugs before The ‘60s.

 

A Lot of Nerve

By the time the Nashville Number System was standardized on Music Row, Charlie’s fellow second-wave A-Teamers were all in the city. In 1955, Buddy Emmons came from Indiana to play steel for Little Jimmy Dickens and started taking studio work on the side. In 1957, Pig Robbins played piano and Lloyd Green played pedal steel on their first sessions. Pete Drake played his first notable steel part in 1960. Guitarists Billy Sanford and Chip Young were both late arrivals when they came to Nashville around 1962 or 1963. Like most of these musicians, Chip Young played on demos when he first came to town. Then one day, nobody, not even Grady Martin, could figure out how to play a lick Chip put on the demo for “What Color Is a Man.” They had to stop in the middle of a Bobby Vinton session to call Chip and get him to come play on the record. (But only after Grady Martin made him sit down and show everyone how to play the lick.) If you’ve never heard this 1965 Bobby Vinton recording but the riff sounds familiar, it’s because James Burton copied the part on dobro three years later for Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Everyone who’s listened to an episode of Cocaine & Rhinestones has heard Chip Young’s fingerpicking on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” slowed down to a speed which would lay bare any error in his technique. His playing is flawless.

By the mid-1960s, Nashville’s studio system and musicians had gained a well-deserved reputation in the record industry for skill, productivity, efficiency and potentially huge returns on investment. Music Row created an assembly line for hit records and anyone who didn’t know about it by 1965 found out the following year because 1965 was one wild ride for Bob Dylan. The Beatles hit America in 1964. By the beginning of ’65, Dylan had already seen the future and largely abandoned the overtly sociopolitical commentary of his earlier songwriting in favor of more abstract imagery and less controversial themes. Recorded in January 1965 and released in March, Bringing It All Back Home set Dylan even further apart from the Greenwich Village folk scene by loading the entire first side of the LP with electric blues-based rock arrangements, like that on “Outlaw Blues.” In July, he played the infamous electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, for which he received pretty terrible reviews in real-time, while he was still on stage. Four days later, he went in the studio and recorded the non-album single “Positively 4th Street,” which most Dylanologists view as an indictment of the Greenwich Village scenesters who rejected his new electric sound. Digging his heels in further, the LP created from these sessions (Highway 61 Revisited) featured electric arrangements on every song except the last, “Desolation Row,” with Charlie McCoy on acoustic lead guitar. Following this session, Dylan took an electric band on tour so they could all find out together what it was like to be simultaneously cheered and booed by huge crowds of people several nights a week. His backing band were called The Hawks at the time but you know them as The Band. Drummer Levon Helm quit the tour after a month because he couldn’t take all the booing. After this tour, Dylan’s next attempt to record did not go very well at all. From ten sessions in late 1965, they only put down one or two takes Dylan thought were even acceptable. By most accounts (including his own), he later realized the problem was his band. His producer, Bob Johnston, was always talking about how much easier Dylan’s sessions would be in Nashville with A-Team players. When Johnston reminded Dylan how easy it was to work with the guitarist on “Desolation Row,” a guy who was not even a professional guitarist by Nashville standards, Dylan agreed to give it a shot.

 

Jerry Reed and Chip Young

Jerry Reed taking notes from Chip Young

 

Bob Dylan Charlie McCoy

Bob Dylan & Charlie McCoy

 

And Bob Dylan had never before seen anything like a Music Row recording session. Across all of his first four albums, there was only one song (“Corrina, Corrina”) that wasn’t just Dylan singing while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. If you can get away with not having to play in sync with other musicians, recording is pretty simple. The entire Another Side of Bob Dylan LP was cut in a day. The problems began when other musicians were added to the mix. Jazz producer Tom Wilson’s initial attempts went fairly well but then he and Dylan had an argument over how loud the organ should be in “Like a Rolling Stone” and Wilson was history. His replacement was Bob Johnston, who lived in Nashville, which is how he knew Charlie McCoy was in New York City to see the World’s Fair while Johnston and Dylan were having a frustrating time in the studio. In his autobiography, Charlie admits all he did on “Desolation Row” was his best Grady Martin impersonation but it was evidently enough to bring Bob Dylan to Nashville, along with Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper, who then made Blonde on Blonde with A-Team players. Dylan has always called this album the closest he ever got to the sound in his mind, the thing he called a “wild mercury” sound and – we should be very clear, here – regardless of what you may have read, Blonde on Blonde is far too blown out, dirty and chaotic to be an example of the Nashville Sound. Apparently, the Wild Mercury Sound is what you get when Bob Dylan brings the circus to town and pays everyone to wait around for hours while he uses a Bible to finish writing seven- and eleven-minute long songs. On “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” Wild Mercury is the Sound of Dylan getting A-Team musicians stoned on pot and switching them to instruments they didn’t normally play. Owen Bradley may have quit the entire business if any of his sessions ever veered off in this direction but the circus act worked for Bob Dylan. Blonde on Blonde was an immediate hit upon release in June 1966 and remains a favorite of many fans and critics to this day. The full story of Bob Dylan’s Nashville experiments will have to wait for a future time. Relevant to this episode, everyone paying attention to the liner notes of Bob Dylan albums in the mid-‘60s (a.k.a. nearly everyone paying attention to liner notes at all) discovered Nashville was where to go if you needed a guitarist like Wayne Moss, bassist like Henry Strzelecki, piano player like Pig Robbins, drummer like Kenney Buttrey, etc. Near the end of 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful had a Top 10 pop hit with a song called “Nashville Cats,” about the superiority of them “pickers” down in Nashville. Strangely, they chose to not have any Nashville cats play on the record (and maybe it would sound better if they had) but the song’s existence and popularity are proof: the secret was out. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s brought many more pop and rock stars to record in Nashville, usually with at least some A-Team players, making them busier than ever before.

 

Superpickers

In most pictures of Owen Bradley taken in the 1950s and 1960s, he has bags under his eyes, presumably from working so much and sleeping so little. Four sessions a day at three hours a session makes for a twelve-hour work day, which doesn’t leave much time for family or anything else, really. Many A-Team musicians did have happy home lives but others talked about the stress placed on family relationships by their relative absence; the missed dinners, football games and piano recitals. You may wonder why such skillful and successful musicians couldn’t set their own schedules, working as much or little as they liked. According to Bob Moore, when it came to being an A-Team player, “you’re either in or you’re out,” meaning the Nashville studio system really didn’t care about your personal life. Why would they waste time scheduling around how you can do this, this and this session in a week but not that one or that one, when there’s a list of hungry and capable people right behind you who won’t wait a second before accepting all the work they’re offered?

Cold?

Heartless?

Welcome to the record business.

Jim Reeves always preferred to work at night, so he’d take the last block of time available in a day, which usually meant his musicians had already been playing for nine hours by the time Jim arrived to go another three. One time, Jim Reeves walked in the studio while Buddy Harman was lying down on the floor to rest his back and Jim made a joke about how his record label only shelled out for broken-down musicians, how they were sure getting bang for their buck what with him cutting about two hit songs per session. Jokes aside, A-Team players did pretty well for themselves. In 1967, union scale was approximately $21.67 an hour, which came out to $65 for three hours’ work. In 2021 money, that’s about $500 per recording session. Multiplied by the number of sessions in a day and in a week, it adds up nicely. Session leaders, like Bob Moore or Grady Martin, were paid double scale, so even nicer for them. That being said, there’s a strong argument to be made for certain A-Team musicians never having received fair compensation. Many of the main riffs, licks and musical hooks the A-Team played on hit records did come from things songwriters included on demos as part of the composition. However, this was not always the case. At a certain point, we’ve got to ask how much a song can be rearranged and have things added to it during production before we’re talking about a new composition. The song “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of the most infamous cases. When Paul Cohen at Decca told Bobby Helms he was going to record the song, it was called “Jingle Bell Hop.” For the rest of their lives, both Bobby Helms and Hank Garland maintained “Jingle Bell Hop” was such a terrible song they could not possibly record it as-is, which is why they changed the melody, most of the lyrics and added a bridge. If this is true, what they’re talking about is writing an entirely different song with two of the same words in the title. This is one of the ten best-selling Christmas songs of all time and neither Helms nor Garland ever received a fraction of songwriting credit or one cent of royalties. There are many, many stories like this from Music Row. Union salaries were nice but nothing compared to the billions collectively made by record labels, publishing companies, songwriters and artists. Several studio musicians did note their proximity to bigger business and switch lanes. Bassist Buddy Killen is an example of someone whose whole story can not possibly fit into this episode. By the time he became owner of Tree Music, one of the world’s largest publishing catalogs, Buddy Killen had already helped several legends get their start in the business. He signed a teenage Dolly Parton to Tree as a songwriter and helped her get a record deal with Mercury. After Roger Miller’s Starday career failed to pan out, he met Buddy Killen over a pinball machine at Tootsie’s, Buddy loaned Roger $5 and signed him to a writing contract with Tree. Buddy started his career as a session musician and wound up in a place where his home was featured on an episode of the TV show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

While most people who’ve heard their music will never know the name of a single A-Team member, a few of these studio musicians managed to step into the spotlight and become stars in their own right. Chet Atkins’ exaggerated role in creating the Nashville Sound is almost certainly a product of his fame as a recording artist. His first hit record was an instrumental version of “Mr. Sandman,” which went #15 country in 1955. For the next 20 years, if you asked random people on the street to list three country music guitar players, half of them wouldn’t know any and the other half would say “Chet Atkins” twice while trying to remember the name of a guy from Hee Haw.

Floyd Cramer followed “Last Date” with many successful instrumental albums. From 1965 to 1974, he released an annual retrospective LP with instrumental versions of each year’s biggest hits. These collections were extremely popular. One year, Michael Jackson flew Floyd Cramer to Los Angeles to play a surprise party for his mother because Floyd was her favorite musician.

Pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake invented an early version of the talkbox and nearly hit the pop Top 10 in 1964 with an instrumental version of “Forever,” a pop Top 10 hit written by Buddy Killen (released under the name The Little Dippers) in 1960. For a while in the mid-‘60s, Pete Drake’s talking steel was a bit of a novelty hit, kind of like Grady Martin’s fuzz only Pete’s gimmick was so popular he got to make whole LPs with the talking steel, in addition to playing it on singles by Jim Reeves and Roger Miller. And Pete Drake’s talkbox was only his second reinvention of pedal steel guitar. When he came to Nashville from Georgia in 1959, it just wasn’t a great time to be a pedal steel player. According to Pete, “They all wanted to go pop. People like Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells wanted string sections behind them, which seemed to me like putting rose petals around a pig pen – but then maybe I was just hungry then.” Well, sometimes hunger leads to innovation. Pete decided to stop playing pedal steel the increasingly unpopular way everyone else played it and start playing like he was part of the string sections all the artists wanted on their records. His new “how” caught the attention of Roy Drusky, who asked Pete to play on an upcoming session. Drusky’s “Anymore” hit in 1960 and introduced Pete Drake to Music Row, who soon began referring to him as the cheapest string section in town. Owen Bradley said, “He created these sounds I had never heard before. He’d give you this beautiful low sound or this cello kind of sound or this cascading sound like a bunch of violins that sounded like Mantovani.” This is what George Harrison wanted in 1970 when he flew Pete Drake overseas to play on All Things Must Pass. (A young Peter Frampton happened to be in the studio, where he saw Pete Drake play talking steel three years before the invention of the talk box Frampton would popularize in 1976.) Pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green credits Pete Drake with essentially rescuing the instrument from extinction in country music, thus making it possible for Lloyd to have a career he’d nearly abandoned.

 

Pete Drake talkbox

Pete Drake’s talking steel

 

George Harrison and Pete Drake

George Harrison & Pete Drake

 

Lloyd Green

Lloyd Green

 

By the time Pete moved to Nashville, Lloyd Green was about ready to leave. He’d dropped out of college two years earlier to be a musician and immediately found work in Faron Young’s road band. Lloyd wasn’t cut out for life on the road, though, and he couldn’t find enough studio work to support his family. So, in 1960, Lloyd Green quit the business to go be a shoe salesman. He was out of the music game for nearly two years, during which time the shoe store company transferred him to Little Rock, Arkansas, a place Lloyd thought was “a hellhole.” Well, sometimes hellholes lead to innovation. Lloyd resolved to make another grab for the brass ring. He set up a pedal steel at home and spent months practicing, building his chops back to where they’d been and far beyond. He started taking live gigs to make sure honky tonk crowds wanted to hear what he was putting down and, when he was ready, Lloyd returned to Nashville. Within two years, he began creating one of the most influential bodies of work on the instrument. He first caught everyone’s attention in 1965 on “Bridge Washed Out” by Warner Mack, produced by Owen Bradley. When Aubrey Mayhew founded Little Darlin’ records, Lloyd Green became their in-house session leader and musical arranger. It’s Lloyd on all those Little Darlin’ Johnny PayCheck records, like “Motel Time Again,” mandatory curriculum for pedal steel guitarists in country music. Lloyd Green sits at the average level of fame for A-Team musicians: revered by players of his instrument, praised by scholarly music fans and virtually unknown in comparison to the faces on the album covers. It’s safe to assume Gram Parsons was thrilled to have Lloyd Green play on some sessions for The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968. However, it’s also safe to assume most people who’ve heard songs by The Byrds have never heard of Lloyd Green, despite his long and legendary career.

 

Clocking Out

By definition, every musician on the Nashville A-Team had a legendary career. Those who were smart enough to set aside some money were able to retire or, at least, semi-retire. Guitarist Ray Edenton said he tried to start slowing down in the late ‘70s but session logs for 1979 show he still played on at least 200 sessions. Lloyd Green tried to retire in the late ‘80s, when some hearing problems coincided with most of Nashville forgetting what good production values sound like. Then Alan Jackson brought Lloyd back in 2003 to play on “Remember When.” In the last five years or so, Lloyd’s album credits include Loretta Lynn, John Prine and Colter Wall. But the demand for pedal steel guitar and other traditionally country instrumentation just ain’t what it used to be.

Back in the early 1970s, Charlie McCoy stepped out of the sideman role to become a star when Hee Haw gave him a very visible position as leader of the show’s band. Charlie soon had his own fan club and an international career as a recording and touring artist. One time Lloyd Green saw a statement of Charlie’s sales figures and called them “incredible.” He said Charlie sold more albums than most singers do. But by the ‘90s, even Charlie’s phone had mostly stopped ringing. He said it was initially hard to take, not being such a big part of things, not being offered as much work, slowing down to just 50 sessions a year… In the end, a studio musician has no choice but to accept the facts. There will always be changing trends in the music and always a younger, hungrier generation standing in line behind you, waiting for their turn. Maybe it helps, though, when most of the time the phone does ring it’s because you’ve been asked for by name, because some new artist wants a little bit of the old Nashville Sound and knows you’re “how” to get it. In 1995 dork-rock band Ween made 12 Golden Country Greats in Nashville with a studio lineup including A-Team players like Charlie McCoy, Buddy Harman, Pig Robbins, Buddy Spicher, Pete Wade and The Jordanaires. The album may have been (partly) intended as comedy but Ween wanted it to have seriously good country music, which is what they got.

Even without inevitable changes to musical trends, the typical Nashville recording session no longer resembles those of Music Row’s golden age. A 1998 issue of The Tennessean newspaper has an article on the Nashville A-Team, in which Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires talks about what it was like to work with all those amazing musicians and artists who recorded in Nashville. Then the conversation turns to changes in the process and Gordon says, “They bring us in now, the tracks have been made, we don’t know who we’re singing with. We don’t know what musicians are there. Sometimes I’ll ask who’s playing piano, wantin’ to know. Sometimes they know and sometimes they don’t. But half the time we don’t even know the artist.”

 

Ween & Owen Bradley

Ween & Owen Bradley

 

 

Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. Please do take to the Internet and social media to talk about whatever you found most interesting in this episode. While you’re here on the website, visit the store for official podcast merch. You’ve got another two weeks to get your pre-orders in before we start manufacturing everything. Like I’ve already said, there’s no telling how fast items in this first run will sell out once the anti-pre-order crowd starts buying stuff. And, as always, the best way to help me keep making this show is by going to patreon.com/tylermahancoe and becoming a patron. You can go month-to-month or get a discounted rate by joining for a year in advance. Patreon supporters gain exclusive access to ad-free versions of new episodes as well as a monthly post from me detailing my present work on and around the podcast.

This episode concludes the introduction or prologue to the book that Season 2 essentially is. When the podcast returns it will be with the first chapter of the book. It’s a song episode, which were some of the most popular installments of Season 1, and I expect everyone out there with an active imagination will be thrilled at the prospect of unpacking the song “White Lightning.” I know I am.

-TMC


Liner Notes

 

Excerpted Music

This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:

 

Excerpted Video

These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:

 

 

Commentary and Remaining Sources

Okay, these Liner Notes could go long because the type of people who care a lot about stuff like session musicians also tend to be the type of people who want to find any pedantic way in the world to have a problem and argue with something another person said about music, even if they 100% agree with the point and only want to argue about the way it was said. So let me start by reiterating what I said in the last episode’s Liner Notes, which is that you listening to my voice say things does not mean the things you’re hearing are my own personal opinions. I don’t intend to repeat this in the Liner Notes of every episode but the rest of this season is going to get extremely messy for everyone who can’t differentiate between hearing me say something and hearing me preach or endorse something. I do understand how convenient it is to dismiss something that doesn’t gel with your own ideas by brushing it off as another person’s opinion which you can just choose to disagree with. But I didn’t start this podcast as an attempt to force my personal opinions to become history. For an example (which really shouldn’t matter as much as I’m sure it does to certain people), I love Elvis Presley’s recording of “Hound Dog.” I think it’s fucking great and that’s something I could talk about for ten minutes. But Gordon Stoker explained on multiple occasions how terrible he thought The Jordanaires sound on that song. I’m not going to have sidebar arguments in the middle of an episode every time my personal opinion doesn’t align with the musician I’m talking about. What I’m going to do, to the best of my ability, is try telling you the story the way you’d have heard it from the people in the story. And the reason why I’m going to prioritize that over any other single aspect of this entire project is I don’t want those people to haunt me in my dreams.

In the interest of trying to preempt as many nitpicky emails as possible, I’ve got to run through quite a few things right now…

I know someone wants to tell me both harpsichords and pipe organs get louder when you play more notes at the same time because the volume is accumulative. Exactly what I said is each individual tone sounds at the same volume and that is true. The point is if you press an individual piano key with much more force, the tone sounds at a much louder volume and that’s not what happens on pipe organ or harpsichord. I should also say: because of how quickly the pianoforte evolved, we now refer to the original design as fortepiano (or “loud soft”) in order to distinguish it from modern piano.

The intro of this episode wasn’t me saying all of those instrumental parts were dictated to all of those musicians from a piano. It was me saying I know the invention of the piano created the possibility for that to occur, regardless of whether or not it’s what happened with any single one of those parts of those songs.

I said James Burton “copied” Chip Young’s guitar part to dobro and, looking back at that, a better word to use would have been “adapted” because the “What Color Is a Man” part is obviously based around a series of pull-offs that would be virtually impossible to straight-up replicate on dobro. However, the point stands, which is that James Burton was unquestionably “quoting” Chip Young on “Mama Tried.”

I said Hank Williams didn’t put a drummer in his band, which is absolutely correct, but I’m sure to get several emails about it if I don’t point out Hank did have WSM staff drummer Farris Coursey play a brushed snare on the “Moanin’ the Blues” session and Farris is who played what is essentially special FX drums on “Kaw-Liga”

If you listen to the whole song there are technically four snare hits in Ray Price’s “Much Too Young to Die” because the drummer mistakenly hits his snare one time when Ray starts in on the same melody in the first verse. I didn’t count that one because it was obviously an accident and not supposed to be there.

This one is really important. There are quite a few Nashville studio musicians whose names you didn’t hear me say in this or the last episode. This should not be taken as a statement on whether or not those players belong on “official” lists of A-Team members and I would love it if everyone could refrain from asking me which people do and don’t belong on the A-Team. As I said in this episode, the term gets a lot more loose after Owen Bradley sells 804 16th Ave and leaves Music Row. I do think all of the first-call musicians working sessions for all the major labels in town at that time should be considered A-Team players, however I do not have access to any comprehensive resource specifying which players those are. For instance, not counting members of vocal groups, rhythm guitarist Velma Smith is the only woman I know of who regularly played in Nashville sessions but I honestly do not know if she was a first-call player or not. In every resource I use to check the credits of musicians, she’s only listed on a handful of albums. While those lists are certainly incomplete, I can’t speak with any certainty as to how many sessions she did play. Comparatively, I know for a fact Ray Edenton was a first-call player because he worked over 10,000 sessions in his career.

Velma Smith being the only woman who it’s even possible may have been considered an A-Team instrumentalist and Anita Kerr’s frustrations with the Nashville studio system in general raise the recurring issue of Music Row being a boy’s club. No big surprise there but because that was the situation I did want to draw attention to a subtly implied theme of these past two episodes, which is how far Owen Bradley went out of his way to work with and support many women artists during an era when women artists were commonly viewed by the industry as a risky investment. I did not follow this thread in a direct way because it felt like something that would be more appropriate and more interesting to explore during a future season from the perspective of an individual artist who worked with Owen, drawing on the understanding we all now have of him from these episodes. Because I know this will play a huge part in something I have planned for the future of this podcast, I didn’t cover it here in order to avoid retreading the same ground later.

And one last thing for the “gotcha” crowd, I am aware of how many popular songs are founded on pentatonic scales rather than diatonic scales. I didn’t talk about that for the same reason I didn’t talk about minor scales, didn’t mention the F# in the key of G, didn’t talk about modes or borrowing chords from other keys or any other pieces of harmonic theory, which is all those things are too complicated to unpack during what I was doing in that part of the episode. What I said is true: popular music in America exists atop the foundation of diatonic scales. As any student of harmonic theory knows, altering those scales can be as deep and complex as you want to go but the short intro given in this episode is enough for any self-taught musician to start taking everything apart and putting it back together for themselves and that’s what I hope to inspire. For all the musicians who do fall into that category, the next thing I’d suggest looking at is how triad chords are formed by a first, third and fifth. So if you’re looking at your piece of paper with the C scale on it, what makes a C chord a C chord is that all the notes in any given C chord shape are C, E or G, the 1, 3 and 5 on your paper. If you go to the 4 chord in the key of C, which is F, what makes that chord an F is its root note (or 1) being an F and counting forward to the F’s 3, which is A, and forward to the F’s 5, which is C. Do make sure to look up which flats and sharps are in each key before you get way into this but that’s enough to real deep for a long time.

As far as sources for this episode go, it’s the same thing as the last one. Nearly everything you heard me say is a product of researching in the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as the reference materials on The Library page. The only other book I used on this episode was the already-mentioned autobiography of Charlie McCoy, which I can recommend to anyone interested in further reading.

And that’s all for Season 2’s introduction. Next week, we get down to all kinds of business with “White Lightning.”